David R. Henderson  

Immigrants as Defenders of Freedom

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One issue that has come up a lot in the discussion of expanding immigration is many people's worry (at times, I have been one of the worriers) about immigrants coming in and voting, more than existing Americans do, for statist policies.

There have been many discussions of this on this blog. I'm on a flight right now and I don't want to take time to find the links, but if you check for work by Alex Nowrasteh, cited on Econlog and elsewhere, you'll find such discussions.

I'm finally getting around to reading Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and what do I find pops out at me in the first part of the book? The fact that immigrants in the 19th century were a bulwark against Prohibition. Okrent writes:

The opposition of Portland's Irish community could have been seen as an augury. For the next three-quarters of a century, immigrant hostility to the temperance movement and prohibitory laws was unabating and unbounded by nationality. The patterns of European immigration were represented in the ranks of those most vehemently opposed to legal strictures on alcohol: first the Irish, then the Germans, and, closer to end of the century, the Italians, the Greeks, the southern European Slavs, and the eastern European Jews. But the word "ranks" suggests a level of organization that did not exist among the immigrant populations in whose lives wine or beer were so thoroughly embedded. Only the German-American brewers showed an interest in concentrated action, when they united in response to the imposition of a beer tax during the Civil War.


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COMMENTS (38 to date)
ThomasH writes:

The fact that the Irish were against Prohibition is one reason some others were against it. :)

Sort of like Obama and immigration. Republicans abhor anything that is associated with Obama. They were for Romneycare-type health insurance finance reform until Obama adopted the idea; then it became socialism

David R. Henderson writes:

@ThomasH,
In your first sentence, did you accidentally say “some others were against” instead of “some others were for”?

LD Bottorff writes:

ThomasH,
When did Obama adopt the idea that expanded medical insurance should be done at the STATE level?
I think the immigration link is backwards. When a Republican president proposed immigration reform, the Republican House sent it to the Senate. It was delayed there, until 2007 when the Democrats held both the Senate and the House. If the Democrats had wanted to send a reform bill to the White House, they could have. But, I guess they had to oppose anything that Bush was for.

MikeDC writes:

So... 19th century immigrants were against the enhancement of state power and for the rule of law (which is, itself, a limitation of the state's power).

How does this make me feel better about 21st century immigrants who seem to seek then enhancement of state power and the erosion of the rule of law?

Greg Heslop writes:

Interesting. Relatedly, I recently combined data from the Migration Policy Institute and the Freedom in the Fifty States Project to look at whether the US states where the immigrants' share of the population had increased the most in the first decade of this millenium or so had seen larger declines in freedom (as defined by the Fifty-States Project) than had other states. My answer: no difference really stands out.

Not the best evidence one can imagine, but maybe it gives some information. Available here for anyone interested.

Gene writes:

Using this historical example doesn't really make the point you'd like to make. It doesn't contradict it, I'll give you that, but it doesn't support it either. Immigrants' attitudes about this specific policy, prohibition of alcohol, tells us little about their attitudes on larger issues, e.g., the role of the state in many, many other areas of life.

RPLong writes:

Great example. This is another reason why I think the libertarian case for immigration ought to account for "net freedom." If, for example, we opened our borders and the new immigrants voted for an increase in the minimum wage, then we experienced a libertarian "+1" and a libertarian "(-1)".

Even setting aside economic impacts, I'd argue that free migration and a freer international labor trade GREATLY offsets the loss of liberty associated with a higher minimum wage.

But once you factor in the probable economic impacts of both policies, the case for freer immigration becomes hard to deny, in my opinion.

NZ writes:

The Irish, Italians, and Germans who comprised the bulk of immigrants at the time weren't exactly from teetotaling cultures.

Also, alcohol prohibition was a rider issue on drug prohibition. That would explain opposition from Chinese and Mexican immigrants, among whom use of opium and marijuana, respectively, was popular.

Do you really think that situation is analogous to anything today?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I find surprising that many legal immigrants express negative views regarding illegal ones, and often say "I went through the legal process, they should spend ten years waiting as well..."

This, of course, strikes me as Stockholm syndrome, plus it overlooks the fact that while the legal immigrants may have had a legal way in (immediate family, H1B employer sponsor, etc.), most unskilled illegal immigrants from hispanic American countries do not have any legal way in.

