Archive for the ‘Immigration’ Category

Rand Paul interview

May 17, 2015

On May 16, 2015, I had the opportunity to interview presidential candidate Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky. Another reporter and I had about 12 minutes to ask him questions before he gave a speech in Fairfield’s Central Park.

As you will see from the transcript I’ve produced below, my questions sought to pry into Paul’s philosophy of government. I asked these for a couple of reasons, one was that I had no idea what answers he would give and I was genuinely curious what they would be, but also to gauge the depth of Paul’s philosophy, to determine whether he had carefully contemplated the issues or was spitting out bromides.

My commentary on the exchange, and my general thoughts on Paul informed by his speech that afternoon, follow the transcript.

I had a little trouble getting my recorder to start, so by the time the transcript starts I’ve been talking to Paul for a few seconds. During that time, I told him I wanted to begin by asking him questions about philosophy. That is why the introduction appears abrupt.

Hallman: What justifies government itself? Coercion seems like it’s wrong when it’s done by private individuals. It’s commonly believed that when government does it, that is an exception, that there is something special about government that justifies its coercion. What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion? To put it more pointedly, why is taxation not theft?

Paul: I think the best way to answer this is that we all inherently believe that for me to use coercion to tell you to do something as an individual is wrong. We have this idea that there is a non-aggression principle that aggression is something we shouldn’t use on another individual. Governments do use aggression and do use coercion. I don’t think we give up on the principle of saying it’s wrong, what we do is we acknowledge that it’s wrong, but we acknowledge that we want as little of it as possible. So really, it’s an argument that government that governs best, governs least because you have to give up some of your liberty to have government.

Now, if you want to be a purist and say all aggression against other individuals, governmental or individual, is wrong, then you’d believe in no government, but most of us believe we need some government, we need some stabilizing force in society, and so you give up some of your liberties.

I always tell people there are two reasons we minimize government: there’s the liberty argument and the efficiency argument. The liberty argument is, if you tax me 100 percent, then I’m zero perfect free. [If you] tax me 90 percent, then I’m 10 percent free. So the thing is, we want to minimize taxation because it is a form of coercion. So we don’t want a lot of it, we want a little bit of it if we have to have some government.

The efficiency argument is what Milton Friedman put forward, and Milton Friedman said nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as their own, so it’s an argument for not giving a lot of money to a distant government, because they’re not very wise in how they spend it, and if you have to give it to a politician, you’d want to give it to a more local politician because you have more interaction with that politician, and ultimately you’d rather keep more for yourself because you’ll make wiser decisions than government.

Hallman: Yes, certainly. I’m not against all forms of coercion. What I was trying to get at is if you think there is something special about government that gives it political authority. That is, is there something about government that allows it to coerce people in a way that private individuals cannot? Surely, we understand there are extreme cases where a private individual can coerce someone [such as] in the case of self-defense or to prevent something very terrible from happening. I guess what I’m trying to get at is …

Paul: Most societies, in their original state, decided there would be a social compact.

Hallman: Ok, so it’s a social contract argument?

Paul: It kind of is, but nobody actually signs it.

Hallman: Right.

Paul: It’s an unstated, acceptance or agreement among a community that there will be some government. It isn’t abandoning the principle that government has to use coercive force. It’s acknowledging that, and trying to minimize that.

Hallman: [Let me] move on to another issue, but it’s along that same line about your general philosophy of government, and that is immigration restrictions. Immigration is in the news a lot. Immigration restrictions seem like an act of coercion, an act of aggression, preventing someone from moving where they want to, taking a job where they want to. So it seems like, on the surface, that is wrong. Why do you think immigration restrictions are justified?

Paul: Milton Friedman also had something good to say on this. He said basically you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. So the problem is … we’ve agreed to have some coercion and compulsion in our government. In our system, it’s much greater than I would have, so half of my income is taken from me and given to government. If we say we’re going to have an open border in that system, then it would be 75 percent or maybe 100 percent of my income that goes to other people through a form of compulsion. There was a PEW study that added up data from a lot of different countries, and asked them, if you could, would you go to the United States? 600 million would come. We’re a country of 300 million, it would be a bit disruptive to have 600 million people show up, so it has to be an orderly process, and there is now a great religious sort of struggle and war going on [and people] who for many different reasons, don’t like Americans and would come and kill us, so you have to know they’re coming across the border to try to stop them.

