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Why Is Immigration Different from Trade?

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MEDFORD, MASSACHUSETTS – Despite the current backlash against free trade, exemplified most prominently by US President Donald Trump’s protectionist “America First” agenda, the economic case for easing the movement of goods and services across borders is strong and straightforward. The case for immigration – that is, the movement of labor across borders – is no less compelling, though it is far more complicated.

Jan 8, 2019 Joseph S. Nye questions whether the US president is capable of understanding the risks that the US faces in 2019.

For a libertarian like me, the benefits of free trade are obvious: transactions between willing buyers and sellers, within an economy or across borders, almost always benefit both sides. While restrictions may be worthwhile to ensure, say, the safety of goods entering a market, barriers should be kept to a minimum.

On the other hand, it is not worth limiting trade to punish countries that supposedly unfairly subsidize their exports or allow employers to exploit their workers. Limiting imports from countries with low wages and poor working conditions may seem justified; in reality, it deprives these countries’ low-wage workers of what little they can earn. At the same time, it imposes an unwarranted and frequently regressive tax on consumers.

At first glance, immigration appears to be little different from free trade: instead of importing the goods that labor produced elsewhere, countries are simply importing the labor itself. In some ways, the potential gains of immigration may be even greater than those of free trade.

The immigrants themselves benefit from higher wages, as well as greater safety and........

© Project Syndicate