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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Secure in Freedom

Language is indispensable to civilization. But because we rely on language so heavily—because it is our chief means of communicating with each other as well as a tool for forming and storing our thoughts—if used carelessly it can misshape our thoughts.

Careless language (or, even worse, verbal legerdemain) often turns words or phrases with positive connotations into Trojan horses that sneak mistaken, vague, or confusing notions into our thought processes.

A familiar example is the word “fair.” By definition, “fair” denotes something desirable. So by attaching the word to any noun or verb, a speaker anoints the thing as something good. The speaker is subtly instructing the listener simply to accept without question that the thing described by the word is good. A careless listener, then, is at high risk of accepting a conclusion that, with careful thought or without having heard the word “fair,” he might not accept.

Consider the frequently heard phrase “fair wage.” If Sen. Jones explains his support for raising the legislated minimum wage, he’s sure to insist that his goal is for low-skilled workers to receive a “fair wage.” Scholars seeking to explain the consequences of minimum-wage legislation objectively then have to overcome the emotional bias that the word “fair” smuggles into the conversation.

Another example is the phrase “secure our borders.” Opponents of open immigration frequently allege that illegal immigrants are proof that America’s borders aren’t “secure” and that those of us who wish to abolish numerical limits on immigration are insensitive to the need for government to “secure our borders.”

Such allegations, however, sneak in so many implicit presumptions that rational discussion becomes quite difficult.

The very phrase “insecure borders” conjures an image of government failing at its most fundamental responsibility—namely, protecting citizens from invading marauders. People see in their minds’ eyes an America increasingly at risk of being conquered by foreigners, leaving Americans at the mercy of invading rapists, plunderers, and murderers.

Immigrants, however, aren’t invaders, much less warriors in a conquering army.

Reasonable people can disagree over what kinds of national-security protections should exist on America’s borders and what sorts of screening of would-be immigrants should be done to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks on American soil. But it is not reasonable to imply that immigration is chiefly, or even mostly, an issue of national security. Unfortunately, such an unreasonable implication is precisely what people who frame immigration as a matter of border security sneak into the discussion.

For perspective, ask if America’s borders were insecure until 1921 when, with the Emergency Quota Act, Uncle Sam first began seriously to restrict the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Were Americans, until just 90 years ago, living in peril of their lives and livelihoods because U.S. borders were “insecure”?

Or ask this question: Does the fact that Uncle Sam imposes no numerical limits on foreign visitors to the United States mean that American borders are insecure? Short of the U.S. government’s imposing draconian restrictions (to be enforced with draconian measures) on visitors—say, admitting only 1,000 visitors annually, each of whom must first get a high-security clearance from the State Department—it’s almost impossible to see how numerical restrictions on foreign visitors would make America’s borders more secure. Therefore, anyone who would now seriously suggest that the lack of numerical restrictions on foreign visitors to America is evidence that U.S. borders are “insecure” or “broken” would justifiably be ridiculed.

Keep these points in mind when you encounter debates over immigration policy.

My proposal is to return to the policies under which anyone who wanted to immigrate to America could do so as long as he or she had no serious communicable disease and was not a terrorist.

That policy was much like the one we have today for foreign visitors to the United States: Anyone may visit America as long as he or she likely poses no serious threat to Americans. So, too, before 1882 anyone could immigrate to America as long as he or she posed no serious threat to Americans. (This policy actually continued largely unchanged until 1921, with the horrid exception of would-be immigrants from China. Starting in 1882 Uncle Sam imposed severe restrictions on Chinese people’s ability to immigrate into America.)

In fact, the security of American borders—if by this phrase we mean genuinely decreased risks to Americans’ persons and property—would almost certainly rise with open borders.

Points of immigrants’ entry, such as Ellis Island, would be reestablished. All peaceful persons immigrating to America would flow in through these points, be checked for communicable diseases and for ties to terrorist organizations, and, if cleared on both fronts, enter the United States. Uncle Sam would no longer spend hundreds of millions of dollars policing the borders, catching “illegal” immigrants, deporting them back to Mexico, and monitoring employers who might have hired “illegal” immigrants. Those resources could be used instead to seek out and to apprehend terrorists.

Because all legitimate steps to secure the borders would aim only at reducing Americans’ risk of being violated in their persons and property, government’s policing efforts would—with the open-borders regime I recommend—focus on this goal. Such worthy efforts would not get mixed in with, or be confused with, efforts to prevent peaceful people from coming to America and finding gainful employment here.

With government enforcement efforts concentrated on securing us from criminal violence and theft, we would be more secure than we are now with so many resources and so much manpower instead concentrated on “protecting” us from people whose only crime is to seek out better economic opportunities.

  • 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.