Tag Archives: welfare objection

Rand Paul on immigration

On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Central Park in Fairfield, Iowa.

 

The short version of our exchange is this: I asked Paul how, since coercion is normally wrong, immigration restrictions are justified. He responded by saying they were necessary to keep the welfare state from exploding in size. I asked him why the government could not exempt immigrants from welfare if that was the case. He seemed open to the idea of unlimited immigration provided the immigrants came to work and not go on welfare, and suggested cutting welfare and opening the borders in the same stroke is not so easy.

 

What you see below is a partial transcript of our interview. I have included just the portion that relates to immigration. The full transcript can be found on my blog here.

 

Andy Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?

 

Rand Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.

 

Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.

 

Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.

 

Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?

 

Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.

 

Public domain (US government work). Source http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rand_Paul,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress_alternate.jpg
Public domain (US government work). Source http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rand_Paul,_official_portrait,_112th_Congress_alternate.jpg

COMMENTARY

 

One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:

Milton Friedman: 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.

 

Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?

 

To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.

 

When we compare the scope of coercion from the two acts, the contest is not close. The welfare state prevents some people from buying things they could have bought if not for the taxes they had to pay, and that is wrong. Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier make a persuasive argument the welfare state even hurts recipients by amplifying the negative effects of their self-control problems.

 

But there are many things the welfare state does not do. It does not dictate where people can and can’t live, where they can work and for how long, and it does not tell people whom they can marry. Immigration restrictions do all of that.

 

While the welfare state’s track record on helping the poor is a matter of debate, there can be little doubt that immigration restrictions condemn millions of people to a life of poverty. To take one of the most extreme examples, the average Haitian experiences a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States. By denying Haitians and others the right to immigrate, we aren’t just refusing to help them out of the poverty trap, we’re kicking away the ladder. My contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.

 

I do not know where Paul got the idea his taxes would rise to 75 or 100 percent under open borders, but that is an unlikely scenario given what we know about the public’s willingness to fund welfare programs. If 600 million people immigrated to the United States, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.

 

I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.

 

The welfare objection to immigration is the easiest for open borders enthusiasts to accommodate since we know it can be done, so while I was disappointed in Paul’s treatment of the issue, I sensed that he could be converted to the open borders position with a little persuasion and perhaps a keyhole solution or two.

Related reading

The links below were added by the Open Borders: The Case editorial staff and not picked by the author.

Other related links on Rand Paul’s views on immigration policy:

Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions

A naive thinker about open borders might think of it as simply a continuum of possibilities: we can open the borders a bit, or a lot. This distinction is discussed on our moderate versus radical open borders page.

The idea of keyhole solutions has added more dimensions (in a very literal mathematical sense, in addition to the more metaphorical one) to the discussion. Rather than thinking simply of “how much more open should borders be?” the question shifts to “what sort of policy combinations can allow for us to get the most benefit out of migration, in the ways we care about?” The term “keyhole solutions” has come to represent the general idea of exploring a larger space of possibilities with respect to how migration can be expanded.

The purist in me isn’t too happy about this, because “keyhole solutions” as I believe the term originated had a more narrow meaning: to refer to narrow, targeted solutions that address the particular (real, perceived, or predicted) problem at the intersection of migration and whatever other domain is being considered, while trying to interfere as little as possible with the rest of the universe. But meaning is imbued by usage, and I’m okay with the meaning expanding and getting more fuzzy. In this post, however, I discuss some important distinctions between different approaches to “compromise” on open borders policy. There are a few additional subtleties that I’ll deliberately refrain from here, thereby meaning that my post is not reflective on my full thinking on the topic. I’m making that trade-off to keep the post simple.

A simple illustration of the distinction between true keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and (selective) blanket restriction

Consider the (abstract) problem that high levels of migration, along with current de facto rules for the rules for eligibility for welfare benefits, could lead to fiscal bankruptcy. Consider three potential “solutions” (note that these don’t even come close to exhausting the space of possible “solutions” — but they help to illustrate the distinction I’m trying to draw here):

  1. Improve the effectiveness with which immigrants (perhaps limited to the additional immigrants under migration liberalization) are walled off from the welfare state (this could involve changing the rules, or enforcing existing rules more effectively, or a combination).
  2. Reduce welfare benefits across the board for the whole population (see also our contraction of welfare state page).
  3. Forbid the migration of people for whom the probability of welfare benefit use, or the extent of such use (in expectation) exceeds a threshold.

