That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
June 29, 2016

Libertarianism and immigration

“No problem!” is not an answer


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The charge is often made that libertarians care only for economics. There is only a little truth to that charge, and what truth there is, is related to the history of the last 80 years.

There are also those libertarians who care very much for moral theory, and they base their political ideas on moral principles.

So when libertarians write about immigration, their arguments will almost certainly be couched entirely in the terms of economics or ethics. The best approaches will draw on both disciplines. The result is that libertarians will typically cast their arguments in terms of the rights of individuals to freely move about, to work, and to travel; following those arguments they will assure us that immigration is good for the economy, and they will even perhaps supply a number of historical reasons for believing that.

With all that going for them, however, libertarians' arguments about immigration somehow seem to miss the mark, seem never to quite address the concerns of the people whom they should be trying to convince. So why do their arguments seem to fall so flat?

I wish to offer a number of considerations that libertarians almost never include in their arguments. None of these considerations implies that the ethical or economic arguments are mistaken. None of them implies that the state should be involved in the limiting of immigration into the United States. But each of them suggests that there is more to the fact of modern immigration than what ethics and economics cover.

(1) I shall begin with an economic observation, my last remark notwithstanding, to wit: immigration lowers wages in the short run. One does not need to look at labor statistics to see that this must be so. A simple grasp of the law of supply and demand shows at once that it must be so. Increase the labor supply, and, other things being equal, the price for labor will decline.

It may well be that over the long run, the increased amount of labor will allow industries to expand. Immigrants themselves will open new businesses, perhaps even invent new products. That, indeed, is the nub of the free-market argument for immigration. But an important part of the actions of the free market is the existence of time.

We may look at automation for a parallel. Automate a particular job, and you put people out of work. That is more or less the point of automation. Eventually those people will find other employment. Some of them will find better employment or start new businesses. Some will become employed at less-skilled or lower-paying jobs. But however grand the economic development created by the automation of any given skill, some people will be hurt by it. We can say that they will be hurt only in the short run, but the short run can be very long and it can be very painful.

My point, then, is that if you are going to argue for open borders and free immigration, acknowledge explicitly that some in the economy will be harmed. And it is a difficult task indeed to argue that those who will be harmed should greet the free movement of the immigrant with joyful voices and cheerful faces.

(2) Open borders and free immigration bring disease. Massive immigration such as we are said to be experiencing brings a lot of disease. The diseases in question are frequently diseases that the host country had been fortunate enough to eliminate or minimize, but that good fortune carries with it the misfortune of a population that are not immunized against incoming diseases.

It is a simple fact that tuberculosis and other diseases that used to be rare in this country are enjoying a comeback.

And to be sure: a free market in medical care would go a long way to addressing the problem of incoming disease.

But again, there's time. And the healthy host country is going to experience some losses to the incoming diseases while the solutions are developed and made available.

The diseases I speak of do not even need to be lethal to pose a nuisance. Children from Third World countries who bring lice in their hair to the host country's children are just one of the reasons that a prosperous middle-class family might not be happy to see shabby, poorly washed children enter their neighborhoods and become their children's playmates.

Moreover, the diseases do not have be the kind that one carries in one's body. The fact that people in other countries bring with them their own ideas of hygiene is sufficient to cause problems. To be sure, an American agricultural magnate can try to teach his barely-English-speaking workers to work with clean hands and not to wipe their behind with a bare hand before returning to picking the lettuce. And to be sure, restaurateurs can put up hand-made signs in their restrooms admonishing their employees to wash their hands before returning to work. But there was a time in the not-too-distant past that such measures were not necessary. And just how effective these little lessons are must be questioned, especially every time we hear of a new outbreak of E. coli in some product formerly thought safe. Even low-paid American workers came from a culture that valued and took for granted certain standards of hygiene.

It is foolish for libertarians who wish to make the case for immigration to pretend that such problems do not exist. I have more than once thought that if some libertarian ever wrote the definitive treatment of how a free society could address the problem of plague, he would become an overnight sensation. [*] Is it too much to ask that libertarians writing about immigration start to take notice of the problems posed by disease and its connection to immigrants?

