Zero-Sum Thinking

File:Statue of Liberty, NY 1

I’ve written before about how bad economic conditions promote a politics of suspicion, illiberalism, and xenophobia. At root of illiberal politics, usually, is an unduly zero-sum view of human interactions, something that we’re all prone to. And Rosemary Joyce has an interesting post looking at the dynamics of how this happens in an immigration context:

So now we get back on my territory, which is culture. Because the explanation for the continuing hysteria about illegal immigration and excessive claims about its effects on the economy is not rooted in knowledge; it is rooted in belief.

It is eerily like a concept developed about fifty years ago by a Berkeley anthropologist, George Foster, “The Image of Limited Good“. Foster was analyzing why rural peasants in Mexico were conservative. His explanation is complicated (it is, after all, anthropology, the social science that values the particularities as much as the generalizations). But fundamentally, it comes down to the sense that if someone else has something more than me, it must have come somehow at my expense.

The zero sum logic of employment that people apply to migrant employment in the US is related. If someone has a job processing chickens, and I am unemployed, even though I would not take that chicken processing job (or move to another state where such jobs exist), my unemployment, which puts me at a disadvantage, must somehow mean they are getting something at my expense. Even though the truth is, my ability to buy chicken at the grocery store at a price I can still afford by part-time work is dependent on their working for relatively low wages.

Now to be clear on the economics, it’s of course utopian to deny that if all the Mexican-born people currently living in the United States were gone that more than zero currently unemployed American-born individuals would have jobs. The point is about the scale and overall balance of the impact. And the primary consequence of the Mexican-born individuals not being here would be that America would produce fewer goods and services. That would mean lower overall standards of living and less overall employment on both sides of the border. A rule making it illegal for people born east of the Mississippi River to get a job west of the Mississippi River would presumably end up benefitting someone or other, but it’s main effect would be to inefficiently allocate resources within the United States and depress living standards on both sides.

The key thing from an egalitarian perspective is simply to observe that there’s no reason this logic should suddenly halt with relatively unskilled Mexican-born workers. When people evaluate cities, they understand that being the kind of place that high-skilled workers would want to move to—safe streets, nice infrastructure, honest government, decent schools, good job opportunities—is a good thing. And nobody would ever dream of implementing a “we don’t want anymore engineers moving to Houston” policy. Well, one of America’s great potential strengths as a country is that this is the kind of place lots of people would like to move to. I’m not sure it would be logistically feasible to accommodate all of them, but we should generally be taking a much more favorable attitude to them.