Anti-Gentrification and Anti-Immigration Movements: Two Sides of the Same Dull Coin

After consideration, I have decided to omit the name of a private figure on the basis that my aim is not to denounce individuals, but faulty logic. Links have still been provided which may reveal that identity.

 

Recently, I read about a woman from Jersey City who is attempting to subvert the city’s “Make it Yours” promotion, aimed at attracting residents from New York City. She is worried that this campaign is contributing to rising housing costs in the downtown area, presumably displacing previous residents who aren’t able to afford prime real estate anymore. Her campaign, dubbed “Take it Back”, involves the use of such charming slogans as, “Go Home Yuppie Scum” and “Go Eat Brunch Somewhere Else”. So far, it has only inspired minor vandalism and a slew of negative comments from Jersey City residents.

Aside from the strident attitude and emotional-over-logical response that typically accompany such arguments, there are some very familiar components to this argument.

It’s the same sort of protectionist nonsense that is spouted by anti-immigration movements, virtually a carbon copy, in fact. After reviewing some of the leader’s work online, I am sure that she would be very dismayed to be compared to some Trump-esque anti-immigration fanatic who might advocate the construction of a concrete wall along our southern border, yet there are numerous parallels between them.

Anti-gentrification and anti-immigration proponents are typically very different people, or to be more accurate, they would style themselves very different from each other. From opposite sides of the yawning chasm that divides American politics, they vent their frustrations and scapegoat relentlessly. They operate blissfully ignorant of reality, the striking commonalities between each other’s arguments, and certainly the absurd logical extension of those respective fallacies.

I confess that I do take a certain joy in pointing out hypocrisy, especially when it pertains to ideological talking points between the right and left.[1] With that in mind, let’s examine the commonalities between these two seemingly different calls for exclusion.

Appeals for Economic Protectionism

 

Both arguments attempt to address a similar set of wrongs, as they see them. Chief between both sides is an appeal for economic protectionism. On the side of anti-immigration, the purpose is to protect American laborers and incumbent employees by stemming an influx of cheap labor in the form of immigrants. By restraining the supply of available workers, they hope to keep the price of labor higher than what it might otherwise be.

The counterpart on the anti-gentrification side of affairs would undoubtedly be the manipulation of property values, and by extension, rental prices. In order to keep rental units at their current prices, they must suppress the excess demand for housing that wealthier transports represent, usually attempting to do so by creating an inhospitable environment for the newcomers. Keeping demand low will naturally depress the market price of available housing, thereby maintaining the status quo.

Such plans rely on a crude understanding of supply and demand. If the people making these arguments could be afforded the time to read a book on economics, they might be able to understand the negative impacts that such protectionist policies inspire beyond the vacuum of immediate, desirable consequences for select groups.

Both sides are looking too short-term. While a carpenter in Texas feels threatened by the prospect of cheap immigrant labor, he is neglecting that the lower price of a carpenter is a boon for, say, his neighbor, who is looking to build an addition on his house. He is also forgetting to think of himself as a purchaser of labor, which he is in all instances but those in which his labor is being purchased (any time he goes to a store, eats a piece of fruit, puts gas in his car, etc. he is consuming the labor of others who made such supplies available through their labor). Indeed, he has probably also forgotten that the new immigrants represent not only a source of additional labor, but demand as well.

All things being equal in terms of quality, the prices of immigrant labor will be pushed up when people realize that they are cheaper, due to excess demand. Simultaneously, the prices of American carpenters will fall when the same demand shift occurs. Eventually, they should even out somewhere in the middle. All in all, the added competition will be a win for consumers.

Additionally, with the price of building lowered, it may well be that people who before were not able to afford construction suddenly find it affordable and there is a corresponding increase in available work.

Conversely, in order to keep property values down, opponents of gentrification must deprive property owners of the additional income they might receive from the new wave of inhabitants, thereby lessening or removing the incentive to own and develop property within the city in question. This is bad news for a lot of reasons, most of which can be viewed in the consequences of rent-controlled properties and other such scenarios involving price ceilings.

