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Friday, December 1, 1995

The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration

Our Welfare State Is to Blame for Any Adverse Consequences of Immigration

Should a free country’s freedom stop at its borders? Libertarians have long answered this question with a resounding “No!” Yet in recent years, some staunch friends of a free and open economy have come to see open borders as a threat to domestic freedom rather than a complement to it. Peter Brimelow, whose provocative Alien Nation is reviewed in this issue, is a case in point.

The contributors to The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration, however, see freedom as indivisible. They are of one voice in blaming any adverse consequences of our most recent wave of immigration on our domestic welfare state. They view calls to restrict immigration as confirmation of Mises’ claim that any hampering of the market economy creates problems which are used to “justify” further intervention. Co-editor Richard Ebeling blames, “licensing restrictions, . . . heavy tax burdens, . . . welfare programs, . . . government schools with their mandatory bilingual programs,” as opposed to immigration per se, for any threat immigration poses to our economy and our culture.

Ultimately, their advocacy of free immigration rests on the sanctity of property rights. As Sheldon Richman points out in his piece, “There is nothing inherently coercive about a foreigner’s move to the United States. He pays for transportation. He rents or buys living quarters. He works for a consenting employer or starts his own business.” If he does not, he is an invader rather than an immigrant and should indeed be repelled. Those anti-immigrationists who, in the heat of argument, treat all immigrants as an invading army, however, seem to have lost sight of this distinction.

One important libertarian pro-immigration argument this book fails to include is the nature and magnitude of the new powers we must hand over to our government if we are really serious about sealing our borders. The power already granted to disrupt operations and levy fines on employers of illegal immigrants seems to have had minimal effect. Can seizing those employers’ assets or putting them in prison be far behind?

While the immigration issue is currently stirring up controversy among free-marketeers, it only constitutes half of this book. The rest deals with free trade, where among libertarians consensus still reigns. As in the chapters on immigration, the contributors exhibit a knack for getting down to first principles. James Bovard, for instance, succinctly captures the essence of what distinguishes fair trade from free trade by posing the query: “Is coercion ever fairer than voluntary agreement?” Discussions of managed trade, U.S. protectionist policies, and Friedrich List’s role in promoting protectionism round out this section of the book.

The contributors to this volume should be quite familiar to readers of The Freeman, most having served as FEE staff members, lecturers, or writers for The Freeman. In addition to editors Hornberger and Ebeling, contributors include Leonard E. Read, Ludwig von Mises, Bettina Bien Greaves, W. M. Curtiss, Lawrence W. Reed, and Gregory F. Rehmke. For those interested in understanding the classical liberal view that both people and goods should be permitted to cross borders freely, this book is an excellent place to start.

  • Richard M. Ebeling is BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. He was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) from 2003 to 2008.

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.