07 Dec 2009

Thoughts on Libertarians and Immigration

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Thoughts on Libertarians and Immigration
By Robert P. Murphy

Immigration is one of the most hotly contested areas in libertarian theory and politics. In a short article like this I couldn’t hope to address all of the different arguments. For a start in that direction, I point the reader to Anthony Gregory and Walter Block’s Journal of Libertarian Studies article [.pdf] on the subject, which comes down in favor of “open borders” but gives serious attention to the arguments of Hoppe and the later Rothbard.

I personally agree with Gregory and Block on the technical issues of libertarian theory. Yet in the present essay I just want to make some practical observations on topics that puzzle me when I hear them discussed in the typical debates.

Using the Term “Illegals”

In my opinion, the oddest practice in American political discourse on immigration is to refer to the people in question as “illegals.” Out of all the groups in the country who violate legislation enacted by a few hundred people in D.C., why is the term “illegal” reserved for those who violate immigration laws?

On the one hand, I think it’s because the term “criminal” would be too harsh. In other words, people don’t call murderers and rapists “illegals,” they call them criminals. Yet if people were to refer to all illegal immigrants as criminals, it would make it difficult to distinguish the otherwise-law-abiding immigrants from those that were actually committing violent crimes and committing individual acts of theft.

On the other hand, I think it’s inconsistent to use the pejorative term “illegal” to classify an entire group of people. The term might make sense for law-and-order Republicans to use, but not for libertarians, especially for libertarian anarchists. After all, most libertarians don’t refer to pot smokers or tax evaders as “illegals,” even though they are breaking the laws of the United States too. Indeed, I bet there are a higher fraction of “illegals” at most libertarian conferences than there are at most construction sites!

Focus on Government Cash Flows

Besides the term “illegal,” another thing odd about the typical immigration debate—at least when conducted among self-described libertarians—is the focus on tax payments and government expenditures. The opponents of unrestricted immigration point to evidence showing how much more the government has to pay in terms of welfare, schooling, hospital visits, and so forth, to people who aren’t “on the books” and don’t pay any income taxes. The defenders of immigration counter with studies showing how much they pay in sales taxes, how they are net contributors to Social Security if they work under a fake name, and so on.

Although these empirical studies are interesting, they largely miss the point. My contribution to society is not gauged by my net payments to the government. On the contrary, I serve people (and they serve me) in the voluntary private sector. My paycheck is the best measure of how much I’ve contributed to others, at least in terms of tangible wealth. (Personally, my stunning good looks are also a huge positive externality I shower on those in my community, but I don’t charge them for this.)

A large, bustling city like New York or San Francisco couldn’t survive without millions of low-paid people performing all sorts of mundane yet crucial jobs. If all the illegal immigrants suddenly disappeared tomorrow, my hunch is that most Americans would find themselves poorer—and especially those who live in areas with a high population of illegal immigrants. It’s true that the city or state governments might see an improvement in their bottom lines (though maybe not), but again, that’s hardly the decisive consideration. The real benefit of immigrants, whether approved or not by the politicians, is that they are people with skills who can raise the productivity of everyone through enhancing the division of labor. The United States is very thinly populated, and every new baby born here represents not just a belly to feed but a brain that can create. For libertarians who can see the absurdity of China’s birth control policies, it should be clear that more immigrants won’t spell economic disaster either.

Again, it might make sense for the standard Republican to care about tax payments, but I don’t see why a libertarian would get worked up about immigrants failing to fund the government. I conduct my own consulting business in full compliance with tax laws, if only because I am a worrier and want to be able to sleep at night. But I know many libertarians who celebrate tax dodgers, at least when it comes to tax dodgers who hold American citizenship. Why then should this be a strike against people who also broke an arbitrary immigration rule laid down by the people collecting the unjust taxes?

Related to this, I don’t understand why the biggest objection to government-run health care for so many people is that, “I’ll be paying for illegals to get medical treatment.” This popular hostility was epitomized when Joe Wilson famously called out Obama’s statement that illegal immigrants would not receive taxpayer-funded medical coverage. Yes, of course Obama was lying, but that speech must have had a few dozen lies in it. I don’t think the part about illegal immigrants receiving funding was the most important. No, I think it’s far more significant that the more government controls health care, the more leverage it will have over its opponents. A critic of a future Administration will be a lot less likely to speak out if his daughter is in the queue for a kidney transplant.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that it is unjust for foreigners to move into my neighborhood and (indirectly) take money out of my pocket by receiving government services. But in the grand scheme of things, I am quite sure that military contractors and investment bankers ripped me off far more than illegal immigrants in the past year.

What Other Problems Do We Trust the State to Fix?

Finally, even if we think that unrestricted immigration is a problem, why would we trust politicians to fix it? Illiteracy, drug abuse, malnutrition, dangerous roads, and terrorist attacks are all potential problems too, yet most libertarians recognize the problem with giving the government more money and power in exchange for promises to solve these social ills. Why then do so many critics of the government constantly hope that finally a certain candidate will “get tough and protect the border”? Isn’t that a bit like hoping for a politician who will “end corruption”?

Just look at the perversity of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In the Saturday Night Live-inspired movie The Coneheads, the INS agent played by Michael McKean explains that he is pursuing Beldar not because he is an alien (literally!) but because he’s trying to get a job. In the end, Beldar can remain on Earth only if he can demonstrate that he has a skill no human has (and hence isn’t “stealing one of our jobs”).

Although the McKean character is a caricature, it’s pretty accurate. I never read of large-scale “busts” of illegal immigrants who are collecting welfare checks. No, I only read of INS agents swarming into a factory where dozens of people were busting their foreign buns cranking out goods at low prices for American-born consumers. So not only does our federal government spend lots of money going around burning pot plants, it also spends lots of money going around shutting down productive factories.

My only personal experience (secondhand) with the INS certainly left a bad taste in my mouth. When I taught at Hillsdale College in southern Michigan, my wife and I joined a cooking club. One of the other couples had just moved from Canada, because the husband had gotten a good job in Hillsdale (not with the college). In January that couple stopped coming to the dinners, and it turned out that the mother had taken the kids back to Canada to visit her family for Christmas, and then the border authorities wouldn’t let them back in the country. Even though the father had a proper work visa, because they had a common law marriage in Canada, the U.S. government didn’t recognize the woman and kids as part of his family. So the young kids had to start at a new school in Canada in the middle of the year, because it was clearly going to take months before the U.S. government decided they didn’t pose a threat to the country.

Finally, there is the very sobering point that I first saw Anthony Gregory make: If you give the government the power to keep people out, they just might use those fences and guns to one day keep people in. I’m a lot more worried about government agents than I am about immigrants stealing some of my money (with the help of government agents):

Robert P. Murphy holds a Ph.D. in economics from New York University. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Great Depression and the New Deal (Regnery, 2009), and is the editor of the blog Free Advice.

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