Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Sarah BrodskyAnti-Immigration “Libertarians”
Posted at 11:20 am on April 11, 2010, by Sarah Brodsky

I’m disappointed whenever political candidates who call themselves libertarians turn out to oppose open immigration. Some of these candidates are satisfied with the current immigration system and don’t plan to reform it; others decry “illegal aliens” and vow to restrict immigration even further.

Libertarians need to get immigration right. People matter more to the economy than any inanimate goods, which don’t have brains and can’t invent things or solve problems. So the unfettered movement of people is more important than the free exchange of material goods. But for some reason, many so-called libertarians who support the latter won’t make the former a priority.

This is especially puzzling given the humanitarian case for open immigration. A shipment of electronics doesn’t care where the government allows it to go. But immigration restrictions can mean, for people, the difference between being destitute or having a happy life.

I’m suspicious of anyone who supports free exchange for material commodities but won’t extend the same courtesy to his fellow human beings. And it makes me question such candidates’ libertarian credentials on other issues, too. Are they really trying to apply free-market principles across the board? Or are they making decisions based on their inclinations and prejudices, and adopting the label “libertarian” only when it suits them?

Filed under: Immigration
Comments: 11 Comments


  1. I agree. I don’t understand how anyone who favors free trade can oppose open immigration. When Mexicans build widgets and ship them to America that’s fine, but when they move across the border and build widgets in Texas, that’s intolerable? I can’t make sense of that.

    Comment by Eric Hanneken — 2010-04-11 @ 1:11 pm

  2. Sarah,

    Free immigration cannot be a serious libertarian objective until after the dismantling of the welfare state.

    Comment by Jonathan Finegold Catalán — 2010-04-11 @ 1:38 pm

  3. Why not, Jonathan? If you’re worried that immigrants will be a burden to taxpayers, the obvious solution is to make immigrants ineligible for welfare, not to keep them out. Immigrants get a higher standard of living, taxpayers are not soaked. Everybody wins. Problem solved.

    Comment by Eric Hanneken — 2010-04-11 @ 2:20 pm

  4. That fix, Eric, is a good one, and one that has been implemented in part, already. It could be put in place, in toto, at any time. But almost impossible to do would be to make immigrants pay for their children. At present our biggest welfare state function is our unproductive, counter-productive public school system. And there is no way, in the near future, any state of the union would make the children of immigrants pay for their kids full costs in education. Schools, now, are being sorely strapped to educate the children of immigrants, the money is basically a vast wealth transfer from taxpaying Americans to poor non-taxpaying immigrants, and — because it is a government-run enterprise — tends to further scuttle actual education in the schools. Teaching foreign language kids is not easy. Further, the schools corral kids, allowing them to form into gangs. These children of immigrants are a very large part of the criminal class of places such as Arizona.

    I am at a loss to know what to do about these kids. Does anyone else here have the answers?

    It’s easy for me, living in a basically all-white community, to advocate open immigration. The only Mexicans that get this far into rural America are the productive ones. But I hear things are much worse closer to the border.

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-04-11 @ 5:54 pm

  5. While none of us like welfare programs, to the extent that they exist, why should they be doled out based on nothing more than an accident of birth?

    Lack of sustainability should be a given as a reason to cancel these programs entirely, not dole out benefits to some but not others or make immigration to the United States illegal.

    Comment by Lee Sharpe — 2010-04-11 @ 9:05 pm

  6. Wirkman, I concede your point. A purely open immigration policy, with no other changes to the ways that real-life Americans vote and govern, would create marginal costs.

    But let’s say we take all of the objections to open immigration seriously, and compromise away from it. Immigrants must be 18 or older. They have to pass an English proficiency test. They can’t vote. They have to pay a tax to compensate native-born American high school dropouts for lower wages. Etc. Even then we are still left with a far more liberal and humane immigration policy than the current one.

    And yet there are libertarians who oppose any fundamental changes to today’s immigration laws, at least while the welfare state exists. That’s difficult to understand. If they’re uninterested in realpolitik, they should just say, “Well, abolish the welfare state too!” If they are interested, then they should be willing to compromise toward the libertarian ideal.

    Comment by Eric Hanneken — 2010-04-12 @ 8:12 am

  7. Just make immigrants ineligible for welfare? Or, make everyone eligible for welfare but cancel the programs when they are no longer sustainable? If immigrants get to vote, the first will never happen. The second would happen only after the economy has collapsed.

    Milton Friedman said it best: “It’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”

    Comment by Jeffrey Ellis — 2010-04-12 @ 8:14 am

  8. Libertarians would be a more formidable political force if they weren’t so divided on policies like illegal immigration.

    Comment by Christine Harbin — 2010-04-12 @ 8:17 am

  9. I see immigration as just one of many issues that libertarians have trouble with. No surprise that we should have troubles, it is not obvious how to solve more than one problem at a time, and many problematic systems are package deals, or serve as such.

    It’s rather like the problem with deregulation and subsidy. Libertarians say they are for deregulation, and would support it in all circumstances. But do we support new deregulation if subsidies for failure remain in effect? That is what happened with the S&L industry in the 1980s. The industry — already harmed by ’70s inflation — was deregulated, but subsidies for accounts remained, and the industry went wild with speculation. “Moral hazard”; then risky activity; then bailout. And a bust followed, along with bailouts.

    Open immigration is like deregulation. Great, other things equal. But if subsidies for individual remain in place, then similar negative effects to other moral-hazard afflicted issues will occur.

    The reason for a political impasse is clear. Freedom, opening up a system — people can be talked into that. But subsidy, getting stuff “for free” — people REALLY like that. Because of the nature of what I call the beneficiary focus illusion, people tend to forget about the costs of subsidy. The exception is in true in-group/out-group tensions. Ordinary people understand that they bear the costs of generalized subsidies, and letting open the gates of people into a welfare state will ruin their schemes, which are designed for their tribe.

    It is not obvious to me that libertarians would have more success if they had more unity. The Rs and Ds aren’t unified. Why must we be?

    But our biggest hurdle are the “package deal” deals, where we must fight on several fronts simultaneously. Not easy. Might as well start two land wars in Asia.

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-04-13 @ 8:58 am

  10. The thought that immigrants wiill just be ok not having entitlements while americans get/them is laughable, real issue is the unsustainability of entitlements in general

    Comment by chase — 2010-04-14 @ 12:14 pm

  11. See also recent debate on The Libertarian Standard:

    Comment by Wirkman Virkkala — 2010-04-16 @ 7:41 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






Recent Entries