Free Markets, Free People

open borders

Why Conservatives Should Embrace Free Immigration

After the election, Righty circles are naturally engaging in some soul-searching, finger-pointing, and bickering.  Some of this is unproductive venting, but it’s also the start of the process of working out how to move on and improve, and there’s no time to waste.

My conversations with fellow Righty operatives and bloggers have spurred me to suggest several ways Republicans could simultaneously make the party more attractive (or less repulsive) to voters and achieve more conservative results.  This post is about immigration and reversing the trend of Hispanics rapidly abandoning the GOP; the next is about gay marriage; and the final post is about entitlement reform.

First, let’s dispense with the notion agreed upon by many on the Right: seal the border first, so that whatever follows is more controlled and orderly.  This is an expensive fantasy.  Conservatives need to apply their skepticism of huge, complex, market-distorting government plans to every issue surrounding immigration, starting with any plan to spend tens of billions of dollars on thousands of miles of fence, surveillance, unionized government employees, and a verification system forced on every employer in the country.

It’s a joke that the Republican Party, which is practically defined by marriage, babies, and mortgages, holds at arm’s length a whole demographic (Hispanics, especially foreign-born) that tends to be more religious, marry younger and longer, and have larger families than the average American voter.

Mass immigration could work for the GOP if the GOP went with the tide instead of trying to stop it.

  • If Republicans want school choice, they should have natural allies among those who are religious, have large families, and see their children suffer under the worst public schools.  When you hear complaints that Hispanic immigrants don’t speak English, suggest vouchers and education savings accounts for private-school English language instruction.
  • If Republicans want to revive farms and stop the population drain from rural areas, make legitimate cheap labor more available: open up a bunch of farm worker visas.
  • If Republicans want to cut the cost of new housing so that young people can form households and families, make legitimate cheap labor available for that too.  Heck, why not try to break various trade unions by inviting enough skilled immigrants to swamp or bypass their system?
  • So the entitlement system is a problem?  Yeah, Milton Friedman famously said you can’t simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.  Shouldn’t the Republican response be “Bring on free immigration“?  If math dooms Medicaid and the subsidized industrial-age hospital model, why not make the math even harder?
  • Conservatives have longed to shift taxes away from production and toward consumption.  Nobody wants to remove labor tax wedges (AHEM: the payroll tax) as much as someone in a labor-intensive business, the kind that tends to thrive when there’s a lot of cheap labor available.  That goes for both employers and the employees whose compensation is tilted toward wages rather than benefits; we know it suppresses the Hispanic savings rate.  And the payroll tax, of course, helps to maintain the accounting fiction that SocSec and Medicare are like savings.

Now, about the security problem: is it easier to pick out a genuine security threat in the crowd if everyone just has to pass a security check, or if hundreds of thousands of people are trying to cross the border undetected because the only legal route is a seven-year byzantine process?

Heather Mac Donald at NRO offers a potential counter-argument: Hispanics are more suspicious of Republicans for supporting class warfare than for opposing immigration according to a poll (from March 2011), and a majority favor gay marriage, so they’re not such a conservative bunch.  But:

  • Immigration may not be most Hispanics’ top concern, but it isn’t trivial either.  And because politics is so tribal, there are many ways to alienate a group without actually disagreeing on policy – many of which Republicans blunder into when discussing immigration.
  • Finally: social issues.  Mac Donald points out that a majority of Hispanics favor gay marriage.  I’ll argue in my next post that conservatives should proactively embrace gay marriage, which should resolve this issue nicely.

Open Borders

Over the past few days, I’ve been watching with interest on Twitter as Doug Mataconis and Jason Pye have been moaning about the new immigration law in Arizona. Now, I grant it’s a bad law from a civil liberties perspective. I’ve seen to much of policing from the inside to trust police not to run a truck through any ambiguities that they find in the law.

But some of the links they’ve posted seem a bit overdone. For instance, one of them linked to an article that implied that there’s a white supremacist behind the movement to pass the law. But what really caught my eye was a link to an article that gave all the standard libertarian reasons for having open immigration.

There was only one thing wrong with the article. It made all sorts of arguments about natural rights and economics, but nowhere did it address national security.

So, I guess my question is this: If you are going to argue for opening the borders, how will you go about doing so in a world of hostile nation-states, whose citizens may wish to do us harm? Clearly, the framers gave some thought to the issue, as they gave Congress plenary power to regulate immigration.

So, even granting that the rights-based and economic arguments are correct, which, mainly, I do, I still would like to know how you would address the security implications of open borders in a hostile world.

Surely, our agreement on the general principles of liberty don’t require us to commit seppuku by allowing hostile foreign powers to take advantage of them, do they?

Open borders, immigration and reality

So why would libertarians not be “open borders guys” as Dale admits in his post about Arizona’s new illegal immigration law?  Well, for one, for the same reason Milton Friedman understood when he said “you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”

I’d love to have free immigration or “open borders”. I’d like to see free people who want to work and better their lives be able to freely wander to where such opportunities exist.  In an ideal world, what I would call my moon pony and unicorn world, that’s the way it would work.

I’d also prefer not to have a welfare state.  Welfare states are, in my opinion, destructive states that kill human productivity and builds the power of the state to a degree that “citizens” eventually become vassals. Additionally, I’m not keen on my hard earned dollars going to support such a state. But they do.

