Perspectives on the Question of Immigration
- By Stefan Molyneux and Wilton D. Alston
One of the truly “hot button” libertarian issues is immigration. While most libertarians would reject the argument “we must have taxation to pay for the welfare state,” many do support the position that “we must control immigration because of the welfare state.”
This is particularly true for U.S. libertarians, who seem very alarmed that 40% of Mexicans have expressed a desire to come and taste the fruits of freedom north of the border. “Forty million Mexicans coming to live here? What a disaster!”
Well maybe. But maybe not. Let’s spend a few minutes examining that question. And just for good measure, let us be sure to examine both of the most widely held libertarian views.
One major fear that many libertarians have is that immigrants will pour into the country and ‘take over’ the government through lobbying and voting. Another one – and this is by far the predominant “scholarly” position taken by the libertarian intelligentsia – is that immigrants will overwhelm the U.S. economy. This is the position so vigorously argued by people like Hans-Herman Hoppe in an article from as far back as 1998 and Stephen Cox in a recent article from 2006. Separated by such a long time period, and both writing in nominally libertarian publications, both men say essentially the same thing – letting too many immigrants into America (particularly of the low-income/low-skill variety) would be catastrophic for our way of life.
In the “immigrant voting” scenario, state policies will be warped by new influences to serve the needs of these newcomers. Salsa will become the official dip of the United States. Mamba lessons will be mandatory, and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” will end up showing only piñata crotch-shots. In the “economic strife” scenario, the U.S. would be “overrun by millions of third-world immigrants,” turn into a 2000-mile wide refugee camp or some such. The already depleted cup of welfare would be drained and finding a seat at your local emergency room would begin to look like a scene from “Coming to America: Vive La Noche.” Neither Hoppe nor Cox mention dogs and cats living together, but that was probably just an oversight.
All kidding aside, these are both very interesting perspectives, and could actually be a real bridge between libertarians and existing minorities, instead of a barrier, depending upon how they are analyzed.
Overpowering the Vote?
When we consider a flood of, say, vote-happy Norwegian immigrants, we can easily picture that the politicians will be Norwegian, the policies will be “Norwegian-friendly,” and our own culture and preferences will be swept aside in a Norwegian-appeasing majority stampede. We would feel alienated, right? We would feel excluded and ignored and perhaps even a little belittled. We would distance ourselves from the political process and grumble that the government is really only there to serve the Norwegians. We would be highly discontented with the existing system, and probably quite open to exploring alternatives. What would we have to lose?
In other words, we would be exactly the sort of people that libertarians should be talking to. When we fear the government serving special interests based on someone else’s race and culture, we exactly reproduce how most minorities view the existing political system.
Just look at Congress. A bunch of old white guys, mostly. Look at the list of Presidents – yawn, might as well be a picture of the same guy over and over. Look at the history of how the government has treated minorities – from slavery to incarceration to Jim Crow to abysmal local schools and the soft quagmire of the welfare state. Do you think that the average minority member looks at the existing government and says: “Now there’s a bunch of white-haired old fogeys who are truly looking out for me!” Of course not! Minorities aren’t very invested in the existing system. They’re interested in change. What will a libertarian solution cost them? They have no real voice or access to power anyway.
Let’s be honest. Another reason that many of us are afraid of immigration because we fear that foreigners will swarm over dragging families and dependents and overwhelm the public system with endless demands for health care, education, welfare, pensions and so on. Crime and taxes will skyrocket, property values will plummet etc. etc. etc.
Overwhelming the Economy?
In “The Case For Free Trade and Restricted Immigration,” as he attempts to logically and methodically illustrate the error of free immigration that intellectually undergirds this fear, Hoppe says:
"Assume that the U.S., or better still Switzerland, declared that there would no longer be any border controls, that anyone who could pay the fare might enter the country, and, as a resident then be entitled to every “normal” domestic welfare provision. Can there be any doubt how disastrous such an experiment would turn out in the present world? The U.S., and Switzerland even faster, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants, because life on and off American and Swiss public streets is comfortable compared to life in many areas of the third world. Welfare costs would skyrocket, and the strangled economy disintegrate and collapse, as the subsistence fund—the stock of capital accumulated in and inherited from the past—was plundered. Civilization in the U.S. and Switzerland would vanish, just as it once did from Rome and Greece."
