Immigration and Statism

Dale Franks at QandO, quoting some from John Derbyshire, raise a key question that certainly has always concerned me as a pro-immigration libertarian:

As to why I think libertarians are nuts to favor mass uncontrolled
immigration from the third world: I think they are nuts because their
enthusiasm on this matter is suicidal to their cause. Their ideological
passion is blinding them to a rather obvious fact: that libertarianism
is a peculiarly American doctrine, with very little appeal to the
huddled masses of the third world. If libertarianism implies mass
third-world immigration, then it is self-destroying. Libertarianism is
simply not attractive either to illiterate peasants from mercantilist
Latin American states, or to East Asians with traditions of
imperial-bureaucratic paternalism, or to the products of Middle Eastern
Muslim theocracies.

In other words, by open immigration, are we letting in waves of people from statist traditions that will drive the US further away from an open, liberal society.  This worries me from time to time, enough that I don't have a fully crafted response that I consider definitive.  However, I want to offer some initial thoughts.  Before I do, here are two background points:

  1. I think the freedom to move to another country, take a job there, buy property, live there, etc. is a basic individual right that should not be limited to the accident of not having been born originally in that country.  Freedom of association is a right of all human beings, not merely a result of citizenship.  I go into these arguments in much more detail here.
  2. Note that immigrant status and citizen status are two different things.  Immigrant means that you are present in a country but not a citizen.  As an immigrant, I believe you should be able to own property, accept employment, and most of the other things you and I do every day.  However, immigrants don't vote.  Only the narrow class of people called citizens may vote, and there is some process where over time immigrants can meet some hurdles and become citizens.  The key problem for a libertarian, which I think Dale Franks would agree with, is "which status must you be to get government handouts?"  My view is that only citizens should get most handouts, like welfare and food stamps and such, though immigrants should have access to things like infrastructure (highways) and emergency services.  It is when one argues that any immigrant should have access to all this stuff that the whole immigration picture becomes a total mess.

With those couple of things in mind, here are my thoughts on the issue Franks raises:

  • The US is not made up primarily of Scots and Dutch, two areas that can legitimately claim to have strong liberal traditions.  Most of our past immigration has come from Ireland and Germany and Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  None of these areas particularly have a liberal tradition, and many were nationalistic-militaristic-paternalistic governments.  Also, we may forget it today, but when countries like Ireland where a large source of our immigration in the 19th century, they were a third world country at the time.  Just look at Vietnam -- it has one of the worst traditions I can think of, but as a class Vietnamese immigrants tend to be capitalist tigers.
  • Depending on how one counts it, US citizens are already 65%-85% statist anyway, so I am not sure immigration is going to change the mix negatively.  In other words, the statist train has already sailed.  In fact, statism has flourished in this country from 1930-1980 during exactly the same period of time we were most restrictionist in immigration.  Sure, correlation is not causation, but certainly you can't prove to me that restrictionist immigration slows statism in any way. 
  • Much of the statist economic policies in this country were launched by Wilson and Roosevelt, from two of the more blue-blooded families in America.  Now this may not mean much.  What I don't know, because I don't know enough history of the period, is this:  Did support for New Deal (and more extreme socialist NRA-type policies) come disproportionately from new immigrants?  My sense is exactly the opposite, that in fact some New Deal policies like the minimum wage were aimed by nativists at circumscribing the opportunities of immigrants.
  • In effect, the author is advocating that we limit the freedom of movement and property ownership of people not born in the US because we are afraid that these new entrants into our country will bring political pressure to undermine individual rights.  I think that is a legitimate fear, but if I accept that argument, I don't know why I would not also have to accept the argument that we should take away the freedom of speech from people who argue for limitations of individual rights.  In both cases, we are giving political access to people who want to undermine our basic liberties.  My conclusion:  I can't go there in either case.  I refuse to put a political test on the exercise of individual rights, even for people with really bad politics.
  • A well-crafted welfare regime would make the problem a lot better.  I am not so unrealistic to expect the welfare state to go away tomorrow, but I do think that the political will can be mustered to deny substantial benefits to new non-citizen immigrants.  Which way we go on this will decide whether we can open up immigration.  If welfare handouts to immigrants are limited, then new immigrants will tend to self-select towards those looking to work hard and take risks to make it on their own.  This will mitigate the author's concern, and is in fact how we have maintained our culture of liberality through a history that was dominated mostly by open rather than closed immigration.  If welfare handouts are generous to new immigrants, then immigrants will self-select to people looking to live off the state.  If we insist on the latter, then I guess I will agree that immigration needs to be limited (though there is an even better reason for doing so in that we will, in that case, surely bankrupt ourselves.)


  1. Ray G:

    This'll be a tad hit & miss in reply, but these are things I think on often.

    Libertarians, as a group, are suicidal in their enthusiasm for fringe issues; namely open immigration and legalized drugs.