Hallman: Although, screening those out wouldn’t justify the kind of quotas that the government has instituted. To talk about what you just said about welfare, it’s true that welfare is an act of coercion, but I would think immigration controls may be a more grievous kind of coercion. You’re preventing someone from improving their life, perhaps by an order of magnitude in their earnings, if we talk about someone in Haiti or India.

Paul: If it were only border controls that had to do with people coming to work, I’m for as many people coming to work who want to. I’m for an expansive work visa program where we don’t mind people coming to work. The problem is, as Milton Friedman described it, is that we have an enormous welfare apparatus. Not everybody comes to work. Some people come to receive. If 60 million people come here [perhaps he meant 600 million, the figure he stated earlier], it would overwhelm us.

Hallman: It sounds like the solution and the just thing to do is to eliminate the welfare state and to eliminate the quota system. Would you be in favor of that, those two measures side-by-side?

Paul: We rarely get decisions like that. We get decisions on, “Do you want to improve the immigration system?” I think the immigration system is broken for a lot of reasons. We have 11 million people here who came in here and explicitly broke our laws to get here. So we do have to figure out something to do or 11 million more will come, so that means the immigration system writ large needs to be reformed and fixed.

[Questions by the radio station]

Hallman: Senator, I wanted to ask you a question about the use of drones and drone strikes. Of course, you became very famous for the drone filibuster you did a few years ago. The United States military is operating under a protocol that allows it to claim a very low number of civilian deaths because of how it counts civilians. Any male who is military age, whether they are armed, whether they’re a known member of al Qaeda, regardless of their identity, is counted as a combatant in a drone strike. Is that something the federal government needs to change … that the military needs to change that policy, to look at how it conducts drone strikes?

Paul: Yes. If you look at what we do, I think drones like any other weapon, can be useful in war, but I do think that ultimately there is an infinite amount of people who will rise up once you eliminate one level of leaders … another group lines up. Inevitably, there are accidents that happen, when a bomb lands on a wedding party, you inflame the thousand relatives of those people for the next … until memory is forgotten, which is sometimes centuries. So, we have to protect ourselves, but we also have to be aware that we have to do it in a way that does not make the situation worse.


To my opening question, it sounds like Paul thought I was asking him “Why is coercion justified?” and not the question I actually asked, which was, “What, if anything, do you think there is about government coercion that separates it from private coercion?”

After having a day to reflect on this question and why Paul did not answer it directly, I don’t think the question was too vague, and that Paul couldn’t tell what I was asking. Rather, I think the question is so rarely posed to legislators that Paul did not have a prepared response to it. I don’t fault him too much for this, since I’m fairly certain I would have gotten the same response from the other 99 senators.

When I clarify that I’m not asking about coercion generally, but specifically about the difference between governmental and private coercion, Paul alludes to the supposed “social compact,” while immediately acknowledging that it’s not a real compact that citizens have agreed to.

Social contract arguments do not make sense to me. The reason contracts have moral force is that the parties agree to them, so the fact that the social contract was not agreed to means it does not have the force of an ordinary contract.

My views on this subject are influenced by having just read Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority,” in which he counters arguments for political authority, including social contract arguments. One variation he considers, and perhaps the one Paul meant, is a hypothetical social contract, one that we would have agreed to had we known all the facts, or something like that.

Imagine someone who is knocked unconscious and needs a life-saving operation, but we cannot obtain the person’s consent before operating. We can surmise the person would have agreed to the operation had they been able to, so we are justified in operating on the person. Is this analogous to a hypothetical social contract? No. In our example, the reason we are justified in operating is that the patient cannot consent. If the patient remains conscious and informs us they do not want an operation, we are not justified in forcing them to have one. This is analogous to how we find ourselves in the face of government coercion. We are in a position to consent to coercion, just like the conscious patient is able to consent to the surgery, so therefore government must obtain our consent before governing us. It cannot rely on hypothetical agreement when actual agreement is achievable.


