Milton Friedman and Immigration, Again

by Don Boudreaux on June 12, 2014

in Immigration

I am convinced that Milton Friedman’s most regrettable contribution to public policy is not the relatively minor role he played during WWII in implementing a system of income-tax withholding in the United States.  Rather, his most regrettable contribution is announcing that, while he favors open immigration in principle, he opposes it when the home government runs a welfare state.  (I hasten to add, for the record, that neither of these regrettable contributions diminishes my immense admiration for Milton Friedman.  He was, along so many dimensions, one of the greatest champions of freedom that the world has ever known.)

The first two items in this morning’s “Some Links” post are generating some push-back – some of it in the comments; some on Facebook; some in the form of personal e-mails to me.  With sincere respect for those who disagree with the argument for a policy of open immigration, none of your arguments persuade me to abandon my support for such a policy.  And one of the least persuasive arguments against immigration is the one that goes “Even Milton Friedman said that you can’t have open immigration with a welfare state!”  To respond to this argument, I paste below the bulk of a post first offered at the Cafe some 13 months ago:

[A]s 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.’

If Friedman were correct about immigration and the welfare state, why not also – in addition to continuing the war on drugs – also impose high tariffs and other trade restrictions?  (Or, at the very least, why not also refuse to lower existing trade barriers?)  After all, the freer is trade, the greater is the risk that some jobs in ‘tradable-goods’ industries will be ‘destroyed’ by trade.  And with the welfare state available for opportunistic displaced workers to fall back upon, these displaced workers are less likely to look vigorously for new jobs.  Free trade, therefore, imposes a negative externality upon the entire society when a welfare state exists.

And, while we’re at it, doesn’t the existence of the welfare state require government also to restrict which majors college students choose?  Without a welfare state, students would be more focused on finding gainful employment after they graduate.  But with a welfare state, the risk of being unemployed for long periods – or of earning very low pay for most of one’s working life – as a result of majoring in the likes of “race studies” or “dance criticism” will too often be ignored by irresponsible or lazy students, who rely upon welfare-state payments to subsidize their indulgence in majors that promise no decent monetary rewards.

Where does the enhanced scope for government action end once we admit that government buys for itself, by illegitimately exercising power W, an indulgence for the exercise of otherwise illegitimate power R?  What sort of distrust of the motives and knowledge of government officials leads many self-described libertarians to oppose government’s exercise of power W but approve of government’s exercise of otherwise-illegitimate power R if government insists on simultaneously exercising illegitimate power W?

I have never grasped the logic that leads to the conclusion that the illegitimate welfare state turns the otherwise illegitimate power exercised by government to interfere with freedom of movement and association (that is, open immigration) into a legitimate power.

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