In a loose sense, these are all “keyhole solutions” insofar as they attempt to address the (perceived or predicted) problem of migrant welfare benefit use.

However, they are all different in important ways:

  1. The first addresses the perceived problem at the intersection of migration status and welfare eligibility. Prima facie, this targets the problem most narrowly and is most deserving of the “keyhole solution” label. I’ll call this type of solution a true keyhole solution.
  2. The second addresses the problem but focuses on the broader issue of welfare use and welfare eligibility. Rather than focusing on migrants per se, it addresses a potential problem that is made more severe due to migration flow, but it addresses it in a way that does not per se discriminate on the basis of migration status. I’ll call this type of solution a complementary policy change.
  3. The third seeks to preserve the status quo as far as possible with respect to domestic policy, and addresses the potentially dangerous interaction with migration by forbidding the forms of migration perceived as risky. I’ll call this type of solution a blanket restriction. To emphasize that the blanket restrictions don’t apply to everybody, we might call it selective blanket restriction.

However, from another perspective, (2) and (3) are examples of keyhole solutions, insofar as they directly address problems created by migration. Whatever names you choose, I want to claim that there is an important conceptual distinction. Continue reading “Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions” »

Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way — be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services — failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

Vivek Wadhwa, and the moral contradictions of mainstream liberal views on immigration

Last week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Let anyone take a job anywhere”, with Open Borders guest blogger Bryan Caplan and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa speaking for the motion, facing conservative intellectual Ron Unz and migration policy wonk Kathleen Newland in opposition. I’ve already given my take on the debate: Bryan fought the good fight, but Unz and Newland threw up too many blatant inaccuracies and moral contradictions for any single debater to feasibly bat down in the time allotted. I said then that I thought Wadhwa was an ineffective advocate, primarily because he seemed like a moderate open borders supporter who hadn’t thought through things very well. I take that back: Wadhwa was not an effective speaker for the motion, primarily because he is a moderate open borders opponent who hasn’t thought through things very well at all.

I was originally thrown off by Wadhwa’s seeming endorsement of low-skilled migration during the debate: “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.” Sure, Wadhwa endorsed Ron Unz’s proposal for a high minimum wage, even though Unz’s proposal is explicitly intended to bar most immigrants from coming — but paying lip service to the minimum wage is par for the course for any mainstream left liberal. What changed my mind was Wadhwa sending Bryan a harshly-worded missive which accused Bryan of failing the motion because Bryan used “silly analogies”, and failed to demonstrate how the US welfare system would provide for foreigners who come to the US. Wadhwa made it clear: “I do not advocate open borders.”

Bryan republished Wadwha’s missive on EconLog, at his request, and Wadhwa waded into the EconLog comments to defend his views. I give Wadhwa a lot of credit for this. Not many public intellectuals venture into blog comments, let alone get as deeply engaged as he did. However, I found Wadhwa’s elaboration even more disappointing than the seemingly-unwarranted missive he sent Bryan. Wadhwa first stated that he was upset with Bryan because Bryan made the focus of the debate turn on open borders, instead of “jobs”. What exactly Wadhwa intended to debate about “jobs” remains quite unclear to me, but his lack of clarity here explains in hindsight his unfocused opening statement at the debate. In response to his opening statement, Kathleen Newland chided Wadhwa that the motion was “let anyone take a job anywhere”, and not “let anyone take an anywhere job”.

I asked Vivek why exactly he opposes open borders. He’s made it clear that he wants to ban immigrants from coming to the US if they are going to work minimum wage jobs. But what is his alternative then? As I’ve written before, the primary alternative for immigrants and prospective immigrants if they are banned from coming is sweatshop or slave labour, at wages on the order of a few dollars a day, in workplaces where they run the risk of dying daily. If they can find a job here paying $8/hour (the approximate US minimum wage), I say bully for them. The remittances they send home to other poor foreigners already dwarf the foreign aid packages our governments send by 3 to 1. What humanitarian case is there for destroying the global flow of remittances and forcing hundreds of millions to live lives of sweatshop slavery?

When I posed these questions to Wadhwa, he responded:

Why do you assume that the best way of helping poor workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is to bring them here to the US? Trust me, these people don’t want to leave their families and friends, culture, heritage, and homes to be here. They would rather stay where they are and make a living minimum wage.

