The Nation Is Not a House

by Don Boudreaux on December 18, 2008

in Immigration, Myths and Fallacies

I argue here that those who analogize a nation to a house thereby suffer distorted reasoning about immigration.

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Marcus December 18, 2008 at 4:43 pm

The last sentence of the third paragraph from the end appears to be incomplete. Or I'm reading it wrong.

Jay Chambers December 18, 2008 at 4:57 pm

Seriously? I've never even heard that argument.

Baltimoron December 18, 2008 at 7:15 pm

You'll never convince antis by taking their analogies so logically, even if it's a clever series of arguments. Instead of speaking about "houses", why not just poll workers in competing industries that would suffer from controls on immigration. I never read such opinions when antis speak of losing their jobs. No one seems to tabulate the benefits and costs on both sides, to produce a national sum.

HWinVA December 18, 2008 at 7:31 pm

If you really think the Constitution does not give Congress the power to limit immigration, you are welcome to support someone with standing and try that theory out in the Courts. You may win.

But it is really not appropriate to carry on such an argument in a serious venue, given the weight of history on this subject. There are people who make all kinds of semi-plausible arguments that the exercise of this or that well-settled power by the national goverment is not only unwise but also unconstitutional. The problem is, well, it makes them sound like cranks. Don't get into that position.

As it happens, the Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, clause 4, provides that Congress (that is, the national government) shall have power "To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, …". This is referred to, not without reason, as the "immigration power".

In the authoritative work "The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation", by Killian et al. at page 294, we find the statement that "The power of Congress ‘‘to exclude aliens from the United States and to prescribe the terms and conditions on which they come in’’ is absolute, being an attribute of the United States as a sovereign nation. ‘‘That the government of the United States, through the action of the legislative department, can exclude aliens from its territory is a proposition which we do not think open to controversy. Jurisdiction over its own territory to that extent is an incident of every independent nation. It is a part of its independence. …" " (citing Chinese Exclusion Case (Chae Chan Ping v. United States), 130 U.S. 581, 603) and many, many other, more modern, cases.

I don't know that anyone has made this argument, but the proposition might be buttressed by the fact that the Framers clearly assumed they could regulate migration into this country. In an infamous provision, they prohibited Congress from interfering in the "Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit" (Constitution, Art I, Sec. 9, Cl. 1) — that is, from interfering in the importation of slaves — until (but ONLY until) 1808. If Congress could prohibit the migration of slaves after 1808, presumably they could also make rules about non-slave migration at that point, if not before.

In 1789, the First Congress, which included some of the Framers, empowered the President to deport any alien he found dangerous to the peace and safety of the nation (1 Stat. 570).

dg lesvic December 18, 2008 at 7:59 pm

You mentioned Thomas Sowell among the opponents of immigration. I had long been a great admirer of his. But, one time, I happened to tune in on him, on the radio, speaking against immigrants, but without knowing it was he, and thought, whoever it was, was an idiot. Even the smartest people can sound like idiots when they're on the wrong side of an issue.

But the most important thing to keep in mind is that the immigrants don't cost but save the natives' jobs, that, without the immigrants, there would be even greater unemployment among the natives.

Craig December 18, 2008 at 8:18 pm

No, the nation is not a house; it's a welfare state.

Why won't the libertarians acknowledge that much of the resistance to immigration is not so much based on the fear of falling wages and supposedly-usurped jobs as it is on the fact that we will be required to support all too many of the newly-arrived?

Address that issue and much of the battle will have been one.

David Johnson December 18, 2008 at 8:23 pm

The one house analogy I like best is "just because I have on open door policy does not mean you get to crawl in through the window at midnight".

People think that we open border advocates want everyone in the world to instantly move here. Nonsense! I do want immigrants to show they've had their shots, perform some sort of minimal background check, and assuming we still have a welfare system, that they have the financial means to provide for themselves while here (money, a job or a sponsor).

dg lesvic December 18, 2008 at 8:54 pm

From my favorite book on economics, which modesty forbids naming:

"The Welfare System is not burdened by those who, legally or not, do the work and pay the taxes that support it. Do away with the system altogether, but don't just pick on the people who carry it on their backs. Without them, the economy of Southern California would collapse. At my factory in Los Angeles, it has been decades since any but aliens have applied for our low paying work. They get it because they're the only ones who want it. They're the lowest paid and hardest working, and I have to deduct a quarter of their wages for taxes. And the Democrats say that they're just taxing the rich, and the Republicans that these people get a free ride on the gravy train. And that's our choice every election day, lying Democrats tearing down the economy their way or lying Republicans doing it their way."

