Bryan Caplan  

The Economics and Philosophy of the Wall

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I usually dislike movies based on true stories.  But The Tunnel, a tale of five heroes who tunnel under the Berlin Wall to rescue their family and friends, is excellent.  We don't just vicariously enjoy the excitement of digging to freedom.  We see the tyranny of Communism in its most visceral form - "No one gets out of here alive."

For libertarians, morality doesn't get much clearer than this.  But almost all non-libertarians will be equally certain that the tunnelers are good and the East German border guards and secret police are evil.  My question is: Why, on this one issue, do non-libertarians so readily accept the stereotypical libertarian position?

Consider: Most East Germans who wanted to flee to the West were probably "economic refugees."  Take a look at the emigration numbers.  If people were going West for freedom, they might as well have left ASAP in 1949 or 1950.  Many did, of course.  But the outflow continued year after year.  The most obvious explanation: The West's living standards kept pulling further and further ahead of the East's, attracting emigrants who cared a lot more about prosperity than freedom.

So what?  Well, conservatives are notoriously hostile to "mere" economic refugees.  And if you point out that these economic refugees were selfishly trying to escape redistributionist policies, it's hard to see why liberals would cheer them on.  Again, I'm not denying that conservatives and liberals are confident that people trying to escape from East Germany were in the right.  I just don't understand the reason for their confidence.

A few possibilities:

1. It's OK to flee from a dictatorship, even if your motive is economic gain and your action undermines redistribution.  Question: What if the Berlin Wall enjoyed democratic support?  Would it have been OK then?

2. It's OK to keep people out, but not to keep them in.  Question: Suppose the Berlin Wall had been erected by West Germany to keep out illegal immigrants.  Would it have been OK then?

3. When a nation has been "artificially" divided, it's OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement within the nation's "true borders."  Question: Where in the world do "true borders" come from?  Philosophers may say "the social contract," but it's obvious that almost all real-world borders have been set by force.  See for example what happened to Germany after WWI and WWII.

4. It's OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement if they split up families and close friends.  Question: Doesn't this mean that current family reunification quotas are actually monstrously strict?  If this seems like hysterical libertarian rhetoric, watch the scene in The Tunnel when people explain who they want to smuggle out.  People weren't just willing to risk their lives for their children, spouses, parents, and siblings.  They also risked their lives for boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family of friends, and more.

Frankly, this is yet another issue where I have trouble even imagining what an intelligent, thoughtful non-libertarian would say.  Can anyone help me out?



COMMENTS (39 to date)
Martin Regnen writes:

I'm not sure why this is, but we seem to have some deep emotional reasons for being more willing to be nice to refugees who are fleeing from dictatorship, war, famine or natural disaster (other than of course plague).

Dan Clementi writes:

"My question is: Why, on this one issue, do non-libertarians so readily accept the stereotypical libertarian position?"

You are making it way too complicated. The answer is obvious....the East Germans didn't have "the right people" in charge. If they had a "smart crowd" running things (perhaps like the Obama team), no one would ever WANT to leave!

Robinson writes:

I very much agree with your point of view, but think the opposition is all about possibility 2- that it's OK to keep people out but not to keep them in.

After all, many conservatives use an analogy of a country to a household (certainly a problematic analogy, but still...) Any libertarian would agree that it's OK to keep someone outside your house, but not OK to keep them in.

I'm also sure most conservatives would agree that if West Germany had put up the Berlin Wall, than they would have been in the right.

RobertB writes:

The answer is certainly 2. And the answer to your follow-up question is yes (although they would probably be opposed to the brutality with which the Wall was supported).

PeterW writes:

I would say 1, and if redistribution had been democratically enforced then we would see the tunnelers as the bad guys. Of course cinematically you can still make them likeable by showing the brutality of the enforcers, but outside the movie, in real life, most redistributionists would be in favor of stopping the tunnelers.

Floccina writes:

2 seems the reason the youth gangs were grew up were very territorial but even they though harassing youths from other neighborhoods had no problem with people leaving.

John Smith writes:

I am surprised you need to ask. As the prior commenters said, it is almost solely 2. Keeping people out is viewed as the sovereign right of the keeping-out country. Locking in your own citizens who have committed no crimes is seen as evil. Simple as that.

Koz writes:

One obvious answer for me is that "freedom of movement" has at least two parts, the freedom to go one place and the freedom to get away from another. These are not the same thing.