It’s a neat story. But I have a hard time squaring this with the fact that immigrants routinely pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the developing world, running the risk of death in the desert or on the high seas. If they are so happy at home, why are they doing these things? And why is it more humane for us to interdict them with gunboats, for the sake of banning them from earning the “inhumane” wage of $8/hour? Is that really the most humane thing we can do? What is inhumane about allowing these people to buy their own plane ticket, pay the government a visa fee or surtax, and come here to work for wages higher than they would ever dream of earning at home?

Mind you, it’s our guns and border fences that force Bangladeshis to choose between backbreaking farm work and murderous sweatshop hours. If you’re going to tell me this is more humane than allowing those Bangladeshis to seek minimum wage work outside Bangladesh, you’d better be prepared to defend it. Even if you think allowing these people a choice won’t actually result in much migration, simply the fact that these workers now have an opportunity to exit will force their employers to pay better wages and improve working conditions. Making some handwavy arguments about brain drain won’t cut it, considering the paucity of evidence of any tangible harms to the developing world from “brain drain”. The burden of proof here is high: you’re asserting that it’s basic humanitarian policy to point a loaded gun at an unarmed human being and force him to turn around, because the alternative of allowing him to go on his merry way in search of a better job is simply too inhumane to tolerate.

Wadhwa at this point departed the comments, but closed on a gracious note, with words of praise for Bryan (albeit, words I find hard to square with his missive, which claimed Bryan’s arguments failed to convince a single person). He also acknowledged that they were likely mismatched partners as a result of a misunderstanding about the motion’s wording. The discussion continued, though, with EconLog commenters trying to make sense of Wadhwa’s position.

It seems quite clear to me now that Wadhwa and Kathleen Newland from the debate are actually kindred spirits. Both believe that it’s inappropriate to permit immigrants entry unless the government guarantees them a social safety net of some kind — and that because it is impossible to extend a single country’s social safety net to every single human being, there must be strict border controls of some kind. Both favour relatively liberal immigration policies, but policies still very far from open borders: they essentially want the status quo, with slightly fewer restrictions.

Wadhwa and Newland seem to be adopting a territorialist view of some kind, whereby a government owes greater obligations to people within its territory, citizens or non-citizens, than it does to people outside its territory. This is why both favour legalising the US’s population of undocumented immigrants and why both believe it’s fatal for open borders to point out that a single government’s welfare system cannot guarantee equal benefits to every single person on earth. There seems to be “local inequality aversion” at play: Wadhwa and Newland feel uncomfortable about admitting more poor people to the US (Wadha calls this “importing poverty”) unless the government can guarantee these poor people socioeconomic uplift.

But moderate territorialism is actually quite compatible with open borders, just like moderate citizenism. During the IQ2 debate, Bryan’s retort to “but they’ll burden our welfare system” was to essentially say: “we can ban them from enrolling in welfare”. This is going to strike most people as too harsh. But more than that, it’s also not really necessary for most developed countries.

The extreme territorialist thinking that pervades mainstream discussions of immigration concludes that the moment we admit a foreigner to our territory, we assume strong moral obligations, especially socioeconomic ones, towards that person. One obligation might be, say, to ensure that every person in our territory is guaranteed a job at a good wage — perhaps one much higher than $8/hour. Now, I’m happy to admit that sure, we assume moral obligations of some kind. (Providing non-citizens the equal protection of our labour laws would be a good start!) But I reject the extreme territorialist view that our obligations to all people in our territory, citizen or not, are identical.

Open borders skeptics say it’s inhumane to allow people to starve in our streets. But we don’t need to see starvation in our streets under open borders: we can simply subsidise the return ticket home for poor foreigners who lose their jobs. Let’s say you reject that as too inhumane. But we don’t need to break the bank still; we don’t need to furnish foreigners with all the same guarantees we make to citizens. We can offer them a basic social safety net: access to some form of healthcare, perhaps unemployment insurance, etc. All these can be guaranteed at levels lower than what we guarantee natives, but levels that still prevent people from dying in our streets.

