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
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:
- 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.
- 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.)