Art Carden  

How Much Liberty Will We Sacrifice to Preserve Liberty?

The Chicago School of Economic... Robin Cook's Mistaken Idea abo...

Long-time readers of EconLog will know that most of the common objections to increased immigration are simply wrong. For review, here's Ben Powell's explanation of how immigrants don't wreck our economy, take our jobs, or depress wages.

Still, one of the most plausible objections to more immigration holds that immigrants are a threat to the political institutions of a free society. By admitting more immigrants, we admit people who don't value liberty the way Americans do. The economic benefits of immigration are the Trojan Horse in which a quasi-socialist future is hidden. Or so the argument goes. It's not one I buy, and I would be willing to bet--by holding my position in American equities--that more open immigration would not lead to the demise of the Republic. Even if that's what we fear, on Friday, co-blogger Bryan Caplan detailed a number of statist policies that, by logic similar to immigration restrictions, would possibly lead to more libertarian policies.

And yet, as Bryan has pointed out, immigration restrictions are already an encroachment upon liberty. It isn't at all clear to me why I should require your permission, or the government's permission, to truck and barter with someone who was born on the other side of the line.

Let's ignore that, though. "Securing our border" won't be free, either in terms of liberty or money. My guess is that a lot of people who read EconLog agree that the War on Drugs has been a failure (if you disagree, here's one of many articles in which I've argued for legalization). Why will a War on Commerce With Certain Kinds of People be different? Which additional taxes are we willing to pay in order to secure the border? What reductions in liberty are we willing to endure?

Economics deals with the unintended consequences of actions and policies. What lessons, then, can we learn from failures like the drug war that can inform immigration policy. Passing laws won't change the fact that a lot of us wish to truck and barter with foreigners. Here, therefore, are a few questions:

1. What kinds of laws and regulations would be necessary to ensure that people don't truck and barter with the wrong people?

2. What infrastructure would be necessary in order to enforce those laws and regulations?

3. How would those laws and regulations affect the business climate and the ease of living from day to day?

4. At what point would the reductions in liberty from securing the border outweigh the reductions in liberty from allowing in more immigrants?

COMMENTS (30 to date)
Finch writes:

Well, the law already sort of answers 4: when the reduction of liberty is very small, immigration restrictions are okay, and when it is modest, immigration restrictions are very light.

When the reduction of liberty relates to employment of immigrants (basically access to cheaper unskilled labor) some restriction on immigration is considered okay.

When the reduction of liberty relates to your ability to live with your family (say if your sister is a potential immigrant) restrictions on immigration are basically non-existant.

So the answer for our current system is "only when the restriction on liberty is extremely minor."

As far as I can tell, the liberty of the potential immigrant counts for nearly zero in this calculation, as I suppose you would expect in a democracy.

Steve Z writes:

I often appear here to voice skepticism of Prof. Caplan's enthusiasm for unlimited free immigration, but I agree with the substance of this post. The right way to think is to measure the cost of immigration against its benefits. Questions of suffrage, natal policy, and immigration are fundamental to the operation of a republican nation-state.

Suffrage is off the table due to history, and mucking around with natal policy to a great degree is likely also foreclosed. So the only way for a nation to maintain its character, laws, and customs --- on a fundamental level --- is through restriction of immigration and naturalization.

I propose that we do not currently know enough to chance experimenting with unlimited free immigration, given the proven benefits of a relatively stable polity, with a common culture, operating under the rule of law. Keyhole solutions tend to relate to restricting suffrage, natal policy, or some other aspect of the basket of rights --- e.g., welfare participation --- that just wouldn't fly given political realities. To the stakes are the very existence of the nation itself.

The question is easier if, as Steve Sailer proposed, you think of the nation as a fiduciary for its current citizens and their offspring. A harder question is presented if the utility of would-be immigrants is added to the ledger. Even then, though, there are grounds for caution. Information has costs and benefits of its own, and it might be worthwhile having an experimental immigration policy aimed at discerning how much of an immigrant 'load' a nation can handle at a given point in time. It could then be optimized in light of this information.

What I like about the current post, in short, is that it re-orients the discussion away from deontological concerns, which seem to be too categorical to be helpful, and toward thinking about costs and benefits.

