The American egalitarian instinct that makes us uncomfortable with domestic service is laudable. We don’t want the maids to see our messes because we rightly see them as equals. But our egalitarianism leads us astray when it causes us to decrease our demand for foreign unskilled labor. Because we don’t want to live in a society with an underclass, we impose immigration restrictions on unskilled workers without actually grappling with the fact that the underclass is still there, it’s just the even poorer underclass in some other countries.
In these other countries, people merely as rich as the median American household have full-time, live-in help. Unskilled (and even moderately-skilled) labor is cheap, and these less egalitarian cultures seem to have fewer qualms about rigorously applying the principle of comparative advantage.
American attitudes toward domestic workers and the current policy debate over immigration remind me of an argument made by philosopher Matt Zwolinski in the context of sweatshops:
[I]f exploiters like sweatshops are doing something to make the lives of the poor better, while most of us are doing nothing, then how bad can exploitation really be? We vilify sweatshops, price gougers, and payday loan operators for exploiting the vulnerable. But we give ourselves a pass on our own neglect of those same vulnerable people, even though exploitation is often better for the vulnerable than neglect.
Which is worse, Zwolinski asks: a sweatshop, or you?
My mother tells a story about domestic service that has always stuck with me. In the early 1980s, when I was a wee lad, we lived in Brazil. Mom hired a live-in maid to work in our modest Rio de Janeiro apartment. During the onboarding process, she showed the new maid the apartment’s small maid’s quarters, and instinctively apologized for the mediocre quality of the mattress on the bed. The maid informed her that at home, she slept on the floor.
The world would be a better place—both richer and more equal—if Americans would get over their egalitarian impulses toward domestic service. As of 2010, there are about 115 million households in the United States. If 50 million of them would be willing to hire a dirt-poor immigrant live-in maid or manservant, we could move 50 million people from sleeping-on-the-floor poverty to sleeping-on-a-mediocre-mattress poverty. That would be real progress.
And Americans would benefit from the domestic services provided by this cheap, new immigrant labor. We would need to get over our awkward attitude toward being served and our discomfort with the suddenly visible poverty to which we would be exposed. But once we had made this adjustment, we would be less stressed and more productive. And this influx couldn’t plausibly adversely affect employment of current Americans, because very few Americans are currently working as live-in domestic servants.
Despite these moral and material benefits, in the current immigration debate, there is very little support for low skill immigration. Even the relatively pro-immigrant commentators argue primarily for a path to citizenship for those who are already here, or for high skill immigration to increase our stock of STEM workers. These are fine goals, but they are not good excuses for keeping the poorest and least skilled out of our country.
To paraphrase Zwolinski, which is worse: people who want to import an immigrant underclass into America, or you? If you are not a part of the former group, then you’re worse. You’re letting your (laudable) egalitarian instinct get in the way of actually making the world a richer and more equal place.