Friedman on immigration and the welfare state

Milton Friedman said that you can have open borders or you can have the welfare state, but you cannot have both. Here’s a video where he says this:

See also an email from Milton Friedman to Henryk A. Kowalczyk with similar arguments. Friedman writes:

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.

Friedman’s comments have been cited by many restrictionists who want to argue against immigration based on the welfare objection. However, advocates of open borders have noted, first, that Friedman was for illegal immigration, and second, that he missed some angles.

  • Milton Friedman Opposed a Pareto Improvement by Bryan Caplan, where he critiques Friedman for not having thought of keyhole solutions to the problems he identified.
  • What Milton Friedman really said about immigration on the Classically Liberal blog. This 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.

  • Milton Friedman’s Argument for Illegal Immigration by Will Wilkinson on his personal blog.
  • A Note on My Anti-Anti-Immigration Argument, a blog post by Donald Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, where he 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.
  • What Would Milton Friedman Say? by Stephen Moore discusses how Friedman’s belief that the welfare state and immigration were incompatible did not mean he opposed immigration.
  • See also: contraction of welfare state, a discussion of concerns that immigration would undermine the welfare state.

The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP — Bryan Caplan

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