Labor Unions and the Inhumanity of the Chinese Exclusion

How labor "protected" workers from competition by slamming the door of opportunity

Today marks the anniversary of two great human tragedies. A famous German zeppelin crashed 78 years ago when it caught fire while trying to land in New Jersey. But most people already know about the Hindenburg.

Far fewer probably know about a different inhumane event whose anniversary is also today.

On this date in 1882, Wikipedia reminds us,

President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, implementing a ban on Chinese immigration to the United States that eventually lasted for over 60 years until the 1943 Magnuson Act.

This landmark event in the history of human migration tells us a lot about the politics and economics of anti-immigration sentiment in general.

Organized Labor

The Communists may have lost the Cold War, but international socialism achieved, among other PR coups, three apparently permanent triumphs in Western discourse.

First, socialists are always assumed to be on the left, while all anti-socialists are by definition right-wing. Second, the left always embraces the liberal values of equal rights, regardless of race, ethnicity, and nationality, while the “right-wing” anti-socialists are insular and xenophobic. Third, labor is always and forever on the left and capitalists on the right.

But a review of the history of organized labor shows plenty of racial bias and certainly no less than the country at large.

Any increase in the pool of laborers will put downward pressure on wages; it’s simple supply and demand. Representing the interests of established workers, labor’s solution has often been to lobby for legislation that eliminates competition from new workers — and the target, historically, has often been minority, disenfranchised, and foreign groups who don’t “belong” in native culture.

This is the origin of Apartheid laws in South Africa (how often do you hear that system correctly attributed to white socialists?) and minimum-wage legislation in the South, where blacks were underbidding white workers and “taking their jobs.”

It’s also the origin of many of the first anti-immigration campaigns, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Greedy Capitalists

The wiki article includes a couple of revealing lines about the assumptions of the hive-mind that wrote it. After stating that “the laws were driven largely by racial concerns” — an admission that’s hard to avoid, given its overtly racist title — it adds,

On the other hand, many people strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, including the Knights of Labor, a labor union, who supported it because it believed that industrialists were using Chinese workers as a wedge to keep wages low.

Why “on the other hand”? It’s that left-right paradigm at work again: on the one hand, support for the immigration restrictions was racist, but on the other hand, labor unions supported it because they believed that capitalists supported immigration for self-interested reasons.

I wrote an article for the Libertarian Enterprise several years ago called “The 3 ‘E’s of the Minimum Wage,” where I argued that some people approach political issues from an ethical perspective (E1), and some from an economic perspective (E2) — by which I really mean the consequentialist focus on cause and effect.

But whether we like it or not, most people take positions via (E3) emotional alignment.

This is the realm of connotation, of symbolic alignment, which “side” you want to be on. Emotional alignment is how people feel about an issue, and perhaps more important, how they feel about the people they associate with different sides.

To take a position, one needs to address the first two: the ethical and the economic. To persuade someone, one needs to address all three. Libertarians often neglect E3. While most people will claim to hold positions based on morality or on consequences, they really base their positions on symbolic- or emotional alignment: agreeing with “the good guys” and not wanting to side with “those people.”

Notice the role alignment takes in the on-the-other-hand construction: labor unions may have supported this racist legislation (with the exception of the anarchist Industrial Workers of the World), but there were greedy capitalists opposing it! Note the implication: the morality of the law is inferred by the perceived morality of its supporters, not the other way around.

Despite widespread dislike for the Chinese, some capitalists and entrepreneurs resisted their exclusion for economic reasons. Apparently, only capitalists act like homo economicus. Organized labor would never pursue a policy based on greedy self-interest.

Or is it possible that some entrepreneurs may have taken liberal positions for liberal reasons?

Human Smuggling

Finally, the article makes this point:

The Chinese Exclusion Act gave rise to the first great wave of commercial human smuggling, an activity that later spread to include other national and ethnic groups.

Wherever there is a legal prohibition on a valuable good or service, there will be a black market. And black markets often turn what would otherwise be peaceful and mutually beneficial exchanges into networks of greater vice and greater violence.

This is bad enough when the illicit goods are inanimate objects — drugs, alcohol, Cuban cigars, or untaxed cigarettes — but when the illicit trade has to involve the handling and transportation of human beings, we step up to a whole new level of brutality and exploitation. I don’t need to review here the atrocities that illegal immigrants are subjected to in the pursuit of family, opportunity, or freedom.

A nativist would probably reply that the consequences of illegal behavior can’t be an argument against the behavior’s illegality, but the problem with that stance is that banning immigration is a purely consequentialist position to begin with.

There is no axiomatic, universal principle that makes an influx of foreigners a problem. The arguments are always empirical claims that certain groups will cause certain bad effects on native society. What can we possibly conclude from this type of reasoning other than an implicit judgment that coercive protection of American jobs (or language, or ethnic makeup, or culture) is more important than the violent consequences these laws cause to great numbers of the poorest people in the world?

A black market is not automatically an indication that a prohibition is unjust: the black market for hit men doesn’t mean we that should not prohibit murder. But the evil of murder is the act itself, not the buying and selling of it.

It is much harder to defend banning things that are perfectly moral in themselves (like working) — and the prohibition of peaceful exchanges is always defended by arguments about consequences, while the consequences of moving markets underground are hardly ever addressed. While our immigration laws may not be explicitly racist any longer, they still suffer from this legacy.

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