"If your neighbor offered to wash your car and clean your house, at no charge, would you tell him to get lost? If men from Mars offered to do all our work, at no charge, should we tell them to go back to Mars, or Mexico?

If you have a welfare state, you must have an illegal work force to do the work that you pay legal workers not to do. Demanding an end to the illegal work force is practically demanding an end to the American economy.

dg lesvic December 18, 2008 at 9:03 pm

That last passage should have read:

Demanding an end to the illegal work force, without an end to the welfare state, is practically demanding an end to the American economy.

Jay Chambers December 18, 2008 at 9:43 pm

Well, Craig, the default liberal/libertarian line of many is that anyone who argues that or absolutely anything against illegal immigration must simply be racist.

During a political debate, whichever side is more emotional is generally wrong. It's too bad most libertarians abandon reason on this issue.

Dave December 18, 2008 at 11:11 pm

I have no problem with as many immigrants coming in as want to. I just don't want to have to pay for them. I would be all in favor of an immigration program that lets everyone in, but you have to be a taxpayer for at least [insert time here, 10years? 25?] to qualify for ANY government program.

Living in Houston, I see that immigrants — legal or non — are some of the hardest workers around. You NEVER see an immigrant asking for money at the intersection. Let them come, let them help build the American dream. But let's cut back on the artificial incentives — the government programs.

dg lesvic December 18, 2008 at 11:16 pm

Jay and Craig,

Are more and better jobs a bad thing?

Jay Chambers December 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm

More and better jobs are great things!

PS – Ditto Dave's comment. And actually, ditto also his comment re: asking for money in the top 25 metropolis where I live.

shecky December 19, 2008 at 12:44 am

Government welfare for immigrants is pretty sparse already, thanks to the welfare reforms of the 90s. The welfare angle is something of a red herring when used as a tool to argue against immigration. Let's be honest about the state of the situation. Immigrants come (and go) because of jobs.

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 2:00 am


If more and better jobs are a good thing, so are more immigrant laborers.

Babinich December 19, 2008 at 6:19 am

dg lesvic Dec 18, 2008 8:54:54 PM

"If you have a welfare state, you must have an illegal work force to do the work that you pay legal workers not to do. Demanding an end to the illegal work force is practically demanding an end to the American economy."

If illegal immigration is not checked the results could be disasterous.(terrorism, crime, welfare, health, etc…)

Don Boudreaux says:

"If my neighbor appears at my door one day with a gun, asserting some imagined prerogative to keep certain of my invited guests from entering my home, my neighbor clearly would be violating my rights. His actions would diminish my freedom and rob my family and me of rights that rightfully belong to us."

What if that person violating your and your families right to life entered the country illegally?

Taking a stand on illegal immigration does not mean that those same people oppose immigration.

There must best be an orderly and controlled process in place to accept immigrants into this country.

superdestroyer December 19, 2008 at 6:44 am

HOw does importing millions of future automatic Democratic party voters, help libertarians. Those millions of immigrants will vote for higher taxes, more government spending, more racial spoils, and less freedom.

Look at how unlimited immigration has busted the budget in California.

If you want the U.S. to be libertarian, please limit the size of government, eliminate the welfare state, lower taxes, and cut welfare. Then you can make a case for open borders and unlimited immigration.

Gil December 19, 2008 at 6:47 am

Here's a Libertarian way to stop illegal/'illegal' (take your pick) immigration: have the border lands privately-owned by redneck Americans who'd shoot any Mexican, Canadian, etc., as a trespasser. But elsewhere I have to chuckle where other Libertarians argue that the right to emigrate does not entail a right to immigrate.

Keith December 19, 2008 at 6:52 am

Quote from Baltimoron: "No one seems to tabulate the benefits and costs on both sides, to produce a national sum."

Which would result in a number that is completely meaninless. If you average the height of everybody in the room and then Michael Jordan walks into the room, everybody is not suddenly taller.

Quote from HWinVA: "If you really think the Constitution does not give Congress the power to limit immigration, you are welcome to support someone with standing and try that theory out in the Courts. You may win."

This in no more than a "might makes right" argument. The courts are as political as any branch of government. Political entities make political responses that rarely have anything to do with logic or reasoning, other than the political kind.

However, I don't necessarily disagree with your position. I think the Constitution probably does give the Federal government the power to regulate immigration, but that doesn't mean the government's regulatory decisions will be logical or reasoned beyond what is driven by politics.