Brian writes:

David,

While I certainly favor much more open borders, and it is no doubt true that immigrants can favor libertarian causes, your example actually argues against the point you want to make. Before the early 20th century immigrants came to the U.S., it would have been easy to predict their future position on Prohibition from their native culture. This implies that political allegiances of immigrants strongly mirror their origins and not those of their new country. Based on this example, we might expect newer Hispanic immigrants to be strongly wed to their current statist culture, and for 3/4 of a century no less! This is hardly cause for optimism.

That said, sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and do the right thing.

RPLong writes:
we might expect newer Hispanic immigrants to be strongly wed to their current statist culture

I have seen people make this claim all over the internet. I suppose the thinking goes that, because many people from Latin America live under regimes sort of like Castro's, it necessarily follows that those people prefer statism to libertarianism? Do I have the general idea correct?

I can think of many problems with that intuition, but at least I want to make sure that I have the argument correct. If not, would anyone care to articulate the reasoning more precisely?

NZ writes:

@Brian:

Why should we expect an immigrant to bring his home country's culture of statism (and I think we should expect this) but not his home country's culture of littering, dog fighting, or bribing cops?

@Mr. Econotarian:

If immigrants have Stockholm syndrome, then that makes us the hostage-takers. Let's do the right thing and let the hostages go.

But of course you didn't mean to say that immigrants are being held hostage here against their will, you just meant to say that any immigrant who isn't as enthusiastically pro-immigration as you are must be suffering from a trauma-induced psychological disorder.

You apparently haven't considered the notion that many immigrants move away from their home countries to get away from the other people in those countries. These immigrants are not only keenly aware of but grateful for the barriers to immigration they had to cross.

Gene writes:

RPLong, let's be honest here: Most people "prefer statism to libertarianism," period.

Arthur_500 writes:

Concerns about immigration have long been overblown. However, the current situation is unlike others we have had in our history.

Immigrants have historically wanted to come to America for their future lives. Much of the current immigration influx from our southern border has consisted of those who do not want to remain in the US. These individuals overall do not care about the US.

In fact there is evidence that many of the most recent immigrants from Mexico and further south have come for the "freebees" This does increase worry about voting for greater socialism and communist policies. I would suggest that this is a valid fear.

Our immigration policies have historically sought to limit the influx of too many of one group or another. Example would be the limits on Irish or Italians. These efforts have always failed and many of us believe we need to get a better policy.

The situation with our southern border is the ease of travel. individuals can walk across the border and settle into work in the US. There is no need to cross an ocean and no ability for authorities to quarantine them while their admission is processed.

Certainly we need a better immigration policy but to lump all immigrants into a group wherein they want to be come citizens is to give a false impression.

RPLong writes:

@ Gene

If you're right, then there wouldn't be any special reason to expect "Hispanic immigrants" to differ from people born in America.

I think that most people prefer liberty to statism in the abstract, to prefer helping the needy to letting them suffer in the abstract, and to prefer expedience to philosophical rigor in the abstract. I tend to think of liberty as a value that all human beings hold, against which they are sometimes willing to make trade-offs if they believe they will personally benefit from doing so.

For example, some people are immigration restrictionists because they believe such restrictions will give them personal lifestyle protections that outweigh the loss of liberty associated with the immigration restrictions.

NZ writes:

By the way, one more point worth mentioning is that at the time of the drug prohibition issue's inception (c. 1910) it wasn't considered hugely important. (Compare it with, say, American foreign policy in Southeast Asia today.) Most Americans who might have had an opinion on the size of government in other matters were largely indifferent to whether or not drugs should be made illegal, which is why the Progressives were able to take such long strides so quickly.

By the time the cause encroached upon the most popular drug--alcohol--it was already entrenched in law and culture.

Anyway, my point is that an immigrant from, say, Eastern Europe could be against alcohol prohibition but still be an enthusiastic Socialist (as many indeed were). Immigrants who opposed alcohol prohibition likely had personal and cultural reasons for doing so, not libertarian ones.

Arthur_500 writes:
RPLong, let's be honest here: Most people "prefer statism to libertarianism," period.

