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Milton Friedman, Immigration, and the ‘War on Drugs’

Posted By Don Boudreaux On May 10, 2013 @ 3:08 pm In Immigration | Comments Disabled

Tina from Montgomery e-mails me with the following question.  (The wording is my own, but it is a faithful rendition of Tina’s question.)

You (Boudreaux) are a fan of Milton Friedman, but even he questioned the workability of more-open immigration when the U.S. has a welfare state.  Isn’t it a bit too convenient for you, in this lone instance, to disagree with Friedman – to conclude that, in this one case, he was mistaken?

I’ve written on this Friedman-and-immigration issue before [1].  (See also here [2].)  But let me here try an angle that I don’t recall making publicly until now.

First – and just for the record – this matter is not the only one on which I disagree with Friedman.  For example, I do not think much of his methodological pronouncements; I believe that Friedman was wrong in Chapter VI of Capitalism and Freedom [3] to classify elementary education as a public good; I am not a monetarist (market or otherwise) [although Friedman's case against central-bank discretion is profound, and, I believe, correct]; and I do not agree with Friedman that J.M. Keynes was a great economist.  I could list other areas of disagreement (although the areas of agreement are far, far more expansive).

Second – and now to the main point – as 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.  At the least, this difference between Friedman-the-’realist’ on immigration and Friedman-the-principled-proponent-of-freedom on drugs exposes an inconsistency in his policy assessments.  And so why not resolve the inconsistency in favor of more freedom rather than in favor of more government-imposed restraint?

Almost every argument that can be marshaled to make a case for why the welfare state practically means that ‘we’ ‘must’ restrict immigration can, with few alterations, be marshaled to make a case for why the welfare state practically means that ‘we’ ‘must’ restrict people’s access to mind-altering and body-damaging narcotics.  Yet, again, I’ve never read of Friedman making the latter argument – and I somehow doubt that he would have accepted it if it were offered to him as justification for continuing the ‘war on drugs.’

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URLs in this post:

[1] I’ve written on this Friedman-and-immigration issue before: http://cafehayek.com/2010/05/milton-friedman-the-welfare-state-and-immigration-2.html

[2] here: http://cafehayek.com/2007/09/a-note-on-my-an.html

[3] Capitalism and Freedom: http://www.amazon.com/Capitalism-Freedom-Fortieth-Anniversary-Edition/dp/0226264211/ref=la_B000AQ23N6_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1343735837&sr=1-1

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