Jody December 19, 2008 at 9:20 am

A country, however, can be properly analogized to a club. And clubs have membership rules and generally don't take kindly to trespassing.

muirgeo December 19, 2008 at 11:06 am

It's a fatally flawed argument.

Imagine someone in your home decides to put out a sign on the lawn "free dinner and free board… all our welcome". With my country you are acting like the homeowner putting the free invites.

Second your property is secured and legitimatly yours by documents protected by the laws of our country. Now you want to say the laws that protect your private proprety are legitimate while those that protect public property are not. That's not for you as an individual to decide.

Put another way say some heavily armed gangsters decide they want to hole up in your crib… who you gonna call?

That being said I'm all for massive reform of our immigration laws… but they won't be decided by the will of a single person view of what they see as the best policy.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 11:47 am

I have no problem with immigrants.

I do have a problem with illegal immigrants.

It's a sign of the emotionalism of the libertarians like yourself that they refuse to acknowledge a difference. Legally, economically, socially, etc.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 11:52 am

I'd love it if we could see some kind of competition for the cush tenured positions of professors who advocate open borders. Of course, it's pretty easy to argue for competition for industrial workers making $10 an hour who can be replaced, salary and benefits and all, for $7 an hour.

Illegal immigration is one of those issues where libertarian faculty join hands with their socialist faculty brethren in demanding competition for industries they've never been a part of. Competition for thee, but not for me.

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:09 pm

I understand why Jay and muirgeo have to put strawmen in place of actual libertarian positions. After all, tilting at windmills is so much easier than addressing an actual argument.

Still, like you Jay, libertarians have a problem with illegal immigrants. Apparently unlike you, we have a just solution: legalize it.

That doesn't mean every human being sucking air should be allowed to come here, such as convicted criminals or terrorists. It just means that for people who are not criminals, there should not be quotas.

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:14 pm

"I'd love it if we could see some kind of competition for the cush tenured positions of professors who advocate open borders. Of course, it's pretty easy to argue for competition for industrial workers making $10 an hour who can be replaced, salary and benefits and all, for $7 an hour."

Don and Russ have been emphatic in their opposition to tenure. Though I'm confident that does not matter to you because it is so much easier to invent strawmen to argue against.

Here's how you can tell your ideas are unjust: you have to build walls to impose them by force.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:14 pm


Does someone break the law by coming into the United States without going through immigration processes?

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:15 pm

Ideas are unjust. What a great example of the emotionalism of libertarians.

Facts, data, evidence clearly don't matter when it comes to this issue.

Makes you wonder what else they aren't being honest about.

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:17 pm

"Does someone break the law by coming into the United States without going through immigration processes?"

Of course, by definition. Yet that completely misses the point, now doesn't it?

If there were no quotas there would be no need to skirt the process.

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:18 pm

Jay, I'll reduce the tone of the rhetoric if you do. That is, if you want to have an actual discussion.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:19 pm

Great, let's get rid of quotas then for people who are going to contribute more to society economically than they will take away through the massive welfare state we have in America. I'm all for completely eliminating quotas for educated workers.

Doing more of what helps you rather than what ails you would seem common sense, no?

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Jay, I'll reduce the tone of the rhetoric if you do. That is, if you want to have an actual discussion.

That sounds like an idea I can agree with, Marcus.

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm

I believe the 'welfare state' is for only American citizens, is it not?

If not, then your problem isn't actually with immigrants, it's with the welfare state.

SheetWise December 19, 2008 at 12:27 pm

"Because I secure and govern my real home—my house and my land located in the town of Burke, Virginia—I acknowledge the importance of my private rights to this property. And further, I strengthen this institution by acting in accordance with it. It is my and my family’s home; it belongs to no one else. Only my wife, my son, and I control access to our property."

You're just a caretaker for the government. Quit paying your "rent", and you'll see who owns it. If you take real good care of it, and improve it — the government will raise your rent. And those rents are used to provide socialized services — primarily schools. Where I live, in Arizona, we have to buy private schools on top of the public schools we pay for. The public schools are dysfunctional, primarily because of language issues.

Ownership is a bit of a myth. You have a very unforgiving partner who owns your property with you, along with any gains you may realize.

"If my neighbor appears at my door one day with a gun, asserting some imagined prerogative to keep certain of my invited guests from entering my home, my neighbor clearly would be violating my rights."

Only your partner, the government, can legally appear at your door with a gun. They can do it at the request of your neighbors if you don't pay your rent, block a more lucrative use of "your" property, or otherwise confuse who really owns the property.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:30 pm

Yes, the problem is primarily with the welfare state. However, the existence of the welfare state and the issue of immigration do not operate apart from one another, IMO.

