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Immigration and the Welfare State

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Here’s a letter to one of my very best recent GMU undergrad students:

Mr. Ben H______:

Dear Ben:

I’m glad that you’d support open immigration in the absence of a welfare state.  I challenge, though, your reason for rejecting my second-best proposal to open up immigration to foreigners who would agree, as a condition of immigrating to America, to take no cash handouts from federal, state, and local governments and to bind their children to the same restrictions.

You allege that it would be “immoral” to have policies that treat some people (native-born Americans eligible for government handouts) differently than other people (immigrants who are ineligible for such handouts), and you worry that such immigrants would be regarded to their detriment as “inferior second caste citizens.”

First, it’s not clear that, in this still-bourgeois society of ours, people who pull their own weight and never get government welfare will be regarded as “inferior” to welfare recipients.  I can imagine the opposite impression taking hold.

Second, I put to you the question that the economist Lant Pritchett puts to those who share your concern about government-welfare restrictions for immigrants.  Here’s Pritchett writing in 2006:

“A common response to the idea that not all people allowed to enter a country to work would necessarily be entitled to all privileges of citizens is: ‘Who wants to live in the kind of country where people are not treated equally?’…  The rejoinder to the ‘kind of country’ objection is: ‘Who wants to live in the kind of country that uses coercion to perpetuate global inequality?'”*

Moral considerations, by their nature, do not stop at political borders.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Lant Pritchett, Let Their People Come [2] (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development, 2006), pp. 84-85.