Bryan Caplan  

The Missing Arguments

Taxi drivers of the world, uni... What does 1933-80 tell us abou...
Libertarians have a reputation for silly absolutism.  While there's truth in the stereotype, libertarians are at least as likely to make intellectually lazy exceptions to their general principles.  This is especially true when the people losing their liberty are foreigners or other outgroups

The clearest symptom of this intellectual laziness is making arguments for specific exceptions that imply far broader exceptions.  Even libertarian heroes like Milton Friedman have been guilty here.  How so?  Let me outsource to the noble Don Boudreaux. 
I am convinced that Milton Friedman's most regrettable contribution to public policy is not the relatively minor role he played during WWII in implementing a system of income-tax withholding in the United States.  Rather, his most regrettable contribution is announcing that, while he favors open immigration in principle, he opposes it when the home government runs a welfare state...

[A]s far as I know Friedman never qualified his passionate, powerful, and principled case for drug legalization by claiming that legalization, while desirable in principle, is unworkable (or undesirable, or impractical, or unrealistic, or whatever) in a world with a U.S. welfare state.  But it seems to me that if Friedman genuinely believed that the existence, and likely permanence, of a welfare state in America is a strong-enough reason to empower government to do what that government otherwise ought not do - in the case of immigration, forcibly prevent people from migrating to the United States - then he should also have qualified his argument for drug legalization with the same condition; namely, in the case of drugs, forcibly prevent people from getting high by whatever peaceful means they choose.

The fact that Friedman (again, as far as I know) never qualified his case for drug legalization with the condition that the welfare state first be rolled back suggests to me that Friedman's case for restricting immigration (at least as that case has now come down to us in lore) is at odds with his case for drug legalization.
Don then turns to a case doubly dear to my heart:

And, while we're at it, doesn't the existence of the welfare state require government also to restrict which majors college students choose?  Without a welfare state, students would be more focused on finding gainful employment after they graduate.  But with a welfare state, the risk of being unemployed for long periods - or of earning very low pay for most of one's working life - as a result of majoring in the likes of "race studies" or "dance criticism" will too often be ignored by irresponsible or lazy students, who rely upon welfare-state payments to subsidize their indulgence in majors that promise no decent monetary rewards.

Don concludes:

Where does the enhanced scope for government action end once we admit that government buys for itself, by illegitimately exercising power W, an indulgence for the exercise of otherwise illegitimate power R?  What sort of distrust of the motives and knowledge of government officials leads many self-described libertarians to oppose government's exercise of power W but approve of government's exercise of otherwise-illegitimate power R if government insists on simultaneously exercising illegitimate power W?

Obviously, you could try to make the case that the perverse interaction between the welfare state and immigration is more dire than the perverse interaction between the welfare state and drug use or college major selection.  But I've yet to see any except-for-immigration libertarian carefully construct such an argument.  Why not?  If you have an explanation for these missing arguments other than intellectual laziness, I'd like to hear it.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Jack Grahl writes:

The U.S. has a welfare state?

handle writes:

No true libertarian?

Anyway, the argument is simple. A country with a moderate welfare state that opens its borders and transfer payments system to the entire global population is going to become a much less libertarian place because socialist government redistribution is going to become severely obnoxious and a much larger fraction of the overall economy, not to mention the electoral impact in terms of support for increased coercive confiscation.

From today's news, unaccompanied minor illegal immigrant and gang member about to be released, "the government will take care of us.". Indeed it will, and it won't have a net libertarian impact.

Hugh writes:
Libertarians have a reputation for silly absolutism

Well, now that you bring up the matter: yes, you do.

Those who would implement new policies need to consider how those new policies will interact with existing policies.

Lazily dismissing this as intellectual laziness won't get you very far.

Philo writes:

The welfare system exists because it has public support. If the U.S. were compelled to accept open immigration this public support would dry up, and the welfare system would be pared back dramatically.

Craig writes:
Philo writes:

The welfare system exists because it has public support. If the U.S. were compelled to accept open immigration this public support would dry up, and the welfare system would be pared back dramatically.

I think you give the public too much credit. The public would support ever steeper taxes and ever steeper progressive policies to support the expanding 99%.

Mercer writes:

I think it is intellectually lazy to keep writing about what abstract principles make you feel good and ignore the practical implications of the policy you advocate,

Musca writes:

How about fear, specifically the fear that the right policies would be blamed for undesirable outcomes?

We saw this when problems traceable to government involvement in banking, monetary policy, and finance led to policies that push even more government involvement in banking, monetary policy, and finance: the 2008 financial crisis resulting in Dodd-Frank. The actual cause of the failure was misdiagnosed, leading to a prescription for more of the bad policies that caused the failure in the first place.

People devoted to ideas are particularly fearful of having history used against them: "we tried it your way, and look what happened".

