Rekindling the Dream

Martin Luther King Jr. is now memorialized with an imposing statue on the D.C. National Mall. While the honor is long overdue, his legacy should not end with a statue. A fitting practical tribute would be to tear down legal barriers that continue to hinder the equality and opportunity he fought for. Three such policies come to mind immediately: immigration restrictions, occupational licenses, and minimum wage laws. 

The United States is the “land of opportunity” for a reason. Immigrants are disproportionately entrepreneurial. They open food stands, run convenience stores, and build hotels. Many are computer programmers and tech innovators who make everyday technology faster and easier for all of us. The opportunity immigrants seek is nothing more than the opportunity to serve us, and in doing so, make our lives better along with theirs. 

Unfortunately, U.S. immigration restrictions stand in the way of that opportunity. They violate the basic rights of employers to hire who they wish, force businessmen to act as policemen against their own workers, and turn peaceful, productive people into outlaws. Laws that label ten million nonviolent people “illegal” are inconsistent with maintaining a free and open society. 

Hungarian born Andy Grove co-founded Intel after fleeing Communist dominated Hungary. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the U.S. as a child. But this is not a new phenomenon. Andrew Carnegie, the great steel industrialist of the 19th and 20th centuries, emigrated from Scotland as a child. Our immigration laws should be changed so future Groves, Brins, and Carnegies aren’t excluded.

Even citizens face government roadblocks to opportunity. Occupational licenses limit entry into numerous markets. Professional licenses raise prices, prevent competition, and hurt consumers. But they also make it more difficult to open a small business, removing entrepreneurial opportunities for numerous Americans.

In Virginia, 19 boards regulate and license more than 30 professions including cosmetic stores, earring and tattoo shops, real estate agents, and barbers. If the state was really interested in making Virginia the “Commonwealth of Opportunity” that it claims to be, it would eliminate these licenses and allow Virginia consumers to decide which businesses succeed or fail. In a time of near double digit unemployment, the government should not stand in the way of entrepreneurship and job creation. 

Minimum wage laws have a similar opportunity-quashing effect, as many workers who would willingly work for less than an arbitrarily decided limit are kept on the unemployment line. Workers have many different reasons for taking less money. Some just want to get work experience. Some need a little extra money. But the reason shouldn’t matter. Why should the government question the motives of workers? Opportunity should not be denied because a bureaucrat or lawmaker believes he knows what is in an employee’s best interest. 

The minimum wage’s effect has been particularly dire for lower-income minorities and teenagers. During the 1940s and 50s, teen unemployment for blacks was consistently lower than for whites. Today, after the minimum wage, black teen unemployment rates have surged to almost 40 percent. Overall, black unemployment is almost double the national average. A system like this creates perverse incentives. Prohibitions on productive, legal work create incentives for welfare dependency or illicit activities like drug sales.

Many states are considering raising their minimum wages, and there is always talk of further restricting legal immigration. But if policy makers want to memorialize Martin Luther King, Jr. in a meaningful way, they should knock down today’s barriers to opportunity, freedom, and equality, not raise them even higher.