Some Economics of Homeland Security

by Don Boudreaux on May 28, 2007

in Immigration, Terrorism

In refreshing contrast to the jingoistic and anecdotes-masquerading-as-analyses offerings of Lou Dobbs, Michelle Malkin, and other xenophobes, the Washington Post‘s Sebastian Mallaby today talks much good sense:

Of the many infuriating assertions in the immigration debate,
perhaps this one takes top prize: that we have to keep illegal
immigrants out for the sake of our security. This notion is wrong, not
just because undocumented workers are statistically less likely
than native-born Americans to commit crimes or because they are
serenely indifferent to al-Qaeda’s teachings. It is wrong because it
misses the most basic rule of smart homeland security.

homeland security starts with the reality that you can’t protect
everything. The federal government alone spends more than $58 billion
on homeland security per year — a sum greater than the entire defense
budget of Britain and about three times the estimated level of the
pre-2001 homeland security budget. This spending has bought important
gains: There are air marshals on planes, cockpits have been reinforced
and so on. But the United States contains half a million bridges, 500
skyscrapers and 2,800 power plants, not to mention thousands of
schools, shopping malls and subway stations. Even if you doubled
spending and then doubled it again, there would be too many targets to
protect. Total security is unattainable.


Which raises a few questions about the immigration bill in Congress. If
Clinton and Obama are upset with the misallocation of homeland security
funds, why aren’t they yelling about the proposed crackdown on
immigrants? As a Post editorial
recently pointed out, the immigration bill would require that the
Department of Homeland Security hire, train and deploy 5,000 to 6,000
new border agents; recruit and support several thousand civilian
employees required to fingerprint and register immigrants; build 370
miles of border fence; and create a whiz-bang database that would allow
businesses to check whether a prospective employee has entered the
country illegally. In a world of limited homeland security dollars, how
is any of this a priority?


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