Law Professor Proposes Bringing Back Indentured Servitude

It’s 2018, so of course we’re about to discuss the possibility of rejuvenating indentured servitude. The practice, which until recently only came up when Irish-Americans wanted to explain why they think they had it just as bad as Black people, settled into the dustbin of history a long time ago, but Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner, along with Microsoft Research’s Glen Wyel, have a new proposal in Politico to bring it back in a new form as the Visas Between Individuals Program.

Here’s how the program would work: Imagine a woman named Mary Turner, who lives in Wheeling, West Virginia. She was recently laid off from a chicken-processing plant and makes ends meet by walking and taking care of her neighbors’ pets. Mary could expand her little business by hiring some workers, but no one in the area would accept a wage she can afford. Mary goes online—to a new kind of international gig economy website, a Fiverr for immigrants—and applies to sponsor a migrant. She enters information about what she needs: someone with rudimentary English skills, no criminal record and an affection for animals. She offers a room in her basement, meals and $5 an hour. (Sponsors under this program would be exempt from paying minimum wage.) The website offers Mary some matches—people living in foreign countries who would like to spend some time in the United States and earn some money. After some back and forth, Mary interviews a woman named Sofia who lives in Paraguay.

It’s like indentured servitude, but with a Silicon Valley spitshine as a gig economy solution.

While it’s easy to recoil in horror when people start talking about making immigrants live in your basement and perform menial tasks for you for less than minimum wage, Posner and Wyel offer a few reasonable observations about the program that everyone should consider.

First, whether you like it or not, America already allows this program to the relatively affluent. The J-1 cultural exchange visa, which Posner and Wyel correctly brand “in reality a nanny migrant-labor program used by upper-middle class American families” is thriving in America. Why is the notion of a 20-year-old French girl changing diapers for wealthy people acceptable while the idea of a 40-year-old Paraguayan walking dogs for a high school dropout problematic? For that matter, why can corporations use H1-B visas to secure high-end talent to enrich their overflowing coffers while Mary the Wannabe Dog Whisperer can’t get her dream off the ground?

Posner and Wyel think migrants would be prepared to spend upwards of $6000 for sponsorship, allowing working-class families to boost their incomes even before the hypothetical Mary sees her dog business take off.  Stripping away the H1-B and forcing corporations to pay people like Mary to sponsor the software engineers they’re bringing over could offer another revenue opportunity. Posner and Wyel also suggest that people who interact with immigrants on a day-to-day basis are less racist about migrants.

This is a thoughtful suggestion that should be commended for thinking outside the box on an important issue. But it’s also the sort of libertarian pipe dream that only makes sense after polishing off a brick of hashish and thumbing through Atlas Shrugged.

A baseline assumption of this proposal is the libertarian article of faith that everyone is an entrepreneur and every idea — no matter how stupid — will make money if you just will it into being. Are there enough people with enough disposable income in Mary’s neighborhood to make her dog business work? That seems like a big deal regardless of how many crumbs her personal immigrant assistant is getting. In a nod to the variation between demand in different markets, Posner and Wyel suggest that people might move to areas that need more migrant labor to take advantage of that market. Except people don’t pull up stakes and move across the country for $6,000 — especially when they’re likely moving to somewhere with a much higher cost of living. While a family of four could make $20K by sponsoring 4 migrants, they claim, I seem to have overlooked the glut of working-class families that have two or three spares rooms available to put up strangers.

For anyone questioning the existence of the Overton Window, the concept that the public only accepts a narrow window of discourse and that radical shifts make previously extreme ideas normal (here’s an entertaining primer), consider the straight line that runs from the White House trying to build a wall and law schools conflating slurs with policy debate to a high-minded discussion in a major publication about Uber-fying indentured servitude. This is a relatively tame and thoughtful proposal about immigration and the fact that we’re saying that with a straight face is way, way, way crazier than the idea itself.

But this is where we are in 2018.


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