(3) Open borders and free immigration bring crime. Throughout Europe, that is clearly seen. And the crime we are hearing most about these days is rape.

I suppose statistics can be supplied to show that only a minority of immigrants are responsible. But once a man's daughter has been raped, how persuasive will those statistics look to him?

Yes, yes, we know: the governments of Western Europe are failing in their responsibility to protect people. And no doubt free-market limited governments and free-market defense agencies would never let matters come to such a pass.

Libertarians can offer all sorts of answers to this problem. But my point is that when they write about immigration, they write as though the problem does not exist. Anyone with eyes and a brain can see that it does. So if libertarians are going to tell everyone how grand immigration is, and if they're going to say that people who want to limit immigration are just falling into the errors of the planned economy, they have got to say something useful about the crime that immigrants are bringing with them all over the world.

(4) Open immigration on a large scale will alter the culture. Perhaps not throughout the country, but here and there. It is no argument to say that one prefers tacos to hero sandwiches anyway. Or that gay, cheerful Hispanic light-heartedness is preferable to staid, gray-suited New Yorkerism anyway.

To think that a major religion can establish a presence in a country where it was before almost unknown, and that the country will be unchanged, is simply absurd. It can be argued that Muslims will be hard-working and will assimilate just like everyone else, but their assimilation will not be just like everyone else's. German Lutheranism and English Puritanism can coexist with Methodism and even Italianate Catholicism more or less satisfactorily. But that is at least in part because they are to some extent expressions of the same religion and were part of the same historical struggles of an earlier age.

Islam is different.

It is not to some extent an expression of Christianity. It is not to some extent an expression of Judaism. It is as surely different as Hinduism or Shintoism is. So far, the influx of Indians and Japanese has not seen a corresponding building of temples to Kali or ancestor worship, indicating that perhaps Indians and Japanese are a little more easy-going about their religions. But mosques? They are another matter.

Islam — except perhaps in the Central Asian countries, where the old Bolsheviks still keep a strong hand on the tiller of their ship of state — is not an easy-going religion.

And why should it be?

I am not arguing here that Islam is somehow an evil religion, or that Muslims should be barred from entering the United States.

I am not even arguing that Mexicans should somehow be barred from entering the United States.

What I am arguing is that sufficient numbers of Mexicans will change the society into which they move. And that sufficient numbers of Muslims will change the society into which they move. Just ask any Aztec what an influx of Spaniards did to his country. Ask any Iroquois what an influx of English did to his country.

Is that really so difficult to understand?

Now, again, if libertarians want to argue that that is not important, let them. But when they argue in favor of open immigration, they should understand that a number of their readers may be more than a little concerned about this matter, and they should address it.

(5) The political climate will change. What I have in mind here is not just that Third World immigrants will participate in the political process in a way that favors the welfare state (though they probably will). I think that those libertarians make a valid point who say that the welfare state itself is the problem and should be addressed, and who say that the native population is every bit as responsible for the depredations of the welfare state as any immigrant who arrives intent on getting a sizable chunk of change from the state.

What they seldom address, however, is that most immigrants — and here, alas, I think we must include modern Europeans — bring with them no understanding of the nature and requirements of liberty whatever.

It is bad enough that there are Muslims who want to see laws enacted making an insult to the Prophet Mohammed (blessings upon him) a punishable offense. But is that so much worse than the European who thinks that hate-speech laws should be enlarged to include insults to "lesser breeds without the law"? Or that crucifixes should be removed from the vicinity of Auschwitz? Or that people who sport Redskin jerseys should be told to go home and change into something more seemly?

As is true of the welfare state — that the natives are more to blame for it than any immigrants — it is probably true that Americans are more to blame for the many encroachments on traditional freedoms than immigrants are.

Again, my point is simply that libertarians should not ignore the fact that a large influx of Somalis or Iraqis or subcontinental Indians does not imply an enlargement of the pool from which they will find Libertarian Party voters. Most immigrants coming here lack even the visceral feeling that many Americans — even if they cannot articulate it — experience when they see someone being roughed up by a policeman or see a bookstand being smashed.

