04 May 2010

Friedman's Immigration Argument

Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | Milton Friedman, the Welfare State, and Immigration

Many of you have written to me to express the same thought – to wit: Even Milton FriedmanMilton Friedman! – said that the U.S. can’t return to the more-open immigration regime that we had until the 1920s as long as we have a welfare state.

Friedman did indeed take this position.

I just submitted my next column to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; it addresses this very issue. When it is published, I’ll link to it here at the Cafe. You will then be able to read, if you’re interested, (some of) my objections to Friedman’s surprisingly poorly thought-out position on this issue.
I'm looking forward to hearing what Boudreaux has to say.

I used to find Friedman's arguement quite convincing, but in recent years I have soured on it for a number of reasons.

(1) Empirically, it seems most illegal immigrants are net contributors to the economy. Legalizing their status and taxing them would be a further gain compared to leaving them in the black market.

(2) I'm quite amenable to plans to sell work permits, preferably through higher tax rates on foreign workers in residence for a set number of years. This would have the added benefit of attracting more highly skilled workers in addition to defraying the cost (if indeed there is a positive one) of opening borders.

(3) I have become increasingly convinced that the Right of Exit from a regime is fundamental.  Exiting is rather meaningless unless there is somewhere to exit to, and since there is no terra nullius right now it behooves anyone who would want to be able to exit to grant others the complementary ability to enter.

(4) Most importantly, if there are two policies which can not co-exist from a utilitarian standpoint, and one of those policies is unambiguously moral (open borders) while the other is of debatable morality (welfare) there is no justification for perpetuating the ambiguously moral policy just because it is politically more practical.

PS A word about #4.  I say the morality of welfare is debatable because it necessarily involves taking from some people.  Maybe that's worth it, maybe the net effect is positive, maybe the people you take from don't need or deserve what you've taken, whatever.  There's still coercion and violence going on no matter how worthwhile it is or how noble of an intention it may serve.  Open immigration, on the other hand, is a lack of coercion.  If some guy with an apartment in Texas wants to rent it to a guy from Honduras, or some guy has a shrub in Phoenix and wants to hire a guy from El Salvador to trim it, I have no basis to prohibit them from doing that.

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