Libertarians Should Support Free Immigration
SOHO Forum Debate
“The U.S. should have free immigration except for those who pose a security threat or have a serious contagious disease.”
I defended the most radical position on immigration, partly, because it would be challenging to defend such a stance. Regardless, I won the Oxford-style debate as I persuaded many undecided people to come over to my side while Menton didn’t persuade anybody.
My opening statement was aimed at so-called libertarians who support immigration restrictions that are often more onerous than the current legal immigration system. Many of those folks are in prominent positions in the Libertarian Party or are popular figures (podcasters, comedians, etc.).
Thus, my statement starts with first principles and is aimed squarely at them as they use non-libertarian reasons to justify a highly interventionist, statist policy that infringes on individual liberty, regulates capitalism, and reduces freedom of association for Americans and immigrants. Watch the video or read my statement below.
Thank you to the SOHO Forum, Gene Epstein, and Nick Gillespie at Reason for organizing this debate over whether the U.S. should have free immigration except for those who pose a security threat or have a serious contagious disease. It’s fitting that we are having this debate in New York City in the United States. The United States had free immigration for the first 85 years after independence and continued with a policy close to free immigration for additional 50 years. Free immigration allowed tens of millions of immigrants to arrive on these shores without burdensome regulations, immigrants who contributed mightily to the economic and social development of the United States.
But the current legal immigration system is a centrally planned Soviet-style mess that restricts immigration to a small fraction of what it otherwise would be. This is a simple legal map of one part of the legal immigration system. It is second in complexity only to the income tax. This is the reality of American immigration law and policy today, this is the reason why so many illegal immigrants break immigration law, and it’s a shock to Americans who think that the U.S. welcomes legal immigrants. To support the current laws, or to support even more restrictions, is an endorsement of this system or something similar. On the other hand, free immigration is a policy consistent with the principles of classical liberalism, libertarianism, and the enlightenment. Let’s start with those principles.
We have a presumption of individual liberty. People have inalienable and individual rights. Immigration restrictions require the government to use violence and the threat of violence to stop the voluntary movement of people across borders. This use of government power restricts the inalienable rights of Americans and immigrants. Those who oppose free immigration should have to show that government force, which is funded coercively at taxpayer expense, should be used to stop the peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial interactions of willing individuals. The presumption, the starting point, must be free immigration and the government can only restrict immigration if it has a very good reason.
In an important way, our debate is about more than immigration. There are two broad political philosophies. The first is liberty and the second is power. [PAUSE] It is the exercise of power, not liberty, that requires justification, and those who advocate coercion in any arena must bear a heavy burden of proof. Free immigration is part of the philosophy of liberty, it stands on its own. It requires no justification. Immigration restrictionism is the philosophy of government power over the lives of individuals and the use of government power to stop immigration must be justified and it must be justified well to overcome the presumption of liberty. In our debate today, my opponent will try to justify infringing on individual liberty but all of his counter arguments will be small and unconvincing compared to the presumption of liberty. In short, the philosophy of liberty will overcome the philosophy of power.
One of our individual inalienable rights is freedom of association, which means the freedom to voluntarily interact with whomever we want on a mutually agreed upon basis. On that principle alone, Americans should be able to associate with immigrants at any time they choose assuming the immigrants also choose. This extends, of course, to hiring, firing, marrying, renting an apartment, or any other type of voluntary interaction. The state, the government, should not interfere unless under exceptional circumstances like a criminal conspiracy to injure the life, liberty, or property of others. Borders exist to limit the powers of governments, they do not exist to limit the liberty of individuals.
Another core principle we hold is free market capitalism, an economic system of decentralized voluntary economic interactions with mobility of capital, entrepreneurship, and labor. The movement of people toward economic opportunity is an important component of capitalism and every government regulation and law that restricts that freedom imposes a burden on Americans and immigrants. These are deep and ancient traditions in the western world that are infringed upon by government immigration restrictions. Immigration restrictionists and my opponent here have much to overcome to justify taking away our fundamental inalienable rights by supporting government control over immigration. They do not come close to overcoming it.
Moving from the realm of principle to practicality, the economic benefits of immigration are extraordinary. Immigrants make 3-10 times more money in the United States than in their home countries, even after adjusting for the cost of living. Economist Michael Clemens has estimated that free immigration would increase the amount of global economic production, Gross World Product, by 50-150 percent – that’s $50-$150 trillion of extra production a year. In the United States, immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of employment, are twice as entrepreneurial as native-born Americans, create job opportunities for native-born Americans, are more likely to patent, and are responsible for much of the productivity growth in the U.S. since the end of World War II.