Ray writes:

If more people who don't value liberty immigrate to the US, doesn't the influence run in two directions? On the one hand, more collectivists may be elected to political power. But also many immigrants may shift their political beliefs in more liberty-friendly directions.

Are there any good studies of the political beliefs of immigrants both when they first get to the US, and a decade or two later?

NZ writes:
more open immigration would not lead to the demise of the Republic.
Depends of course on how you define "demise" and "Republic." Mass immigration doesn't affect all places equally. People in New England are fairly insulated, while Californians and Arizonans feel its effects more strongly. Some people consider it a major problem when the character of their neighborhood changes drastically. This is not an unreasonable complaint, nor an implausible effect of mass immigration, but not something that could be considered the "demise of the Republic" either.
the War on Drugs has been a failure
Again, it depends on what you believe are the goals of the war on drugs. If the goal is to get people to stop using drugs entirely, then yes of course it has been a failure. If the goal is to find a handy proxy for law enforcement to get potentially dangerous people off the street (or, nodding towards my tin-foil hat for a moment, to create lots more government and prison industry jobs), then in some respects the war on drugs has worked extremely well. Heck, if you believe the goal is just to keep drug use "in check", then the war on drugs has been a moderate success.

The real issue with the War on Drugs isn't whether it's worked but whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I don't believe they have, but even I disagree with the reasoning of most people who agree with me.

Why will a War on Commerce With Certain Kinds of People be different?
Some prohibitions do indeed work well. It depends on the nature of the thing being prohibited (how easily can it be smuggled, are there reasonable legal alternatives, do people get addicted to it, is there a permissive culture around it, etc.), the level of demand for the prohibited thing, the types of people who tend to generate that demand, and a few other factors. Considering all that, I'd say a bit of protectionism towards commerce with certain kinds of people could work fairly well on net, especially for those Jobs Americans Just Will Do.
Jeff writes:

These are difficult questions to answer, for sure, but let's not pretend that by acknowledging this we should then conclude that immigration policy ought to simply err on the side of liberty and allow as many sub-90 IQ immigrants come here as can manage it and pretend the welfare state will actually shrink because of it, like Bryan does. Or, if you prefer, simply ignore the fact that additional instances of Muslim terrorism will not be used to further enlarge the surveillance state and further undermine the rule of law.

I take your point about the War on Drugs, but the War on Terror is an obvious counterpoint, in that it appears to be a direct result of a)liberal immigration policies here at home and b)liberal/neo-con interventionist policies abroad. The costs and negative effects on American liberty, I trust Art is well enough acquainted with that I need not rehash them. We libertarians are pretty much powerless to affect b) short of a Rand Paul presidency, but doubling down on a) doesn't strike me as a very sound idea, to put it mildly.

Andrew writes:

Is there a plausible way to allow immigrants to come to the United States solely as workers, and block citizenship so as to prevent the political externalities discussed above? As highlighted by the current immigration bill and previous amnesties, there is a large incentive for politicians to generate millions of new voters by giving citizenship to immigrants who are currently here only as workers. This incentive would only be strengthened if the immigrants were here legally as non-voting second-class residents.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think the argument is more like "How much of other people's liberty should we sacrifice in order to preserve our own?"

Of course, I think even asking this question shows that you're not really a libertarian. Liberty for me but not for thee is not libertarianism.

Hazel Meade writes:

When the reduction of liberty relates to your ability to live with your family (say if your sister is a potential immigrant) restrictions on immigration are basically non-existant.

FYI, the wait list for brother-sister family sponsorship visas is 11 years. That's not a "non-existent" reduction in liberty.

Finch writes:

Sorry Hazel, that's news to me. When I immigrated the wait list for family visas (although not via a sibling) was much less. I never even had to leave the country. Admittedly, this was more than ten years ago. I would have called the obstacles to my immigration non-existent.

guthrie writes:

I suppose, Jeff, we should also not pretend that one has empirical evidence that the welfare state is *bound* to grow given relaxed immigration (to the exclusion of other influences), nor ignore the fact that ‘dumb Mexicans’ and ‘angry Muslims’ aren’t the only ones affected by current immigration policy.

As long as Libertarians are ‘powerless’ – in particular we who advocate for relaxed immigration – why *not* double-down on the concept of Liberty? If the assertion is that there’s

guthrie writes:

*If the assertion is that there’s a less than 0% chance such policies will be enacted, what is everyone so bothered about?

(apologies for the double post. Last sentence got cut off somehow)

Finch writes:

> Of course, I think even asking this question
> shows that you're not really a libertarian.
> Liberty for me but not for thee is not
> libertarianism.

That seems like a slippery slope. I'm concerned about my own welfare. My ability to affect the welfare of others is limited.

A good way to think about Art's questions about the effects of immigration restrictions on your liberty is to think of how many specific potential immigrants you can name that, in the last year, you were unable to hire because of immigration restrictions. If your problem is just that you have to pay the kid next door $30 to mow your lawn, that's not a big imposition on your liberty. If you're a hiring manager at Oracle, you might have a legitimate complaint.

A sense of perspective seems in order here. Taxes are a big problem for liberty. Licensing is a big problem. Drug laws are significant, but maybe complicated. A draft would be a huge problem. But immigration restrictions seem like they ought to be way down the list.

Jeff writes:
I suppose, Jeff, we should also not pretend that one has empirical evidence that the welfare state is *bound* to grow given relaxed immigration (to the exclusion of other influences)

The mechanism seems obvious, doesn't it? Poor and working class people consume more government-sponsored social services than middle and upper class people (ie, welfare and transfer payments). When one considers the higher fertility rates of recent immigrants combined with their lower rate of assimilation/convergence with native norms as compared to previous generations of immigrants (at least for Hispanics and people from the Carribean), this is quite a recipe for increasing the size of the welfare state, both in absolute and per capita terms. Factor in that the left loves to use inequality (now increased) as a rhetorical tool to stoke class resentment among the uneducated and increase public support for expanded income redistribution (which seems pretty effective for purchasing political support from the recipients), and what you have is a recipe for statism.

Yes? No? Convince me I'm wrong. Seriously, I would love for someone to talk me out of my pessimism. Take a stab at it.

guthrie writes:


If Oracle can make their products cheaper with immigrant labor, but is unable to do so because they’re prohibited from hiring those workers, then citizens’ freedom to purchase product for a reduced price is affected. The effect may be marginal, but spread across the economy, it’s higher than just having to pay more for lawn care.

If I could hire a housecleaner (or nanny when I have kids), or a personal assistant at minimum wage (or lower), that would improve the quality of my life quite significantly, and in measureable ways. As it stands I am priced out of those markets.

OTOH, if I were a member of a Union, the effect of relaxed immigration would likely be quite significantly, and much more directly, negative. I would likely be more prone to be proactive in endorsing and supporting strong restrictions.

Finch writes:

> If Oracle can make their products cheaper with
> immigrant labor, but is unable to do so because
> they’re prohibited from hiring those workers,
> then citizens’ freedom to purchase product for a
> reduced price is affected.

I think I agree. It's just that that effect seems relatively small, and rather far removed from what we usually think of as liberty.

I'd really rather not be drafted. I'm unhappy giving almost half my income to the government to fritter away. The fact that I have to pay very slightly more for maid service (minimum wage law is likely the real problem here) or software (it's not clear how binding the immigration constraint is here) is not that big a deal.

guthrie writes:


Considering the question was regarding 'the reductions of liberty' in response to securing the border, I can see your point.

Can I ask you to push that point and try to answer the question? At what point does the 'securing of the border' affect your life more directly? What would be the action or actions of the State that would cause you to say 'that's enough'?

Andrew writes:

The minimum wage makes the open borders issue more interesting. Given that the minimum wage is not going anywhere, how many of these potential immigrants would come here only to find out that their marginal product is lower than the minimum wage? It is hard to picture politicians representing existing labor interests allowing immigrants to undercut them by working for less than the minimum wage. If for instance, a billion non-English speaking immigrants with less than a junior high eduction come here, would the unemployment rate pass 30%, 40%?

MingoV writes:

The "War on Commerce with Certain Kinds of People" is a straw man label. Those who favor immigration restrictions are not stating that we should stop trading with particular foreigners.

