Monday, March 27, 2006

The Welfare State and Immigration

Economist Paul Krugman takes on the difficult question of immigration in his NY Times column today. One of the hardest issues is highlighted by the contrast between these two passages:

1. "[M]odern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should -- and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net. Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more."

2. "What are we going to do about it? Realistically, we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. "

Krugman seems to be saying that basic decency requires being generous to poor immigrants, but that moral imperative in turn requires that we force them to stay in their home country, where they are even poorer. Yossarian would appreciate that logic.

Here is how economist Gary Becker resolves the dilemma: "I am attracted by a policy that allows illegal immigrants to come, but denies them eligibility for any government assistance."

Question for ec 10 students: How should American policymakers take into account the welfare of unskilled workers abroad? Does "basic decency" require us to do more once they cross the border into our country? Do the requirements of "basic decency" stop at the border, so we can wash 0ur hands of their suffering by keeping them out? Political philosopher Michael Sandel might know the answer to these questions, but economists are struggling with them.

Update: Economist David Friedman offers his thoughts on this topic.