Mises Wire

Migrants from Other States Are “Stealing Our Jobs”

As Ludwig von Mises noted, unrestrained immigration is not without its downside. This is due to the fact that linguistic and cultural majorities have a habit of using the political system to exploit the linguistic and cultural minorities. As these majorities change due to migration, this can lead to political conflict. For Mises, the answer to this was more fluidity in borders, and the use of secession and decentralization as tools in minimizing the power held by majority groups over minority groups.

Note, however, that these are political issues, and are artifacts of the political system — not the economic system. 

Conspicuously absent from Mises’s work are economic arguments against migration. They’re absent because there aren’t any good economic arguments against migration. Salerno sums up Mises’s position: 

Mises summarily dismisses the purely economic arguments against free immigration as fallacious. He points out that, from the global point of view, migration raises the productivity of human labor, the supply of goods, and standards of living because it facilitates the reallocation of labor (and capital) from regions with less advantageous natural conditions of production to those with more advantageous natural conditions. Barriers to labor migration therefore cause a misallocation of labor and its geographic mal-distribution, with a relative oversupply in some areas and undersupply in other areas. The effects of migration barriers are thus exactly the same as the effects of tariffs and other barriers to the international trade of goods

Later, Murray Rothbard concurred with Mises, noting that 

The loss to everyone as consumers from shackling the inter-regional division of labor and the efficient location of production, should not be overlooked in considering the effects of immigration barriers. 

To illustrate these facts further, Rothbard quoted a reductio ad absurdum used earlier by Oscar Cooley and Paul Poirot: 

If it is sound to erect a barrier along our national boundary lines, against those who see greater opportunities here than in their native land, why should we not erect similar barriers between states and localities within our nation? Why should a low-paid worker ... be allowed to migrate from a failing buggy shop in Massachusetts to the expanding automobile shops in Detroit. ... He would compete with native Detroiters for food and clothing and housing. He might be willing to work for less than the prevailing wage in Detroit, “upsetting the labor market” there. ... Anyhow, he was a native of Massachusetts, and therefore that state should bear the full “responsibility for his welfare.” 

Within the US, of course, there are no legal barriers to migration from state to state. Interstate migration is further facilitated by the fact that English is the language spoken by the overwhelming majority in every state, and cultural differences among state — while certainly not non-existent — are relatively low. 

The overall result is that workers and residents can move from state to state with a high degree of ease and freedom. And many do so. 

As Rothbard, Cooley, and Poirot hint at with their reductio, however, we rarely hear complaints about workers from out of state “stealing our jobs” even though, if we accept this protectionist argument, they are stealing the jobs of workers in the states they are moving to.

They’re Stealing Our Jobs!  

Indeed, when someone moves from, say, Ohio to take an engineering job in Denver, one rarely — if ever — hears about how people from Ohio “stole” the job from local engineers who would have been happy to do the work.

But why not? Local wages in the engineering field are being driven down by an engineer moving from Ohio to Denver just as much as they would be driven down by an engineer moving from Mexico to Denver. 

And, of course, this doesn’t only apply to engineers. Low-wage workers may also move from state to state, and it is often the case that workers from lower-wage states move to high wage states. Similarly, some workers in a state where incomes are falling — such as Wisconsin — may relocate to Texas where median incomes are rising. Many workers may even move to a new state without any job lined up at all. They’re certainly legally free to do so. 

In this case as well, the rising population of workers can be seen to push down local wages — all other things being equal.

Cooley and Poirot are correct in pointing out that, by the standards of the labor protectionists, state-to-state migrants are “upsetting the labor market” in the areas that migrants move to. And in the US, there’s a lot of “upsetting” going on. According to the Census Bureau’s 2015 data, 7.5 million Americans  — more than 2 people per hundred  — had lived in a different US state just one year earlier. Americans are extremely mobile by international standards, and US workers regularly move about the country “taking jobs” from the local population.