    Personally, I am for both of these "fringe" issues, IF other things within our system were fixed first. The welfare system, certain security issues that will be part and parcel of any kind immigration situation these days, etc. But their insistence on making these things their banner for all the world to focus on simply turns most rational people away.

    Two of my favorite contemporary lower-case L libertarians are P.J. O'Rourke, and Charles Murray. Both make pretty much the same points in other words. Even Milton Friedman in one of the last interviews I heard before his death, made a similar point on immigration.

    As for the immigrants' statist views, I think more freedom minded people would be more likely to pull up roots and go to America, particularly considering the anti-American bias abroad. But they do, anecdotally speaking, tend to bring certain expectations with them. I've worked with a great number of Bosnians and Serbs who seemed nonplussed at the govt not being more ready to take care of them in certain ways, despite their own hard working ethos.

  2. Matt:

    If we could clean up election fraud and kill (or at least shrink and cripple) the welfare state first, then sure...liberalize the laws and let immigrants in without numerical limit. If they want to work, we should let them, and if they don't, we shouldn't spend stolen money coddling them...and that applies to citizens too.

    But an argument for radically liberlized immigration laws is still not the same as an argument for truly open borders. The former is a reasonable part of the immigration debate, while the latter is a declaration of cultural suicide. If we're to survive, we must maintain the capacity to choose to admit only those who come here for legitimate purposes.

    And of course, I'm not holding my breath on that whole "clean up election fraud and kill or cripple the welfare state" situation either. It'd be nice, and I'm doing my share to bring it about, but we can't conduct the immigration debate pretending as if it'd already happened or was imminent.

  3. Matt W:

    I guess this is more of a realist/practical debate rather than one of fundamental principals.

    Afterall, from a principalled perspective, property ownership, freedom of movement, limited government interferance, etc. are fundamental human rights. Therefore, they should be entrenched in such a way that the majority cannot overturn these rights, anymore than (in theory) the majority cannot abridge the right to due process or free speech.

    Therefore, if we were to take the libertarian viewpoint and simply codify the fundamental human rights in the constitution or something, immigration would become free, but at the same time, no one would be able to undermine the other rights either.

    I think that overall, this serves to demonstrate one of the problems of libertarianism in practice. How on earth do you deconstruct an existing government to return it to a more basic form where you can actually entrench these fundamental rights? In practice, libertarianism ends up supporting a lot of things that, isolated from other changes, may end up having negative affects. After all, say you legalized drugs and abuse did become more widespread. Under our current system, the government (and therefore all of us) would likely end up picking up the tab (though there are obviously some cost savings involved). Likewise, supporting immigration could end up costing the government more money if existing programs remain in place.

    Unfortunately, short of having a revolution or the founding of a new country (too bad there's not more habitable, unclaimed land), it seems unlikely that the libertarian ideal can come to pass.

  4. tim:

    Recently liberal Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam released what he thought were some disturbing findings from a recent study of his. Apparently Putnam sat on the results for some time until he could find a suitable liberal policy recommendation. His finding was that the more ethnically and racially diverse a community was, the greater the public distrust of all levels of public authority, even of authority figures drawn from one's own ethnic group. Putnam's recommendation was the need for the state to redouble efforts to generate a new more inclusive identity for all.

    I can understand why American liberals and European social democrats would find these findings disturbing. Anyone who sees the state as merely the organic expression of the community, or as some kind of super-family, should be rattled by this. And, of course, Putnam's call for the state to generate "a new multicultural man" makes about sense as the New Soviet Man dream of the old Russian communists. And it's equally likely to fail.

    But Putnam's despair has a silver lining for libertarians, individualists and anyone in the old Jefferson tradition. Distrust and skepticism of the state and authorities are positive factors. Anything that increases the voters' distrust is a useful. It's a necessary, but insufficient condition, for genuine scaling back of big government. If diversity undermines statism, vive la difference!

  5. Tim:

    P.S. the Putnam article is reported here.

  6. Rob:

    It seems more than ever, that the main reason given, for restricting freedom and natural rights,
    is that some gov't program will end up costing more money

    ie. helmet laws, it costs us money when the guy goes to the hospital, so lets remove personal responsibility
    ie. immigration, it costs us money to support these poor people who don't want to work, so lets close immigration

    this logic is fundamentally flawed because this eventually leads you to the notion
    that handicap and/or retarded people should be killed at some point before they are
    a burden on society... maybe sex should be banned all together?

    Don't use some artificial program as an excuse to create more laws and restrictions !!!

  7. ElamBend:

    Immigrants from the third world are the best, the often come with a built-in distrust of authority, government help, and government intrusion. Added to that, just in the effort to get, here, no matter how easy we may make it, they have self-selected to be the ones who are more apt to help themselves.

    Canada can have all its statists, over educated, welfare searchers. If some Mexican is willing to cross a desert to come here and hang drywall, well, I'll take that gumption. Is that any different than crossing the west in a covered wagon? It's true pioneer stock. We simply have to convince them they they wanted to be Americans before they even got here; and I don't think that's too hard to do if this kind of stuff becomes important to people: