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Pragmatism’s Principles

Here’s a letter that I sent recently to an e-mail correspondent:

12 May 2010

Dear _____:

After introducing yourself as an admirer of Milton Friedman, you accuse me of suffering from “ideology created blindness” because of my “inability to see” that, if we moved to open borders, America’s welfare state would attract “unlimited numbers” of “desperately poor migrants who would bankrupt tax payers.”

You insist: “Pragmatism, Dr. Boudreaux, is what we need.  Not blind living in your fairy tale libertarian world.  Pragmatism tells that letting more immigrants in [will] bankrupt American tax payers who pay for welfare.  It’s that simple.  Dr. Friedman was pragmatic.  He understood reality and you do not.”

It’s late in the evening, Mr. ____, so I’ve no energy now to address each point in your missive.  Let me press you, then, on only one point, namely, your willingness to toss away Friedman’s own presumption for freedom because of your (and his) “pragmatic” speculation that more-open borders will cause Americans to be bled to death by swarms of welfare leeches.

Where does your pragmatism end?  Far more certain than is the prospect of America’s (relatively modest) general welfare state being over-burdened by swarms of leeching immigrants from Latin America is America’s pension- and retiree- welfare programs being pressured to well past their breaking points by the aging and retiring of American Baby Boomers and of subsequent generations.

How would you react if Milton Friedman had said that, “while in an ideal world we should allow everyone the freedom to live as long as they like, with Social Security and Medicare in place, we simply cannot do that.  The reality of Social Security and Medicare make it impractical for us to allow Americans unrestricted freedom to age into – to ‘immigrate into’ – age-groups whose members are eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Strict numerical controls must be put on the number of Americans allowed to live past 65.”

Does “pragmatism” counsel that we kill large numbers of Americans on their 65th birthdays – or at least, perhaps, deport these aging and increasingly infirm Americans to some remote part of Mongolia – so that they’ll not be a drag on American taxpayers?  (Remember, all Social Security and Medicare disbursements are paid out of current government revenues.)

Your pragmatism comes close to justifying such a policy of controlled aging – that is, controlled ‘immigration’ of younger people into older age groups.

Now I’m confident that, in fact, you’d oppose any such policy.  But why?  What principle of pragmatism do you rely upon to justify restricting immigration of non-Americans into the U.S. while you simultaneously reject the proposal to restrict the ‘immigration’ of large numbers of Americans into over-65 age groups?

Think carefully about your answer, especially given that the ‘immigration’ of Americans into age groups whose members are eligible for welfare payments called “Social Security” and “Medicare” loads a far greater burden on taxpayers than would be loaded by larger numbers of Hispanic immigrants receiving Food Stamps and free treatments at hospital emergency rooms.

If pragmatism counsels such ardent protection of the public fisc from Hispanic immigrants, most of whom will work and only a fraction of whom will leech upon taxpayers, why does pragmatism not also counsel equally ardent protection of the public fisc from older Americans, few of whom will work and almost all of whom will leech upon taxpayers?

Donald J. Boudreaux