Does Immigration Undermine the Free Market?

Does a commitment to open markets and freedom of association necessitate support for open immigration? Some wacky libertarians seem to think so. David Boudreaux of the Foundation for Economic Education puts it thusly:

Whether or not immigrants increase or decrease measured GDP or per-capita income is an empirical question that can be answered only by sound empirical research. (Economist Julian Simon has carried out much of this research; he finds that immigrants promote prosperity.) But the moral case for open immigration is paramount. That case is this: a geopolitical border is a grotesquely arbitrary reason to prevent people from dealing with each other in whatever peaceful ways they choose.

Borders? We don't need no stinkin' borders, says Boudreaux. Can't you wistfully hear the words of Simon and Garfunkel in the background, "I am a rock, I am an iiiisland."

In another FEE essay, Tom Lehman argues that open immigration is just a corollary of free trade:

Immigration policy should not be viewed differently than trade policy: free, unregulated, unpoliced, open borders, devoid of taxes, tariffs, or any other barrier to entry. This is the policy of freedom to which America owes her heritage. Unilateral free trade, free immigration, and free emigration, where individuals possess unobstructed and unregulated mobility and trade, is a cornerstone of a free society. In fact, the free movement of peoples is no less important than the freedoms of speech, expression, and association. Liberty is indivisible; the laws of economics apply equally to all peoples.

Ah yes, the magical "laws of ecnomics." Well, they may apply equally to all people, but evidently laws of logic and common sense aren't so equally distributed. Lehman proceeds to dismiss those who've jumped to the wildly inappropriate, ridiculous conclusion that mass immigration could undermine the cultural preconditions of a free economy:

Contrary to the anti-immigration position, the American traditions of limited government and free market economies are not based upon ethnic or racial origins. They are based upon ideas. Western cultures cannot suppose themselves to have a monopoly on the philosophy of liberty, nor can Americans argue that the political values of the limited state cannot be inculcated in non-American immigrants. The ideas of freedom that have created the American tradition can apply to any ethnic or racial make-up.

So, according to Lehman, and his Enlightenment-influenced brethren in the libertarian movement, the free market is merely a universal abstraction or idea, written on the very heart of every man, divorced of ethnic or cultural considerations in any way. One group of people can embrace it as readily as another. All we need to do is give them a copy of "The Wealth of Nations" and watch everything fall into place.

Can such an idea be taken seriously? To quote Peter Brimelow, "The free market necessarily exists within a social framework. And it can function only if the institutions in that framework are appropriate. For example, a defined system of private property is now widely agreed to be one essential precondition. Economists have a word for these preconditions: the 'metamarket.' Some degree of ethnic and cultural coherence may be among them. Thus immigration may be a metamarket issue."

Exactly. Even an immigration enthusiast like Milton Friedman could see, though not grasp entirely, the issue. In an interview with Brimelow, Friedman said, "It's a curious fact that capitalism developed and has really come to fruition in the English-speaking world. It hasn't really made the same progress even in Europe--certainly not in France, for instance. I don't know why this is so, but the fact has to be admitted." If the esteemed Dr. Friedman is confused about this, let me provide an answer--culture matters. And mass immigration, the replacement of one people by another, necessarily undermines the cultural preconditions that make free markets possible. As Thomas Sowell has written, "The most obvious fact about the history of racial and ethnic groups. Is how different they have been--and still are."

In short, any discussion of immigration that focuses solely on nuts-and-bolts questions and cost/beneift analysis without giving due consideration to the cultural ramifications of demographic transformation is not a discussion worth having.


Anonymous said…
Not much on economics, I'm afraid, so it will be difficult for me to contribute knowledgably on such questions. But I can respond from a perspective of what seems to me obviously fair and just. From that vantagepoint, the wholesale flouting of our immigration laws by illegal, south of the border interlopers, enabled in no small part by certain American business interests is egregiously unfair to just about everyone. And opposing it has little to do with being stingy or penurious. We're talking about illegal entrants, not those who have come here within the framework of existing law and who should be welcomed in the love of Christ. It seems to me that the illegality question needs to be resolved before any discussion of economics is considered, it all too frequently being obsured by after the fact explorations of its impact on markets, government services and the like. With discussion of this kind there is the risk of a subtle acceptance of the injustice involved. First things first, I'd say, whatever may be the requirements.

John Lowell
Darrell said…
I think you are correct aobut the question of illegal immigration, but I would go a step further. I believe that a people has a right and an obligation to limit its numbers and to determine who can join the club, so to speak. Economic questions are secondary matters. For instance, the economy of Los Angeles has grown dramatically, but does anyone think it is a better place to live than in the past? The question answers itslf.
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