One thing we learn from the interview is that Milton Friedman is a major influence on Paul’s views. I am heartened to hear that. It is important to keep in mind that Friedman was against the welfare state, not immigration. In fact, he was fully supportive of immigration as long as it was illegal:

Friedman: Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

Friedman’s views aside, those who make the welfare objection to free legal immigration must answer two questions: 1) Given there is some tension between the size of the welfare state and free immigration, which is worse? Welfare or immigration restrictions? and 2) Is there some way to mitigate the effects of immigration on the welfare state that do not involve outright prohibition of immigration?

To question #1, it does not at all seem obvious to me that the tension between welfare and immigration implies immigration restrictions any more than it implies living with both open borders and a larger welfare state. As I point out to Paul, welfare is coercive just as immigration restrictions are coercive, so we must weigh the wrongness of each act of coercion.

Immigration restrictions appear to cause misery on a level the welfare state does not and could not based on any reasonable expectation of how Congress would respond to a large influx of immigrants. (If 600 million people immigrated to the country, we would more likely see a drastic reduction of benefits than we would see a drastic increase in taxes, because taxpayers do not like paying for people who are not like them.

The average Haitian experiences more than a seven-fold increase in wages upon immigrating to the United States, so my contention that some immigrants could see their earnings rise by “an order of magnitude” is an exaggeration for the average immigrant now under mostly closed borders but is not much of an exaggeration for the most destitute immigrants from the Third World.

I was glad to hear Paul say he was in favor of unlimited immigration for people who want to work. Since he is clearly worried about the size of the welfare state, I was disappointed he had not thought of keyhole solutions to allow free migration while cutting immigrants off welfare. We know this is politically feasible because the federal government has already done it. It did it two decades ago with the welfare reform act of 1996, which prevented legal immigrants from accessing many government benefits.


I was a little disappointed in Paul’s answer to my question about drones, although I admit it was not well formulated. Perhaps what I meant to ask was more along the lines of “Is it moral to kill military age men whose identities we don’t know?” but it came out jumbled.

Paul’s answer focused entirely on the blowback from drones and not on the potential wrongness of using drones to kill, which is what I was clumsily asking about. For instance, perhaps there is nothing wrong with hitting a beehive since bees have little to no moral worth, but it is still imprudent because the bees might sting you. But when we’re talking about firing a missile at a house or a car full of people, we’re not talking about bees, we’re talking about humans, and while bees might not have moral worth, humans do.

Paul did not give any indication as to whether he thought all military age males in a “strike zone” should be regarded as militants or not.


Paul gave a fantastic speech that afternoon that could have been lifted from the Libertarian Party’s platform. He touched on many civil liberties issues such as his opposition to the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records and his opposition to civil asset forfeiture. I felt I was witnessing a sea change in the Republican Party as the crowd applauded Paul’s opposition to the wars in Iraq and Libya. Although, here again, I was dismayed that Paul chose to focus on the ways in which the wars helped America’s enemies rather than on the deaths they caused.

He denounced detaining American citizens indefinitely without a trial, without clarifying whether it was also wrong to detain a non-citizen indefinitely. He mentioned the case of Richard Jewell, who some members of the media believed was responsible for the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, but who in fact helped to evacuate the building upon discovering the bomb. Paul used the case to caution against jumping to conclusions about the guilt of potential terrorists.

“What would have happened if Richard Jewell had been a black man in the 1920s?” Paul asked the crowd.


By the end of the day, one thing about Paul was clear: He is the most libertarian presidential candidate who has a chance of winning. He is among the few candidates I’ve interviewed who is explicit in recognizing the wrongness of coercion and the presumption of liberty that advocates for government must overcome.

To that point, it is possible and even likely that other candidates will be more libertarian than Paul on select issues, but on the whole I believe Paul will be the most pro-liberty candidate in the field.


As Paul was walking out the door, I showed him Michael Huemer’s book “The Problem of Political Authority” and told him to read it. I explained that it had convinced me of the correctness of anarcho-capitalism, and I told Paul that I believed an anarcho-capitalist society was attainable. I mentioned that I knew Paul’s father Ron was familiar with Murray Rothbard, another anarcho-capitalist (Rand said he knew Rothbard, too).

Before entering his car, Paul told me that our current society was far removed from anarcho-capitalism, and that we would never get there without people like him moving society in that direction.