If you eliminate the welfare state, the “open borders” argument has more credibility. But borders aren’t going away anytime soon. Unilaterally eliminating ours or, for the sake of argument not monitoring who comes in the country, isn’t going to change anything as regards the welfare state. Unless those coming in are required to immediately contribute to the state welfare apparatus (an anathema any open border theory) before taking advantage of it, the desire to keep illegals out and away from state welfare that the citizenry has paid for will remain high. That’s a practical concern that drives much of the anger and desire of the citizenry to keep illegals out.

Since the welfare state doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon (if ever) either, again it seems rather silly to argue that “open borders” is a viable solution. Yes, it’s an ideologically pure libertarian solution, but it denies reality. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good goal, but it does mean that in the current situation, no one is going to listen to it seriously or give it any credence.

And then, to compound the argument against open borders, there’s a second problem.  There are a whole bunch of people out there who are trying to kill us.  Not random criminals, who are bad enough, but an entire movement dedicated to the demise of those who live in this country.  “Open immigration” or open borders would only grant full and unimpeded access to those who want to do us harm. It is something they’d welcome. Imagine, if you will, not monitoring anyone who comes in or what they might bring. How long would it take for our enemies to establish themselves and strike?

Now the natural inclination of my libertarian kin at this point in a discussion like this is to say, “yeah, but if we hadn’t gotten entangled in those foreign alliances and remained isolationist, we could have …”. Could have what? Sold our products to ourselves? Avoided a religiously driven zealotry that targets nations like ours just because they’re” infidels?” Pretended Nazism and Japanese imperialism weren’t a threat to us and our way of life?

Even if that’s shrugged off, we still need to trade to live. And trade requires interaction. International trade requires international interaction. You can’t do that as an isolationist (and “open borders” seems contradictory – at least to me – to being an isolationist. How does one “isolate” themselves except behind their borders?). Those you interact and trade with have certain demands that come with trade you either negotiate or they refuse the trade. While it is wonderful to think that we could have survived quite nicely by being internally self-sufficient and trading only within our borders, it’s probably nothing more than a pipe-dream. We could no more keep the world out of here than the Japanese were able to keep us out of Tokyo bay. Simple demand of the citizenry for products from other nations would have forced that.

Open borders have only existed in times when there was no welfare state and no existential threat – and, in fact, no real government in place. Think the settling of the west and the borders of both Canada and Mexico.  People passed through them pretty much at will seeking a better opportunity or a better life.  That is an era which has passed. Even as we were warned by our founders to avoid foreign entanglements, we were becoming aware of their necessity – self-protection or mutual protection among them. And even as we wished for the ability to open our borders to all free people, we became aware of those who would use such an advantage to harm us. Or, as the welfare state developed, to take advantage of that to which they’re not entitled.

Like many laudable desires, that of “open borders” doesn’t survive reality of a changing (and smaller) world. All things being equal, I’d prefer open borders for free people. But that’s not how this world works and the disadvantages – partly our own doing, partly that of our enemies – argues pretty strongly against “open borders” – at least in the present.

All of that said, we have a problem to deal with. The welfare state isn’t going away nor are our enemies. The border situation is intolerable, we have an antiquated and essentially broken immigration system and we a very large number of illegals already here. What are we going to do about that?

Whether or not you agree with Arizona’s recent law, it points out the frustration that many of the border states are undergoing as the problem continues and grows. I’ve mentioned any number of times that while the solution won’t be simple, the general outline isn’t rocket science:

- Streamline the legal immigration system so people can more easily access it, apply, receive visas, green cards, etc. It shouldn’t take us half a lifetime or cost multi-thousands of dollars to immigrate here, prove their worth and become US citizens.

-Streamline the work visa program and the seasonal work visa program. If I can order a kindle book from Amazon with a single click and have it downloaded to the kindle within a minute , it tells me the technology is probably available to make such a program much easier than it is at present.

-Kill the “anchor baby” provision. It may take a Constitutional amendment, but whatever it takes, remove the incentive. Heck in some countries they have tour packages aimed specifically at pregnant women in other countries to come here and have their baby. Sorry – no short cuts, no breaking the line, no gaming the system.

-Deal with the illegals in the country. Require them to register by a certain date or face permanent deportation. Once registered provide them with a clear, but back of the line path to citizenship, if they so desire. Make the requirements tough but fair. My guess is we’ll find many, if not most, of them would instead prefer a work visa or a seasonal work visa rather than citizenship. Many are here illegally because they can’t get those sorts of visas now.

-Secure the border. We do have an existential treat. Throughout our history we’ve had many existential threats. As long as different ideologies exist, especially those based in religious zealotry or secular imperialism, we’ll continue to have existential threats. Until those go away, we’re always going to have borders and those borders are going to have to be guarded to protect our citizenry.

I believe in immigration. I believe, in some ways, it represents the heart and soul of this country. I believe in giving those what want to work hard and better themselves the opportunity to come to this country to do so.  But they need to come here legally through an improved system to do that. Since we do indeed have a welfare state, I want those who try to game that system by illegal entry stopped. And since we have existential enemies, I want them stopped at the border too.

It may not be my moon pony and unicorn utopia, but it is reality and it is that with which we have to deal.  Then we can work on utopia.