Destroying Liberty To Save It
by Ryan McMaken
by Ryan McMaken
Relying on the false premise that immigration numbers are at historically unprecedented levels, anti-immigration advocates have managed to whip a sizable portion of the American public into a nationalistic frenzy against immigrants. In general, illegal immigrants are targeted as the more politically acceptable scapegoat, and these immigrants, we are told, come to the United States to do nothing other than steal jobs from Americans, live off the welfare state, inconvenience us with their strange foreign languages, promote bizarre political movements, or simply introduce their inferior foreign ways into our pristine civilization.
While many of these arguments made against immigrants are based on little more than pop-psychology and pseudo-science, not all of them are, and we can't conclude that opposition to open borders and unrestrained immigration is necessarily a bad thing. There are good reasons to oppose them. In certain ways, open borders are indeed a threat to liberty, although the problem that we repeatedly encounter is that many of the conservatives behind the anti-immigration hysteria focus on all the wrong reasons while supporting authoritarian solutions that diminish rather than enhance liberty.
In contrast, the leftists argue for ever greater taxpayer subsidies and legal favors for immigrants, ever further expanding the redistributive power of the state. And out of this multi-polar devotion to the power of the state, the problem that the libertarian is faced with is determining what exactly should be done, if anything, about the immigration "problem." Put simply, there is a right way and a wrong way of going about it. The right solutions, of course, are those that diminish the power and scope of government. The wrong solutions are those that enhance it.
In the anti-immigrant rhetoric we hear these days on talk radio and read in the right-wing internet mags, there is much rhetoric about how the illegal immigrants are sucking the taxpayer dry. There is little to object to in this argument. Indeed it would be nice to hear a little bit about how all the other recipients of government largesse are sucking the taxpayer dry as well — namely old people and farmers and defense contractors. Immigrants, however, are the scapegoat of the moment if for no other reason than they don't have nearly as many friends in Congress as the old people and the farmers. But immigrants on welfare are a worthy target nonetheless.
Yet, old people and others living off the government dole would do well to think twice before getting too up in arms against the immigrants. The immigrants, legal or not, endure payroll taxes like the rest of us, thus funding grandma's trip to the casino, and helping finance a welfare state for natives that the native population, with its low birth rates, can barely keep up with. And even though Richard Vedder, et al. have done some rather impressive research showing that immigrants resort to welfare less than the native population, there are surely some immigrants out there who receive more in taxpayer-funded benefits that they produce. It is on them that we must turn our ire.
In addition to the "sucking-us-dry" argument, the conservatives unfortunately insist on muddying the waters with a variety of unverifiable claims about cultural purity, and assimilation, and Anglo-Saxon work ethics, and a variety of other theories that would have been right at home in a 1925 text on eugenics.
These people are welcome to their little theories, but the proposed solutions to the immigration problem are what interest us. We want to know just how much more big government the conservatives want to give us in order to make sure that they never have to be scandalized by overhearing someone say "Buenos dias" on the street.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of proposed solutions out there that have "police state" written all over them. And as is typical for the type of nationalism being spouted by the anti-immigrant lobby these days, many of the solutions also involve crushing businessmen and entrepreneurs as the supposed accomplices in letting immigrants get away with the heinous crime of working without government approval.
Legislation addressing the need to grind down the small businessman in an effort to stick it to the immigrants is currently working its way through Congress. Kerry Howley has described how these measures would work:
Pick your acronym — EEVS (Electronic Employer Verification System) in the Senate bill, the BEVP (Basic Employer Verification Program) in the widely condemned House version, NEECS (New Employment Eligibility Confirmation System) in the alternate McCain/Kennedy rendition. Each represents a federal database system that will bestow a yea or nay upon every would-be worker in the Land of the Free, whether she is surnamed Rogers or Rodriguez, born in Manassas or Mexico City. The system the ACLU calls "permission slip to work" requires verification from not one but two federal agencies; the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If any of the prominent immigration measures pass as they are now written, every hiring decision will become a matter of public concern, subject to dual bureaucracies, two databases, and an untold number of deciders.
In other words, both employers and employees will be monitored and evaluated every time a worker wants to change jobs. As if private businesses weren't already crippled by untold scores of regulations and forms to fill out, now they would be treated to passing every hiring decision through a massive government database, with approval contingent on a nod from some government agent.
This is just the type of solution we would expect from a coalition of politicians, pundits, and shiftless American wage earners who can't stand the thought of competing with immigrants who have the nerve to show up to work on time every day.
Incidentally, this is also why the politicians and wage earners argue against immigration in general as something that drives down the wage rates of the native population. Many of these same conservatives who use this as a reason to oppose immigration claim to be proponents of the "free market" although it is difficult to see what is so "free market" about a scheme of government intervention aimed at propping up wages.