That does sound pretty scary! (Where’s a Texas-vigilante-turned-patriot minuteman when you need one?) Certainly if the current politicos plundering of our money have not driven the U.S. into the history books right next to ancient Rome, too many low-wage immigrants would be the proverbial straw, right?
But very tellingly, Hoppe includes the caveat, “as a resident then be entitled to every ‘normal’ domestic welfare provision.” Even if we libertarians are so politically weak and societally marginalized that we cannot convince everyone that welfare is a bad idea, surely we could posit a reasonable treatise as to why it should not be offered willy-nilly to anybody who shows up to ask for it.
But wait, there’s more. In the “The Fallacy of Open Immigration,” Cox says:
"Imagine an unskilled laborer who has come here legally, just as proponents of open borders wish that all unskilled laborers could do. Let's say he makes $15,000 a year — an income that is above the minimum wage, an income that is quite good enough to draw millions of people here from almost anywhere in the world, provided we had open borders. And let's say that his wife works too (part time, because of the kids) and makes $10,000 a year. That $25,000 is the value they contribute to the American economy. Out of it, they pay maybe $1,200 in sales taxes, $500 in the property taxes that are included in their rent, $1,900 in Social Security payments, and zip in income taxes. (Whatever taxes are extracted from their checks, they get back in refunds. Actually, because of tax subsidies to poor people, they will probably get back a good deal more than they pay in, but to be extra-fair I won't pause to calculate that.)"
Cox goes on with:
"Of course, the Social Security contributions are not invested and will never earn enough to pay the total cost of the couple's retirement benefits; other taxpayers will have to do that. In this respect, the couple is already a serious economic loss. The scale of that loss will appear when they retire. Other losses are happening right now. Because of their low income, man and wife are eligible for innumerable welfare programs — from subsidized housing to medical assistance (if they don't have adequate private insurance, which they won't) to free legal aid to disaster aid if a storm comes through. Any physical disability may result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills to other taxpayers. Whenever the couple have a child, that's $10,000 at the county hospital. Afterwards, it's probably $5,000 a year for a government-financed preschool, then $10,000 a year (the approximate national average) in government funds for K-12 education."
Wow. After hearing all that, not only do closed borders sound like a good idea but one could get the sneaking suspicion that we would all be better off if we could “deport” most of the existing poor people as well! (They were born here you say? Just a petty detail!) They are, using the same analysis Cox uses above, draining hard-earned cash from the pocketbooks of those who pay taxes (something libertarians almost universally consider stealing) and do not contribute their “fair share” to the economy. It’s just not right! And the Founding Fathers would say so too!
At this point some readers might ask, “Well, other then when they got here, what makes immigrants different than the poor we already have?” (Other than the fact that nothing guarantees that they will stay poor, even if they do arrive on a seawater-soaked-mattress. I’ll take NOTHING for $500 Alex.) If it would be immoral to deport those already “draining the system,” how can the inefficiency and theft of that system be used as a logical argument against letting others come here simply because they too could end up using it? Good question.
The fact that such an action and the system it ostensibly protects are orthogonal to libertarian theory might also be a clue. Maybe reading a few more of these closed-border-libertarian pieces would allow us all to find out, but that is unlikely. In the meantime, libertarians would better serve the theory, logic, and dogma they ostensibly value by laboring to remove the sorry hand of the state versus espousing more rhetoric that protects the meager chips already on the table from the poor no matter from whence they came. That sounds simple, but the best answers usually are, at least according to Occam’s Razor.
To be fair to Hoppe though, all his writings do not so openly support closed borders. In “Free Immigration or Forced Integration,” as quoted from the Block article linked below, he says:
“It would also be wrongheaded to attack the case for free immigration by pointing out that because of the existence of a welfare state, immigration has become, to a significant extent, the immigration of welfare bums, who, even if the United States is below the optimal population point, do not increase but rather decrease average living standards. For this is not an argument against immigration but rather against the welfare state. To be sure, the welfare state should be destroyed, root and branch. However, the problems of immigration and welfare are analytically distinct, and they must be treated accordingly.”
