All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Freedom of Association

Immigration Restrictions Limit Natives' Choices, Too

Imagine being awakened one morning by a loud knocking on your door. You stumble downstairs and find your neighbor standing before you with a friendly smile across his face and a frightening rifle across his shoulder. Behind him you see your yard surrounded by a newly built barbed-wire fence.

“Hi!” he says. “You’re gonna love me! I’ve decided to protect you from undesirable visitors. You can come and go as you please, but don’t worry: I’ll screen your visitors for you.”

You can’t believe your ears. “This is a bizarre dream,” you think to yourself. You rub your eyes only to find your neighbor, his gun, and his fence still before you.

“What are you talking about?!” You’re too flummoxed to think clearly.

“Look, neighbor,” comes the reply. “You and your family are decent folks who want to associate only with other decent folks, right? Well, I have an uncanny ability to distinguish desirable people from undesirables. I’m doing you the favor of ensuring that only desirable people are permitted onto your property.”

Gaining your senses, you answer carefully: “Listen, I don’t know what kind of mind-altering substance you’re on, but take yourself, your gun, and your fence from here immediately. I’m quite capable on my own to determine whom I do and do not associate with. I don’t need or appreciate you prescreening for me the people whom I allow onto my property. So scram, you buffoon! And mind your own business.”

No doubt the details of your own conversation with such an officious neighbor would differ from the fictional conversation above. But surely the substance would convey the same message. You wouldn’t tolerate someone else exercising the authority to screen the people you associate with.

Or would you? If you support restrictions on immigration you do tolerate such an exercise of authority by others to screen the people with whom you associate on your own property. Make no mistake: while immigration restrictions are couched in rhetoric suggesting that they limit only the freedom of foreigners, such restrictions limit your ability, as an American, to choose the people with whom you associate.

Suppose, for example, that you wish to hire someone to mow your lawn. Several Americans offer their services to you. You might find one of these offers attractive. But not everyone who wants to offer his or her services to you can do so. Many people who might otherwise offer to mow your lawn are excluded from the United States by armed guards standing ready to shoot them if they try to get into this country—and to shoot you if you insist on continuing to associate with persons deemed by the state to be unfit to associate with you.

Those who oppose freedom of association might respond by making light of commercial relationships. “Surely,” they might retort, “government prescreening of workers and others with whom Americans might have commercial relationships doesn’t offend an ideal so lofty as freedom of association.”

Such a retort is devious.

First, immigration restrictions reduce the freedom of each American to choose not only those with whom he deals commercially, but also those with whom he interacts in more personal ways. For example, an American who wants to live in the United States with his foreign wife must first navigate a labyrinth of time-consuming bureaucracy before securing Washington’s permission for the wife to remain in this country. More generally, anyone kept out of the United States by immigration restrictions never becomes part of the pool of people from which an American may choose his colleagues, friends, and intimates.

Second, freedom to associate with people commercially is as fundamental as is freedom to associate in more intimate ways. Indeed, the vast bulk of our associations aren’t with loved ones and close friends but with people whom we encounter only fleetingly. The waitress who brings my lunch, the technician who upgrades my computer, the physician who cares for my son, the jeweler who repairs my watch, the cabbie who drives me home . . . . I regularly associate with these and countless other people.

These associations are peaceful and mutually beneficial. Our lives are enriched when opportunities to associate with all people of our choosing are unrestricted. By obstructing our ability to associate freely, immigration restrictions make our lives less rich and fulfilling.

What opportunities do immigration restrictions deny us? No doubt, we all are denied opportunities not only to strike better commercial deals, but also opportunities to associate with people who would otherwise become dear friends or loving intimates.

As with all who excuse government coercion, proponents of immigration restrictions prophesy any number of ill effects growing from open immigration. Most of these objections—for example, that immigration makes workers as a group worse off—are unfounded. But the few objections that have some superficial merit turn out to have just that—merit that is only superficial.

For example, it is superficially valid to question the merits of open immigration given our government’s current generosity with welfare handouts. The argument is that we shouldn’t permit so many immigrants into America because they are likely to swell the welfare rolls.

But why focus on immigration? The problem is our own welfare state. Abolish it.

A common response to this call to abolish the welfare state is that such a call is politically naive. As desirable as ridding ourselves of the welfare state might be, politically we’re stuck with it.

Perhaps. But if so, it surely is no argument for restricting immigration. A less drastic fix than restricting immigration is available to deal with this problem: open up immigration to any foreigner who agrees never to receive government welfare payments based on low income.

More fundamentally, the very reason offered for why it’s naive to believe that the welfare state will be abolished is a compelling reason to support open immigration. The welfare state is entrenched because it has created its own politically powerful clientele. That’s one of the grave dangers of government programs: they self-perpetuate despite being socially harmful.

Immigration restrictions are the same. Powerful interest groups (such as labor unions and the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s employees) benefit from the perpetuation and expansion of immigration restrictions. If ever the opportunity arises to loosen these restrictions, it should be grasped quickly and firmly.

It’s dangerous to use the existence of one abuse of government power to justify another abuse of government power. Never give government additional power as a means of reducing its power. To do so is to travel along the road to serfdom—and, in the case of immigration restrictions, to cede to the state the frightful power to select those with whom we may associate. No free people ought ever do such a thing.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.