It is easy to sell the freebees of the State. If you are hungry you want to eat and it is easy to offer food. Humans are lazy by nature and enjoy the easy way. In this way you are correct that people find Statism easier than Libertarianism.

the problem is that is rejects fact and therefore qualifies in Webster's dictionary as stupidity. Any logical discussion brings most people to the understanding of how useless it is to give a free meal day after day forever. Why would anyone want to work if they can get everything for free?

Take the example of an individual quitting work because of the cost of day care. Certainly it is expedient for the moment. However, that individual does not build the job skills and experience. they will never be able to catch up and will remain in the lowest pay grade when they do return to the workplace (if they return). The tradeoff between statism (quitting work to stay home and take care of a child) versus an ideal where the individual works to be all that they can be is a slam dunk. The statist gets dunked every time and remains on the public dole forever.

Most people don't prefer Statism to Libertarianism it is just that it sounds easy and most people take the low-hanging fruit first.

LD Bottorff writes:

If people prefer statism to liberty, why do people tend to migrate from countries with less freedom to countries with more freedom?

NZ writes:

@LD Bottorff:

Do you really think people in 3rd world countries are looking at the Heritage Foundation's Economic Freedom Index when making decisions about where to move to?

Sure, many may be vaguely aware of the relative ease of doing business in the US--maybe even of doing business in Sweden or Germany!--but that is almost certainly not the main draw for most immigrants.

Numerous Google searches for strings like "reasons for immigration survey" return result after result showing that the main reasons people immigrate are for jobs, to reunite with family, and for a higher standard of living. Economic freedom doesn't factor very high at all.

You might respond "Well, the reason we have so many job opportunities and such a high standard of living is because of economic freedom." And that's fine, but how many immigrants do you really think are coming here with that mindset?

Some representative links from my Google search:
Pew research
USC study

Koz writes:

This is definitely interesting as a historical curiosity but I don't think we can read too much of this as relevant to the contemporary immigration debate.

What is topical is the culture the immigrants bring with them and how that will interact with the America and Americans that are already here. Henderson and like-minded people tend to write about this in terms of voting for Democrats and other statist policies, but in my view this shows something of a libertarian myopic perspective.

Cultural interaction is much broader than simple voting. The rest of the world is situated very differently from the United States as it relates to things like the rule of law, private property, impartial police, and so on. If we import people randomly from across the globe, how will the new immigrants affect America? To my mind, it's significantly more likely that they will weaken as opposed to strengthen our cultural foundations as it relates to the things that make America an attractive destination in the first place.

Even if we restrict ourselves to politics, the consequences of immigration are more extensive than Henderson allows for. It's not just that immigration increases the probability that statist Democrats will win elections (though that does happen). But the Democrats themselves will be profoundly affected by the desire to find votes among immigration sympathizers and newly franchised immigrants. Think about the cultural status of concepts like assimilation, English language competency, loyalty to America as opposed to native countries. For some people, even the idea of such things are simply an expression of nativism and cultural imperialism. Would the Democrats really think this if there wasn't the perception that there's this big pile of free votes over here for demagoguing immigration issues? I don't think so.

Immigration advocates should move away from the just-so stories and answer for themselves at least exactly what the cultural foundation of a successful or prosperous society is and how immigration affects that foundation. In this context, Prohibition seems anachronistic to say the least.

vikingvista writes:

Immigration may tend to select for certain characteristics, but whether it strongly tends to select for characteristics that appeal to some natives is beside the point.

A man peacefully walks across an open desert. A woman peacefully purchases a plane ticket to Newark where she peacefully accepts a job. A family peacefully gains passage on a ship bound for San Francisco where a family member awaits. In each scenario, there is no threat, no trespassing, no violence whatsoever. In each case, individuals are inoffensively requesting trades with the voluntary society, and succeed only to the extent others willingly welcome them.

Then who can honestly say that sending armed men after these people to accost them, kidnap them, and forcefully transport them against the wills of those individuals and the individuals who invited them, is a right, proper, or at all decent thing to do?

Like any other societal issue, there is no escaping the one-on-one interaction that one person must make with another. It isn't right or wrong based upon some abstract future benefit or detriment to society. It is right or wrong based upon how individual human beings are treated.