In these cases, libertarians are fearful that open borders, drug legalization, etc. are good policies that, when combined with the welfare state, will lead to undesirable outcomes due entirely to the welfare state's existence (e.g., more poor people crossing the border just for benefits, more people becoming addicts dependent on government assistance). The undesirable outcomes will be blamed on the policy change, not on the welfare state. When people start thinking, "we tried freedom, and it doesn't work", freedom will be that much farther away.

Jeff writes:
Obviously, you could try to make the case that the perverse interaction between the welfare state and immigration is more dire than the perverse interaction between the welfare state and drug use or college major selection. But I've yet to see any except-for-immigration libertarian carefully construct such an argument. If you have an explanation for these missing arguments other than intellectual laziness, I'd like to hear it.

Because the argument is so self-evident that it doesn't require much explication? What's the definition of "careful" you're operating under here?

Eric writes:
If the U.S. were compelled to accept open immigration this public support would dry up, and the welfare system would be pared back dramatically.
The Putnam observation that diverse communities 'turtle' and that people will then trust government less to provide welfare to their neighbors, is probably true, but that's a large price to pay for lowering support for welfare.

Supposedly, the immigrants in my suburb don't use much welfare (most are from Somalia), from a couple studies I've seen. I'm skeptical, as they dominate the 'free breakfast & lunch' program at school, our section 8 housing, and our crime stats. I don't think there's good faith accounting of immigrant costs because to do so faithfully would just engender allegations of hate, and no professor wants that hanging over him/her.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

The notion that increased immigration will cause reduced welfare spending is irreconcilable with experience. Look at this 2012 Cato Policy Analysis brief (#694 by Michael Tanner). Scan down to pages 5-6 to look at the graphs. Note that welfare spending has grown ever since 1965, even as the percentage of the US population who are immigrants has risen from about 5% to over 13% (and if you count immigrants' children as newcomers the rise is even steeper).

Mike Farmer writes:

So yes the welfare state prevents many libertarian proposals from materializing. The welfare state, along with the military/industrial complex, is the basic structure of interventionism/statism, antithetical to liberty and libertarian governance.

NZ writes:

Maybe Milton Friedman didn't make exceptions for drug legalization and college majors because he didn't need to.

The main benefit of legalizing drugs (freeing us from our World Police obligations while simultaneously weakening our foreign enemies) would outweigh the increased burden on the welfare state. Besides, legalized drugs could also be taxed and this, combined with the decrease in criminal processing costs, would relieve some of that burden. I also think it is possible to combine legal permissiveness with cultural restrictiveness so that the increase in drug use (and thus the increased burden on the welfare system) is less pronounced.

As for college majors, there are already many useless majors concurrent with a welfare state. While a few hipsters using their food stamps to buy gourmet cheese makes a flashy news item, the vast majority of welfare recipients do not suffer from having earned a useless major in college.

Octavio Lima writes:

It is refreshing to see this debate happening. Too often when these comments are made, and I make them often as well that the welfare state prevents open borders, mayhem ensues. We are accused of being bigots and being xenophobes. But it is indeed refreshing to see I am not the only one who sees the same, particularly here at EconLog. I think that we all should instead of fighting about open borders immediately, fight together to reduce and shrink the welfare state. After we do that then we can fight about open borders.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Yes, I agree with several others that Don Boudreaux has made a very weak argument. Drug legalization incompatible with a welfare state? I don't see this at all. There might be a few more addicts on welfare than before, but probably many fewer if they weren't restricted in their drug-taking by the police and prison records. That and the lower criminal justice costs would likely decrease costs overall, with or without welfare.

His college case is even weaker. Certainly subsidizing college for useless majors is stupid; but I don't think either side is arguing for that. I don't see how college students taking useless majors on their own dime have anything to do with welfare.

Not that I believe Friedman spent much time at all on the issue. I have only read a minority of his writings, but I don't remember a single word he wrote on the subject. Maybe he would now agree with Bryan if he were alive today. But I suspect not. I am in no way on expert on Friedman, but I got the impression that he was pretty conservative about change. Suddenly opening the gates is not conservative. And I agree with that approach.

Carl writes:

Bryan, when a serial killer is captured by the police do you regard it as unjust because he wasn't captured by a private security agent instead?

No? Oh, I suppose this means you support a monopoly on police services!

BZ writes:

I wonder if the abolitionists had this sort of discussion: "If we free them, they are just going to go on the dole!" "Ah, right you are. Let's just keep them in chains then."

Maybe I'm another kind of silly libertarian absolutist, but consequentialism sounds callous and hollow when discussing other basic human rights.

Eric writes:
BZ: "If we free them, they are just going to go on the dole!" "Ah, right you are. Let's just keep them in chains then."

Well, I don't think that analogy holds too well because in the slave state there are still direct costs and benefits to a slave for current citizens (as say, in Classical times), both before and after.

But it's interesting because it highlights whether granting free citizenship rights is positive or negative right, from the perspective of current citizens. From many libertarian perspectives, only negative rights are obvious to give. These issues can get pretty murky at border cases.