I agree that some justifications for restricting immigration are false. But, some are true. I argued previously that libertarians should fight against immigration by non-libertarians. Our nation is far from libertarian, and it has too few libertarians. Inviting non-libertarian immigrants will dilute the small pool of libertarians and make it harder to fight against worsening restrictions on freedoms and liberty and continuing expansions of governments.

Art Carden believes open immigration could lead to a more libertarian society. Where is the evidence to support that claim? The USA had open immigration (or close to it) throughout much of the 19th century. The USA became much less libertarian throughout the 19th century. I'm not saying that open immigration caused the reduction in libertarianism, but it is unlikely that it increased libertarianism.

Andrew writes:


Have you payed attention to California's changes over the last 30 years? Clearly Bryan Caplan is correct that increased immigration diminishes support for big government, as California is now a libertarian utopia. Government spending is the lowest of any state, and rich people are flocking to California as a tax haven.

D writes:

When you have immigrants who are brown and don't perform as well as the majority who are not brown (this is primarily an IQ problem), political takings coalitions -- white leftists and various "oppressed groups" -- will form to extract money and freedoms from the majority in innumerable ways via government through a narrative of oppression and racism. This narrative becomes the norm because anyone who speaks the truth (i.e., populations differ in their abilities) risks being Watson'd. It's a strategy that is basically foolproof and can't fail if history is any guide. A simple solution is to let anyone come here who is highly skilled. Nobody buys an argument based on oppression when the minority is successful, like Asians.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

People who have more at stake and much more empirical knowledge than you do believe "amnesty for millions of unlawful immigrants promises eventually to put an end to the modern-day GOP." They think like that because predominantly "hispanic" immigration in recent decades has added tens of millions of voters (naturalized immigrants and their fairly dull citizen offspring) who reliably vote 3:2 or even 7:3 leftist. They've already made California into a one-party (Democrat) state (though it was reliably Republican for decades after WWII) and all serious political analysts agree that mass immigration guarantees a tilt toward leftism. This occurs even with non-voting immigration because of the US' "rotten borough" problem of allocating electoral districts by raw, not voting, population.

Of course immigrants depress wages. From the employers' point of view* that's the whole idea! (And immigrants may not take your job, but then you aren't a low-skilled Black American.)

Powell obviously follows the same script as Bryan Caplan: loudly proclaim that theory says all will be well, ignore all empirical evidence to the contrary.

You can "truck and barter" with foreigners all you want; that is called "free trade" and nearly everyone here supports it. But you want to bring the foreigners nigh so they can impose externalities and overgraze the commons. That is a different kettle of fish.

*Employers don't hire immigrants for charitable reasons, but because immigrants will work for lower wages than other candidates. Sheesh, a Ph.D. economist should be familiar with "supply and demand." Don't lecture us about increasing the division of labor and making everyone better off, either. You know that's empirically false under current circumstances, because the marginal product of low-skilled labor is below subsistence in the USA (as defined by Adam Smith, to include laborers' shoes in England).

Finch writes:

> At what point does the 'securing of the border'
> affect your life more directly?

You mean with respect to liberty, or my welfare in general?

In general I might think "how much would I pay to change this law?" If there was a draft, I might pay a lot to be ineligible. I would pay nearly half my income to avoid taxes, almost dollar for dollar. I just don't see that it would make sense to pay much at all for the right to hire anyone in the world right now, for me at least. If you're looking for unique skills that can only be found in someone specific abroad, you've got a case, otherwise you're just worried about prices. And it's not like the price of labor is particularly high or not subject to other more significant manipulative regulation.

Securing the border really doesn't impact my life negatively (which is what I think you're looking for) very much at all. I have friends who are immigrants, and I was an immigrant, but we're all skilled immigrants, so the system is more a poorly defined pain than some evil barrier. A reasonably secure border would likely improve things for skilled immigrants, since they wouldn't be lumped in with the supposed negative effects of unskilled and illegal immigrants. Trying to have the same immigration law govern the PhD statistician from Germany and the illiterate car thief doesn't make a lot of sense. I haven't lived in the southwest in a while, so I'm insulated from much of the direct negative effect of unskilled and illegal immigration anyway.