To put it simply, when people no longer feel there is anything to gain by owning property, they stop doing it. They halt property upkeep as a means to squeeze some meager profit out of the endeavor. They abandon properties or leave them vacant, as is the case in San Francisco. Ironically, this leads to housing crises that can still render housing unaffordable and scarce.

Of course, the inhibition of housing and property development is only one of many examples of the consequences of anti-gentrification protectionism. A general lack of investment (at its core, an anti-gentrification movement is really a resistance to private investment-sometimes aggravatingly accompanied by demands for public investment) in a city will naturally limit job growth and opportunity. The result is a flight of human capital, as talented and driven people will choose to relocate to places where advancement is more likely.

Cultural Consistency

 

            Another commonality in both camps is a general resistance to cultural change. Both sides feel that there are intrinsic cultural values at stake when outsiders become too prevalent for their liking. Those opposed to immigration might cite American work ethic, preservation of the dominance of English, and a fear of crime or losing their lifestyle. Anti-gentrification advocates tend to want to preserve the racial makeup of a city, average income level, or other cultural condition they might find desirable.

The similarities here are so evident that the reader requires little explanation. Both arguments are steeped in xenophobia and bigotry.[2] An aversion to demographic change is evident in either argument, as is a sense of incumbent entitlement to a particular location.

The drawbacks of segregation are numerous and easily viewed in segregated areas of the country. On the other hand, the added value that immigrants and private developers bring to cities is huge. Our diversity is what allows us to specialize and become more productive as individuals and a society. If all people in a given city or nation were of the same ilk, they would often be wanting for a great many services and undoubtedly paying more for them.

Necessary Impediment to Freedom

Implicit in the (successful) social architect’s quest to maintain the status quo is the necessity to exclude and the means to do so. While such exclusion does come at a price to current residents, as I have worked to detail, it must also adversely affect those undesirables who are to be barred from entry. Perhaps it is inconsequential to or altogether unacknowledged by either group, but people that voluntarily relocate are doing so to make their lives better. Whether it’s moving across the Hudson River in hopes of escaping the high cost of living in New York City, moving to Oklahoma suburbs to be closer to family, or coming to a country where you will be safer, have a better education, or have a higher quality of life in general, improvement in quality of life (or some end deemed positive) is always the goal. I would like to know by what justification might someone standing in the way of such a goal claim any morality.

Those protectionists who would seek to prevent outsiders from entering make the mistake of believing that they know the correct form that the world should take. Whether they are trying to keep people out of or in a location, the assumption is the same: they know what people should do, and those people do not. Their plans will produce the most fair and desirable outcome. Allowing people the ability to relocate and do what they want with their housing will result in undesirable outcomes. Despite all evidence to the contrary, society can be planned effectively! At least, that’s the theory.

How, we might ask, could a single person or even a group of people, realistically think that they are better equipped to make decisions for others that are reliant on decentralized knowledge and based on fairly straightforward information? Those “yuppies” moving into Jersey City are in a better position to decide what is right for them than anyone else. People who want to immigrate to this country are clearly doing it because they think it is the best option for them. Similarly, the people that are displaced or have to find new vocations are doing what’s right for them. They have little and less to gain from remaining in an environment that is ill fit for them. Digging our heels in and trying to legislate back in time is probably going to hurt more than it helps.

It’s tough to accept, but sometimes things do change. The best way to handle that change is to rely on everyone’s ability to make decisions for themselves.

Logical Extensions

 

            Taken at face value, efforts to protect workers and renters might seem harmless, even understandable. It is when we consider the logical extensions of such shortsighted acts that we are fully able to comprehend the absurdities they must entail. For example, if a country were going to limit immigration in order to protect the competitiveness of domestic workers, they should logically be compelled to control the birth rate of the country, cap the number of workers per industry, prohibit the development of innovative technologies, outlaw imports, and use government funds to purchase unwanted inventory, so as to keep production levels constant.[3]

Additionally, if it were true that a city should protect existing rental prices above all else, they would be compelled to manage the population of the city, so as to limit competition for housing. This would either result in birth rate controls or forced eviction. More than likely, it would involve implementing rent controls. They would also naturally have a vested interest in ensuring that people lived at home for as long as possible and perhaps force people to cohabitate.

