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Immigrants and the Fallacy of Labour Scarcity

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Jean-Marie Le Pen - France's dark horse presidential contender - is clearly emotional about the issue of immigration and, according to him, its correlates, crime and unemployment. His logic is dodgy at best and his paranoid xenophobia ill-disguised. But Le Pen and his ilk - from Carinthia to Copenhagen - succeeded to force upon European mainstream discourse topics considered hitherto taboos. For decades, the European far right has been asking all the right questions and proffering all the far answers.

Consider the sacred cow of immigration and its emaciated twin, labour scarcity, or labour shortage.

Immigrants can't be choosy. They do the dirty and dangerous menial chores spurned by the native population. At the other extreme, highly skilled and richly educated foreigners substitute for the dwindling, unmotivated, and incompetent output of crumbling indigenous education systems in the West. As sated and effete white populations decline and age, immigrants gush forth like invigorated blood into a sclerotic system.

According to the United Nations Population Division, the EU would need to import 1.6 million migrant workers annually to maintain its current level of working age population. But it would need to absorb almost 14 million new, working age, immigrants per year just to preserve a stable ratio of workers to pensioners.

Similarly hysterical predictions of labour shortages and worker scarcity abounded in each of the previous three historic economic revolutions.

As agriculture developed and required increasingly more advanced skills, the extended family was brutally thrust from self-sufficiency to insufficiency. Many of its functions - from shoemaking to education - were farmed out to specialists. But such experts were in very short supply. To overcome the perceived workforce deficiency, slave labour was introduced and wars were fought to maintain precious sources of "hands", skilled and unskilled alike.

Labour panics engulfed Britain - and later other industrialized nations such as Germany - during the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth.

At first, industrialization seemed to be undermining the livelihood of the people and the production of "real" (read: agricultural) goods. There was fear of over-population and colonial immigration coupled with mercantilism was considered to be the solution.

Yet, skill shortages erupted in the metropolitan areas, even as villages were deserted in an accelerated process of mass urbanization and overseas migration. A nascent education system tried to upgrade the skills of the newcomers and to match labour supply with demand. Later, automation usurped the place of the more expensive and fickle laborer. But for a short while scarce labour was so strong as to be able to unionize and dictate employment terms to employers the world over.

The services and knowledge revolutions seemed to demonstrate the indispensability of immigration as an efficient market-orientated answer to shortages of skilled labour. Foreign scientists were lured and imported to form the backbone of the computer and Internet industries in countries such as the USA. Desperate German politicians cried "Kinder, not Inder" (children, not Indians) when chancellor Schroeder allowed a miserly 20,000 foreigners to emigrate to Germany on computer-related work visas.

Sporadic, skill-specific scarcities notwithstanding - all previous apocalyptic Jeremiads regarding the economic implosion of rich countries brought on by their own demographic erosion - have proven spectacularly false.

Some prophets of doom fell prey to Malthusian fallacies. According to these scenarios of ruination, state pension and health obligations grow exponentially as the population grays. The number of active taxpayers - those who underwrite these obligations - declines as more people retire and others migrate. At a certain point in time, the graphs diverge, leaving in their wake disgruntled and cheated pensioners and rebellious workers who refuse to shoulder the inane burden much longer. The only fix is to import taxable workers from the outside.

Other doomsayers gorge on "lumping fallacies". These postulate that the quantities of all economic goods are fixed and conserved. There are immutable amounts of labour (known as the "lump of labour fallacy"), of pension benefits, and of taxpayers who support the increasingly insupportable and tenuous system. Thus, any deviation from an infinitesimally fine equilibrium threatens the very foundations of the economy.

To maintain this equilibrium, certain replacement ratios are crucial. The ratio of active workers to pensioners, for instance, must not fall below 2 to 1. To maintain this ratio, many European countries (and Japan) need to import millions of fresh tax-paying (i.e., legal) immigrants per year.

Either way, according to these sages, immigration is both inevitable and desirable. This squares nicely with politically correct - yet vague - liberal ideals and so everyone in academe is content. A conventional wisdom was born.

Yet, both ideas are wrong. These are fallacies because economics deals in non-deterministic and open systems. At least nine forces countermand the gloomy prognoses aforementioned and vitiate the alleged need for immigration:

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Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and (more...)
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