Milton Friedman and open borders

I’ve not posted recently because I am on vacation till the end of this week. However, while on my hiatus, I managed to finish Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. It’s an interesting book from an open borders perspective, since although the Friedmans explicitly cite barriers to immigration as an arbitrary and unjust infringement of liberty, virtually all the book is devoted to other infringements of economic rights which an open borders advocate would likely consider milder, if they considered them infringements at all (since, after all, not every open borders advocate is as much an economic libertarian as the Friedmans were).

The only time immigration really appears as anything other than a brief throwaway topic is in Chapter 5: Created Equal, specifically under the subchapter Equality of Opportunity. The Friedmans say:

Literal equality of opportunity — in the sense of “identity” — is impossible. One child is born blind, another with sight. One child has parents deeply concerned about his welfare who provide a background of culture and understanding; another has dissolute, improvident parents. One child is born in the United States, another in India, or China, or Russia. They clearly do not have identical opportunities open to them at birth, and there is no way that their opportunities can be made identical.

Like personal equality, equality of opportunity is not to be interpreted literally. Its real meaning is perhaps best expressed by the French expression dating from the French Revolution: Une carrière ouverte aux les talents — a career open to the talents. No arbitrary obstacles should prevent people from achieving those positions for which their talents fit them and which their values lead them to seek. Not birth, nationality, color, religion, sex, nor any other irrelevant characteristic should determine the opportunities that are open to a person — only his abilities.

In respect of government measures, one major deviation from free markets was in foreign trade, where Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures had enshrined tariff protection for domestic industries as part of the American way. Tariff protection was inconsistent with thoroughgoing equality of opportunity and, indeed, with the free immigration of persons, which was the rule until World War I, except only for Orientals. Yet it could be rationalized both by the needs of national defense and on the very different ground that equality stops at the water’s edge — an illogical rationalization that is adopted also by most of today’s proponents of a very different concept of equality: equality of outcome.

You have literally just finished reading virtually all that Milton and Rose Friedman had to say about the freedom of movement and migration in Free to Choose. It’s obvious that in their framework, immigration restrictions are reprehensible, arbitrary, and inconsistent with both libertarianism and egalitarianism. It would be interesting to compare the Friedmans’ framework of equality of opportunity with similar approaches, such as Amartya Sen’s approach of maximising human capabilities. However, it is still odd why the Friedmans would virtually disregard immigration altogether, except for citing it as a brief example of restrictions on trade. If we value human life more than goods or services, immigration restrictions cannot be treated simply as another version of steel tariffs or automobile quotas.

My hypothesis is the Friedmans did not think immigration or labour mobility unimportant; rather they felt it impractical to pursue the extension of these rights, when there remained other battles to fight — battles more easily won. After all, if you can’t persuade Americans to end trade restrictions or end wage and price controls, in spite of all the evidence that this would actually benefit them, you’re not going to be able to persuade them to end immigration restrictions, where the benefits to natives are even less salient. Monetary policy also strikes me as another issue which a 1970s libertarian (Free to Choose was published in 1979) might justifiably argue superseded immigration in importance, and the Friedmans devote much of their book to this.

Going beyond Free to Choose, it’s also apparent that Milton Friedman believed open borders to be incompatible with the modern welfare state. Obviously he did not consider keyhole solutions or other policy reforms that would be concomitant with any opening of the borders, an odd oversight for a man who was so willing to push the envelope in other areas.

One possible reason for this reticence appears in Chapter 10: The Tide is Turning. Here, the Friedmans argue:

…those of us who want to halt and reverse the recent trend [towards expansion of government] should oppose additional specific measures to expand further the power and scope of government, urge repeal and reform of existing measures, and try to elect legislators and executives who share that view. But that is not an effective way to reverse the growth of government. It is doomed to failure. Each of us would defend our own special privileges and try to limit government at someone else’s expense. We would be fighting a many-headed hydra that would grow new heads faster than we could cut old ones off.

Our founding fathers have shown us a more promising way to proceed: by package deals, as it were. We should adopt self-denying ordinances that limit the objectives we try to pursue through political channels. We should not consider each case on its merits, but lay down broad rules limiting what government may do.

The merit of this approach is well illustrated by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Many specific restrictions on freedom of speech would be approved by a substantial majority of both legislators and voters. A majority would very likely favor preventing Nazis, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Ku Klux Klan, vegetarians, or almost any other little group you might name from speaking on a street corner.

The wisdom of the First Amendment is that it treats these cases as a bundle. It adopts the general principle that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”; no consideration of each case on its merits.

In short, the Friedmans might be skeptical of some keyhole solutions in part because they don’t see this as a sustainable policy in the long run. I think this objection applies particularly well to some keyhole solutions that might be floated from time to time: banning or severely restricting immigration from developing countries, severely limiting immigration or citizenship based on educational attainment, etc. More generalist keyhole solutions, such as a more carefully thought-out visa system that recognises diverse reasons for crossing borders (as opposed to treating all immigrants as either permanent settlers or temporary tourists/students/guest workers), or immigration tariffs, don’t seem quite as susceptible to this objection to me.

The Friedmans go on to propose an “economic bill of rights” that would circumscribe the US government’s ability to regulate the economy. Their proposed language for an amendment pertaining to international trade: “Congress shall not lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing its inspection laws.” This dovetails quite well with my personal ideal for open borders, given political constraints: government should not restrict movement across borders, except insofar as this is administratively necessary (e.g. to prevent an invasion, influx of criminals, influx of contagious disease vectors, etc. — all reasonable policy objectives).

The paucity of attention to immigration from the Friedmans remains puzzling to me, and I think points to just how radical the concept of open borders appears to many people. Even if you explicitly recognise the injustice of arbitrary immigration restrictions, as the Friedmans clearly do, it’s easier to ignore it than to say something about it, because it sucks you down a rabbithole of having to explain why you aren’t a crazy person (though that’s probably something the Friedmans already faced a lot, especially when justifying proposals such as the abolition of welfare or publicly-funded education).

To me, there’s nothing more crazy about open borders than there is about, say, free trade. Advocating free trade does not mean one would allow Mexican drug lords to cart in M16s or Taliban warlords to airdrop AK-47s over the US border. It does not mean one would gladly allow illegal goods such as narcotics or permit the illegal funneling of money, such as via money laundering, out of blind devotion to principle. What open borders advocates (or at least I) want is people who seek a better life, in good faith, to be able to do so as far as it is administratively possible to permit this. The Friedmans would have agreed.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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6 thoughts on “Milton Friedman and open borders”

    1. Old Whig, John has heard of this, and even discussed it briefly in this para in his blog post:

      Going beyond Free to Choose, it’s also apparent that Milton Friedman believed open borders to be incompatible with the modern welfare state. Obviously he did not consider keyhole solutions or other policy reforms that would be concomitant with any opening of the borders, an odd oversight for a man who was so willing to push the envelope in other areas.

      If you follow the first link, you’ll see the videos embedded on the page and a discussion of various responses to Friedman.

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