The Berlin Wall was an attempt to force East Berliners from leaving East Germany. Us conservative Americans want to stop (at least a substantial part of) immigration into America, in the best interest of the United States as a nation. The would-be immigrants, economic refugees, separated family members or otherwise, ought to be free to emigrate to other countries if the US won't accept them.

Balfour writes:

#2. It's okay to keep people out, but evil to keep them in. This is obvious to nearly everyone with normal "Western" moral training, including "Libertarians" who consider it wrong to "initiate force" against other people (e.g., by confining them) but approve of reactive or defensive use of force (e.g., to repel invaders/ trespassers).

Of course, someone might wish to depart but have nowhere to go. That would be sad. That is not what the movie shows, though-- the people who wished to leave the GDR were welcome in the FRG. If the GDR had been full of, say, Haitians, things might have been different, for good reasons.

(It is "collectivist" rather than "Libertarian" to deny the validity of property, including the "right to exclude" which is the key attribute of property. For advanced students, note that even in "Libertarian" theory, property owners may act by agents, or by mutual aid, to preserve their property, so excluding invaders from agglomerations of property ("countries") is not necessarily "anti-Libertarian.")

Lance writes:

You also have to consider that Germany spoke the same language and was unified for a significant period before it was split between the Western powers and the USSR. The US-Mexican border is nowhere near the same, it does not separate a unified culture or any of the other characterstics that constitute a nation.

The Berlin Wall was the visible symbol of the gulag, the pogrom, everything deprave and inhumane of the collectivism and the Soviet Union. So, efforts to dig beneath (even if it were for economic reasons) it were a righteous rebellion against an evil existence.

Mexican families seeking to find a better life in the US are not rebelling against a brutal authority, so their story is less compelling than say a Cuban refugee who cares less about Fidel Castro and the state-run media than the ease of starting a new business.

jsalvati writes:

Perhaps it is because the Soviet Union has been labeled an enemy for a very long time or because the Soviet Union is associated with lots of killing.

Granite26 writes:

Bryan, what the people were fleeing was obviously a BAD communist redistributive government. What liberals want to set up is a GOOD socialist redistributive government that won't have any of the issues of greedy government officials using bad policies to control the economy. GOOD socialist government will let the PEOPLE decide how to run the economy and distribute wealth, and we know how smart and kind and able THEY are.

Don't be silly and say that just because every monolithic socialist state has abused its populace and failed to manage its economy efficiently WE'RE going to make the same mistakes. WE'RE obviously SMARTER than all those other people, and definitely NICER.

/sarcasm

Kurbla writes:

From pretty left point of view: yes, it is keeping in / out.

Question: Suppose the Berlin Wall had been erected by West Germany to keep out illegal immigrants. Would it have been OK then?

Suppose that West Berlin is private. Is it OK to keep out illegal immigrants then?

From my point of view, there is no difference between private/ state. In both cases, yes, it is OK to keep him out, except if he claims he is in serious danger, and he is not threat to me /state. In that case, he should be temporarily allowed to come in, and things should be sorted later.

MikeP writes:

It is "collectivist" rather than "Libertarian" to deny the validity of property, including the "right to exclude" which is the key attribute of property.

What about the right to include -- i.e., the right to house, employ, or transport whomever I wish on and with my property? It is absolutely collectivist to abrogate that right of mine because I happen to belong to the collective you claim to rule.

For advanced students, note that even in "Libertarian" theory, property owners may act by agents, or by mutual aid, to preserve their property, so excluding invaders from agglomerations of property ("countries") is not necessarily "anti-Libertarian."

First, a country is in no way an agglomeration of property.

Second, while it is true that in libertarian theory property owners may make whatever mutually voluntary arrangements they wish to exclude whomever they wish from their property, somehow imagining that governments qualify as mutually voluntary arrangements is utterly insane.

Balfour writes:

MikeP:

Sic utere tuo ut alienum non lædas.

As a "Libertarian," presumably you would not forcibly confine your tenants to your private property (indeed, if you did, they might shout for help, and quite properly get it!). If your tenants were criminal types, then they would make your property a base from which to injure your neighbors.

Since your neighbors cannot expect you to keep any criminals you invite to your property off of their properties, they must necessarily regard your act of inviting criminals onto your property as an act of aggression against your neighbors. Your neighbors have the right, even in "Libertarian" theory, to resist aggression. Indeed, they have the right to resist it preëmptively— they needn't wait for your invitees to attack them, they can exclude bad guys from the neighborhood directly and deter you from inviting bad buys in by threatening to punish you for doing so.