I would say that letting someone in to the US gives them a positive right if, conditional upon their demographic (eg, young engineer at Google vs. uneducated mom with 3 kids), they expect to be net consumers of government largess.

johnleemk writes:

BZ, I agree. And in fact, post-abolition in the US, many former slaves were in fact reliant on some fashion of assistance from the state. Certainly the size of the US welfare state grew during the Reconstruction period because of accommodations that had to be made for newly free men and women, many of whom had never been prepared to lead free lives. Did any of that make abolition a bad idea in hindsight?

That so many self-professing libertarians seem eager to cite the welfare state as a reason for suppressing immigration boggles the mind. It's even more mind-boggling that people say "Well you can't compare open borders to ending the drug war; even if we have to put more drug war ex-felons on the dole, ending the drug war is still fiscally neutral or positive" -- so if ending the drug war turned out to be fiscally negative due to the welfare state, you mean to say you wouldn't support it then?

Of course good policymaking requires cost-benefit analysis. But if your idea of justice is primarily defined by what passes a cost-benefit analysis from the state's standpoint, I don't really know what to say.

That said, I'm not convinced by Bryan's frequent claims that open immigration will shrink the welfare state. It's theoretically possible, but the empirical consensus from the literature, so far as I can ascertain, is that immigration is fiscally neutral, i.e., it neither grows or shrinks the economic size of the state. What I would find more plausible is an argument that greater immigration shrinks welfare access for immigrants. (In fact I think this was the general thrust of a recent book called The Price of Rights by migration scholar Martin Ruhs.)

The US has almost always had restrictions on immigrant welfare eligibility, but these were expanded particularly in the 1990s. There are plenty of real-world examples of countries cutting back on welfare eligibility for immigrants. To take one in the news, the UK right now is moving to cut back NHS access and some other benefits eligibility for foreigners (though the empirical evidence seems to suggest that foreigners aren't really any sort of problem here).

In light of all this, I'm thoroughly unconvinced by the typical libertarian open borders nightmare scenario -- one where native voters sit back and allow the size of the state's fiscal obligations to grow unchecked due to ballooning immigrant benefit claims. It just doesn't seem to happen in the real world. In the first place, immigrants tend to be fiscally neutral, and in some countries like the US actually fiscally positive, so it'd take a large number of them to make significant dent in the state fisc. And from history, there's ample evidence that when immigrants become an outsized burden on the state -- or sometimes, even when they don't -- governments cut back on their benefit eligibility anyway.

vikingvista writes:

It isn't intellectual laziness at all. Why, in the words of the immortal Thomas Jefferson:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all legal American citizens are created equal, that unlike those born outside these politically imposed boundaries and not legally naturalized within, legal American citizens are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...

"[The tyrant king] has endeavoured to impose the population of these States; for that purpose streamlining the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; allowing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and lowering the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."

I'm quoting from memory, so I might've gotten a few words wrong, but I think you get the gist.

liberty writes:

I don't see what the existence of a welfare state has to do with whether or not freedom to consume certain goods should be made illegal. Does a welfare state also justify making fatty foods illegal -- is this the whole socialized medicine necessitates banning fatty foods argument?

Also, I do not buy the argument that choosing specialities is natural because it would be necessary given a fully free market with no initial income -- if a free market is the state of nature, what about a initial income from one's per capita portion of land and natural resources? In the "state of nature" shouldn't we all have a small piece of land or the share in a piece of land the whole community tends? This is equivalent to a fall-back "welfare" income, which would allow the individual to explore their interests, creativity, hone preferred skills, etc. rather than being forced into serving the market by providing skills in immediate demand, going with the simplest and most easily monetized skill choice.

J writes:

@liberty At the risk of going off topic Milton Friedman supported replacing welfare with a guaranteed income. It'd certainly reduce the "welfare" burden of immigrants if instead of the myriad of welfare programs there was a basic monthly income, that say you either had to be an adult citizen to receive or be a resident >10 years, etc.

John T. Kennedy writes:


Following the link to your Common Sense Case for Liberty, I recognize it's the same argument Michael Huemer uses in The Problem of Political Authority.

Did you get the argument from him, he from you, or both of you from an earlier source?

AS writes:

Under open borders, total output would grow at a faster rate than welfare payments. The average native would see his standard of living rise.

NZ writes:


When you say the average native's standard of living would rise, do you mean that

A) he would be able to afford a nicer life for himself and his family but have to work harder to get it?

B) while not having to work any harder, having a nice life for himself and his family would become more affordable? or

C) he would be able to afford a nicer life for himself and his family while not having to work any harder?

Whatever your answer, can you point to some examples where increased immigration of the sort we can expect under open borders, if implemented tomorrow--i.e. huge unfluxes of people from poor 3rd world countries into rich, racially diverse 1st world countries--has made this happen?

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