The plan to stifle immigration by ruining those employers who would rather work than perform green-card background checks may find acceptance among the anti-immigration rank and file. The pundits behind the current anti-immigrant movement, desperate to find a winning issue this election cycle, have trotted out every tired old Know-Nothing argument from the 19th century they can find in the hope of generating popular outrage. The idea of course is to concoct an enemy so cunning, so brutal, and so despicable, that the voters will demand that something — anything — be done to stop it.
There is, however, a more reasonable, more libertarian, solution to dealing with immigration, and that is to do what it is always right to do: limit the power and scope of the state.
As has been pointed out by others numerous times, in the days when there was little to no welfare state in the United States, the effects of immigration on state power and personal liberties were much less pronounced. New immigrants could not make claims to government services and public goods. Simply stated, in the modern world, new immigrants to a welfare state like the United States have access to a wide variety of goods and services that are provided by the taxpayers. Certain immigrants who are net tax receivers then expand the welfare rolls, thus increasing pressure on the state to increase spending that must be financed either through borrowing or through new taxes. The same phenomenon occurs with immigrant-produced demands put upon public goods such as parks and transportation infrastructure. [See Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Stephan Kinsella for more.]
It should be noted that this is more an argument against the welfare state and public goods than against immigration. Yet, it does mean that at least in principle, open borders and unrestrained immigration are unacceptable. They — theoretically, at least- lead directly to an expansion of the welfare state and therefore increase state power. Thus, we are forced to conclude that some immigrants, with the coercive help of the state, are granted access to resources at the expense of the taxpayers. Of course, this is true of all welfare recipients. Naturally, it would be ideal to introduce policies that would deny such services to natives as well, but denying access to immigrants is nonetheless an acceptable place to start.
Taxpayers in some states have attempted to do just this, and have won support for laws like California's Proposition 187 (later struck down by government judges) and Arizona's Proposition 200. The open-borders leftists tell us such laws are horribly cruel and inhumane, but such legislation should be expanded and adopted by the federal government and by every state in the union. The ideal type of this legislation would ensure that welfare programs ranging from health care to government schools should be off-limits to all illegal aliens. Indeed, such measures should be expanded to ensure that taxpayer-funded goods would be off limits to any new immigrant (legal and illegal) for at least a decade or more after permanent residency has been established. This would have the effect of instantly shrinking the numbers of those eligible for government programs, shrinking government's (that is, the taxpayer's) financial liabilities. The process of verification necessary to prove eligibility for such programs may also have the happy side-effect of eliminating some current citizens from the rolls as well. If nothing else, the desperate opposition to these plans put forward by governments and their agents shows that such laws are at the very least a step in the right direction.
Another pro-freedom measure would be to restrict voter eligibility, of course. Ensure that new immigrants are citizens for decades before they become eligible to vote. And while we're at it, let's bring back literacy tests and property requirements for voters as well. And for goodness sake, get rid of the laws that allow everyone born on American soil to be automatically counted as American citizens. As Kinsella notes, this shrinks the pool of those with access to the political goods of the rest of us, making that auction Mencken spoke of a little less criminal.
The problem we encounter at this point in the debate is that many conservatives will simply scoff at such measures. Fearful (perhaps justifiably so) that such plans do not have high prospects for success in many places, they immediately resort to big-government schemes as a Plan B. The immigrant population has already "swamped" the native population, they say, making political reform impossible. Their plan B, of course, is usually the plan to harass businesses and create an army of government agents that will wander the streets asking "¿Tienes papeles?" of anyone they please.
If the modern mass democratic system does not work in favor of liberty, that should hardly be news. If measures to reduce the power and scope of government will only meet limited success, that hardly justifies crushing liberty to save it from the immigrant horde. Yet, this is exactly what we find.
There are other proposed solutions, of course, such as border fences and other measures that may or may not do anything to expand the power of government. These propositions deserve our attention, but one thing is clear. Any immigration "reform" that would fine or send to prison a single employer or private citizen for peacefully entering into a business relationship with a person whom he may or may not know to be an illegal immigrant is offensive in the extreme. Greater government surveillance on a single American citizen is unacceptable as are any schemes for national ID's or work eligibility verification or any other components of the endless stream of authoritarian solutions offered by the anti-immigrant lobby and by bloated government agencies who could happily justify yet another increase to their budgets.
Given its populist roots, we shouldn't be surprised that the proponents of immigration reform wish to cripple business and curry favor to the "working man," denouncing welfare for immigrants while protecting their own precious constituencies of old people and farmers who perennially demand the rest of us work to pay their bills.
There are good reasons to oppose open borders. There are good solutions out there to curtail the government which expands the welfare state by attracting the less industrious immigrants. Unfortunately, though, the frenzy over immigration may yet give us a cure much worse than the disease.
September 7, 2006
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.
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