To put this concretely, government can restrict an immigrant’s access to the state’s retirement funds while still giving the immigrant basic healthcare coverage. Something similar is already the case in the US and most developed countries today. Few, if any, countries give foreigners equal access to their state benefits as they do to citizens — but similarly, few totally deny foreigners access to any benefits. Yet when economists look at the most generous welfare states, even Sweden’s, they find no evidence of the supposed looming fiscal disaster that immigration is supposed to cause. It is perfectly possible to say, as a moderate territorialist-cum-citizenist, that you support open borders with a limited welfare state for non-citizens. Feasibility is not an issue; this is the exact course our governments are already charting capably (though one could argue they could cut foreigners’ access to welfare more). Economists agree that with a limited welfare state, immigrants are not a fiscal burden.

This is not a hamhanded attempt to dismiss the implications of open borders for the welfare state. This is the ultimate implication of the moderate citizenist and moderate territorialist views that most people hold. If the state has to choose who to spend its limited resources on, there is a prima facie case for prioritising citizens. Newland breezily dismissed the claim that immigration restrictions are unjust discrimination against foreigners at IQ2 by saying: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favour.”

I completely disagree: if anything, governments are obliged to enforce labour and contract laws equally, without regard for national origin! What I am happy to say is that governments are obliged to discriminate in citizens’ favour when it comes to the social safety net. It seems absurd to me to take the stand Wadhwa and Newland have staked out: that it is just and moral to discriminate against foreigners in labour law, but completely unethical to discriminate against foreigners in the social safety net.

But this absurdity may yet be reconcilable, if you stretch territorialism and citizenism to their extremes. The flipside of territorialism and citizenism is that if someone is not currently in our territory, and not a fellow citizen, then they aren’t our problem. Sure, some bricklayer might be dying of cholera in Haiti right now — but that’s not my problem. I don’t live in Haiti, and he doesn’t live in my country. It’d be my problem if I lived in Haiti and elected the Haitian government — or if he lived in my country, subject to the administration of the government I elect. But otherwise, that Haitian’s poverty isn’t my problem, and he should bugger off.

As a result, the perverse conclusions that Wadhwa and Newland seem to endorse — that it is better to prevent the entry of an immigrant if we can’t afford to give him the same healthcare subsidies as a citizen — can actually make eminent sense. It’s not inhumane to use your guns and tanks to keep a poor person trapped in Haiti. You’re just preventing the Haitian government from “exporting poverty”. You’re preventing them from dumping their problems of poverty and squalor into your government’s lap. It’s not your problem; it’s Haiti’s problem!

But this completely denies the agency of individual migrants. No government forces these people to leave Haiti, or wherever they came from. The Haitian government can barely keep the lights turned on! They certainly don’t have the capacity to subsidise emigration or to brainwash their citizens into leaving, or to force their own people at gunpoint into boats headed for the US. And even if they did, so what? That is exactly what Cuba and Vietnam did to their own people, and the free world welcomed these people with open arms. In fact, that is what the US still does today for Cubans — allowing the Castro regime to dump the people it doesn’t want in the US’s lap.

That you have to jump through so many intellectual hoops to morally justify forcing people at gunpoint to turn away from your shores, on the basis that it’s inappropriate for them to work for the wage of $8/hour, suggests something is wrong with your thinking. These people spend thousands of dollars and risk their own lives in deserts or on the high seas to get those $8/hour jobs. That indicates strongly that what they’re fleeing is even more of a bum deal than minimum wage — perhaps, say, a sweatshop, or worse. How can anyone conclude that it is more humane to force these people at gunpoint to go back to a life — and quite possibly death — toiling away for cents an hour in a sweatshop somewhere, than it is to permit them to come in peace in search of minimum wage $8/hour jobs?

When our taxpayer-hired guns force unarmed civilians seeking work to turn back and go home, we make their poverty our problem as well. When they were suffering in Haiti, or Bangladesh, or wherever they came from, their troubles were of no consequence to us. We did not put them in the plight they faced, nor did we hinder them from uplifting themselves. But when they sought work from an employer willing to pay them a wage multiples of what they might ever hope to earn at home, we put our guns in the way. If we’re going to stop them from solving their own problem, we’d better damn well have a better solution to offer them. Nobody asked us to interfere with their job search; we took it upon ourselves to do this. It’s our duty to figure out what to do with these people now.

