Free to Migrate
MARCH 09, 2007 by SHELDON RICHMAN
No matter what the advocates of free immigration say about the natural individual right to move without government permission, many people remain unconvinced because they expect theory and practice to diverge. Open borders may be good in the abstract, we’re told, but the theory doesn’t reflect what happens in the real world.
To begin, we ought to be suspicious of any claim that a good theory and practice part ways. The great liberal William Graham Sumner disposed of that argument in his book Protectionism: The -Ism which Teaches that Waste Makes Wealth (1885), chapter 4, section m:
That a thing can be true in theory and false in practice is the most utter absurdity that human language can express. For, if a thing is true in practice (protectionism, for instance) the theory of its truth can be found, and that theory will be true. But it was admitted that free trade is true in theory. Hence two things which are contradictory would both be true at the same time about the same thing.
The other problem with that theory-versus-practice dichotomy is that when examining practice, one has to make sure any failure is attributed to its actual cause. All social phenomena are complex, and it is exceedingly easy to blame Effect X on Cause A when it is really the result of Cause B. For example, if an increase in immigration were to be followed by a long-term increase in unemployment, one should want to investigate government interference in the labor and capital markets (e.g., minimum-wage laws) before blaming the unemployment on the immigrants. Sound theory recommends this. Given omnipresent scarcity, which dictates that our demand for things exceeds supply, a growing population of workers can be expected to raise living standards by expanding production, not create unemployment. Brute observation of economic phenomena cannot yield explanatory insights. Good theory is a prerequisite for intelligent observation.
Thus when people find problems in the wake of an influx of immigrants, they may be looking for the source in the wrong place. It would be the height of injustice to blame people seeking better lives for problems caused by someone else. Immigrants have too often been scapegoats, with predictably ugly consequences. (For notorious U.S. examples, see the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924.) We ought to be willing to go to some lengths to avoid repeating that history.
Here’s a common example of placing blame wrongly. Critics of free immigration, or what in some ways is the same thing, illegal immigration, often point to the overburdening of schools and health facilities as evidence that controls are necessary. At first glance it does indeed look as though an increase in immigrants would be the cause of the strains faced by schools and hospitals. But this argument crumbles when we notice that not all providers of goods and services are strained. When was the last time Kroger, Wal-Mart, or Blockbuster Video appealed to government to halt the tide of immigrants because it couldn’t keep pace with the increased business?
There’s something revealingly similar about the facilities that can’t take the stress of population growth. They are all government-run or heavily government-regulated. By nature these facilities are bureaucratic and non-entrepreneurial. No wonder they are thrown by increased demand. In contrast, private businesses (especially when not protected from competition) prosper by getting better at satisfying customers and anticipating market change. So whose fault is it when schools and hospitals are overwhelmed by immigrants? It’s unfair to blame immigrants.
This analysis clears up a related complaint, namely, that the taxpayers are forced to accommodate the immigrants. Leaving aside that immigrants — including those without government documents — pay taxes, it can hardly be their fault that America has tax-financed schools, hospitals, and so on. I’m reminded of what former Freeman editor Frank Chodorov said during the McCarthy-era: “The only thing to do, if you want to rid the bureaucracy of Communists, is to abolish the bureaucracy.” Similarly, if we don’t want immigrants (or anyone else) living off the taxpayers, then let’s abolish such government services and related interventions. This would include government must-serve mandates, which have driven some private hospitals out of business. (See Steven Greenhut’s “How Government Is Destroying Medical Care,” The Freeman, January-February 2005.) People should be expected to take responsibility for themselves. (Later I will mention one method by which even low-income immigrants can do this.)
As noted, the tax-burden argument is undoubtedly exaggerated. Not only do immigrants pay taxes, but they are in no position to take advantage of many welfare programs. Illegals have to fear being caught and sent back to their countries of origin, while legal immigrants face residency requirements, at least in many places. The conservative fear that immigrants come for the welfare is offset by the liberal fear that they come for the jobs.
Intervention begets intervention, Ludwig von Mises taught. When governments can’t control their budgets, they try to control people. Those of us who want to dismantle the welfare state should hardly be striving to save it from the stresses it invites. On the contrary, we should point to those problems as evidence of its long-term unsustainability.
Problems without Immigrants
As we address these alleged immigration problems, the alert reader will notice something important: they would exist even if all immigration were halted. A population shift within the country could have the same effects as immigration on government schools, hospitals, welfare programs, and even employment as immigration has. As Paul Poirot and Oscar Cooley wrote in the 1951 FEE pamphlet “The Freedom to Move,”
If it is sound to erect a barrier along our national boundary lines, against those who see greater opportunities here than in their native lands, why should we not erect similar barriers between states and localities within our nation? Why should a low-paid worker — obviously ignorant, and probably a Socialist — be allowed to migrate from a failing buggy shop in Massachusetts to the expanding automobile shops of Detroit? According to the common attitude toward immigrants, he would compete with native Detroiters for food and clothing and housing. He might be willing to work for less than the prevailing wage rate in Detroit, upsetting the labor market there. His wife and children might contaminate the local sewing circles and playgrounds with foreign ways and ideas. Anyhow, he was a native of Massachusetts, and therefore that state should bear the full responsibility for his welfare.
