Saturday, October 10, 2020

Jean-Baptiste Say in Favor of Liberalized Immigration

Stuart K. Hayashi


Jean-Baptiste Say was a pioneering Enlightenment-era economist to whom I have previously referred on this blog and elsewhere. He articulated an important principle in political economy.


What Makes Him Special 
Prior to the Enlightenment, most people believed that private property rights are nothing more than a tentative method for the State to suspend disputes over who gets to control which scarce resource. Most people, at least on a subconscious level, hold that attitude still.

Portrait of Jean-Baptiste Say
But as I have written before, Say provided a much more sophisticated understanding of private ownership. John Locke and Adam Smith explored this idea earlier, but Say delved deeper and explained it better. Say showed that, for the most part, most economic value is not a given provided by the wilderness as some default. Instead, most economic value is created by inventive, entrepreneurial, human choices.

And, to that point, the institution of private ownership is about more than resolving fights over scarce resources. Those scarce resources gained their value mostly as a consequence of invention and entrepreneurship. For that reason, private ownership over such economic value is about the inventor and entrepreneur retaining control over the value she created. The institution of private ownership is vehicle for enabling individuals to enjoy the consequences of their creative choices.

And one such form of creativity involves the choice of impoverished dark-skinned people to migrate to new lands where they have more opportunity to employ their skills in the building of wealth. Appreciation for the right to immigrate is the logical extension and implementation of the free enterprise that Say studied and championed. Sadly, this insight is often lost on people who claim to venerate this man. Thomas Sowell wrote an appreciative book about Say, but on this topic takes the retrogressive position of Say’s opponent Rev. T. Robert Malthus.


Anti-Immigrationism in the Name of Say 
 There is also a Twitter account going by Say’s name and using the man’s portrait as a profile picture. The Twitter account’s opinions, at first glance, seem similar to the real Say’s in that it gives lip service to commerce and deregulation. Yet the Twitter account, for the most part, just repeats the same old talking points of “anti-SJW” Twitter accounts and YouTube channels like those of Carl Benjamin/Sargon of Akkad. At least the Twitter account’s owner is honest in admitting, “I contain platitudes.” Unfortunately, the account’s owner not only holds those platitudes internally, but provides the rest of Twitter the disservice of divulging them.

Among the rightwing clichés this account spouts is that the State is right to take action against dark-skinned immigrants. The rationalization is that the Twitter account’s owner presumes Third-World immigrants or at least their children all vote for Democrats and the welfare state. For the Twitter account’s owner, that is justification enough for the armed federal agents to obstruct dark-skinned immigrants from entering the West peaceably. 

 Ayn Rand Institute chair Yaron Brook institute notes on Twitter, “Most illegal immigrants work. Most immigrants don’t take welfare, because at the federal level and in most states it's denied for illegal immigrants.” 

 To this, the Twitter “Jean-Baptiste Say” snaps, “That’s irrelevant. What’s relevant is that most immigrants vote for welfare. Stop defending the importation of statism.”

Dr. Brook implores people to consider the immigrant’s situation.
Think of a mother who struggles to get to America because she wants her child to be free. In any other context, you would admire that woman. 

 What could be more heroic than that?
Dr. Brook challenges his readers to consider why they scorn immigrants “instead of admiring them.”

To that, Jean-Baptiste Say’s imposter cracks,
Because statistically she’s a Socialist who didn’t come here for freedom, she came for a job. And statistically most of her children will be as indifferent to freedom as their mother and vote the way she does.


I have already disspelled these bigoted clichés. Therefore, I want to address something else. There is a sad irony in someone expressing this hostility to immigration freedom while using Say’s name and likeness to do so. And it is an irony that I doubt will be spotted by left-wing people like Vadim Newkwist who, lumping together all their political opponents, conflate anti-immigrationists with “Koch-funded libertarians” as if those two categories are in agreement rather than at odds. This is something about which I learned from the financial writer John Tamny. The irony is this: the real Jean-Baptiste Say approved of liberalized migration policy.


Letting the Real Jean-Baptiste Have His Say 
 In his Treatise on Political Economy, Jean-Baptiste Say writes
One nation cannot take from another the revenues of its industry. A German tailor, establishing himself in France, there makes a profit, in which Germany had no participation. . . .

A nation, receiving a stray child into its bosom again, acquires a real treasure...
Interestingly, in an endnote to the English translation of his work, one does find some fretting over the prospect of immigrants coming to a country to go on welfare. 
...defective human institutions may convert a benefit [such as immigration] into a curse; as where a poor-law system gives gratuitous subsistence to a part of the population, capable of labour, but not incited by want. In such case, every additional human being may be a burthen instead of a prize; for he may be one more on the list of idle pensioners.
However, that endnote came not from Say himself but from the English translator Charles Robert Prinsep.

The line of Say’s beginning “A nation, receiving a stray child into its bosom again,” might be interpreted as not a strong endorsement of immigration for several reasons. Although this section of the work is largely in defense of the right to migration, the sentence is preceded by a discussion of expatriates returning to their country of origin. Therefore, the “receiving a stray child into its bosom again” could be interpreted as saying that it is only a “treasure” when a native-born citizen repatriates to his country of origin, not so much when a non-native comes to the country. 

 Adding to that interpretation is this implied condescension toward non-natives: “...I reckon that a native Frenchman in quitting his country, robs it of an affectionate attachment, and a spirit of exclusive nationality, which it can never look for in a stranger born [resident alien in France].”

Yet there is another passage of this work that is unambiguous in its approval for immigration: “A stranger [immigrant], that comes into a country to settle there, and brings his fortune [productiveness] along with him, is a substantial acquisition to the nation.”

The real Jean-Baptiste Say does not delve into tirades about how would-be immigrants holding opinions on public policy contrary to his own is sufficient reason for armed government agents to bar their entry into the country.

Using Say’s face to spout the old canards against free immigration is an embarrassing attempt to co-opt the image of a great man who delivered the opposite message.