There are no counterarguments that will be made tonight that come close to showing that the costs of immigration are higher than the benefits. Benefits that, under a global system of free immigration, would increase annual economic production by a present value of about a quadrillion dollars – and that’s a real number, I had to look it up. It’s 1000 trillions. Even if that estimate is exaggerated by a factor of 10, we’re still talking about a present value of $100 trillion. In a purely consequentialist framework, immigration restriction is a monumental economic failure. Relatedly, the economic consequences of immigration are large so can’t even be used to overwhelm our principles.
But immigration restrictionists still have many other arguments against immigration.
On crime and public safety, immigrants are about half as likely to be incarcerated as native-born Americans. Some groups of immigrants by countries of origin have higher incarceration rates, others a lot lower. Illegal immigrants, based on data from Texas, have a homicide conviction rate that is a touch higher in most years, lower in a few years, compared to native-born Americans depending on the year of analysis. Since 1870, immigrants overall have a lower incarceration rate than native-born Americans and, specifically, also a lower rate than white native-born Americans. The overwhelming impact of immigrants on crime is small and, generally, they lower the crime rate in places where they move.
Terrorism is another threat. There were 219 foreign-born terrorists responsible for 3,046 murders in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil from 1975 through the end of 2022. The chance of a person being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a foreigner on U.S. soil is about 1 in 4.3 million per year. 98% of those deaths were during the 9/11 attacks. Terrorism is a small and manageable threat without more immigration restrictions.
Immigrants also assimilate rapidly into American culture. According to work by economist Jacob Vigdor, immigrants and their children assimilate rapidly on English language, education, income, civic engagement, and religious attitudes. The grandchildren of immigrants are, on average, indistinguishable from native-born Americans whose ancestors have been here for centuries. When it comes to patriotic sentiment, immigrants express slightly more patriotism than natives. When it comes to political opinions, immigrants have policy opinions similar to natives but tend to vote more Democratic. Subsequent generations are nearly identical to longer settled Americans.
Immigrant do not take our jobs or lower our wages. Immigrants are workers, that’s true, so they increase the supply of labor. You might think that lowers wages, and in some cases for some workers, that’s true. But in most cases, it’s not true because immigrants also increase demand. Immigrants are people who buy goods and services and that creates other employment opportunities and raises wages – especially for native-born Americans. Every economic argument against immigration is just normal left-wing zero-sum economics applied to people. Once you see that, it’s impossible to take the economic argument for immigration restriction seriously.
However, the welfare state complicates the economics of immigration. Milton Friedman famously said, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” But whether you can have free immigration and a welfare state is an empirical question, it is not a matter of principle. If immigrants consume more in welfare than they pay in taxes, it would be a problem. Unfortunately, Friedman didn’t conduct any empirical research on this question. Those who have done this research find that the empirical evidence doesn’t support Friedman’s point. Immigrants use about 27 percent less welfare than native-born Americans. If we widen the analysis to include ALL government expenditures, education, police, welfare, etc., and all taxes paid by immigrants, immigrants pay $1.43 in taxes for every $1 they consume in benefits from state, local, and federal governments. Native-born Americans pay only $0.73 in taxes for every $1 they consume in government benefits. Paradoxically, it may be fiscally impossible to sustain a large government without the massive boost in tax revenue and economic growth delivered by immigrants. That last point does give me mixed feelings as a committed libertarian because I want to abolish the welfare state, but those are the facts.
Let’s zoom in on education for a second, an enormous government-controlled sector of the economy. State and local governments supply taxpayer-funded education at a price of zero to the students. The students include legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, and their U.S. born children. It also, of course, includes the grandchildren, great grandchildren, and descendants of all past immigrants. Public education is expensive with all levels of government spending about $17,000 per pupil on average across the country, with much higher costs in some locations. But immigrants do end up covering that in tax payments if you just think about it for a moment. Most economists model education as an investment in human capital that pays off in more productive and educated workers who make higher wages, and higher wages mean more tax revenue. Thus, an education, up to a point, increases wages of the educated workers which increases tax payments. Another reason is that immigrants tend to enter the U.S. after they are done with high school and start paying taxes immediately, while their young children or U.S. born kids start consuming government education a little later. Thus, you’ve got a taxed worker or workers, kids in public education, and those kids will eventually grow up, start working, and paying more taxes because they are more educated.
I want to make a principled meta observation about self-described libertarians who are opposed to free immigration. Those of them who rely on the welfare state to argue against free immigration are not consistent libertarians and those who claim to be anarcho-capitalists are contradicting their own supposed philosophy. They often argue, like Milton Friedman did in his quote above, that because the U.S. has a welfare state then that means the country can’t have free immigration or that we should even more radically reduced legal immigration. That is a nonlibertarian reaction to the welfare state.