Indeed, this point applies to other concerns about immigrants, such as the threat of terrorism and communicable diseases. Timothy McVeigh traveled from Kansas to Oklahoma before bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo crossed many state lines before going on their Virginia and Maryland shooting spree in 2002. Did anyone recommend internal passports, immigration controls, and beefed-up state-border security to prevent such incidents? No. Those proposals would have been met with ridicule and outrage. We expect normal law enforcement to deter malefactors without a wholesale violation of civil liberties. Similarly, no one calls for medical exams for people who travel interstate.
The territory of the United States is much larger than most countries, and its culture is far from homogeneous. If free movement between the states presents no unmanageable problems, why should transnational immigration do so? Different states have different levels of welfare benefits. This should pose two kinds of problems for immigration opponents. First, people who grow up in high-benefit states may develop an entitlement mentality and later wish to move to a low-benefit state. Should the residents keep them out on grounds that the newcomers will change the political culture and vote to increase benefits? On the other hand, should the people in high-benefit states build walls to keep out immigrants from low-benefit states who want to enjoy more-generous welfare systems?
Neither solution is heard because people don’t worry about these problems. This indicates there is something arbitrary or, worse, invidious about immigration fears. If immigrants can’t do any harm that free-moving Americans can’t also do, then why the special attention to immigrants?
Concerns about the absorption of immigrations are equally fanciful. America has faced relatively larger immigrant inflows before. Donald Boudreaux wrote in The Freeman:
Since 1820 the years that witnessed the greatest influx of immigrants as a proportion of America’s population were the early and mid-1850s, when annual immigration was about 1.6 percent of the resident population. This figure was approached again in the 1880s and during the first decade of the twentieth century. Today, annual immigration is about 0.25 percent of the resident population — less than one-sixth its level during the first half of the 1850s, and about one-sixth its level during much of the 1880s and the first decade of the twentieth century. (Some people argue that illegal immigrants are undercounted today. Taking the largest estimate I’ve seen of uncounted illegal immigrants, total annual immigrants as a proportion of the U.S. population today would be 1.25 percent of the resident population. While likely overblown, accepting this figure as accurate means that, as a percent of the resident population, immigration today remains well below that of any of the peak years of the past.)
As Boudreaux points out, a head-to-head comparison of these immigrant inflows ignores America’s higher standard of living now.
Americans today enjoy record levels of residential living space. For example, in 1915, the typical dwelling in America housed 5.63 people; today it houses fewer than half of that number — 2.37 people. Combined with the fact that the square-footage of today’s typical dwelling is, on the most conservative estimate, 20 percent greater than it was a century ago, our ability to absorb immigrants into our residential living spaces is today more than twice what it was during the era of open borders.
What about land? Contrary to a widely mistaken belief, the amount of land devoted to urban and suburban uses is a tiny percentage of America’s land (even excluding largely unsettled Alaska). While such land use has grown significantly during the past century, today it is at most about 3 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states. (The 3 percent figure is an overestimate because, since about 1960, cities have increasingly incorporated lands that remain largely rural in character but that are classified as urban.)
America, then, is certainly in a stronger position to accommodate a proportionally smaller influx of newcomers than it was earlier in its history.
Things to Do
But this does not mean there is nothing to be done in the policy realm. Much should be done, but what I have in mind ought to be done under any circumstances. Any mixed corporatist economy has myriad government barriers against competition, and the U.S. system is no exception. Immigrants are famous for starting businesses and succeeding, sometimes spectacularly. Still, impediments do exist in the form of onerous and complicated taxes, regulations, licensing, and more. Anyone who loses sleep over immigrants in American society should work to abolish these impediments. The benefits to everyone are too obvious to need enumeration.
A policy of free immigration would by definition end illegal immigration. Amnesty — which is actually a misnomer since current illegals have merely exercised their rights — should be adopted forthwith. As a result, the greatest source of exploitation in America would end. People who pay exorbitant fees — risking abuse and death — to be smuggled into the country would be free to take the bus instead. People afraid to protest cruel working conditions or to walk away from low-paying jobs would no longer have to fear the immigration authorities. They would be out in the open labor market, their bargaining power bolstered by the potential alternative of self-employment.
How would immigrants manage without a government safety net? Here there are grounds for optimism extending beyond the immigration issue. New immigrants are the best bet to revive an old American tradition: the mutual-aid organization. Also known as lodges and friendly societies, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these organizations enabled low-income people, including immigrants, to obtain various kinds of insurance and even medical care privately. Native-born Americans may regard lodges as a relic of a passeacute; culture, but newcomers may see them as something novel and American. Some groups, such as the Koreans, already do something similar within the family. It’s a short step to extended mutual aid. If immigrants take up the practice, maybe it will catch on among native-born Americans.
What about cultural assimilation? The best prescription, again, is laissez faire. The fears voiced about today’s immigrants’ alleged unwillingness to become part of American life were also voiced about every past group of immigrants. But more fundamentally, why the demand for assimilation in the first place? Last time I looked, natural rights applied to non-English speakers with foreign traditions, too. Culture is a spontaneous order — it can’t be engineered — and the melting-pot idea was always exaggerated. As long as people live in peace, what’s the problem?