Raising the Minimum Wage for Working Men and Women in California and the Rest of America

How Diabolical Is Unz's Proposal?

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Ron Unz wants to raise the minimum wage to discourage illegal immigration. The mechanism: The minimum wage raises unemployment for low-skilled workers, and illegal immigrants are very low-skilled. His words:

In effect, a much higher minimum wage serves to remove the lowest rungs in the employment ladder, thus preventing newly arrived immigrants from gaining their initial foothold in the economy.

When I told Unz that I considered his plan “diabolical,” he chuckled that he took my assessment as a compliment.

To be “diabolical” is to be cleverly evil. But Unz’s critics often deny that he’s even clever. If employers are willing to break immigration laws, why does Unz think they won’t break minimum wage laws as well? The truth, though, is that Unz anticipated this objection:

The enforcement of these wage provisions would be quite easy compared with the complex web of current government requirements and restrictions. It is possible for business owners to claim they were “fooled” by obviously fraudulent legal documents or that they somehow neglected to run the confusing electronic background checks on their new temporary dishwasher. But it is very difficult for anyone to claim he “forgot” to pay his workers the legally mandated minimum wage. Furthermore, the former situation constitutes something of a “victimless crime” and usually arouses considerable sympathy among immigrant-rights advocates and within ethnic communities; but the latter would universally be seen as the case of a greedy boss who refused to pay his workers the money they were legally due and would attract no sympathy from the media, the police, juries, or anyone else.

Very stiff penalties, including mandatory prison terms, could assure near absolute compliance. Virtually no employer would be foolish enough to attempt to save a few hundred dollars a month in wages paid at the risk of a five-year prison sentence, especially since the workers he was cheating would immediately acquire enormous bargaining leverage over him by threatening to report his behavior to the police.

Yes, Unz overstates. People who employ a solitary illegal nanny, housekeeper, or gardener won’t fret about the minimum wage. Unless enforcement norms drastically change, your neighbors will effectively remain above the law. But Unz’s proposal would effectively shut illegal workers out the legal labor market – and that’s where most of the jobs are.

• Category: Campaign, National, Notable • Tags: Bryan Caplan, Immigration