The notion that your right to invite people onto your property gives you the right to invite anyone at all into the neighborhood, over the objections of everyone else, is obviously false. Your right to tenants reaches its limit when those tenants pose serious threats to your neighbors.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Response of a thoughtful non-libertarian:

The sovereign on East Germany was obviously the communist government as evidenced by the fact that they were able to setup the Berlin wall. Non-libertarian right-wing response is that laws set by the sovereign must be followed. Period. People crossing over through the Berlin wall were acting against the laws of their sovereign and were therefore not morally justified in crossing illegally over the Berlin wall.

Is this restriction "bad"? Well, I would certainly not like it but the sovereign is. Formally, by definition a sovereign is beyond judgment because there is no higher power and therefore, any judgment passed for or against would be useless as it could not be implemented without the consent of the sovereign.

A right-wing reactionary would consider the East German government to be an example of a pathological sovereign and if given the option would never establish such a sovereignty themselves but it's a lot better to have order however horrible than to have anarchy. However, I state again that in formal terms, sovereigns are beyond judgment. A sovereign simply is. Like the weather or hunger and thirst, they may not be likable but they are just as immutable. Good or bad does not enter into the equation.

In everyday life, this is incontestably true. We do not go about overthrowing sovereigns everyday (and people who think that an election is some sort of revolution are misguided. In real terms, elections rarely change major policy drifts like the populist-protectionist-leftist drift observed over the last 7-10 decades and in formal terms, the sovereign of a democracy is the collective people and they certainly are not overthrown in an election). See Hobbes for a detailed exposition of this formal viewpoint. See On Power by Jouvenel to see how to move from the formal to the real world and how the concepts need to be adjusted accordingly. Both are fascinating reads.

Other commentators have already stated this in some form but the formalist conception is very much in line with libertarian thinking if a country and all in it, people included, are considered as private property of the sovereign.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

It should be remembered that the East German government called the Wall the "anti-Fascist protective rampart" ("antifaschistischer Schutzwall"), as if it was to protect them from the outside world.

I believe that the fastest way to end the communist dictatorship in Cuba is to end the embargo, and allow Cubans to visit the US on long-term visas. That is how East Germany ended, through people leaving the country through Hungary and Austria, then later through Czechoslovakia.

When no one is left in Cuba to extract rents from, even the Castro "selectorate" may have no choice but to close up shop.

MikeP writes:

the formalist conception is very much in line with libertarian thinking if a country and all in it, people included, are considered as private property of the sovereign.

Maybe I am missing the irony here, but libertarian thinking gives the sovereign no authority that is not derived from, and not limited to the protection of, the rights of the people.

In no way, shape, or form is a country owned by the sovereign who claims dominion over it, nor are the rights of people derivative of or granted by the sovereign.

MikeP writes:

Balfour,

I have no problem with restricting entry into the country of individuals for specific individual cause.

In particular, prohibiting entry of foreign agents, terrorists, violent felons, or carriers of contagion is well within the authority of a government that is balancing the compelling public interest with its obligation to secure the inalienable rights of individuals.

However, restricting entry of peaceful people because of artificial limitations on visas such as quotas or expiration dates is absolutely an abrogation of their rights and beyond the legitimate authority of government.

So, yes, my neighbors have the right not to be harassed by criminals on my property. But people on my property whom my neighbors don't approve of are not ipso facto criminals.

MC writes:

Remember there can also be technical reasons too. For example, you certainly want to keep terrorists out. Then you might need some border check. Then you might consider the cost. Then you might find such and such mechanisms, though unfair in certain ways, but might be cheaper. etc. etc.

I believe you can find many technical reasons why you do not want a free border or borderless country. It might have very little to do with ideology.

Adam writes:

Every one of you claiming that #2 is the obvious answer are clearly wrong. Imagine that Mexico decides to wall off the border with the U.S. Are we suddenly going to see a shift in public sentiment? Are Americans suddenly going to root for, even aid Mexicans that attempt to emigrate to the states?

I think some of it might be #3, but that's not the whole answer. Imagine that Canada erects a wall to keep its citizens from emigrating to the U.S. I do think that Americans would support those harmless Canadians attempting to emigrate here.

