Economists convinced of the virtues of a free market instinctively support open immigration.
If goods should be allowed to cross borders freely then people should, too. Of course, terrorists, criminals and indigents are exceptions to the rule, just as are toxic and adulterated goods.
Those of us lucky enough to be citizens of the United States should be aware that all our forebears were one-time immigrants. That even goes for my purported Cherokee ancestors. (I must be careful; I don’t want Bohanon family gossip to morph into an Elizabeth Warren incident.)
So what case could any right-minded classical liberal make for immigration restrictions?
In his 1980 television series “Free to Choose,” the Nobel-prize-winning economist Milton Friedman began by highlighting his own parents’ immigrant experience in the United States around the beginning of the 20th century:
“Life was hard, but opportunity was real. There were few government programs to turn to and nobody expected them. But also, there were few rules and regulations. There were no licenses, no permits, no red tape to restrict them. They found in fact, a free market, and most of them thrived on it.”
In this narrative are the seeds of a classical liberal’s case for restrictive immigration.
In 1905 the Supreme Court affirmed the laborer’s freedom of contract in the famous Lochner vs. New York case. The State of New York had passed a law restricting working hours in bakeries. This harmed small bakeries typically employing immigrants but advantaged large unionized bakeries employing natives. The court affirmed the right of the individual, be he immigrant or native, owner or worker, to freely negotiate the terms of his own labor contract based on his own judgment.
Classical liberals love the Lochner decision while progressives hate it. But most all agree that by 1950 Lochner had been more or less emasculated. The court, in effect, reversed itself in the 1930s, and the progressives’ agenda for labor market regulation was enacted.
Today, government restrictions that forbid less-skilled and less language-fluent residents of the U.S. from offering their services on mutually attractive terms are firmly in place. If immigration were open and unrestricted, as it was before 1920 when illegal (or undocumented to use the politically correct term) immigrants did not live in the legal shadows, government policies would certainly be much more effective in restricting the very opportunity to which Friedman referred. That many illegal workers currently skirt these restrictions proves the point.
Free and open immigration implies a larger portion of an immigrant population will fail in its efforts to obtain economic security on our shores than in 1900 or for that matter today. This need not be a problem except for another difference between then and now: Today there are a myriad of government programs to turn to, and everybody expects them.
Legalized immigration, it is argued, will undoubtedly be accompanied by expanding entitlements to immigrants successful and unsuccessful. This implies a large influx of poor immigrants who systematically become public charges. In Friedman’s world, immigrants had to make it on their own and the legal environment allowed them to do so.
Today that environment does not exist. Legal immigrants will not be allowed the opportunity to succeed but will simultaneously be lured by the welfare state to stay on in the presence of failure. It is not a pretty picture.
a columnist with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Ball State University.