David Brooks on the Immigration Bill

David Brooks has a good column today on the weak conservative case against the immigration bill:

The second conservative complaint is that the bill would flood the country with more low-skilled workers, driving down wages. This is an argument borrowed from the reactionary left, and it shows. In the first place, the recent research suggests that increased immigration drives down wages far less than expected. Low-skilled immigrants don’t directly compete with the native-born. They do entry-level work, create wealth and push natives into better jobs.

Furthermore, conservatives are not supposed to take a static, protectionist view of economics. They’re not supposed to believe that growth can be created or even preserved if government protects favored groups from competition. Conservatives are supposed to believe in the logic of capitalism; that if you encourage the movement of goods, ideas and people, then you increase dynamism, you increase creative destruction and you end up creating more wealth that improves lives over all.

Like Paul Ryan, Brooks sees that when you take the ethnic and political elements out, this is pretty standard conservative public policy. It increases the marginal product of capital, encouraging private investment and higher productivity. It’s particularly odd, it seems to me, that so many of the members of congress who are hostile to this bill are generally proponents of low tariffs and free trade agreements. The arguments aren’t exactly parallel, but I would say that all the considerations in favor of free trade are also in favor of freer immigration—while immigration carries additional benefits.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the smarter opponents of the Gang of 8 bill actually know all that. What they mostly seem to do is construct an entire alternative immigration bill in their heads. One that simultaneously does more than the Gang of 8 bill on enforcement, while also shifting U.S. immigration policy drastically to something like a Canadian or Australian points-based system. Depending on the details, a bill like that really might be better than the Gang of 8 bill. But even though “compare a bill to a different hypothetical bill rather than to the status quo” has been a very effective means for smart conservative writers to rationalize opposition to Obama-backed legislation (Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank, various climate initiatives) it makes very little sense as an analytic method. When congress passes bills that improve on the status quo, that’s good and should be applauded. When Congress defeats such bills and leaves us stuck with the status quo, that’s bad and should be deplored.