So what is the difference between Mexicans who were fenced in and Canadians who were fenced in? Maybe race, language, culture, or maybe perceptions of socio-economic equality?

Balfour writes:

MikeP:

What about not-especially-criminal paupers? Can we exclude them from the country?

Before you answer (and I'm not trying to be snide here; I apologize if I came across that way before) please consider:

We already have a "welfare state" which practices harsh aggression against net taxpayers. By the automatic functioning of the welfare state, it is certain that admitting poor aliens will increase aggression on net taxpayers.

Net taxpayers don't have enough political power to roll back the welfare state, but they may have enough influence to limit immigration.

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting open immigration?

I don't think so. Furthermore, anyone who does support removing immigration limits before abolishing the welfare state is my enemy, because he wishes to commit (through the welfare state) aggression on me.

After "Libertarians" abolish the welfare state (something I support) then we can do something about free immigration.


(As for all of you who are about to furiously type clever proposals for "guest" (i.e., indentured) workers, or excluding immigrants (and their children?) from welfare schemes, or requiring immigrants to have "sponsors" who guarantee that those immigrants won't go on welfare... fuggeddaboudit. All those schemes have been established in the past* and have never kept poor immigrants and their children off welfare, because politicians and rent-seeking low-wage employers like putting people on welfare.)

(*Actually "sponsorship" is still nominally in effect— of course the government doesn't actually go after sponsors.)

MikeP writes:

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting open immigration?

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting drug legalization? The welfare state simply encourages people to quit their jobs and the lower prices mean they can be on drugs all the time.

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting a repeal of minimum wage laws? The welfare state simply encourages people who do not want to work for less than they make in welfare not to work.

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting free trade? The welfare state simply encourages people to go on the dole rather than work harder to make American labor more competitive.

...or excluding immigrants (and their children?) from welfare schemes...

Incidentally, the single easiest improvement in the welfare/immigration problem would be to put citizen children of immigrants on the same welfare schedule as their parents, not on the schedule of long-time citizens. Then immigrant families in their entirety would not be eligible for any individualized welfare.

David C writes:

Speaking as a liberal with some libertarian views:

The simple answer is that many liberals support comprehensive immigration reform. I think of anti-immigration sentiment as being mostly a Southern trait. I think Choice 1 about dictators was the most accurate for me personally although 2 is also right. Not so sure about 3 and 4. Both sound like they might be right, but I haven't really thought about it.

The other thing is that East Germany was not even close to what most liberals are aiming for. In America, government spending in non-recession periods is about 30% of GDP. Primarily, liberals want to change the current composition of government while only slighting increasing spending and raising taxes to pay for changes. A radical leftist would argue for substantially reducing military expenditure while adopting a health care system similar to Great Britain or Canada, and a government takeover of the banking system. They also might be in favor of eliminating government grants to private schools or simply banning private schools altogether.

A radical leftist would argue for government spending being about 40% of GDP instead of it's current composition of about 30% of GDP. Somebody on the far right, such as yourself, would argue for government spending being about 10% of GDP (military, police, courts). Meanwhile, East Germany had a centrally planned economy, so 80-90% of spending was determined by the government.

So you see, a radical leftist in America has more in common with you, a radical libertarian, than with the German Democratic Republic of the 1980s. Mainstream liberals and conservatives are even closer together.

MikeP writes:

A radical leftist would argue for government spending being about 40% of GDP instead of it's current composition of about 30% of GDP.

In 2006 it was 36%. In 2009 it is a stimulus-boosted 45%. It 2010 it tones back down to 42%. From the way Obama talks, and the reign he gives to Pelosi and Reid, it ain't going any lower than that in the near or medium future.

Look at the graph in the second link. We all breathed a sigh of relief when President Clinton told us the era of big government is over. The sigh was lost on Bush, and now Obama has let the dogs loose. How much higher do you want that percentage to go, and do you imagine that it will actually stop itself when you think it should?

Prakhar Goel writes:

"Maybe I am missing the irony here, but libertarian thinking gives the sovereign no authority that is not derived from, and not limited to the protection of, the rights of the people."