I'm all for an immigrant coming to the United States if he's going to be an IT specialist who contributes more to society than he takes away, particularly in taxes.

I'm not for an immigrant (usually illegal!) who is going to be able to use the generous, obnoxious social welfare system to benefit himself.

Non-citizen, illegal alliens do use the welfare system. They use emergency rooms that are legally required by US law to give care. They have families with children who the law requires must be educated at taxpayer expense. If they operate without a license to drive they might (high correlation rather than causation) not know how to drive well and then cause accidents that drive up insurance rates.


dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 12:33 pm


The $7/hour immigrant labor has nothing to do with the unemployment of the $10/hour native labor. For the immmigrants cannot tell the natives not to work, not to better house, cloth, feed, and employ one another.

Only the law could do that. When it doesn't protect but leads the attack upon private property, there's that much less incentive to create it, to invest in business and job formation. When it forces wages above free market, equilibrium, full employment levels, there must be unemployment, with or without the immigrants.

But while the law prices native labor out of the market, the cheap immigrant labor, reducing the cost of doing business, prices it back in. So, without them, there would not be more but fewer jobs for the natives, and lower paying, for they boost the purchasing power of their money and real wages.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:39 pm

dg lesvic,

I agree with everything you've said but I guess I'm not libertarian enough to say that the fact that someone will work at next to nothing compared to a native worker who will naturally demand something at a basic sustenance level means that the lowest price available is best for society at large.

At large, because the person who is willing to work at next to nothing is generally the same person who will have to at one point or another make substantial use of the welfare state in a way that someone who makes a little more at the higher wage price probably will not.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:45 pm

dg lesvic,

This argument reminds me a lot over the discussions/contentions over non-farm white labor in the south in the ante-bellum era.

I can't remember his name offhand but a British economist coined the term "white trash" to specifically denote the white people who would not / could not find work in the farm economy because the existence of slave labor drove the price of labor available to farms (after the obvious purchase and upbringing costs of slaves) to near nothing.

Simply because it's possible to drive down the labor cost does not mean that it is always the "best" thing to do. But, where possible, I usually think the lowest cost usually facilitates the biggest incentives to develop, innovate etc.

Which is why, as I've tried to assert, the biggest problem is that many illegal immigrants take more from the welfare state than they contribute.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 12:46 pm

*a lot of the argument over

Marcus December 19, 2008 at 12:55 pm

My own personal experience with working with and knowing Mexican immigrants (whether they're legal or not, I don't know) is that they are hard, productive workers.

I don't view people as solely costs and I don't presume to know what it is American businesses should value (ie. IT workers). I suppose IT workers are fine for Microsoft but I would imagine they don't bring much value to produce farmers.

I think Americans themselves can make these sort of decisions and we don't need bureaucrats to do it for them.

johnleemk December 19, 2008 at 1:03 pm

My problem with the orthodox libertarian stance is that it ignores that there are some sort of costs imposed by open borders. Like it or not, immigration is not harmless. It's probably on the whole beneficial, but it does impose certain costs on society. People have to adjust to a new society with more languages, more cultures, more points of view, and so forth. These aren't costless.

At the same time, traditional paleoconservative rhetoric ignores the costs that closed borders impose as well. There are real and substantial costs on human wellbeing from refusing people the kinds of opportunities available in America.

The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have imposed a central planning system that is ironically more just than the present American system: the government sets a series of criteria for potential immigrants, and anyone who passes a certain number may migrate. The process is simple, straightforward, and transparent. But if anything, it still limits migration severely, by distorting it in favor of the government's priorities and in favor of more professional workers.

My suggestion: a flat one-off tax on all wishing to immigrate. The government then needs not discriminate when it comes to the reasons for migration. Want to bring your mom over? Go ahead. A company needs to hire someone? They can pay the tax. And to make things fair, those who migrate illegally (i.e. without paying), when discovered, have a choice between paying up (including interest) or deportation. At the moment, there is a huge moral hazard for illegals because no matter how hard they work to stay within the law and no matter how much they give back to the community, they risk deportation. Why bother being a good citizen when you'll never become one? The tax also allows for a Coasian solution to conflicts about migration: those who oppose the immigration of certain individuals or groups can offer to pay them more to go/stay home, and those who support migration can offer to bear the fee and/or pay the immigrants to stay.

The only issue will then be how much the tax should be. While this is by no means an easy thing to determine, it at least lets us quibble over something specific, and put a price on immigration. It helps us frame the issue in terms of costs and benefits, and that's a much better way to debate the issue than the present emotionally-charged way it is debated in.

