Immigration and Culture

by Don Boudreaux on May 24, 2014

in Immigration

Here’s Jeff Gauch’s comment on this recent post:

The biggest complication with respect to immigration is culture. Far to many immigrants – both into the US and between the various states – leave their homes because the economies are basket cases, head for greener pastures, and then proceed to vote for politicians and policies that promise to make their new homes into the same basket case they left. A process known in the western US as Californication.

I agree with Mr. Gauch that the cultural argument that he identifies against open immigration is the strongest argument that opponents of open immigration make and, I believe, can possibly make.  Yet this argument remains weak (and not merely because it’s unclear that immigrants vote reliably and overwhelmingly for lefties).

Most obviously, it’s a dangerous business for those who desire to live in a free, open, and cosmopolitan society to support government policies that directly make that society less free, less open, and less cosmopolitan.  The goal might well be – and, in principle, the long-run effect might turn out to be – a society more free, more open, and more cosmopolitan than otherwise.  Yet those of us who distrust concentrations of power, and who understand the logic of the pernicious political forces identified by public-choice economics, should be very wary of creating greater power today as a means of ensuring that that same power will be more securely contained tomorrow.

In addition, there’s an even stronger argument for dismissing the cultural case against immigration.  It is this: a nation’s public policies are ultimately determined by the ideas (and the spread and refinement of ideas through talk) that are prevalent in a society.  Voting is largely the consequence of the ideas that people hold – and government policy itself is determined more by the ideas that currently reign and less by the flesh-and-blood individuals who currently reign.

Therefore, if restrictive government policies today can be justified on the basis of their prospects for protecting society from even more restrictive government policies tomorrow, restricting immigration should be way down on the list of such policies to pursue today.  Far better (if this cultural theory for opposing immigration is sound) to first abolish freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.  These freedoms do far more to foster and spread ideas – including anti-free-market ideas – than does immigration.  Yet how many ‘libertarian-cultural’ opponents of immigration are willing to abolish freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly?  I suspect (and I certainly hope) none.


I’m frequently accused of being an airy-fairy “unrealistic” ideologue for ignoring the cultural consequences of open immigration.  (I don’t, by the way, ignore those prospective consequences.  I consider them.  And I conclude from that consideration that those prospective consequences are not remotely likely or severe enough to justify the actual oppressive government policy of preventing peaceful people from moving to wherever they wish and from associating with whomever they choose to associate.)

But if I am an airy-fairy “unrealistic” ideologue for supporting open immigration despite the possibility that such immigration might lead to greater and more threatening government powers in the future, aren’t I an even airyer-fairyer and “unrealistic-er” ideologue for also opposing, say, proposals to prevent the publication and sale in the U.S. of books such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?  (As of 5:15pm EDT today, Piketty’s decidedly un-free-market tome is #4 in sales at, and has an Amazon reader rating of 4 out of 5 stars.  This book will do far more to fuel statism in America than any horde of poor, eager-to-vote Mexicans seeking jobs and better lives in the United States.)  Aren’t I a head-in-the-sand “unrealistic” libertarian for also opposing restrictions on the speech of statists such as Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, E.J. Dionne, and Rachel Maddow?  Aren’t I an absurdly naive libertarian for opposing also any government policy of preventing the likes of Occupy Wall Street protesters from assembling to protest, or professional sociologists from gathering together for academic pow-wows?

Obviously, I don’t think that I’m unrealistic.  Quite the contrary.  Just as my realism informs me that the use of government power, say, to stop columnists for The Nation from spreading their economic ignorance is not only immoral in and of itself, but also likely to lead even over the long-run to a less free and less prosperous society, my realism informs me that the use of government power to prevent immigration is not only immoral in and of itself but likely also to have the same baneful consequences on our freedom and prosperity as would government suspensions of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.


Put yet another way, if the free society is to be destroyed, it will be by the free exchange of ideas and not by the free exchange of labor and people.  I’m not saying, of course, that the free exchange of ideas will destroy the free society.  I don’t believe that it will.  I am saying that ideas are what matter, not the nationality or ethnicity of the people who carry and spread ideas.  So if you think it prudent to use government today to restrict freedoms in order to protect freedom for tomorrow, then you’re wasting your time if you focus on preventing the free flow of people; you should instead focus on preventing the free flow of ideas.  Unless and until you anti-immigration libertarians are prepared to endorse restrictions on the free flow of ideas (something that I hope you will never, ever do), please re-consider your opposition to open immigration.


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