To a formalist/reactionary/me, that statement is complete garbage because it is a cluster of contradiction. "[T]he sovereign has no authority..."? Then that is not a sovereign because by definition a sovereign has absolute authority. If the sovereign is nice (or cares about the property value of his/her/its country on the international intersovereign market) then it is likely that a sovereign will act to protect many (most...) of the rights that libertarians attribute to people. However, a sovereign is under no obligation to do so because by definition, sovereigns are supreme. Note also that all countries have sovereigns even if these are the entire collective people. Does this contradict libertarianism? Duh. Thats why I included the if and also why I am not a libertarian. Their philosophy can't even model the real world. They give rights to people without any mechanism to enforce them.

"In no way, shape, or form is a country owned by the sovereign who claims dominion over it, nor are the rights of people derivative of or granted by the sovereign."

The sovereign has absolute control over his/her/its country. How is that not ownership? Furthermore, sovereigns do not become sovereigns by claiming dominion or other junk like that. Sovereigns become sovereigns by establishing effective control over a country. Furthermore, if the rights of people are not derived or granted by the sovereign, where do they come from? Thin air? There are only two basic "rights" that anybody has. Eventual death and (hopefully low) taxes.

MikeP writes:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

I can understand that you may not believe this, but you could at least act like it's not loony.

Steve Sailer writes:

"Frankly, this is yet another issue where I have trouble even imagining what an intelligent, thoughtful non-libertarian would say."

That's because you became a worshipper in the Church of Julian Simon and have closed your mind off to Doubts.

David C writes:

Re: Mike P

That'll teach me to use out-of-date data. I found something from 2002 which said it was 28% of GDP. I knew it had grown, and figured it would be around 32% or so not counting the recession, but I had no idea it was that high. It should be noted that Obama's projected budget doesn't settle down from recession expenditures until 2012, so it'll probably be substantially lower than 42% of GDP. See: http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/99xx/doc9957/MainText.3.1.shtml#1090981 There's also some evidence that Obama plans on making significant cuts to the military budget over time, but that will get phased in gradually and quietly. I should also say that I'm not a radical leftist. I don't think we should monopolize the banks or the health care system (although the latter would be an improvement on the current system).

James writes:

"It's OK to keep people out, but not to keep them in. Question: Suppose the Berlin Wall had been erected by West Germany to keep out illegal immigrants. Would it have been OK then?"
Of course!

Prakhar Goel writes:

@MikeP

"I can understand that you may not believe this, but you could at least act like it's not loony."

Of course it isn't. All countries use some sort of myth to justify their current leaders. The formalist model just says that the sovereign is there and nothing can be done about it but that rarely suffices for any but the staunchest formalist. The rest must have a reason. On the whole, the myth used by the US constitution is no weirder than the prior myths used (heredity, mandate of god, historical inevitability, or my favorite blood of the dragon used by the Carolingians after the Roman Empire). However, that doesn't make it any more than pure fiction and any sociologists, historian, or philosopher who falls for this trick does not deserve to call himself such.

Balfour writes:

MikeP:

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting drug legalization? The welfare state simply encourages people to quit their jobs and the lower prices mean they can be on drugs all the time.

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting a repeal of minimum wage laws? The welfare state simply encourages people who do not want to work for less than they make in welfare not to work.*

As a net taxpayer, do I really have a moral duty to commit self-injury by supporting free trade? The welfare state simply encourages people to go on the dole rather than work harder to make American labor more competitive.**

Your examples are not parallel. Sure, citizen drug fiends or lazy people may go on welfare if we shift their incentives even slightly, but those people are already here. They are already eligible for American welfare payments (and public schools, and so-forth). Even if public policy remains static they (like so many others) may go on welfare anytime for idiosyncratic reasons.

Foreigners who never enter the country can't get on welfare regardless of their incentives. Therefore immigration policy is very different than domestic drug legalization or free trade or whatever.

I repeat my suggestion: minimize the welfare state before you open the borders. I am genuinely surprised that you reject that approach. Are you simply so blinded by simple political slogans that you cannot think logically?

*Actually, repealing minimum-wage laws would allow more people who want jobs to get them, so I don't think this "example" serves you very well.

**Protectionism generally reduces employment rather than boosting it, so again, I don't think this "example" serves you well. It is true that protectionism is a domestic political issue with hordes of rent-seekers on the anti-trade (pro-tariff) side, and some of those rent-seekers try to frighten the masses by claiming that free trade will cause unemployment, but they are empirically wrong and you should know that.

MikeP writes:

Foreigners who never enter the country can't get on welfare regardless of their incentives.

