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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Immigration, the Tea Parties, and Big Government

Tread on me only when it comes to immigration?

The Arizona law enabling police to ask for immigration papers or proof of citizenship of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally has fanned the flames of an already hot debate over immigration.  How these issues play out in the Tea Party movement will be interesting.  Polling data indicate that Tea Partiers have a significant anti-immigration element to them.  So, will people who claim to dislike big government be consistent and oppose this new law?

That opponents of big government would support immigration control is surprising on its face.  Enforcing such laws requires governments, federal or state, to exercise powers that small-government advocates should reject.  It’s not that immigration law requires enormous expenditures, or that it dramatically increases the size of government.  But it does increase the scope of government power.

This distinction between scale and scope is made by Robert Higgs in his masterful Crisis and Leviathan.  The real damage to freedom comes not necessarily from government growing bigger but rather from Big Government.  The former is about scale, the latter about scope.  So much of the Tea Party talk seems to be about scale:  how much government spends, taxes, and borrows.  Little of it has been about scope:  the powers that government has to interfere with the rights of individuals.

The Arizona law will cost little and will not necessarily require more police, but it gives a great deal more power to the existing government.  The same is true of building border fences or stricter labor regulations.  Their direct expenses are not that large (compared to bailouts and stimuli anyway!), and they often get passed on to firms and consumers.  But they expand State power in way that should concern those who oppose big government.

Anti-immigration laws restrict the freedom of at least two groups.  One is American employers who want to hire immigrant workers.  Laws that restrict immigration to officially approved people or that punish firms for hiring those who aren’t approved limit the economic freedom of employers.   (By doing so, they also limit cost-cutting competition by firms, which lowers prices for American consumers.)  Tea Partiers who wave Gadsen flags might consider the ways in which immigration law treads on the freedom of their friends and neighbors who are employers.  If one really supports free enterprise, one should support the right of voluntary contract among any and all consenting adults, regardless of which side of an arbitrary political border they were born or live.

Immigrants’ Rights

Too often forgotten in these debates are the rights of immigrants.  Libertarians believe in human rights, not just citizens’ rights or Americans’ rights.  People everywhere have, or should have, the right to travel where they wish and to contract for work with whomever they wish.  On what grounds do those who profess a belief in freedom prohibit them from doing so?  (To anticipate a possible objection:  Illegal immigrants are not more likely to commit crimes, and the U.S. crime rate has fallen since the 1987 amnesty program.)  People who break the law to look for work in America are mostly trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.  Why risk life and limb to come here to go on welfare when they can do the same thing at home without risk?  And by what right do we prevent them from trying to make better lives for themselves, just as we would wish for American citizens?  The reverence with which supposed opponents of big government treat the artificial lines governments draw is yet another puzzle.

Enforcing immigration laws, including the new Arizona law, often requires encroaching on constitutional rights.  Tea Partiers claim devotion to the Constitution, but those who support the Arizona law apparently missed the Fourth Amendment’s protection of privacy.  Again, asking people for proof of citizenship is not going to add anything noticeable to the Arizona state budget, or the federal deficit if done on a national scale, but it does expand the scope of government power in a way that turns it from just being “big” to being “Big.”

Tea Partiers need to decide just what they are worried about.  Is their opposition to big government coming from a principled objection to the larger scope of government power at all levels to interfere with the freedoms of all people (that is, Big Government), or are they just upset about the growth in federal giveaways that don’t benefit them?

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.