And if someone is willing to abuse innocent individuals, why should I be at all interested in her abstract vision for the greater society?

NZ writes:

@vikingvista:

You have reduced the concept of national sovereignty (the essence of which is the ability to decide what may and may not cross a border) to an "abstract vision", leaving immigration as nothing more than a set of one-on-one interactions between individuals.

This is an attractive argument for those with a limited, materialistic model of human society. However, I find it hard to see how you can talk about right or wrong without acknowledging that there are other less tangible layers of society on top of this.

Once you've acknowledged that, you must justify why you accept the notions of right and wrong, use and abuse, peace and violence--but reject the notion of national sovereignty in particular.

RPLong writes:

@ NZ

I can't speak for vikingvista, but your last comment reads like you're making two points that are at-odds with each other:

1 - vikingvista criticizes sovereignty for being an abstract concept because he has a "limited, material model of human society."

2 - vikingvista accepts other abstract concepts, such as "right and wrong, use and abuse, peace and violence."

1 cannot be true if 2 is also true. This suggests that you're wrong about vikingvista's model. Perhaps it is less "limited" and "material" than you're suggesting.

Regarding point 2 specifically, do you really see peace and violence as abstract concepts? That surprises me.

Jeff writes:
If you're right, then there wouldn't be any special reason to expect "Hispanic immigrants" to differ from people born in America.

Do you think he is right? If not, what do you suppose is the reason why Latin America has been home to so many awful regimes over the last 50-100 years?

RPLong writes:

@ Jeff - I thought I already answered your first question when I said,

I think that most people prefer liberty to statism in the abstract, to prefer helping the needy to letting them suffer in the abstract, and to prefer expedience to philosophical rigor in the abstract. I tend to think of liberty as a value that all human beings hold, against which they are sometimes willing to make trade-offs if they believe they will personally benefit from doing so.

Does that answer your question?

There are probably many reasons why there have been more than a few despotic regimes across Latin America in the last century. I could hazard a few guesses, but are you suggesting that there have been no non-depsotic regimes? Or that there are none today?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

@Arthur_500

Actually many immigrants from 100 years ago returned home as well, finding life in the US not as easy as marketed. According to a report in 1908 comparing the departures in 1908 with the arrivals of 1907, 61% of the Southern Italians returned home. Croatians and Slovenians (59.8%), Slovaks (56.1%) and Hungarians (48.7%) also had high return rates. The lowest rate, 5.1%, belonged to the Jews (categorized as "Hebrews"). Irish rarely went back — only 6.3%. Others with a low return rate were Czechs (7.8%), English (10.4%) and Scandinavians (10.9%). In the middle range were Germans (15.5%), Serbs and Bulgarians (21.9%), Finns (23.3%), Poles (33.9%) and Northern Italians (37.8%).

I know many Mexican & Central American immigrants. They have all come to the US to get better jobs and so their children will have a better life.

One thing that illegal aliens do not believe in is Social Security taxes - because they KNOW they will never see a dime of it! (Citizens only suspect this...)

NZ writes:

@RPLong:

To illustrate what I mean, I will reduce an act of violence down to materialistic one-on-one interactions between individuals, the same way vikingvista reduced illegal immigration:

An individual peacefully squeezes the trigger of a gun. The gun, doing what a gun does, peacefully releases a bullet along a trajectory. The bullet peacefully flies through the air and, in perfect peaceful accordance with the laws of physics, continues its trajectory forward through a less dense substance--a second individual's flesh--thanks to inertial force.

The notion of "violence" doesn't enter into any of this unless we assume there exists some abstract concept of, say, will. As in, the first individual is doing something to the second individual that is against his will. But again, this is an abstract concept. Where do we see will? How do we know what whose will is, or whose will is right? Is the first individual acting in self-defense? That's even more complicated! Is the second individual suicidal? Might he lie about his will? How can we really know?

To get past these confounding questions we must recognize intangible layers on top of the material one. The abstract concept of national sovereignty exists in these layers along with "morality" and "violence" and "abuse", and so it cannot be blithely dismissed.

RPLong writes:

@ NZ - It's interesting that you compared immigration to shooting someone. Obviously we couldn't push that analogy too far. People immigrate - legally and illegally - all the time, and yet your nation's sovereignty lives on. Clearly some of those intangible layers enable national sovereignty to persist despite immigration.