Of course, the forward thinker will recognize faulty economics at work and realize that each of these tactics will have precisely the opposite result of that which is intended. For one, a smaller population means not only a smaller workforce, but also a smaller market. Assuming that the distribution of certain types of workers remains constant, there will be no gain for workers. Secondly, any international acts of protectionism are likely to be reciprocated, leading to a drop in domestic demand from abroad. More generally, the specialization that we have grown accustomed to, which is made possible because of population competition, growth, and technological advance, will disappear as populations and incentives dwindle.

Conclusion

 

There isn’t enough time to spend discussing the adverse effects of actions that fall under the umbrella term of protectionism. It must suffice to state that the best long-term economic or social policies will be the most open; those that understand that progress is driven by voluntary exchange and freedom of commerce. These sorts of values are equally incompatible with anti-immigration or anti-gentrification sentiments. Such movements are characterized by a reluctance to change and stubborn attempts to preserve the status quo-even at cost to the protected party.

Remember, policies can’t be made for one type of person. Rather, they must serve to promote the best interest of everybody within the system in question. Anti-movement protectionists are guilty of missing the forest while scrutinizing a few trees-and likely too busy pruning the leaves to look around.

[1] Though it would be disingenuous to presume that the left is typically against one and the right the other. Recently, a New York Times article was published denouncing immigrant labor for displacing tech workers in Disney. Likewise, the residents of Staten Island (the only consistently right-leaning borough of NYC) frequently voice opposition to the increased population of the island, which they might attribute to gentrification.

[2] I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense, necessarily, although both words connote unpleasantness.

[3] Dan Boudreaux covers this in an essay on Café Hayek entitled “That’s Where the Logic Leads”

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2 thoughts on “Anti-Gentrification and Anti-Immigration Movements: Two Sides of the Same Dull Coin

  1. In the cultural consistency section, are you arguing that gentrification diversifies the areas where it takes place (just like immigration diversifies previously less-diverse areas)? I admit that my understanding of gentrification is limited, but doesn’t gentrification involve the arrival of people with money to an area that previously wasn’t as nice (encouraging property renovation and new business…). And unfortunately, most of the time in the society in which we live, aren’t those people arriving with money white and/or from similar backgrounds/demographics/interests (brunch, yuppies, hipsters…)?

    So then wouldn’t gentrification actually not add to the diversity of a place and not, as you say, allow more specialization and productivity?

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  2. Hi Alex,

    First of all, thanks for reading and commenting! I hope that you found this piece somewhat thought-provoking. Allow me to clarify some points with regard to the cultural consistency section of the essay.

    First of all, even if all gentrifiers were similar to each other (they’re not-for example early gentrifiers are usually artists or other low-income bohemians whereas newer residents might be more established monetarily) they would still be quite different from current residents. With them, they bring new demand and supply as well as other qualities. In any case, this is clearly an increase in diversity, especially if the city in question was particularly homogenous to begin with.

    For context, imagine that a poor, mostly white city suddenly received an influx of middle class, mostly white gentrifiers. That would still be an increase in diversity, because diversity isn’t limited to race and the new residents are likely to be much different than the existing ones-possessing different skills, tastes, etc. All of which will provide new opportunities for economic growth in the future (jobs, incentive to develop, concentration of capital, etc.).

    As for increasing specialization and productivity, a surge in human capital will surely cause that. To demonstrate this in an accessible sense, think of the selection of restaurants in a small town. There might be ten or so; probably diners and maybe pizzerias or something like that. By comparison, a large city will have more types of restaurants than I could name and several of the same types of establishments-all of which fosters competition and benefits the consumer. This may seem a bit vapid when discussing restaurants, but you can extrapolate this argument to any service or industry.

    A place does not develop the luxury of such specialization and productivity without being an attractive place to live, and that means accepting new residents. In fact,I can think of nothing more disastrous for a poor community than isolation. Even if long-time residents are pushed to the city’s periphery, they are still better off than living in the center of an economic desert.

    Hopefully this clears things up for you a bit, or at least elucidates my own line of thought. If you have any questions or disagree, feel free to follow up.

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