If Rand Paul becomes president, and the government comes crashing down, now you know whom to thank. ☺

Andy with Rand Paul_net

Milton Friedman on illegal immigration

November 9, 2013

Opponents of immigration think of Milton Friedman as a fellow traveler because he believed open borders were incompatible with the welfare state, which they interpret to mean Friedman was opposed to immigration. They may be surprised to learn he said the following:

Friedman: Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal.

In sharp contrast to those who insist they only oppose illegal immigration, Friedman was a rare bird who fully supported illegal immigration. It was only legal immigration that gave him pause.

I am not quoting Friedman here as a celebrity endorsement for my position, as a sort of argument from authority. I’m merely pointing out that his position on immigration was not what most people think it was.

As a matter of fact, Friedman was not an authority on immigration. He wrote about it very sparsely and did not think very much about keyhole solutions to the problem he identified, such as simply denying welfare to immigrants.

Immigration and welfare

November 28, 2011

Many libertarians who support open immigration in theory argue that it is not possible in practice because the United States has a welfare state and that the immigrants would put a strain on taxpayers. This justifies excluding them, they argue.

The fact that some immigrants would impose costs on others through welfare is an argument for excluding them, but not a very good one, for the following reasons: If our goal is to reduce the level of coercion in society, giving welfare to immigrants frustrates that goal, but so does controlling immigration. Even if reducing coercion were all we cared about, the answer to the problem of immigrants on welfare is not straightforward since the solution, restriction, is itself coercive.

Immigrants are not the only people who receive money from the government. Old people, disabled people, young people and just about everyone else receives money from the government, sometimes much more than they pay in taxes. If the political climate does not permit us to cut these benefits, what more can we do to prevent these people from receiving them? Can we prevent a poor woman from having kids so we don’t have to subsidize her children’s education? Can we deport old people before they wrack up expensive medical bills? I would think not.

The fact is that not all forms of coercion are created equal. When someone goes on disability insurance, it does indeed cost someone else money. That doesn’t justify deporting them. Deporting them interferes with their freedom much more than taxing another person to pay for their insurance. That’s what proponents of immigration control should understand. Preventing immigrants from coming to the U.S. to lower taxes replaces a minor injustice with a major one.

The conservative case for liberal immigration

May 21, 2011

The leading opponents of immigration are conservatives. I find this especially striking because immigration controls run afoul of conservatives’ most basic principles. I present here an argument that immigration control is immoral as currently practiced. I argue that immigration should be greatly liberalized to allow in many more people. I also explain how this position is consistent with conservatism.

Non-aggression principle
A large part of the reason that conservatives wrongly support immigration control is confusion over what immigration control is. Immigration control is often referred to as “defending the border” and the illegal immigrants are referred to as “invaders.” This is a mistake. To defend something, you must own it. And to invade a place, you must gain access to it through force. Are the people who talk this way suggesting that the land in America is owned by the government? Since conservatives value private property and individual rights, they should be among the last people to advance such a position.

To complete the idea, illegal immigrants do not apply force to anyone upon crossing the border. It is the government that is applying force to the immigrants. The appropriate characterization of immigration control is therefore aggression.

This leads me to the first reason conservatives should support open borders: it is consistent with the non-aggression principle, a principle which is central to conservatism. The non-aggression principle states that it is wrong to initiate force against another person. Since immigration control is the initiation of force against another, it is wrong.

Deaths on the border
The second reason to support open borders is that immigration control unjustly imposes significant harms on immigrants. The most damning piece of evidence on this point is the number of immigrants who have died attempting to cross the southern border. In the 1990s, the U.S. implemented heightened immigration controls in populated areas along the border around San Diego and El Paso. This pushed the flow of illegal immigrants toward the desert and mountains. The effect of this push was to substantially increase the number of migrants who died crossing the border.

In 1994, the year prior to this enhanced enforcement in San Diego, 23 migrants died attempting to cross into California. According to data from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Relations, that number had risen to 140 deaths in 2000. The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in 2009 which estimated there were more than 5,000 migrant deaths in the prior 15 years on the U.S.-Mexico border. Evidence from Mexican Consulates shows a dramatic rise in the 1990s in the number of immigrants who died of “environmental causes” such as hypothermia, dehydration and heat stroke, all a result of the U.S. government’s efforts to push migrants to remote areas.

