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Friday, December 14, 2007

A Matter of Priorities

'Tis the political season, which means the season to bash immigrants. This goes especially for so-called illegal aliens, i.e., residents without government papers. (As if that's a big deal.)

Candidates and others who are so set on securing the Mexican border — the Canadian border seems of less concern — and expelling those who had the audacity to come to the land of the free without permission mainly rely on two arguments: jobs and welfare. If those are the best arguments they've got, they haven't got much.

The first is easily dismissed. Any free-market advocate knows that what is in short supply is not work but workers — if government does not interfere with individual freedom. In the nature of things there is always more work to be done than people to do it. This is not news, just another way of saying that we live in a world of scarcity. Free people can loosen the bonds of scarcity, but can never eliminate them. This will be true as long as a quantity of resources or an hour of labor put to one purpose can't simultaneously be put to some other purpose. Under freedom long-term involuntary unemployment is thus impossible. If tomorrow we need only half the number of people it takes today to make a steady supply of some product, we'll be able to afford things we can't afford today and our living standard will rise. That's progress.

To be sure, we live in a society blanketed by government intrusion that ossifies the labor and other markets in a variety of ways. This includes taxes, minimum-wage laws, occupational licensing, anticompetitive favors to business, union laws, and more. Such interventions may make it tougher for unskilled or low-skilled workers to find new jobs if the old ones are lost to someone willing to work for less. The wrong way to address that problem, though, is to go after immigrants who are taking jobs from Americans. The moral claim to freedom, including the freedom to associate with those who have jobs to offer, should not be a function of where one was born or how one got here. It's a function of being human, period. Let's free the market rather than restrict peaceful individuals.


Welfare State

A similar point applies to welfare. I don't know what percentage of immigrants, legal and otherwise, takes benefits paid for by the taxpayers. Everyone can cite a study to support his intuitions on the matter. Such cherry-picking of data always make me uncomfortable.

Fortunately, we don't need data on an issue like this. If you don't want people taking welfare benefits, go after the dispenser of the benefits — the state — not the people who simply accept what is offered. If you fear that immigrants will strain the government's schools and hospitals, ask why government is in education and health in the first place. You don't hear Wal-Mart and other private retailers complaining about new customers.

To listen to some immigration opponents, you'd think the worst thing that can possibly happen is for a foreign-born person — especially one without government papers — to take a welfare benefit. Why it matters where a welfare recipient was born, I can't say. After all, independent migrants pay taxes, so why are they less entitled than American citizens? No one should be eligible, but if immigrants are to be singled out, shouldn't they be tax-exempt too? Hmmm. That's not a bad deal. Can one renounce one's citizenship and remain here as a tax-exempt immigrant?

At any rate, I can think of worse things than welfare for illegal aliens, including (in no particular order):

  1. Native-born Americans' taking welfare. They were born in the land of the free. Shouldn't they know better?

  2. Police-state tactics designed to prevent immigration or to catch people who made it through. Those tactics include storm-trooper raids at workplaces, witch hunts of employers who, taking the idea of free enterprise seriously, hire whomever they please, and ominous national-identification devices. Make no mistake about it: In the pursuit of illegals, all the brutal power of government is focused on individuals not because they infringed anyone's freedom, but because of who they are.

  3. The routine exploitation of people who are vulnerable to thugs and cheats because of their illegal status. When you don't dare call the police lest you risk deportation, you are ripe for victimization.

Freeman contributor Charles Johnson (blogger at Rad Geek People's Daily) put it well: As for the welfare state, they [illegals] are welcome to milk it dry, as far as I'm concerned. The sooner the damn thing is on the brink of collapse, the better. Besides which, receipt of government benefits is not ipso facto a violation of anyone's rights — it's the funding that's the problem, but illegal immigrants aren't complicit in the existence of taxation — and insofar as they are able to receive some minimal pay-outs from the State, that may as well count as partial restitution for the daily threats, terror, and violence that the state and federal governments routinely inflict against the property and liberty of all undocumented immigrants.

Freedom is more important than these extraneous concerns. It's really time we got our priorities straight.

Happy New Year!

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.