Indeed. And libertarian theorist and author Walter Block hits the nail on the head in “A Libertarian Case for Free Immigration” when he says:
“Let it be said loudly and clearly: end welfare for all people, but at the very least for immigrants and their descendants, and by definition immigrants will no longer be attracted to our shores in order to receive such funds.”
Little more need be said if we libertarians are truly worried about this one issue. But just between us, and again calling upon Block, it seems a little simple-minded to suggest “that immigrants come to our shores not to breathe the heady wine of economic freedom, but to avail themselves of our stupendously generous welfare system.” As Block accurately states, “This is not so much a quarrel with immigration as it is with welfare.” Why not focus on the problem directly versus opining about another set of folks who could fall victim to it?
When looking at groups that threaten your economic interests and personal freedoms, should immigrants be at (or even near) the top of the list? Review the data for yourself. Was the invasion of Iraq orchestrated by immigrants? Did immigrants set up the Social Security Ponzi scheme? What about the Fed and the endless debasement of currency? Immigrants? Not so much. The military/industrial complex? Rich white guys. The welfare state? Massive taxation? The national debt? The Patriot Act? The hundred thousand regulations passed by the Federal government every year, are those agitated for or passed by Mexicans or Norwegians or blind women from Luxemburg speaking in tongues?
Of course not. Immigrants aren’t the ones taking away your freedom. It’s guys who probably look quite a bit like you. Immigrants are victims of the same poorly-conceived statist ideas that libertarians normally attack. How can they simultaneously be the culprit in any supposed libertarian examination of the possible problems of immigration?
“Oh sure,” you say, “but a lot of immigrants have lobbyists and influence, and they strive for preferential legislation.” Well sure! But who set up the system that made lobbying was so profitable? It wasn’t the immigrants. It wasn’t the poor. And it certainly wasn’t the blacks!
What does the government spend money on? Social security – mostly for elderly whites. Military spending, which mostly benefits whites. Interest payments on the national debt aren’t exactly swelling the coffers of the NAACP. Corporate welfare? The overprinting of money? Do poor minorities benefit from state-created inflation? You get the idea.
An elementary tactic of those in power is to sow dissent, so that those they rule become fearful of each other rather than angry at the rulers. The idea that millions of Mexicans threaten our freedom more than a few hundred congressmen is laughable. Mexican immigrants are willing to uproot their entire lives and leave their country behind just for the chance to breathe free! The idea that immigrants don’t appreciate freedom, but the average complacent, state-indoctrinated native does is patently false. Immigrants weren’t in charge when we lost our freedoms. White guys were. Millions of ‘illegal immigrants’ threaten you somehow? Compared to your neighbor who votes Democrat or Republican and demands his Social Security? Puh-lease!
Who is more dedicated to freedom, a Republican who supports the President no matter what, or a man who risks death rowing a tiny boat over from Cuba? Who yearns more for freedom, your Congressman, or a Chinese woman who hides in the hold of a ship for weeks, is willing to live illegally and run the risk of get shipped back to her Communist masters if caught? Who understands the dangers of totalitarianism more, the average citizen indoctrinated in state schools with blind patriotism, or those who sacrifice everything to flee the state oppression of their homelands? America was founded by people fleeing oppression!
Many, including Cox, would likely call any libertarian who subscribes to such a (gasp) dogmatic view of libertarian law a fool. Similarly, we purists have a poor grasp on reality. Supposedly, adherence to the very theories that make libertarians different from the political mainstream also makes libertarians a “parody of themselves” and thereby the laughing stock of the mainstream. Maybe all that is true. But not for nothing, if we advocates of market anarchism are thought of as out-of-touch by beer-gut intelligentsia who obtain their political information from Faux News, that’s okay. And if open immigration does turn out to bankrupt the state, is that the end of the world? Can we expect radical reform in the absence of crisis? State bankruptcy ended Communism after all.
If libertarians are going to continue to be what we already are, a tiny minority, almost totally excluded from the political mainstream, then let’s at least do it while staying true to the concept upon which libertarianism is actually supposed to be based: the non-aggression axiom – particularly as interpreted using the argument from morality.
Immigrants and minorities may well be the best friends that freedom has. They do not fall as readily to propaganda, and they experience the excluded underbelly of state power more accurately than many libertarians. They are not threats to be feared, but friends to be made.
As an excluded minority themselves, libertarians should know better.