(6) We have been making a mistake, however, in treating the massive immigration the United States is experiencing as though it has anything to do with immigration as it is treated in the economic textbooks.

In the first place, a large percentage of it is not immigration at all. It is massive refugee resettlement. The Somalis in Minnesota (22 percent of whom test positive for tuberculosis) were not poor, struggling masses huddled together on a ship crossing the Atlantic, risking everything to seek a better life. They were airlifted as part of a government program — a government program in which any number of so-called NGOs and charity groups have colluded.

Libertarians like to point out that immigration restrictions are merely a kind of application to labor of the "fatal conceit" of government's knowing how to run an economy, of knowing what the "right" number of Eyeties, Krauts, and Dagos is to let into the country. Well, refugee resettlement programs are equally expressions of the fatal conceit. Government presumes to know not only how many Somalis should be brought into the country but in what community they should be inserted.

Pro-immigrationists — when answering objections about immigrants and welfare — normally say that we should oppose the welfare state, not immigration. And I can imagine that here they might say that we should be opposing the resettlement programs, not the immigration. But the "immigration" just is the resettlement program. The presence of resettled refugees in a community is not the result of people's exercising their right to move freely about the planet. To object to resettlement is not to object to the exercise of a human right. Simply stated, refugees — no matter how unfortunate — do not have a right to be inserted into a community.

And, for that matter, even what would normally pass for immigration is not true immigration. When Mexicans (freely) cross in the United States, they are immediately endowed with certain privileges, to wit, the privilege against discrimination.

Would there be so many immigrants (genuine immigrants, now, not the resettled refugees) in this country if they were not welcome? If white people had the right to refuse to hire them, to refuse to sell to them, to refuse to rent to them, what would immigration in this country look like?

Libertarians might say that discrimination should not be illegal, but it should not be practiced. But in the first place, there are few libertarians who would be prepared to demonstrate why it should not be practiced, why there was something intrinsically wrong with it. In the second place, it is not the point.

Discrimination on the basis of race or national origin is as much a free-market phenomenon as walking into a Taco Bell. Or refusing to walk into a Taco Bell.

In other words, as long as discrimination is illegal in this country, there is no such thing as free immigration to be defended. There is only privileged immigration.

This matter is much more serious that it may first appear. Because of the few immigration restrictions that do exist, large numbers of Mexicans and others coming through Mexico cross into the United States at points where they are in fact trespassing. Throughout the Southwest, there are ranches that have been severely damaged because of the way that illegal immigrants treat the land. The trash they leave in their wake — from soda cans to plastic bags to used Kotex pads — is not just litter. There are cases where cattle eat the trash left behind with dangerous consequences to their health. The ranchers themselves must spend hours cleaning up after the "migrants," hours lost in unproductive labor.

And, of course, the ranchers are not permitted to patrol their property armed and force immigrants to turn back. They consider themselves lucky if they can even get some Border Patrol agents or the local sheriff to respond to their calls.

Oh, but that's not the immigrants' fault, is it? After all, if the United States had even humane immigration laws, or no immigration laws, they wouldn't have to cross the property of others. Frankly, I consider this particular response to be a complete betrayal.

In a free society, immigration, if it existed at all, would be restricted by property owners — by businesspeople who could control who traveled on their roads, by employers who might not want to hire immigrants, by landlords who might not want to rent to them. And by a general distaste in certain communities by residents who didn't "want their kind" in their neighborhoods.

Can I be certain that nativism would be a genuine restriction on immigration? that even in the absence of anti-discrimination laws and of refugee-resettlement programs, there would be no immigration problem in the United States? Of course I cannot.

My point is simply to note that so long as such laws exist, there is no such thing as free-market immigration in this country. Refugee resettlement and privileged immigration are more closely related to invasion than they are to genuine immigration. And it is not possible to defend the kind of immigration that writers such as Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises had in mind without taking note of these objections.

So far, most libertarian treatments of immigration simply ignore them. But the people they are trying to convince don't.  Ω

June 29, 2016

Published in 2016 by WTM Enterprises.

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* Perhaps the brilliant Professor Walter Block could do it, if he wasted less time on electoral politics.

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