An Economist’s Perspective on Social Justice & Immigration

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Editor’s note: Dr. Anne Bradley was recently featured in an interview with Praxis Circle. Below are a few highlights of that conversation centered around business and economics from a Christian perspective. You can watch the interview in full here.

How Do You Think About Social Justice as an Economist?

Social justice—this is another one of those terms that I think has a lot of different meanings. My understanding is what I observe from people who claim to be advocates for social justice. First, I’m not anti-justice. But what does justice mean from a biblical perspective? It means getting what you deserve. I’m not sure we all want justice all the time. 

Social justice is a concept that’s more broadly trying to articulate what are our social responsibilities for people who are excluded, left behind, marginalized, and exploited. 

With that said, I think that there are really important things that people in the social justice movement aren’t talking about. There are people alive today who are permanently exploited and poor as a result of it. And we need to think about what it’s going to take to get them out of that situation. 

Where I might disagree with some of my social justice contemporaries, if you will, is the means by which we do that. In many cases, social justice pioneers and advocates really want redistribution. They think that the best way to care for the poor is to just redistribute wealth. The notion there is that Bill Gates, by being rich, is taking away from poor people. So it’s a zero-sum game in economics, that’s how we talk about it. It means I only win if I take from you. So whatever I gain is lost from you. That’s not the world of free enterprise! In fact, in the world of free enterprise, Bill Gates only gets rich if we buy his stuff. So his stuff needs to be what we want at the price we can afford to pay at high levels of quality. 

So I think the social justice narrative around the solution to poverty and oppression and exploitation—which are real issues that we need to concern ourselves with as Christians—that’s where I would disagree with them. What is the best means? I think the best means are markets; I think that’s what liberates us.

(Watch this part of the interview here.)

What Do You Think About Immigration as an Economist?

This is also a topic that I like to discuss but I think that I have an unpopular opinion, which is that I think when you’re talking about trade policy over goods and services, it’s very easy for people to understand that we shouldn’t grow our own bananas. Mexico grows bananas and they have a better climate. We don’t grow any kiwi fruit; we get those from New Zealand and other places. It’s very easy for people to accept that we should give New Zealanders money, they’ll give us the kiwi, and we’re both better off. 

But I think a free trade conversation also needs to incorporate an immigration conversation. Because what is immigration? It’s the trade of labor. If we’re so easily willing to accept kiwi, why aren’t we also willing to accept labor? 

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t vet that somehow. But I think we do ourselves a disservice when we make it very hard for people to come here who want to come here. And if you look at the economic data over this, what we see is that immigrants—especially in a country like the United States—perform jobs that are very expensive to get American counterparts to perform. 

So I really dislike this kind of trope that says, “They’re stealing our jobs.” I don’t like that phrase at all, for a couple reasons. You don’t have a right to a job, so nobody is really stealing it from you. That implies that some El Salvadorian woman comes over with her family and a gun, holds it to somebody’s head and says, “Fire the American, hire me.” It doesn’t work like that. Why are jobs shifted? It’s because of the labor.

Immigration is good for both the people coming and the people who live there. We used to be much more open about our immigration policies as a country—and I think we thrived because of it. I think we would do ourselves some good to go back to some of that. 

(Watch this part of the interview here.)

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