Free immigration is a calling card of orthodox libertarians. Well, for most of them, that is. German-born economics professor and staunch libertarian Hans-Hermann Hoppe is famous for his support of strict immigration controls. In his 2001 book Democracy: The God That Failed, Hoppe argues that the United States has an immigration policy that is both too generous and misguided in terms of the criteria it uses to award visas.
Like many libertarians, Hoppe believes immigrants should only be able to immigrate if there is someone in the host country who is willing to receive them. What distinguishes Hoppe from most libertarians is his ideas concerning how government should regulate access to public property.
Whereas Hoppe is in favor of privatizing all land, he maintains that as long as public property exists, democratic rulers should restrict access to this property as if it were their own private property. If they followed his advice, Hoppe says democratic rulers should allow in immigrants based on their skills, intelligence and cultural compatibility (such as English proficiency) and not on altruistic concerns like family reunification or accommodating refugees.
Hoppe is very concerned about how immigrants will affect the society into which they are moving. Hoppe worries that a liberal immigration policy will allow in immigrants who use more than their share of government services and who impose other costs on the citizens through their use of public property. Fair enough. I think those are issues worth considering.
What makes Hoppe’s position bizarre is his complete indifference to the livelihood of those immigrants. Hoppe describes what would happen if a country like the United States or Switzerland were to open its borders without changing any of its welfare policies:
Hoppe: Is there any doubt about the disastrous outcome of such an experiment in the present world? The United States, and even faster Switzerland, already weakened by protectionism and welfare, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants…Civilization would vanish from the United States and Switzerland, just as it did from Greece and Rome (page 159).
Neither in this section nor anywhere in the book does Hoppe ever stop to consider that the “millions of third-world immigrants” would be much better off under free immigration. Granted, we should consider the effect of potentially large mass migrations on all the people affected by them, such as the people paying for the welfare state. But to totally ignore the fact that millions of people would almost certainly be better off from the policy is hard to understand, to put it mildly.
Hoppe also seems to assume, wrongly, that the government’s welfare policies are static and that they would continue just as they are even after a massive influx of immigrants. There is empirical evidence that suggests that is not the case. In 1996, the U.S. government passed a welfare reform bill that limited legal immigrants’ access to programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
While it is true that the welfare state puts pressure on government to restrict immigration, it is also true that immigration puts pressure on government to restrict welfare. For someone who wants to eliminate all welfare, such as Hoppe, it would be more logical for him to advocate for more immigration and not less.
I will grant that some welfare programs are easier to change than others. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the federal government will do anything to reduce Social Security payments in the near future, which accounts for approximately 21 percent of the total federal budget. However, it is worth noting that immigrants are net losers from Social Security under the present system. Immigrants who use fictitious social security numbers still have taxes withheld from their paycheck even though they rarely collect those benefits.
In 2002, the Social Security administration reported it received $56 billion from people who used incorrect Social Security numbers on their W-2 forms and estimated that three quarters of the incorrect numbers were from illegal immigrants. The money generated from illegal immigrants’ Social Security taxes made up 10 percent of the administration’s surplus that year.
I quote these figures not to suggest that we should continue to deny social security benefits to immigrants who have paid into the system. I bring them up to show that Hoppe’s fears of immigrants destroying “civilization” by inflating the welfare state are not well grounded.
Hoppe is a terrific economist who has done a great deal to advance the cause of liberty. Sadly, his ideas about immigration are not up to par with the rest of his academic work.
P.S.: To read a more thorough criticism of Hoppe’s stance on immigration, see Walter Block and Anthony Gregory’s reply to Hoppe that appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies in 2007.