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ECONOMICS ON THE TRAIL

Freedom for Everyone . . . Except the Immigrant

Forbes's Peter Brimelow Takes an Anti-Immigration Stance

SEPTEMBER 01, 1995 by MARK SKOUSEN

“We cannot continue to admit millions of legal and illegal immigrants if we wish to maintain our standard of living and our national identity.”
—Peter Brimelow, author,
Alien Nation

How often have we heard the refrain, “Well, I’m all for the free market except . . .”? It’s particularly sad to hear it from Peter Brimelow, an otherwise friend of liberty in high places. Peter is a senior editor of Forbes magazine, the most influential business magazine in the nation. He has written eloquently about the bloated federal government and the demise of public education. He even wrote an article in Forbes praising Mr. Libertarian, the late Murray Rothbard.

But now Peter Brimelow has joined those who are calling for a drastic curtailment if not entire elimination of new immigrants entering the United States. Peter demands sanctions and even criminal penalties against U.S. employers who hire undocumented workers. He also supports the establishment of a national identity card, which he says “is hardly more an encroachment on personal freedom than the income tax.”[1] He recommends another crackdown (Operation Wetback) on illegals by the much-hated Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), including the use of police attack dogs. Finally, he endorses building a huge barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, something akin to a Berlin Wall. (How about solving the problem right away by putting up signs along the border, “Trespassers Will Be Shot”?) All these plans, of course, would mean thousands of new federal agents and billions in taxpayer dollars, but no matter. America’s “lax” immigration policy is a “disaster,” Peter says, and something must be done.

Isn’t it amazing how a single issue can lead to so much government intervention?

The Benefits of Immigration

Currently, approximately one million legal immigrants are allowed to enter the U.S. each year (recent legal aliens included, ironically, Peter Brimelow and his wife). Estimates of illegal immigrants run as high as two million a year. Half the world’s immigrants come to America. Is this an alarming trend?

Far from a disaster, a liberal immigration policy can be quite beneficial. A cardinal principle of economic liberty is the free movement of goods, capital, and people. As Mises states, “In a world of perfect mobility of capital, labor, and products there prevails a tendency toward an equalization of the material conditions of all countries.”[2] Without this freedom, some areas are overpopulated, others are underpopulated. Wage rates and interest rates differ dramatically.

A recent article in the New York Times, appropriately published on Independence Day, reflects the dynamics of immigration in the United States: “Dead-End Jobs? Not for These Three. Immigrants Flourish in the McDonald’s System.”[3] It testifies to the energy and talent immigrants can bring to America.

In January, 1993, the European Community of 12 nations adopted free immigration. Any citizen of the EC can live and work in any other EC country without a work permit. The effect will be a transfer of labor from low-wage countries (Spain, Portugal, Greece) to high-wage countries (Germany, France, England). Who will benefit in the long run? All members of the EC.

The Cuban Miracle

One of the best cases in favor of immigration is the Cuban miracle in Miami, Florida. Here was potentially one of those disasters that Peter Brimelow talks about. In the early 1960s some 200,000 penurious immigrants thronged this stagnant urban community, more than the total black unemployed youths in all America’s urban areas at the time. It was the most rapid and overwhelming migration to one American city. Few spoke English and virtually none had jobs or housing. Yet in less than a decade, these Cuban immigrants revived Miami’s stagnant inner city and transformed the entire Miami economy. Even with another 125,000 boat people fleeing to Miami in the early 1980s, Dade County continued to have one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the state of Florida. George Gilder, who has chronicled the Cuban miracle, concludes, “As long as the United States is open to these flows from afar, it is open to its own revival.”[4]

There are many examples in other parts of the world where refugees and immigrants have transformed their new homes. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore come to mind. Foreign tyranny has led to much economic and social progress in exile.

Don’t get me wrong. Immigration is not without its side effects, well-documented in Peter Brimelow’s book. Burdens on local government’s educational, health, and welfare services can be immense. But free people and free markets can adjust surprisingly well if they are allowed to. Certainly, no one should object to any immigrant who is in good health, has a guaranteed job, and refuses to take welfare.

The Best Foreign Policy

Unfortunately, most emigrants leave their homeland not because they want to, but because they have to. If governments were less corrupt and onerous in their economic policies, fewer of their citizens would desire to emigrate. If they adopted free-market reforms (slashing taxes, regulations, inflation, and boondoggles), fewer of their citizens would move to America. Perhaps the greatest foreign assistance America could give to Mexico, China, and other countries whose citizens are moving to America in droves is a copy of Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action or a subscription to The Freeman. Putting up barriers at our borders is a much more expensive and dangerous alternative.

Jefferson said, “All men are created equal.” They shouldn’t be penalized just because they happened to be born in the wrong place. []


1.   Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation (Random House, 1994), p. 260.

2.   Ludwig von Mises, Money, Method and the Market Process (Kluwer, 1990), p. 141.

3.   “Dead End Jobs?” by Barnaby J. Feder, New York Times, July 4, 1995, p. 27.

4.   George Gilder, The Spirit of Enterprise (Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 111. See also Julian L. Simon, The Economic Consequences of Immigration (Basil Blackwell, 1989

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