Now, Wadhwa and Newland believe quite strongly that a high minimum wage and greater foreign aid (or some other mechanism of “exporting prosperity”, as Wadhwa puts it) is the more humane thing to do. Wadhwa seems to think enforcing a “living minimum wage” in the developing world would slow immigration to a trickle. Supposedly this is the liberal solution to the conundrum of immigration; this is the fulfillment of the developed world’s responsibilities to the developing world citizens whom it has arbitrarily banned from its labour markets.

But are a high minimum wage, high levels of foreign aid, and government-enforced social justice in the developing world realistic options? How would we ever find the money to spend on the vast amounts of foreign aid that would be necessary to “level” the world economically, as Newland put it at the debate? How would the governments of the developing world build the capacity to enforce just labour laws — to say nothing of the capacity needed to enforce a high minimum wage? The answer is clear: Newland herself said at the IQ2 debate that there is no apparent way we can accomplish such “leveling”. So what’s the next least inhumane alternative?

Economist and mainstream liberal Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay justifying the toleration of sweatshops as the least inhumane thing we can do for the world’s poor. I excerpted Krugman for my piece on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops. His logic holds true as ever — but it really applies to immigration, not sweatshops:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. (emphasis added)

I hope Wadhwa and Newland, and all the liberals who share their views, will do their moral duty, and think things through.

The photograph of Vivek Wadhwa used in the header of this post was taken by John P. Harvey and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

CBO Dynamically Scores Immigration Bill

This post was originally published on the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is republished with the permission of the author.

The Congressional Budget Office has fiscally scored the Senate’s immigration bill, S. 744, and found that it will decrease fiscal deficits over the next 20 years—giving a huge boost to reform proponents.  In line with criticisms made by me and others, the CBO departed from orthodoxy and assumed that S. 744 would affect economic growth (i.e., they dynamically scored the bill)—arguing that the economic and fiscal gains from immigration reform are clear.  These findings are broadly consistent with Cato’s findings here.

The CBO produced two scores of S. 744.  The first was less dynamic, assuming that GDP and the workforce would grow as a result of immigration. Increased numbers of workers will add to GDP, producing growth by definition, and not displacing many other workers.  The second score is more dynamic, taking into account many of the economic effects of immigration reform using an enhanced Solow model.

The less-dynamic CBO score found that immigration reform will reduce the federal deficit by about $197 billion by increased GDP and tax revenues through adding six million people to the workforce by 2023.  Over a period of 20 years, the CBO estimated that this legislation would reduce deficits by about $700 billion—a sizeable decrease.  In what seems to be a specific dig at the 50-year span of the recent Heritage study, the CBO wrote that, “we cannot determine whether enactment of S. 744 would lead to an increase in on-budget deficits … in any of the three 10-year periods starting in 2033.”

The more dynamic CBO score found that S. 744 would not affect the budget by 2023.  However, because the dynamic economic effects of S. 744 would affect the economy slowly, the CBO predicts a $300 billion decrease in deficits from 2023-2033 greater that the $700 billion reported in the less-dynamic score.

The more-dynamic CBO model predicts $1.197 trillion in reduced deficits over the next 20 years if immigration reform is passed.

Delving into the details of the CBO’s more-dynamic score, they estimated that S. 744 would increase GDP by 3.3 percent in 2023 and 5.4 percent in 2033, relative to the baseline.  Per capita GNP would lower by .7 percent by 2023 but be higher by .2 percent in 2033.  Wages would be .5 percent higher in 2033 under S. 744.

The more-dynamic score takes into account these effects from S. 744:

  1. Increased size and employment in the economy.
  2. Increased average wages after 2025.
  3. Slightly increased unemployment rate through 2020.
  4. Increased quantity of capital investment.
  5. Increased productivity of labor (due to complementary task specialization).
  6. Increased productivity of capital (due to increase in supply of labor and TFP).
  7. Higher interest rates.

The CBO took account of some of the main findings in the economic literature about the economic effects of immigration.  For example, the CBO predicts there will be a 12 percent increase in the wages of legalized immigrants.

Conceptually, dynamically scoring legislation is a big step toward rationally judging the costs and benefits of policy changes.  Legislation that changes the size of the economy or the pace of economic growth will affect future tax revenues that will, in turn, affect the fiscal state of the federal government.  CBO scores have been inaccurate over time—many wildly so.  They should never be the final word on the estimated net fiscal costs of immigration reform, but this is the most thorough examination to date. The CBO’s findings broadly confirm Cato’s research that immigration reform will be economically beneficial to immigrants and the country as a whole.