A lot of livid libertarians have been e-mailing us lately. They didn't like my recent article /becker.htm highlighting Nobel Laureate economist Gary S. Becker's acknowledgement that the welfare state, which did not exist during the last Great Wave of immigration (1890-1920), has fatally altered immigrant incentives, making open borders impractical. Becker's concession is an important step in the slowly-developing realization that the folk-memory of American intellectuals is not applicable to immigration policy today.
Yeah, I know, I know - this libertarian lividness was partly my fault. I referred genially to "libertarian loonies." I thought that, after nearly thirty years of libertarian fellow-traveling in the establishment press - including authoring the only major magazine article ever on Hayek's plan to privatize money (Forbes, May 30 1988; not online, alas, but it's still a good idea) - I was family and could make a JOKE.
I was wrong. Libertarians, like the student Marxists of the 1960s whom they so much resemble, don't generally have much sense of humor (with the exception of Colin Colenso, an affable Australib.)
For the record, I prefer libertarians to student Marxists. And I happen to think the libertarians are basically correct: the welfare state has negative consequences. But the fact is that the welfare state exists. It has real political support. It is not going away soon. Immigration reform cannot wait until it does.
Note, also, that none of my correspondents actually deal with the point I made: the problem with the welfare state is not just "welfare" but transfer payments of all sorts - notably public education and hospital emergency rooms, which are now in effect a free medical service for immigrants. If you think cutting welfare is tough, try not educating children or turning away the sick.
My correspondents' failure to deal with this point is very typical of what happens when you try to confront one well-established reflex (Welfare Bad!) with a new argument. Even intelligent people just don't get new arguments very quickly. You have to repeat them several times. This is a big problem in the immigration debate. Immigration simply did not exist as a problem until after the 1965 Act. By that time much of today's punditocracy was already adult - or as adult as it's ever going to be.
Immigration is a government policy, however, and some libertarians are thinking seriously about it - notably the "paleolibertarians" grouped around the Von Mises Institute http://www.mises.org/. Ralph Raico edited a fine issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies (Summer 1998) http://www.libertarianstudies.org/journals/jls/JLS13_2.asp on the subject. It included an eloquent dissent from the open borders bugaboo from John Hospers, who actually received an Electoral College vote as the Libertarian Party's candidate for President. Recently, there has even been a sighting of intelligent life at Cato - a friendly review of George Borjas' definitive Heavens Gate: Immigration Policy and the American Economy http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0691059667/vdare by Ronald Bird in the current Regulation Magazine http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv23n3/reg23n3.html (Cardinal Crane, call your Inquisitor!)
Some letters, with comments:
From: Eugene J. Flynn email@example.com
"...the libertarian loonies' knee-jerk comeback - 'let's just abolish welfare for immigrants!'" No libertarian I know says that! What they say is abolish welfare for everyone.
"America's post-1965 immigration disaster" - do you mean the fact that citizens from independent states of the Western Hemisphere could no longer come to the U.S. when they wanted to (no quotas) or do you mean the Great Society solidified the welfare state and THAT changed the type of individual who wished to come to this country?
PB: And dulce et decorum est pro patria mori to you! In fact, some libertarians were saying precisely that - raising the so-called blue card proposal to deny welfare to immigrants - in the exchange we posted between Milton Friedman and the delegates to the 1999 World Libertarian Congress /friedman.htm. As for the "type of individual" immigrating, that was changed by the 1965 Immigration Act - the selection process is a (perverse) statute-based government policy, which operates independently of whether there is any welfare at all. I do agree that welfare etc. has changed the type of immigrant who stays in the country - failures are no longer winnowed out.
From: Colin Colenso firstname.lastname@example.org http://www.geocities.com/colincolenso/
Australian Libertarian Society
An article you wrote was recently linked to via http://www.lewrockwell.com/. [Thanks, Lew!]
I noted your comment "...the libertarian loonies' knee-jerk comeback - "let's just abolish welfare for immigrants!" (No-one could be so impractical? These are people who seriously debate whether traffic lights are unacceptable government coercion.)"
Not being so shallow that I would take offense, 'as a libertarian', but such a flippant generalization as an argument against the abolishment of a government welfare system seems out of place in a well-written article.
Maybe I am not aware of an intelligent argument you have presented against this libertarian policy. I would think that relegating such intellectual giants as Hayek, Rothbard and Mises to the "loony" heap indicate a certain lack of awareness. Maybe I am wrong... I'm never afraid of an education.
I'm off to picket my local traffic lights. Damn socialist telling me when to cross!!! When will it end?
PB: For my attitude to welfare, see above. Rothbard and, much less well-known, Mises, were against open borders.
From: Jeffrey Schwartz email@example.com
As a libertarian, I resent your slandering us with your statement that we see traffic signals as government coercion. That is an absurdity. Libertarians have nothing against orderly traffic and rules of the road.
Although we believe that private corporations would run the roadways much better than the government does, if such private ownership was allowed, we do not support unsafe roads or promote traffic accidents. Please do not portray us as "loony" by giving such inaccurate descriptions of our beliefs.
Most libertarians also agree that open borders in a welfare state would create trouble - trouble for the welfare state! Open borders would create so much pressure on the welfare state that the welfare state would quickly collapse, economically and politically. Support for government welfare would quickly evaporate. We would have a free country again! And that is what libertarians want! We want an END to the Welfare State AND open immigration! Open immigration will quickly lead to the end of the welfare state.
PB: In other words, if you've got rats - welfare - burn down the house. Not just welfare would be ended by open immigration.
November 2, 2000