Communities, Immigration, and Decentralization

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Immigration is different from other issues. A State’s taxes are easy to be against. They plunder and redistribute wealth.

Immigration is not so one-sided. Immigrants are human beings. Most contribute, some take. Most Americans trace their roots to immigrants. Immigrants have customs and ways that may conflict with those of their new country. They may be a burden. They may try to change the basic rules of the American game. But so may anyone else.

Some of us value our associations with immigrants, others do not. The State’s many welfare and other rules when combined with immigration create impositions. Communities must provide certain services to immigrants. Immigration involves both positive and negative value creation. Consequently, judging a State’s immigration policies is not easy.

Thoughtful people have advanced our understanding of these issues considerably. To make further headway, I focus on the hypothetical case of voluntary communities. Many factors give rise to communities. These same factors affect their immigration rules. Communities face a diverse welter of costs and benefits that large centralized States cannot, do not, or only grossly take into account. Decentralizing immigration decisions to the local level should therefore help to resolve the immigration issue. Reducing the State’s many other mandates should do the same.

Suppose that 500 people successfully secede from a country and establish their own community with its own rules. They own all the property. Their freely-chosen rules establish a gated society that restricts the immigration of others into the society. They decide not to allow outsiders to immigrate into the community and become members. There is no open border and no one in the community complains about it.

All libertarians can agree that this situation of closed borders involves no aggression upon anyone.

Alternatively, suppose that the community decides to be fully open to immigration. It has completely open borders. Immigrants come and go at will, becoming citizens without hindrance. The community members have no problem with immigration. Again, libertarians can agree that this open borders scenario involves no aggression.

Now imagine in-between scenarios in which each community has rules about who may become a community member. They may have residency requirements, rules that exclude criminals or other classes of people, rules that require certain qualifications, or buy-in amounts. There are innumerable possibilities and ways to screen and select immigrants. These scenarios do not involve aggression either, and a libertarian has no cause to complain.

Immigration rules do not foreclose complementary rules of association. The members of any of these communities may trade with members of other communities, either within its borders or outside. There may be marketplaces within its gates. A community may hire non-citizens. It may house guest workers on the property of members. There may be workers who remain for long periods of time but who are not citizens of the community. Again there are many possibilities, and a libertarian can find no trace of aggression in any of them.

All these situations are consistent with non-aggression because the community members voluntarily decide the issues of citizenship, trade location, and hiring. The communities are like clubs.

Imagine now that all of these communities are conquered and aggregated into one State with one set of immigration rules determined centrally with input from the communities. The members of the communities become worse off. Whether the State chooses open borders or closed borders or something in between, it harms those communities that had selected other policies. The extent of harm depends on the value of the impositions that the lack of or the excess of immigrants bring. Those whom the State does not immediately harm will eventually be harmed because changes in the community’s preferences will almost surely not be mirrored in changes in the State’s laws and internal migrations of immigrants can occur.

If instead of immigration, we substitute other items of value such as education, religion, language, health care, security, courts, hours of work, etc., we reach the same conclusion. If a community wants to and is able to hold members who agree to community rules and ways concerning these matters, then aggregation of disparate communities into one State with one set of rules generally makes the members of the communities worse off.

The term "community" does not necessarily mean a family, tribe, congregation, church, village, city, state, or nation. I have in mind a concept of an association that is able to garner voluntary support of its members for various rules. Real world communities may partake of this characteristic in part, but they may also contain non-voluntary elements. I do not want to leave the impression that a community is somehow an optimal unit for making decisions. The individual is, and individuals decide on their own units of association. The voluntary community simply serves as a model of many important real-world social and other interactions of individuals.

To relate immigration to community values, consider that there are many economic, social, and cultural reasons why communities form. Although these reasons seem far removed from immigration, they are not. The two go hand-in-hand. This means that immigration is an especially sensitive and important issue for communities.

Clearly a community gives its members access to diverse skills, division of labor and specialization, benefits from sharing discoveries, a broader gene pool, diversification, and enhanced security. The community’s way of life, habits, customs and traditions comprise its social and cultural capital. The latter include many items we take for granted. Specifically, one may mention norms of reciprocal behavior, ethical norms, cooperative relationships, trust, networks of people, ways of working, expectations of behavior, and informal ways of resolving conflict. In addition to these, communities may share attitudes on many aspects of human behavior. These are items like autonomy of the individual versus group membership, attitudes toward hierarchy, egalitarianism, harmony, self-assertion, submission to authority, risk and uncertainty, masculinity, femininity, knowledge, skills, and education. In some communities, one may think of religious practices, dress, food, music, art, etc. Hospitality and xenophobia are other factors. In sum, social and cultural capital cover a lot of ground.