If there started to be serious barriers to skilled immigration, I would notice that. Honestly, I understand immigration restrictions are a barrier to potential immigrants getting what they want, much as my unwillingness to give you my car is a barrier to your having a free car, but it's unusual for a citizen to really need to immigrate someone else. Further, looking around the world, almost complete immigration restrictions seem reasonably compatible with liberal democracy. Frankly, as an American, I'd worry more about the freedom to emigrate. I'm not terribly happy that US law now follows me wherever I go, forever.

Finch writes:

> I haven't lived in the southwest in a while, so
> I'm insulated from much of the direct negative
> effect of unskilled and illegal immigration
> anyway.

I suppose this isn't entirely true. I think there's something to the argument that my president is Barrack Obama and not Mitt Romney due, in no small part, to US immigration policy.

guthrie writes:


I believe the question was directed at your welfare in general, or perhaps your ‘sense’ of liberty. As in, at what point would you notice the tradeoff of liberty for security? I can understand your points about ‘broad brush’ approaches as opposed to a more ‘narrow’ approach (skilled vs. unskilled) to immigration. However I do not think the ‘free car’ example is helpful. It breaks down at the same point the ‘country as a house’ analogy breaks down. The Nation, as such, isn’t private property.


Do you agree or deny that there is a tradeoff between ‘liberty’ and ‘security’? If you deny it, why? If you agree, then I repeat the above question: At what point would that tradeoff become too expensive for you? At what point would *you* say ‘enough’?

Finch writes:

To the contrary, I think the free car example gets to the core of it. I've argued many times that the right thing to do, ethically and practically, is to charge a price for immigration slots.

Applying Rawlsian reasoning, if I'm to be indifferent to which side of a trade I'm going to be on, I want the price to be one both sides would trade at, not zero. The open borders movement is arguing for a zero price. Charge $250,000 for a citizen-track immigration slot, and objection to immigration would disappear.

Practically, any argument that doesn't put the interests of the people making immigration decisions front and center is a non-starter. Immigration decisions are made by voters, or I suppose citizens since declining to vote contributes to the decision.

NZ writes:


I've heard many other people propose that idea of charging for immigration slots. (Usually it's a figure significantly lower than the one you offered.) I think it's a reasonable proposal myself, though I also wonder about what happens when someone takes out a loan to pay for one, enters the country, fails to pay back the loan, and then becomes an "undocumented" worker. My faith in our ability to police lending policies, especially where the potential for "disparate impact" suits might exist, is severely shaken.

guthrie writes:


Ah, I see what you're getting at. I agree with NZ that such a scheme is reasonable. Immigrants currently are willing to pay quite a lot to get here and if we were the beneficiaries (as opposed to coyotes), then that may well answer the 'free-rider' and 'welfare-state' objections raised here by Ghost and Jeff. I would welcome that change to the status-quo and current trend.

I disagree, however, that objection would 'disappear', even if the nation benefits financially from this proposal. I don't underestimate xenophobes' and racists' creativity when it comes to inventing objections.

Finch writes:

> I disagree, however, that objection would
> 'disappear', even if the nation benefits
> financially from this proposal. I don't
> underestimate xenophobes' and racists' creativity
> when it comes to inventing objections.

The answer to those concerns is price. If citizens are less willing to supply immigration slots, they should charge a higher price. In some grand sense my scheme validates citizen concerns as important, while being silent on their correctness. It doesn't matter if the concerns are correct or not. It only matters at what price the suppliers are willing to supply.

Finch writes:

I further note that citizens might want to charge different prices to different people, say because they are more concerned about one person than another, or benefit more from one than another, and that that sort of price discrimination seems reasonable, too.

guthrie writes:


It occurs to me that this idea could be combined with the idea of giving local communities more autonomy in deciding how public assistance funds are spent (many services are administered through county administrations).

This, then would seem to further mitigate ‘cultural’ concerns of those who advocate closed borders, and give people more local control over exercising their ‘freedom of association’ (with more open communities possibly gaining more immigrants, and vice-versa).

Bravo, Finch! Your articulation of ‘validating concerns’ has given me pause! I shall incorporate the insight into my thinking going forward.

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