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Immigration: The Practice of the Principle

From the time of the Founders, there was never a time when immigration was not debated in political terms, with an eye to how the new arrivals would vote.

– Frank H. Buckley, “An Exceptional Nation?” (2013) (p. 50 in chapter 2, here)

A few friends whose opinions I hold in the highest regard have challenged me recently to reconsider my support for open immigration.  Their challenge springs neither from the economically uninformed Luddite view that immigrants will steal ‘American jobs’ (or lower Americans’ wages) nor the worry that more immigrants will be a net drain, through their direct use of the existing welfare state, on the public fisc.  Their challenge springs instead from the more plausible concern that immigrants will use their growing political power to vote for government policies that are more interventionist and less respectful of individual freedoms.

This concern isn’t absurd (especially to those of us who believe that culture and rhetoric play a leading role in determining the actual law and policy of society and the performance of the economy).  If too many people from countries less free and economies less dynamic than America come to the U.S. and then vote for the same policies that condemn their native countries to second- or third-world status – policies based chiefly on envy, zero-sum thinking, hostility to bourgeois pursuits, belief in secular salvation by Great Leaders, and mountains of plain old economic ignorance* – then the very commitment to freedom that leads me to support open immigration might be inconsistent with the long-run maintenance of freedom.

There is, of course, the chief empirical question: Will immigrants under a more welcoming and open regime – one in which they can more easily find employment outside of the black- or gray-market – generally vote as my concerned friends fear they will vote?  This empirical question is layered atop another: Because immigrants to America will themselves be influenced by the American political culture that my concerned friends (like me) are keen to protect from further deterioration into dirigiste-ism, might American political culture be strong enough to protect itself by altering over time – and in time – immigrants’ attitudes toward the state and markets?

As Frank Buckley’s quotation above reveals, concern over the likely voting patterns of immigrants is nothing new.  Past fears seem, from the perspective of 2013, to have been unjustified.  Or, at the very least, the benefits immigrants from 1789-2013 have brought to America almost surely overwhelm whatever costs immigrants might have inflicted via the ballot box on the economy.

Of course, the fact that past fears have proven unjustified or overblown doesn’t prove that current fears are unjustified or overblown.  But our American experience with immigration over the first 224 years of this nation’s existence should at least give pause to those who worry that something utterly new is afoot today.

But let’s assume for the moment that today’s immigrants – those immigrants recently arrived and those who would arrive under a more liberalized immigration regime – are indeed as likely as my concerned friends fear to vote overwhelmingly to move American economic policy in a much more dirigiste direction.  Such a move would, I emphatically and unconditionally agree, be very bad.  Very.  Bad.  Indeed.

I still support open immigration.  I cannot bring myself to abandon support of my foundational principles just because following those principles might prove fatal.  I cannot tolerate state power to interfere with my and others’ freedom of association, and with people’s freedom of migration, on the grounds that scaling back such state power might lead to more state power wielded in other dimensions.

Consider freedom of speech.  Suppose that I looked around only to discover to my horror that the overwhelming number of people with something to say publicly are people with whom I profoundly disagree.  I might worry – with justification – that if these people keep speaking unobstructed by the state, they will so change the ideas and culture of my fellow Americans that the freedoms that I cherish (including freedom of speech) will likely be destroyed.  Should I qualify my commitment to freedom of speech?  Should I make an exception in this case because the facts as they appear today suggest that the continued exercise of freedom of speech will lead to outcomes hostile to freedom?

No way.  There is no way I would ever say “Well, in thisand as a matter of principle is very likely to prove to be stronger and more enduring than they think.

Finally here, I ask my concerned friends to consider that the very same government – the very same set of politicians and bureaucrats – that they (my friends) rightly and wisely distrust to wield the power to tax and regulate is the government and set of politicians and bureaucrats that my friends are willing to trust with the power to regulate and restrict immigration. That’s a tactic that strikes me as being suspect in principle and highly dubious in practice.


* I’m aware that, although I didn’t intend the result, my list here of the feared faults with immigrants’ economic thinking is a very good description of the thinking of the editorialists at the New York Times and of a huge number of other American intellectual elites – very few of whom are recent immigrants to America, and many of whom look as though, or were schooled as though, their ancestors sailed to these shores on the Mayflower.