And yet, few people are telling mid-western migrants to Colorado to “go back to where they came from” — although people do say such things on occasion — because most careful observers of the economy know that new migrants from somewhere else come not just as people who “steal” jobs. They also come as taxpayers and consumers. For every job they “steal” they also consume products and services that lead to the creation of other jobs. In this, they are no different than migrants from another country. 

Similarly, new migrants from out of state can be a burden on the local welfare state. This is true in every state since state-to-state migrants can add to to the burden imposed on the state-paid portion of Medicaid, and add to the burden or federal block-grant-based programs like housing subsidy programs. Moreover, migrants from other states are immediately eligible for attendance at state-funded government schools, and other state-funded programs and amenities. They also drive on state-funded roads, use local police services, and often use state parks. 

But, we seldom hear about migrants from other states being a burden on the state’s welfare programs and infrastructure. 

When we do hear about it, even when couched in terms of keeping out foreign migrants, it is — as Rothbard observed — really just a complaint about population growth in general. And thus trying to pass off the phenomenon as peculiar to foreign laborers is absurd. Rothbard writes: 

The advocate of immigration laws who fears a reduction in his standard of living is actually misdirecting his fire. Implicitly, he believes that his geographic area now exceeds its optimum population point. What he really fears, therefore, is not so much immigration as any population growth. To be consistent, therefore, he would have to advocate compulsory birth control, to slow down the rate of population growth desired by individual parents.

Yet, it’s not uncommon to hear anti-immigrant activists complain that too many new people are using the roads and crowding the public lands. They fail to notice, of course, that the same claims apply to new migrants from the neighboring US states, and to new native-born children. 

The Political Problem of Migrants from Other States 

Interestingly, Mises’s arguments about the political problems of immigration apply equally well to state-to-state migration as to international migration. 

For example, many commentators have noticed that political character of many states change as migrants come in from other states. This is of particular concern in states that receive a large number of US-born migrants from California, New York, and Illinois. It is not uncommon to hear complaints from Texas and Colorado natives, for instance, that the new migrants from California are moving in and bringing their objectionable politics with them.

Indeed, the impact of US citizens from other states can be significantly greater than immigrants from other countries. 

After all, state-to-state migrants are almost immediately eligible to vote in their new home state, and they are almost immediately eligible for the state-funded amenities and welfare-programs. They also have money to give to political campaigns. Middle-class Americans who relocate from another state are far more likely to vote than any low-income person — let alone low-income immigrants who have low rates of political participation. Given this, an influx of new, white, middle-class migrants from another state has the potential to shift political realities far more than a similar number of low-income migrants from another country. 

In 1980s Colorado, for example, an influx of conservative voters from California shifted politics in Colorado to the right. Prior to this, Colorado had long been a left-leaning state — with legal abortion before Roe v. Wade — where voters elected Democrats to the governor’s mansion six times in a row during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. The Republicans who were elected were known to be moderate by national standards. By the mid-1990s, though, the new conservative voters had changed things. Since, then, an influx of left-leaning migrants from California moved the state to the left again. 

This post-90s shift to the left might also be observed in Arizona, Florida, and Texas where large numbers of new residents from more left-leaning states have moved in and taken over political institutions. 

Anti-immigration activists like to point to foreign migrants as the driver behind these issues, but state-to-state migration cannot be ignored. Moreover, we might ask ourselves why long-time residents of places like Arizona must be forced to endure a takeover of their political institutions by former Californians and New Yorkers. 

But again, these political phenomena nowhere illustrate or provide support for protectionist claims that migrants are stealing our jobs or impoverishing the local residents. If anything, it can be shown that rising population also bring rising incomes and greater access to a variety of cultural and economic amenities. States with the greatest number of new migrants over the past twenty years are hardly the states with the greatest economic challenges. 

Cooley and Poirot’s decades-old reductio ad absurdam continues to stand as an illustration of the misguided nature of economic arguments against migration. There are indeed real-world impacts to immigration, but “they’re stealing our jobs!” isn’t one of them. 

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