Migration and poverty
Why would so many immigrants take such risks just to enter another country? The answer becomes obvious when you look at their prospects. Michael Clemens is a researcher at the Center for Global Development and focuses on how international migration affects those in the developing world. For many of the Earth’s inhabitants, moving to the United States means leaving a life of poverty for one of prosperity. Clemens and his colleagues Claudio Montenegro and Lant Pritchett analyzed a data set of 2 million workers from 42 developing countries to look for factors that would alter a person’s wages in those countries. They found that people from the developing world can expect their wages to double simply by immigrating to the United States. A Peruvian’s wages are 2.6 times greater upon entering America and a Haitian’s wages jump an astonishing seven-fold. An even more amazing figure is that, of 100 Mexicans who have escaped poverty ($10 a day), 43 of them have done so by immigrating to the United States. Of 100 Haitians who have escaped poverty, 82 accomplished the feat in the land of the free.

(Watch Clemens’ talk on immigration here.)

Objections so far
Conservatives may object to the preceding paragraphs on the grounds that we can’t take care of everyone in the world. “How can you expect me to care about thousands or even millions of complete strangers?” they ask. I don’t. Conservatives often talk about immigration as if the U.S. is doing a favor to the immigrant by letting him in. It is not. Respecting someone’s rights is not an act of charity. It gives him what he is owed. I do not expect other people to pay for my groceries. I do expect them not to block me from entering the store. If you want to say that you have no obligation to financially support immigrants, you are correct. You do, however, have an obligation to stay out of their way if they’re not hurting anyone.

All of this is perfectly consistent with mainstream conservative moral philosophy. Conservatives differ in where “rights” or “moral worth” come from. Some think they come from God, while others think they flow from certain characteristics of human beings. As far as I know, none of them thinks moral worth comes from government. That immigrants are foreigners therefore does not diminish their moral worth.

Skeptics will point out that, so far, I have only mentioned the effect of immigration and immigration control on immigrants. What is the effect of immigration on other people, such as those in the receiving country? Luckily, there is plenty of evidence to answer that question. Before we look at the data, we know at least this much: immigration control is terrible for immigrants. It unjustly coerces them and makes their lives much worse. Therefore, to justify immigration control, the effect of immigration on other people would have to be catastrophic. For instance, if the presence of immigrants caused the native population to die out in great numbers, that would be a persuasive argument against immigration. In fact, this very scenario occurred when European settlers immigrated to North America.

So what do the data say about immigrants in the U.S.?

A common fear is that immigrants are more prone to commit crime than the native-born population. There is some evidence that suggests the opposite is true. University of Colorado Sociologist Tim Wadsworth published a study in 2009 which looked at correlations between violent crime and other factors in America’s largest cities between 1990 and 2000. He found that when poverty increased in a city, the incidence of homicide and robbery rose with it. The same was true for divorce rates. Wadsworth then turned his focus to immigration, and found that cities that experienced greater growth in immigrant populations showed sharp declines in homicide and robbery rates.

To quote Wadsworth, “The suggestion that high levels of immigration may have been partially responsible for the drop in crime during the 1990s seems plausible.”

Another common objection to immigration is the supposed burden immigrants place on government services. This is of particular interest to conservatives, who want to reduce taxes and the role of the welfare state. But data from the Social Security Administration indicate that immigrants pay in more money than they receive from that system. 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.

Immigrants have very little effect on the wages of native workers. I could quote plenty of studies that show this, but just any old study won’t do. Let’s look at the data the opponents of immigration marshal in their defense. Harvard economist George Borjas is among the leading critics of immigration in academia. In his textbook “Labor Economics,” Borjas provides figures for the effect of immigrants on native-born wages. Borjas finds that the long-run effect of immigrants on native wages is exactly 0.0 percent. In fact, he finds that immigrants increase the long-run wages of high school graduates by 1.2 percent. What do immigrants do that is so horrible that they must be denied a vastly better life in America? According to Borjas, they decrease the wages of high school drop-outs by 4.8 percent. This is why 400,000 illegal immigrants are deported every year: to ensure a modest increase in the wages of the low-skilled native population.