Interestingly, foreigners who illegally enter the country also can't get on welfare regardless of their incentives. Indeed, any open borders immigration system would certainly deny immigrants welfare for a very, very long time. And simply following my recommendation amove, the children of immigrants couldn't get on welfare either.

I repeat my suggestion: minimize the welfare state before you open the borders. I am genuinely surprised that you reject that approach. Are you simply so blinded by simple political slogans that you cannot think logically?

Simple political slogans? Actually, if anything blinds me, it is simple morality. An individual's rights are not contingent on a condition of birth. The mere fact that someone was born in another country does not abrogate his natural rights of travel, residence, and labor.

But beyond that, even when he receives government largess, an immigrant does no harm to you. The government does harm to you. Regardless, that harm is a pittance compared to the far greater harm done to the immigrant by prohibiting his free travel, residence, and labor.

agnana writes:

I think both 1 and 2 come into play.

Consider the following counterfactuals:

A. Suppose that the scenario was that the five were tunnelling under the US-Mexico border to bring in their families (counterfactual to 1 and 2). I don't think even most liberals would characterize the INS guards trying to stop them as evil. Certain brands of conservatives would be cheering the INS on.

B. Suppose it was 1967 and that the five were deserters from the US Army tunneling under border TO Mexico to escape being deployed to Vietnam (counterfactual to 1). Again, I think you see the liberals cheer on the tunnelers and boo the INS and the conservatives would cheer on the INS and boo the tunnelers.

C. Suppose that the tunnelers were trying to smuggle in some samples (say cell cultures that wouldn't be able to cross the border without a lengthy permitting process) that would enable them to start a business in the US (counterfactual to 2). I think there would be much more ambivalence here.

SJWES writes:

1. It's OK to flee from a dictatorship, even if your motive is economic gain and your action undermines redistribution. Question: What if the Berlin Wall enjoyed democratic support? Would it have been OK then?

Yes. Economic gain and freedom are one and same.
No. It would not have been okay if a democratically elected gov't supported a wall.

2. It's OK to keep people out, but not to keep them in. Question: Suppose the Berlin Wall had been erected by West Germany to keep out illegal immigrants. Would it have been OK then?

Ironically that is exactly what the East Germans told the east Berliners, they were keeping out the evil western idology. Stupidly, Germany thought the Americans would save the day.
"Ich bin ein berliner" JFK

3. When a nation has been "artificially" divided, it's OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement within the nation's "true borders." Question: Where in the world do "true borders" come from? Philosophers may say "the social contract," but it's obvious that almost all real-world borders have been set by force. See for example what happened to Germany after WWI and WWII.

Germany was artifically divided and yes they restricted movement within their own borders. As an east Berliner, you were not allowed to live near the wall's border if you had relatives that lived in the west-
However west Berliners were allowed a limited # of entries that required certain sums of money. Any person over the age of 65 was allowed to leave and encouraged-as they were useless to the state


4. It's OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement if they split up families and close friends. Question: Doesn't this mean that current family reunification quotas are actually monstrously strict? If this seems like hysterical libertarian rhetoric, watch the scene in The Tunnel when people explain who they want to smuggle out. People weren't just willing to risk their lives for their children, spouses, parents, and siblings. They also risked their lives for boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family of friends, and more.
My parents fled East Berlin in 1951 and 1953. They didn't care about redistribution, or politics. They left because they wanted to raise children in a country where you would not be limited by the STATE. Sadly, I no longer live in a Country that recognizes the INDIVDUAL. History repeating itself? I hope not.

[Commented edited for overuse of upper case. Please do not post comments with entire sentences and paragraphs in upper case.--Econlib Ed.]

Balfour writes:

MikeP:

You wrote: Indeed, any open borders immigration system would certainly deny immigrants welfare for a very, very long time. And simply following my recommendation amove, the children of immigrants couldn't get on welfare either.

MikeP, amigo, we seem to have come in a circle. I just don't believe you can exclude immigrants and their kids from welfare (and schools and jails, etc.) once they're here. That has never been done before, so why would it suddenly happen now? Heck, your rhetoric reminds me of communists who claim that "next time we'll do it properly..." somehow Stalin or Hoxha or Castro always shows up.

I propose you prove that you can alter public policy in a "Libertarian" direction by reducing the welfare state before you open the borders. If you can't roll back the welfare state, you have no business opening the borders. As I wrote before, any "campaign" promises that immigrants won't increase aggression on net taxpayers are worth no more than Obama's campaign promises not to raise taxes so long as the mechanisms of the welfare state remain in place.