And now for the injection of emotion into the old debate, American immigration policy is one of the most boneheaded public policies around, anywhere. It is easier for a Mexican laborer to work in America than it is for an Indian PhD. The quota for professional visas fills up the day applications open. Harvard grads signed up by top American business firms have to go home because they can't get visas under the quota system. It's perfectly calibrated to ensure some of the most inefficient outcomes possible. America used to be perhaps the most tolerant country around when it came to immigration, and in many ways it still is. But I think if it hasn't been overtaken by many Commonwealth countries yet, it soon will be: these other formerly Anglo-Saxon countries have much more reasonable approaches to immigration.

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 1:07 pm


From Human Action, Mises, P 630.

"The abolition of slavery and serfdom is to be attributed neither to the teachings of theologians and moralists nor to weakness or generosity on the part of the masters. There were among the teachers of religion and ethics as many eloquent defenders of bondage as opponents. Servile labor disappeared because it could not stand the competition of free labor; its unprofitability sealed its doom in the market economy."

Let's take one thing at a time.

Am I correct in assuming that you agree that, in a completely free market, without the welfare state, or the state in any form, that cheap foreign labor is not a bane but a boon?

And, if the question then is, should there be a welfare state, or, a state in any form, my answer is no.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 1:11 pm


That's fine, as long as you realized that you've made a very reasonable yet entirely subjective argument. Individuals should never treat "people as costs," but we organize society as having a government that has to make those calculations. This is why we toned down welfare in 1996, isn't it?

And more often than not, those "cost calculations" actually improve people's lives even if it doesn't seem apparent. I'm sure you'd say that many people off welfare who were forced into work appreciate contributing first to their own well-being and second to society.

The Left (and some enablers on the Right) disregard economics precisely because they don't see that the "cold calculus" of economics-based decision making actually improves lives.

I think Americans are making these decisions. They make these decisions by getting their representatives in Congress to vote down things like the recent "amnesty" bill. But you're probably refering to individual businesses rather than the masses.

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 1:17 pm

It seems to me that there is only one real issue here, and that all the rest are red herrings.

The real issue: does immigrant labor reduce or increase the employment opportunities for native labor?

Without that issue, all the others could be settle very easily.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 1:21 pm


I think you make good points. As I said above, I'd remove all quotas on educated immigrants. I have many friends finishing their degrees who are worried about finding employment that will sponsor them. You're right about how obnoxiously difficult it is for them to find employment.

dg lesvic,

Yes, absent any welfare state, I think basically all (I can't think of how it wouldn't) immigration would be a boon. Abolish the welfare state and I'd be happy with any immigrant without a violent past.

And re: slavery. I haven't gotten to Human Action yet (still devouring Socialism), but I'd actually disagree with Mises there. I wrote a paper on the topic for my Law and Economics class (taught by a student of Tullock and the rest when they were at V Tech).

One of the biggest arguments about that era I found was that the North got more antagonistic about slavery precisely because transportation had improved to the point where Southern and Northern goods faced more competition. Greater competition forced, in kind, moral outrage but the chief complaint was competition.

From what I read (and there were big arguments and it was only a term paper so my conclusions could be wrong), slave labor continued and competed well with Northern free labor precisely because it was profitable, moreso than free labor.

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 1:51 pm


In the discussion of immigration, the welfare state is a red herring. For it isn't the immigrants, working and paying taxes to support it, that are the problem, but the natives, taking from it without conributing to it, that are the problem.

The question ought not be whether to throw hard working immigrants out, but the worthless natives.

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 2:17 pm


Let me just add that I am not advocating throwing anyone out, but that if you're not going to throw out those who are nothing but a drain on the system, neither should you throw out those who carry it on their backs.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 2:31 pm

dg lesvic,

Would it be correct then to say that you think that (specifically illegal) immigrants contribute more to the tax base than they take away?

I think that is where the disagreement probably is.

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 2:34 pm

throw out those who carry it on their backs

I think this is why this issue has become so difficult to discuss. Not an egregious example of emotionalism, but what does it even mean?

dg lesvic December 19, 2008 at 3:18 pm


You're confusing the working part of the economy with the parasitical part of it.

If the parasitical part is bigger than the working part, wouldn't diminish the working part make things even worse?

Jay Chambers December 19, 2008 at 3:25 pm

dg lesvic,

Actually, I think you're the one with the confusion.

Who is suckling more versus less from the State's teat is pretty much at the crux of the disagreement, correct?

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