In addition, a community will have a rule of law of some type and a political system that accommodates the particular host population. These systems vary widely. In the modern world, some have identified four major legal systems, English, French, German, and Scandinavian.

When a community segregates itself and allows little or no immigration, its members pay a price. They give up some things of value, namely, the values brought by immigrants. These include many of the items just mentioned, like skills, brainpower, education, and genes. The community gives up exposure to opportunities, inventions, technology, possibly better laws, improved ethics, increased specialization, art, religion, etc. Perhaps, however, it can gain exposure to some of these without immigration.

On the other hand, immigration has potential costs. Immigrants may not do as the Romans do when in Rome. They may conflict with community members along many of the social, legal, religious, economic, political, and cultural dimensions listed above. They may cause a deterioration of social and cultural capital and values. They may disrupt society. Immigrants can alter economic and other values to some individuals and groups, raising them or lowering them.

These costs and value changes occur even without immigration when a society’s current citizens act, think and speak. One cannot be against immigration simply because of value changes brought about by immigrants when no aggression is involved. However, in States with many component communities, the State’s laws trench upon communities and private property and create unwelcome trespass situations. Hospitals must provide care to all, citizens and immigrants alike. Schools must educate all. Businesses must deal with all. Taxpayers must support all. Transportation systems must transport all. Jails and courts must handle all. Immigrants may organize and seek political changes. It is in these sorts of contexts that the costs of immigration may become burdensome to citizens.

The effects of immigration are manifold, and how individuals value them vary. This suggests that free communities may establish a variety of rules, from closed to part-open to open borders, depending on the preferences of the individuals in them. They will probably alter their rules as time passes and they learn the costs and benefits of immigration. The rules relate to the tastes and values of the community’s members, to how much they are willing to sacrifice to segregate themselves, and to how much they are willing to give up to gain the benefits of not being segregated.

Ancillary factors affect the chosen rules of immigration. One is the cost of monitoring who are immigrants and who are not. Second is the cost of enforcing the borders as well as the costs of exclusion from public property. These costs add up. Third is the cost of disputes concerning who is or is not a citizen. Rules always need extension and elucidation. What shall be done if a citizen marries a non-citizen? What if an asylum-seeker is taken in or a person in distress? Fourth is the cost of changing the rules regarding immigration. Fifth is that seasonal workers, guests, temporary workers, or non-resident aliens who stay a lengthy time may demand to become citizens, especially if they have integrated themselves into the life of the community and if there are benefits to citizenship. Advocacy groups will spring up and pressure government for benefits or equal treatment. Sixth, conversely, citizens may want non-citizens to become citizens so that they may bear more of the costs that the citizens bear. Seventh, external communities may demand reciprocity if a community wishes to trade with it or use its workers. It may make other demands. Eighth, outsiders might not like being left outside. They may covet the community’s property. They may threaten war or start war. It may be that accommodation through immigration is an alternative to war.

This is a lengthy list of costs and benefits relating to immigration, and it is not exhaustive. These costs and benefits are intimately linked to the costs and benefits of being in a community. The resultant of all these factors is a host demand for immigrants.

There is also a supply of immigrants. This comes from people with many motives for migrating or emigrating, temporarily or permanently. They might wish to visit and work on a temporary basis. They might seek asylum. They might want to retire. They might want to split their time between several locations such as winter in Florida and summer in Maine. They might like to settle as resident aliens or become permanent citizens of a new host community.

A "closed" border and country mean that the cost of entering that country is high. This discourages many potential immigrants, but not all. Some may seek and find means to enter illegally. A black market in smuggling immigrants will arise. A high-wage host country will attract certain immigrants. Others may be attracted by a country’s climate or location. Language may deter immigration as may concerns about fitting in or finding work. The presence of a relative in a host country or a community of fellow-countrymen may lower the cost of moving. The style of life may be attractive or not. Some of the same kinds of social, cultural, economic, and other factors that affect the host demand for immigrants may also affect the supply of immigrants.

