»  National Review Online

April 20th, 2004

  Saudi Arabia or Japan?


Reading Tamar Jacoby's piece "Getting Immigration Right" in the Friday New York Post (but not online), I got to thinking about the Shakers.

Ms. Jacoby supports President Bush's January proposal to offer some kind of formal "guest worker" status to the 10-12 million foreigners living illegally in the US. Ms. Jacoby's fundamental argument, in this piece and in others she has written on the topic, is that current US immigration law is seriously at odds with the reality of what Americans want. We want our lawns mowed, our fruit picked, and our hogs gutted. We should prefer not to have these things done by our own citizens, for reasons she does not enlarge on (but which I myself have had a go at). Therefore we must import millions of ill-educated, non-English-speaking foreigners to do these things for us. Unwilling to face this truth, we stubbornly refuse to change our immigration laws appropriately, to provide a decent welcome to these needed workers. It is the kind of self-deceiving double-think, Ms. Jacoby says (not in this piece, but elsewhere) that we attempted with Prohibition, and has led to the same kind of widespread lawlessness.

This is not actually a bad case. I certainly agree with Ms. Jacoby that we are not being very honest with ourselves in this zone. And as always when a nation sinks into some widespread dishonesty of this kind, it is hard to avoid getting some of the tar on one's own hands. For example: I have just seen out a sales rep from a fencing company I called a couple of days ago. My property needs a new fence, and I have no time (nor, I confess, inclination) to do the job myself. The sales rep and I came to a satisfactory arrangement, I wrote a check for the deposit, and he told me they would come to do the job in about six weeks, which suits me well enough. Now suppose, when the crew turns up, it consists, as I strongly suspect it will, of one white American supervisor and three or four small, dark, Aztecs with gold teeth and seven words of English between them. Shall I tear up my contract, demand a refund of my deposit, and threaten to report the fencing company to the immigration service for employing illegals? Er, no. I shall watch the crew sink its post-holes and erect its palings, reflecting glumly, but silently, that the last time I watched this particular operation — when I had my current fence put in twelve years ago — it was carried out by three muscular white American college boys on vacation.

Oh, yes, the Shakers. What got me thinking about the Shakers was reading about the "human-washing machines" now being marketed in Japan. The Japanese have, as a nation, set their collective face firmly (but, of course, being Japanese, very politely) against mass immigration. Unfortunately they have an aging population that is going to need more and more care by semi-skilled nursing-aide types. Since there are not enough Japanese citizens able, or willing, to do this kind of work, Japan has a choice: import foreigners, or invent machines to do the work. The Japanese have gone with the machine option.

The Shakers did something similar, though of course on a smaller scale. Even at its most successful, in the 1830s, this odd American sect had trouble getting enough recruits to keep its communities self-sustaining. Possibly this was something to do with the very strict rules about relations between the sexes. "Even married couples who converted together were to … be celibate," says the Shaker website. Whatever the reason, they had a shortage of hands for the more menial kinds of tasks. The Shakers compensated by inventing all kinds of curious gadgets: apple peelers, apple corers, yarn winders, and the like. These things fetch a pretty penny nowadays. In their time, though, they were just the equivalent of Japan's human-washing machines.

There are, in fact, in the nature of things, only two possible approaches to a national shortage of willing hands: import labor, or robotize. The extremes of these two approaches are represented by, respectively, Saudi Arabia, and Japan. I have quoted before on this site P.J. O'Rourke's observation, when he was reporting from Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, that it was extremely unusual to see a native Saudi lift anything heavier than his billfold. All the grunt work in the Kingdom was (and still is) done by legions of imported foreigners. The Japanese prefer robots.

Which solution do Americans prefer? We have it in our history and culture to take either road, the Saudi or the Japanese. The United States has fine, old traditions of both importing foreigners and developing ingenious labor-saving inventions. The Japanese have no history of the first; the Saudis, no history of the second. We, almost alone among nations, have the cultural background to take either road, or to attempt some middle way, if we think it can be done. We have freedom of will here. So … what do we want to be: Saudis or Japanese?

There are downsides to both options. Saudi Arabia does not seem to be a very happy country, to judge from the reports one reads. It is a cultural desert, the citizens grown fat and lazy from having their drudge work done by others. The "guest worker" classes of foreign laborers are institutionalized now, but it is hard to believe they are very happy, either, lacking as they do any citizenship rights. On the other hand, Japan's economy seems to have lost its dynamism. It is now well into its second decade of lackluster performance. (Though when I checked with a friend who has lived in Japan for many years, he reported that, though there is some low-level grumbling, it does not even begin to approach the level of social unrest, and "people seem to have plenty of money to spend." And before you e-mail in to tell me that the Shakers are very nearly extinct, consider that the celibacy business may have had something to do with that, too.)

It's our choice. When making it, we should bear in mind that in the long term, we are bound to become a Japan in any case. Taking the world as a whole, since population cannot increase indefinitely, Japan is the certain and inevitable future of humanity. Birth rates are plunging everywhere — even in Mexico. The effects will take a while to work their way through the demographic cohorts, but eventually we shall run out of foreigners to import. Then we shall have no choice but to turn to robots. It will be a pity, it seems to me, if we have to purchase them all from Japan.