A Robot in Every Field

By Mark Krikorian on April 26, 2019

Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue has dispatched a top aide, a former farm industry lobbyist, to make sure the White House immigration plan provides for the importation of even more foreign labor for agribusiness. As the McClatchy report notes, this is part of a "shift away from the priorities of 2017 ... , that sought to prevent the influx of foreign workers who could displace American workers, in favor of a new approach preferred by more traditional Republicans, particularly those close to the corporate sector who are desperate to attract more foreign workers."

Completely apart from the political consequences of abandoning the effort "to prevent the influx of foreign workers", a decision to succumb to lobbyist wails about crops "rotting in the fields" for want of workers would harm the long-term competitiveness of American agriculture. An individual farmer is understandably concerned with the next crop, but policymakers should have a longer time horizon. Americans get wealthier when productivity grows, and in agriculture that means, among other things, the development and adoption of labor-saving technologies.

Julian Simon showed the way in his 1981 book, The Ultimate Resource:

It is important to recognize that discoveries of improved methods and of substitute products are not just luck. They happen in response to "scarcity" — an increase in cost. Even after a discovery is made, there is a good chance that it will not be put into operation until there is need for it due to rising cost. This point is important: Scarcity and technological advance are not two unrelated competitors in a race; rather, each influences the other.

Foreign-worker programs that import stoop labor represent an intervention by government specifically designed to prevent the inevitable rise in farm-labor costs in modern societies caused by urbanization and increased employment opportunities elsewhere.

Increasing wages and benefits will undoubtedly help draw some people into (or back into) the farm-labor force, but it's true that few Americans are going to cut broccoli all day in the hot sun. Heck, even Mexicans aren't going into farm work anymore; as two scholars write, "Mexico is following the pattern of countries around the world: as its income rises, workers shift out of farm work into other sectors."

The solution isn't to give in to the lobbyists and scour ever-more remote corners of the world for people still willing to submit to a medieval-work regime. Instead, we need to allow Julian Simon's scarcity/innovation dance to proceed, so that robots continue to replace humans in the fields. In fact, if the White House feels the need to service the ag lobby, why not propose mechanization-loan guarantees to help small farmers wean themselves off stoop labor? Rather than promise a chicken in every pot, why not a robot in every field?