This suggests to me that vikingvista's description of peaceful migration is a more accurate synopsis of reality than yours. If I'm wrong, then I guess it's incumbent upon you to demonstrate that immigration has tangibly reduced your nation's sovereignty.

NZ writes:

@RPLong:

"People immigrate - legally and illegally - all the time, and yet your nation's sovereignty lives on."

Does it? Calls for amnesty are based on the notion that "Well, these people are here already, might as well naturalize them and invite their families here too." In other words, "Our national sovereignty has already been degraded, so we might as well toss it out the window."

But it's true, one illegal immigrant doesn't destroy national sovereignty, any more than one intrusive law destroys a libertarian government. It's a gradual process, but people can still see when it's happening.

RPLong writes:

NZ - I'm open to the possibility that immigration has reduced your nation's sovereignty. Can you provide any evidence for this?

vikingvista writes:

NZ,

“You have reduced the concept of national sovereignty … to an "abstract vision", leaving immigration as nothing more than a set of one-on-one interactions between individuals.”

As all concepts are abstractions, I have reduced nothing. I merely referred to a particular abstraction. If you don’t like me calling it an “abstract vision for the greater society”, then feel free to use whatever words you prefer. We are referring to the same thing. We all have such visions, myself included.

But since people’s visions for society typically have something to do with how people in that society are treated, then a reasonable litmus test for me, is a specific example of how that person with the vision would treat a specific person. If someone advocates abusive treatment against a specific innocent, I have every reason to believe that abuse would be perpetrated en masse in their greater vision.

Societies are collections of individuals. One cannot rationally discard individuals in one’s plan for society.

Now perhaps you would like to make a utilitarian case--something along the lines of “more innocents will suffer if suffering is not imposed upon a few innocents”. In that case, I would appeal to strength of *levels* of abstraction. The level of abstraction in one person interacting with one other person (the fundamental essence of morality) is considerably less obscure and less removed from concrete reality than the level of abstraction involving prognostications about the development of society at large. The latter are unlikely to be so convincing to me that they would persuade me to deliberately inflict harm upon a flesh and blood innocent standing in front of me. My opinion of people who would do (and too commonly do do) such a thing is exceedingly low.

“Once you've acknowledged that, you must justify why you accept the notions of right and wrong, use and abuse, peace and violence--but reject the notion of national sovereignty in particular.”

I’m telling you of my personal preference. I have a strong distaste for innocents being molested. Were I to delve into that emotion, I’m sure I would discover some personal experiences of being victimized or seeing others victimized. Were I to intellectualize it, I would start by pointing out that societies are collections of individual decision makers, and morality is ultimately about how one of those individuals treats another. One cannot speak of collective notions like “national sovereignty” without (knowingly or unknowingly) including the one-on-one interactions of which such notions are entirely composed.

MikeP writes:

You have reduced the concept of national sovereignty (the essence of which is the ability to decide what may and may not cross a border) to an "abstract vision"...

Once again, NZ, we need to recognize what national sovereignty actually is. It is not the ability to decide what may and may not cross a border. It is the ability to decide what laws and enforcement may and may not cross a border.

What may and may not cross a border is no more an essence of national sovereignty than who may and may not be arbitrarily executed within a border. National sovereignty is simply the positive recognition that a state may take actions within its boundaries without other states interfering with it.

Ralph Wiggum writes:

"But since people’s visions for society typically have something to do with how people in that society are treated,..."

How do you define society? Are "undocumented workers" and ms-13 gang members actively (illegally) crossing the Rio Grande part of the society?

vikingvista writes:

"How do you define society?"

An extended network of interacting individuals.

"Are "undocumented workers" and ms-13 gang members actively (illegally) crossing the Rio Grande part of the society?"

I suppose if a member of the Los Angeles gang known as MS-13 is interacting with his fellow Americans, or anyone else in the world, he would be part of some society regardless of what river he might have crossed. And I don't see what relevance any sort of documentation would have to membership in society--it is the interaction that matters.

Why do you ask?

NZ writes:

Why is a society an extended network of individuals and not one of, say, cells or atoms? After all, these make up individuals.