A community or a country with a welfare system that pays everyone within its borders who is below a certain income level may attract some immigrants. This acts as a subsidy to some immigrants. A community might purposely allow this for a time if it wishes to attract immigrants for other reasons. Or it might discover that such a feature is attracting too many immigrants and then alter it. A community might pay a bounty or land plots to attract certain types of immigrants, such as females willing to become wives or young men willing to become mercenaries.

In sum, there is a market for immigration, a demand and a supply dependent on numerous values. I have couched it in terms of a community whose citizens all voluntarily and freely decide upon the rules governing immigration. In this scenario, it is plain that many outcomes are possible. It is plain that a great many costs and benefits influence the demand and supply. We see that a great many outcomes, all consistent with non-aggression, can conceivably arise. Borders may be closed, partly open, or fully open. All sorts of immigrant screens may occur.

A good many of the factors involved in the demand for immigration involve externalities. If a corporation brings in immigrants as a labor force, for example, they may impose costs upon the community at large. External effects of one’s actions that affect the values of assets held or achievable by others are pervasive in any society, with or without immigrants. In a free society, externalities pose no problem. If they rise to a level that is high enough, then people may combine or associate to reduce them. For example, if enough people are bothered badly enough by the noise of loud car radios, they can form a community with rules against such noise. The personal valuations of such costs and the costs of association influence how people end up dealing with many situations. Immigration is like many other situations in this respect. If citizens anticipate that the costs of having immigrants present are high enough and if the costs of associating to prevent their entry are low enough, then a closed border or controlled entry solution will arise. However, in a society ruled by a State, the externalities of immigration are not mitigated by such solutions. The State prevents them. This creates a situation where rationality cannot prevail.

To make the analysis more realistic, let us bring in rulers who propose or make immigration rules for the community. It is quite possible for communities to choose rulers and delegate some functions and decisions to them. Rulers can’t know all the costs and benefits of immigration as well as the individual subjects know them. It is impossible for them to balance everyone’s costs and values, even if they try, since these are not comparable across individuals, not observable, and changing. They therefore only imperfectly can legislate on behalf of the community. They will not satisfy everyone, and their decisions will look relatively inane at times. Moreover, the rulers will also be subject to interest group politics, the failings of power, and ideologies. Nevertheless, if the community’s members do not find it worthwhile to make these decisions themselves, they may delegate them to the rulers and absorb the costs of bad decisions.

The smaller the community, the more likely that individuals in it have voluntarily chosen to abide by the community rules, even when delegation to rulers is involved. There are many small communities, so that the costs of exit are within reasonable bounds. Furthermore, the smaller the community, the more likely that an individual can influence others concerning specific rules including the rules of delegation themselves. Even in small communities, there is likely to be aggression of the rulers against individuals, but individuals may put up with it if the costs of it are low.

The larger the community, the less can an individual view himself as voluntarily delegating decision-making power to rulers. The extent of aggression rises. The costs of exit rise. The individual’s influence on others and on specific issues falls because the costs of communicating and working within a complex system rise. Individuals find it almost impossible to change the rules of delegation. Even individuals who support the system of rule find themselves dissatisfied with a larger range of community rules.

In a modern State like the U.S. in which rulers exercise pervasive and detailed powers that they have arrogated to themselves, ruling aggression is widespread and thorough. Such a State does not reflect nor is it the outcome of voluntary processes. Exit is prohibitively high in cost for most. Such a State’s rules do not spring from a community. Instead, the authorities make and inculcate rules and values. Some citizens lose their will to resist. Others find it costly not to submit, because the State is strong.

When it comes to immigration rules made by a State like the U.S., the notion that they are the outcome of voluntary delegation is untenable. The notion that they are the outcome of rulers who seek to legislate in the "community interest," vague as it is, is untenable. Instead, the State’s immigration rules are responsive to interest group politics, the concentration of benefits and diffusion of costs, and ideologies. Politicians look out for themselves, for power, for votes and their tenure in office, for their wealth, and for their own ideologies. If their policies happen to benefit some of their subjects from time to time, this merely accompanies their larger agenda, which is to accumulate and hold power, to plunder silently even with the misguided blessings of those whom they are plundering.