The non-libertarian reaction is to use the existence of welfare to oppose immigration. The real libertarian reaction to the welfare state is to try and abolish the welfare state, or, at a minimum, to build a wall around it. In no other policy issue do so many self-described libertarians use the existence of the welfare state to argue against individual liberty. For instance, libertarians want to legalize drugs. But we have a welfare state. You could make the argument, “the welfare state exists. If drugs are legalized, someone somewhere will overdose on drugs and go to the emergency room. That person may use emergency Medicaid, therefore we shouldn’t legalize drugs because the welfare state would spend more.” You never hear libertarians make that argument because it is obviously nonlibertarian, but they use the same reasoning to oppose free immigration.
Or here’s another analogous argument. Some libertarians are upset about the expensive public school system used by Americans and immigrants, so these so-called libertarians want to end immigration. Those libertarians could also say, “Public schools exist. If Americans are allowed to have as many children as they want to, then some of those children will go to public schools and consume taxpayer resources. Therefore, every woman should have to get government permission before getting pregnant.” That’s obviously monstrous and nonlibertarian. The libertarian response to public education is to abolish or radically reform it, not to impose other restrictions on our fundamental individual rights to reduce the harm of other government policies. Why do so many self-described libertarians suddenly develop a blind spot to immigration that they don’t have on these other issues?
Ludwig von Mises, one of the most well-known Austrian economists, has some lessons here that self-described libertarian opponents of immigration should pay attention to. Mises’s writings on interventionism, which is when the government regulates or otherwise interferes with markets to a degree less than nationalization or socialism, lays out several problems. But one major issue with government intervention is that the first intervention creates problems by disturbing the market process. Those disturbances then lead to other interventions in an attempt to correct the problems created by the first intervention and so on – the cycle continues until the entire economy is controlled by government regulatory regimes with predictably bad consequences.
Libertarian immigration restrictionists unintentionally fall into this bad cycle of interventionism that leads to more state control over the economy when they endorse government rules to restrict immigration in reaction to other government interventions in the market economy. Those self-described libertarians who are opposed to immigration because of public education, welfare, or any other problem created by anti-capitalist policy have been led astray. The answer to immigrants imposing some costs on public education and the welfare state is not to get rid of the immigrants, it’s to reform or abolish welfare and public education. Almost every problem that you want to blame on immigrants is better understood as a problem caused by bad public policy elsewhere. Do not fall for the supposedly easy answer of “just close the border,” don’t fall for the temptation that one violation of individual liberty justifies another government intervention that further decreases liberty. Keep your eye on the real source of the problem: the government.
The reaction to immigration has severely restricted the freedom of Americans. Whenever any American gets a job, they must now fill out an I-9 form and provide government identification to prove that they are not an illegal immigrant. Many states, mostly conservative, now require that all new hires – including native-born Americans – must be checked through a government database search tool called E-Verify to get a job. E-Verify forces many millions of Americans to ask the government for permission to work. Cooperation between local and federal law enforcement, surveillance, and vast amounts of taxpayer dollars are wasted on walls and other goofy schemes to restrict immigration. Americans must wait years, or sometimes decades, to sponsor family members or employees from abroad, paying tens of thousands of dollars in the process. Enough is enough. Free immigration is part of the philosophy of liberty, immigration restriction is the philosophy of government power. It’s time for self-described libertarians who are skeptical of immigration to see that, shape up, and to become consistent libertarians. Libertarianism isn’t a buffet, stop acting like it.
Conservatives, libertarians, classical liberals, and others support meritocracy. I suspect my opponent does and so do I. Like many, I applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in the affirmative action case of SFFA v. Harvard, that banned race-based admissions in universities that receive government funds. I am an intractable foe of affirmative action. Immigration restrictions are just a form of affirmative action for native-born Americans. As a believer in meritocracy and individualism, I support free immigration so the meritocracy of the market can reward hard work and talent without legal thumbs on the scale. You can’t be a principled and consistent opponent of affirmative action while supporting immigration laws to give a preference to people based on where they are born.
Where should libertarians and other supporters of free markets and individual liberty place the burden of proof for immigrating to the United States? Should immigrants have to prove that they are allowed to come to exercise their rights, should American citizens have to prove that they meet arbitrary government standards to associate with immigrants in the way they wish? That’s the way current immigration law is structured, a law that makes all immigration illegal except for a small number of immigrants who can prove their innocence. Instead, we should make immigration law like other laws in our fine legal tradition. All immigration should be allowed except for a handful of people who fall into the categories of criminals, terrorists, the seriously ill, or others who would harm the life, liberty, and property of people here. As in all areas, the burden should be on the government to prove that somebody’s rights should be restricted. The burden should not be on immigrants or Americans to prove that they can exercise their inherent rights.
Libertarian and classical liberal values, American Enlightenment values, our support of free market capitalism, and support for meritocracy all compel us to support free immigration.
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