Friedman on immigration and the welfare state

Nobel Prize-winning economist and liberty advocate Milton Friedman is often cited in support of the claim that open borders is incompatible with the modern welfare state. On this page, we explore what Friedman actually said and open borders advocates’ responses to his statements.

What Friedman said

Taking a closer look: what did Friedman actually say?

Friedman’s comments have been cited by many restrictionists who want to argue against immigration based on the welfare objection. But his actual words paint a more nuanced picture.

  • In an email to Henryk A. Kowalczyk, Friedman wrote:

    Immigration is a particularly difficult subject. There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite. Your proposal that someone only be able to come for employment is a good one but it would not solve the problem completely. The real hitch is in denying social benefits to the immigrants who are here. That is very hard to do, much harder than you would think as we have found out in California. But nonetheless, we clearly want to move in the direction that you are talking about so this is a question of nitpicking, not of serious objection.

  • What Milton Friedman really said about immigration on the Classically Liberal blog has a detailed discussion of Friedman’s remarks with full context. It points out that Friedman was opposed to the welfare state, not to open borders, and he did not make the argument that immigration should not be expanded. Rather, he was simply saying that completely open borders are incompatible with the welfare state. Further, Friedman clearly stated that:

    Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

    The author of the blog post goes on to note that:

    There is no question that Milton Friedman said that in the welfare society “illegal immigration” is precisely the kind of the immigration that the country needs. The xenophobes have turned his views inside-out. They will pay lip-service to legal immigration and damn illegal immigration. The fake libertarians, social conservatives, and racists try to make it sound as if Friedman was against illegal Mexican migrants. In reality he said that such immigration is “a good thing” for everybody concerned. And his reasoning is that this is the closest thing to pre-1914 immigration possible in today’s welfare state. Friedman says this is the paradox of government intervention that turns an illegal act into a beneficial one, while legal immigration is a potential problem. Notice that the groups that quote Friedman never quote his saying that illegal Mexican immigration is good.

  • A similar point is made in Milton Friedman’s Argument for Illegal Immigration by Will Wilkinson on his personal blog.
  • In a blog post titled A Note on My Anti-Anti-Immigration Argument, Donald Boudreaux notes that in private correspondence shortly before his death, Friedman claimed that he would advocate that the US return to open borders if the welfare state were dismantled.

Responses from open borders advocates

Open borders advocates have been generally critical of Friedman for not devoting enough attention to keyhole solutions and other halfway measures that could significantly liberalize migration while addressing concerns about incompatibility with the welfare state.

See also

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