For example, you just asserted that illegal immigrants don't get welfare. You are quite wrong. For example:

"'Illegal immigration continues to have a devastating impact on Los Angeles County taxpayers,' [County Supervisor] Antonovich said in the statement. 'The total cost for illegal immigrants to county taxpayers exceeds $1 billion a year - not including the millions of dollars for education.'"

I could adduce page after page of references. The fact is that poor immigrants, legal or illegal, cost taxpayers many, many billions each year.

As for the moral question of whether the immigrants or the government are responsible for the aggression, I say it doesn't matter. The government (i.e., the crooks who run it) is responsible for the aggression, but as a practical matter, for structural and cultural reasons, the level of aggression the government practices against me depends on the number of immigrants. In my interest (which actually, see below, does outweigh any abstract "harm" exclusion causes to poor foreigners) I will continue to oppose more poor immigration ("legal," "illegal," who cares?) so long as the current welfare-state remains in operation.

Somewhere in one of those interminable speeches by Howard Roarke or John Galt or whoever, I'm pretty sure Ayn Rand denounced the notion that free people must or should sacrifice their own interests to benefit random others, even when those others are poor or "needy." I didn't steal anything from people in other countries. If they feel ill-used they should take it up with their local oppressors.

Besides, you're empirically wrong. Poor immigrant households (4.5 million of them, including illegals, and rising) cost taxpayers about $19,588 annually (already net of taxes paid by those households, and rising; 2004 numbers). That figure exceeds their wages! Since immigrants have no (Libertarian) right to any more than their earnings, and since poor immigrants' earnings are less* than the largess our welfare-state bestows upon them, the harm they do to me and my neighbors does exceed any "harm" we would do to them by excluding them from the country. Repeat: from an economic perspective the value poor foreigners would gain from immigrating is less than the value Americans would save by excluding them, under the current welfare-state regime. Furthermore, to really reckon immigrants' gains, we should subtract their potential home-country net income from their US net income. A poor immigrant gains less than his US income. He may appreciate "free" medical care, and schooling for his kids, but he's not earning those.

(Now, the chance to live in the USA rather than some poor country might have a very high subjective value to prospective immigrants, but we can't take that as their measure of "harm" (i.e., opportunity cost) from being prevented from immigrating). I might subjectively enjoy living in Bill Gates' big house even more than he does, but that doesn't give me the right to just move in. No, I would have to buy the house from him at his price, and if I don't have the moola, that's just too bad. Poor would-be immigrants don't have the moola.)

*Not a surprise. Poor immigrants can't command very high wages because they aren't very productive. We know for sure that they aren't very productive, because they can't command very high wages!

tom gladstone writes:

www.ironcurtainkid.com gives a good overview of what life behind the iron curtain, on the other side of the berlin wall, was like

MikeP writes:

Balfour,

I take it as an utter given that a liberalization of immigration would mean that immigrants allowed in would not get welfare. If you want to see welfare for entire classes of immigrants ended, then go back to 1996 and see it ended. We don't need to end it a second time. We only need to see to it that legislation that frees up immigration -- that is, that makes those who once were illegal immigrants into legal immigrants -- puts those immigrants on zero-welfare schedules.

"'Illegal immigration continues to have a devastating impact on Los Angeles County taxpayers,' [County Supervisor] Antonovich said in the statement. 'The total cost for illegal immigrants to county taxpayers exceeds $1 billion a year - not including the millions of dollars for education.'"

Fully half of that billion is welfare to the citizen children of illegal immigrants -- whom I have already noted should not be qualified to receive individualized welfare.

Poor immigrant households (4.5 million of them, including illegals, and rising) cost taxpayers about $19,588 annually (already net of taxes paid by those households, and rising; 2004 numbers).

Nice of you to argue by lumping illegal immigrants -- who receive no direct welfare -- with legal immigrants -- who may. It is interesting to note in following the references back that the average household whose head has no high school diploma has a lower tax bill and higher benefit outlay than the immigrant with that education. Presumably this can be accounted for by the fact that illegal immigrants receive no direct welfare.

Given that there are classes of homegrown citizens who induce more of a fiscal cost than illegal immigrants, would you argue that such citizens should be expatriated? If not, why not? Certainly their cost to you is greater than the gain to them of remaining in the US.

Balfour writes:

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