A Philosopher's Blog

Stealing Jobs

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 15, 2017

One stock talking point is that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans. This point is then used as part of the justification for “building the wall” and escalating the enforcement of immigration laws. As with any talking point, it is reasonable to ask whether it is true.

One approach to this question is to consider what it would mean for immigrants to steal jobs. To facilitate the discussion, I’ll offer an analogy to another type of alleged theft, that of stealing someone’s girlfriend (or boyfriend).

While I will change the names to protect the innocent and not innocent, when I was in school Dick was dating Jane.  Jane was at my school and Dick was attending a school in a different state. Jane started spending a lot of time with John, and eventually John was dating Jane. An angry Dick showed up to confront John about “stealing his woman.” Jane’s response that she was not stolen because she was not anyone’s property—she chose who she wanted to be with. In this case, it was John. For those who are wondering, I am not John. And definitely not Jane, but thanks for asking. While there were certainly some moral concerns about how Jane and John had done things, Jane was right: she was not anyone’s property and could not be stolen. So, Dick’s charge of theft did not apply. If John had kidnapped Jane, then that would have been another matter entirely—but still not theft.

Turning back to jobs, a job is also not something that can be stolen. Yes, I can imagine scenarios where someone steals a person’s identity and thus steals their job, but I am focusing on the normal course of employment. Like affection, a job is something that is provided by someone else and hence is not something that can (typically) be stolen. So, when an illegal immigrant is hired by an American employer, the immigrant is not stealing the job. The American employer is choosing to hire the illegal immigrant rather than hiring an American (or a legal immigrant). Going back to the girlfriend analogy, the American worker would be like Dick—he thinks the job is rightfully his. But, the employer is like Jane—she is the one deciding who gets her affection (in the case of the employer, the job). So, the American did not have their job stolen; the American employer decided to give it to someone else. The job, after all, belongs to the employer.

This argument could be countered by going back to the girlfriend analogy. Suppose that Dick and Jane are engaged and are committed, but smooth John is willing to do so much more for Jane and ask far less in return, so he is much more appealing. It could be claimed that John is not playing fair—he should respect the special relationship between Dick and Jane and not outcompete poor Dick.

The easy and obvious reply that it would be morally problematic for John to intentionally move in on Jane when she is in a committed relationship.  However, it is still Jane’s choice whether to stay with Dick or move on to John. As such, most the responsibility would rest on Jane. It is fair to note that John did outcompete Dick, but Dick could have stepped up to compete if he really wanted Jane to stick with him.

In the case of the job, it is clearly morally problematic for illegal immigrants to seek jobs in America. However, most the responsibility lies with the employers. While illegals tempt them by being willing to work for less, it is up to them to stick to their commitment to the law or to break it. As such, it is not illegal immigrants that are stealing jobs. Rather, employers are choosing to hire illegal immigrants and if any wrong is being done, the majority of it lies on the employers.

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