To call individuals the essential unit of society seems therefore arbitrary, or at least up for debate. I think families are a more proper essential unit. The history of human societies, after all, is family-centric, not individual-centric. We use surnames. We treat family members fundamentally differently than non-family members. Family is the engine by which society survives. Evolution itself is best understood in terms of genetically differentiated families rather than genetically differentiated individuals.

Anyway, this kind of gets at my reducto earlier, maybe putting it a bit more clearly: if you look at human cells or atoms, you will not see human morality or national sovereignty any more than by taking apart and closely inspecting the aluminum in your computer's hard disk drive you will find the novel you're writing in Microsoft Word.

vikingvista, you reduced the issue of immigration down to one-on-one interactions to show that to deter or deport immigrants is to commit violent and therefore immoral acts against individuals. But this is like looking at the way white blood cells attack pathogens and concluding that the immune system is violent and immoral.

In other words, yes, national sovereignty is already an abstraction, but you are cherry-picking your abstractions.

vikingvista writes:

“Why is a society an extended network of individuals and not one of, say, cells or atoms? After all, these make up individuals.”

If you can find me a cell or atom capable of and engaging in the recognizing and responding to the desires of others, I will have to include it in society. Have you done so?

“To call individuals the essential unit of society seems therefore arbitrary, or at least up for debate. I think families are a more proper essential unit.”

That is because you are prone to the error of anthropomorphizing of collectives. Families don’t judge, desire, or act--the individual members of those families do.

“The history of human societies, after all, is family-centric, not individual-centric. We use surnames. We treat family members fundamentally differently than non-family members. Family is the engine by which society survives. Evolution itself is best understood in terms of genetically differentiated families rather than genetically differentiated individuals.”

I guess that explains why you are willing to treat individual humans as though they are not desiring, choosing, acting entities--as though they are no different than cells, atoms, rocks, or wild animals. But even though you explain that you yourself are intellectually incapable of grasping and respecting individual rights, your value for the family unit is still inconsistent with your willingness to treat families on one side of an imaginary line different than families on the other.

“if you look at human cells or atoms, you will not see human morality or national sovereignty any more than by taking apart and closely inspecting the aluminum in your computer's hard disk drive you will find the novel you're writing in Microsoft Word.”

Exactly right. If you dehumanize humans--if you refuse to see how they can choose to interact with you--then there really is no limit to what you are willing to do to them, apparently believing that whatever behavioral response they have is nothing more than the mindless response of an amoeba, wild animal, or atom to prodding--believing that force is your only option for influencing their behavior. What I find odd, however, is why you think that you as an individual are so completely different from all the other similar individuals that you observe around you.

“vikingvista, you reduced the issue of immigration down to one-on-one interactions to show that to deter or deport immigrants is to commit violent and therefore immoral acts against individuals.”

I reduced nothing. I recognize that morality *is* how decision-making entities choose to interact with other such entities. I recognize that the capacity to engage in that level of decision-making requires and is (except for you apparently) an automatic feature of a functioning human mind. Morality is about judgement, choice, and action, after all, is it not?

“But this is like looking at the way white blood cells attack pathogens and concluding that the immune system is violent and immoral.”

Explain again how you believe a white blood cells can choose to alter its response to you? Do you say something like “Hey, Mr. WBC, I wish you would not attack my knee prosthesis”, and then the good WBCs heed your desires and the bad ones don’t? Is that how you’ve observed it working in your life?

“In other words, yes, national sovereignty is already an abstraction, but you are cherry-picking your abstractions.”

I’m not cherry picking anything. Like everyone else, I can only think and communicate in abstractions. I don’t understand your repeated claims against my use of abstractions, as though there is a possibility of anything else for anyone. Really, your continued reference to abstractions seems like an odd diversion, particularly following my previous response to you.

MikeP writes:

Really, your continued reference to abstractions seems like an odd diversion, particularly following my previous response to you.

And NZ's continued reference to national sovereignty is also an odd diversion, particularly since he is using it to describe an abstraction that is plainly not national sovereignty.

vikingvista writes:

MikeP,

It just never before occurred to me that in this Touring test known as a blog dialogue, the entity with which I have been communicating truly cannot tell if Vikingvista is an atom, a cell, a person, or a family.

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