In such a situation, calling for an end to State-made immigration rules is no different than calling for an end to Social Security and Medicare or calling for an end to national defense or the U.S. political system itself as we know it. All of the latter, including the immigration rules, constitute a major transformation, even a termination, of the U.S. system as it was in 1910 and a replacement by a new system, so much so that now to call for a return to a 1910 set of rules seems revolutionary. Immigration in 1910 was quite open, although even then various exclusionary laws had been passed for decades to exclude Asians.

The market does not have a primary influence on immigration in the U.S. That is, individuals and localities in the host country have little or no say over immigration. Their personal valuations, their desires to rent to immigrants, sell to them, hire them and fire them, educate them, teach them the language, drink with them, marry them, or cheat and exploit them, as well as their desires to shun and avoid them, keep them at bay, keep them from voting or becoming citizens, keep them off their property, keep them from using parks and public facilities — all these valuations do not directly count. What counts are distant decisions made by distant bureaucrats, rulers, Supreme Court judges, and invisible interest groups.

Since the State’s laws are outside the market order, they invariably contain arbitrary elements. Laws clash and spill over, one onto another with far-reaching effects. The national and state welfare laws encourage immigration, but subject to various quotas. Inadequate border patrols encourage immigration from border countries. National and individual state mandates press education, hospital, and other costs upon localities that are ill-equipped to handle them.

No small group of rulers can assess these costs and benefits from an overall standpoint. No person can ever assess how much another person values something. This is one reason why federal and state laws frequently work badly. Pushing the decision-making down to the local level enhances freedom and reduces the arbitrary and aggressive intrusions of the State. Pushing immigration decisions below the country and state level to counties, cities, towns and individuals lessens the turmoil, chaos, and injustice of immigration rules composed centrally via a distant and politicized process.

Even in Switzerland’s direct democracy, which has only 7 million people, and an area 1/4 the size of Ohio, the central government’s immigration policies have led to dissatisfaction. Numerous referenda on the issue have bubbled up from the Swiss people. In 2003 they elected an anti-immigration government. Their leaders had earlier favored importing unskilled labor and satisfying some supra-national EU aspirations.

The decentralization approach to freedom from federal and state arbitrariness might end up with many localities being quite anti-immigration. This is as it should be if this result expresses community values based upon the right to associate and make joint choices. Other communities might be quite pro-immigration. This too is as it should be. One size fits all is worse.

Until 1875, the federal government of the U.S. played little role in immigration other than setting the term of residency although in 1864 many states and the federal government actively sought immigrants from abroad. The country had an open borders policy.

John Hospers has asked "what policy should we adopt while we still have the welfare state with us?" There is no rational answer except to reduce the "we" to smaller units and reduce the power of the current "we" to create law. Imposed central policies foster chaos, strife, and disorder.

Open borders, approximated by the situation now in Arizona, have so far given rise to a closed-borders movement, not to a movement to dismantle the public welfare and public schools systems. This is because of Supreme Court decisions and Congressional and state acts that mandate services to aliens. Arizonans cannot change these policies, so some choose the lowest-cost methods such as the Minuteman Project or Proposition 200. They can’t change Medicare, but maybe they can restrict entry in other ways. Naturally, the closed-borders movement has given rise to an opposition movement. None of this is pretty.

Today, because of the State’s many other laws and intrusions, an approach to immigration that holds freedom as the highest value is not one that seeks either open or closed borders for the State as a whole. Under today’s conditions, if the State opts for open borders, this may conflict with legitimate local preferences. If it opts for closed borders, this too may conflict with legitimate local preferences. By contrast, if one does not support the State’s welfare programs, there is no conflict with anyone’s legitimate preferences because welfare programs by nature involve offensive coercion.

To be anti-State is to be for the reduction and end of central power first and foremost. It is to be for the fewest and least intrusive State-made immigration rules, the ultimate goal being none. It is to be for the reduction and end of the panoply of federal and state programs that force health, welfare, education, work, disability, safety, environmental and discrimination mandates upon localities. If these are reduced and ended, then individuals can evaluate immigration far more rationally.

To be anti-State is to be for the enhancement of local decision-making because this better reflects the costs and benefits that individuals value. Local control over immigration policy is an approach that allows closed borders for some who want it and open borders for others who want that.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is the Louis M. Jacobs Professor of Finance at University at Buffalo.

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