Economist Giovanni Peri at the University of California-Davis has criticized Borjas for assuming native and immigrant labor are interchangeable. Peri argues they are not. Natives and immigrants differ in their language skills, so when immigrants arrive they push natives from non-language intensive jobs to ones where a command of English is required. Peri believes that Borjas is overestimating the effect immigrants have on depressing native wages, because the two groups aren’t competing for the same jobs. According to Peri’s research, immigrants are a net wash for low-skilled natives’ wages and are a positive effect for everyone else’s.

In the first few paragraphs, I established a presumption in favor of immigration by showing that it is immensely good for the immigrants and that efforts to control it are immensely bad. This alone did not prove that it was the correct policy. We needed to look at the effect of immigration on the rest of society. Far from producing disastrous results, the evidence suggested that immigrants were mostly beneficial to U.S. natives. From this we can conclude that immigration control is indefensible as currently practiced and that the only moral position is to accept far more immigrants than are now allowed in.

Editor’s note:

Those who enjoyed this column may also enjoy Bryan Caplan’s lecture, Immigration Restrictions: A Solution in Search of a Problem, and Michael Huemer’s essay, Is There a Right to Immigrate?

Immigration control: solution in search of a problem

September 28, 2010

I interviewed a candidate for national office earlier today. I sped through a litany of questions about subjects as diverse as military tribunals to health care to biofuels. I saw on this candidate’s website that she has a page devoted to immigration and her opposition to giving “amnesty” to illegal aliens (i.e. a path to legal status).

Immigration is an issue I’ve written about many times before, and my feeling is the recent call for a crackdown on illegal immigration is a solution in search of a problem. To see if my feeling was correct, I bluntly asked the candidate, “What problems do illegal immigrants cause?” I was expecting a response that detailed the crime wave they’ve induced, or the drugs they smuggle in, or the jobs they steal. Instead, the candidate retorted with what struck me as a transparent tautology, which was that illegal immigration is a problem because it is illegal.

My thoughts exactly!

To be fair, the candidate was in favor of more liberalized legal immigration and a more streamlined path to citizenship for those who entered legally, and I applaud her for that. But she needs to remember, as we all do, that enforcing laws is costly, especially to the person against whom it is enforced. Sometimes, enforcement is even more costly than the crime it seeks to prevent. And if you can’t think of any real costs the crime imposes on others, maybe you should reconsider enforcing the law against it.

Pretending to be someone you’re not

July 17, 2010

Bryan Caplan has a new post up about why libertarians should be conservatives. Caplan is a self-described libertarian and not a conservative, but writes the post as if he were a conservative who is trying to show libertarians the error of their ways.

I applaud his efforts and I, too, think this is a useful exercise. When I hear that someone has come to a conclusion different from mine, I ask myself “Under what circumstances would I come to such a conclusion?” Then I try to explain to that person why I don’t think those circumstances have been met in this case.

For instance, I don’t favor much government intervention in the economy, but I’m not categorically opposed to it. When I encounter people who favor more intervention than I do, I think of the conditions that would have to be met in order for the intervention to make sense, and explain to them that those conditions have not been met. If, upon examination, I realize that I was wrong and the conditions have indeed been met, or that my conditions for success were too narrow to begin with, then I back off of my libertarian dogmatism and support the intervention.

In his post, Caplan does the best conservative-imitation he can muster on the issue of immigration:

Bryan “conservative-come-lately” Caplan: I’m very open to more cost-effective and humane ways to deal with the negative effects of immigration. But as long as immigrants are eligible for government benefits, hurt low-skilled native workers, and vote, the only people we should readily admit are the highly-educated and clear-cut humanitarian cases. I’d put Haitians in the latter category. Asking Mexicans to live on a $10,000 a year in Mexico is reasonable, but asking Haitians to starve in post-earthquake Haiti is a disgrace.

I’m not sure what Caplan was thinking of, but this is not the typical conservative position on immigration. This is the typical conservative position on immigration. Perhaps Caplan recognized that the typical conservative position is not defensible.

Looking back on 2010, in 200 years

April 11, 2010

It’s hard to believe that slavery was once an acceptable idea. A lot of ideas that were common in the past are unfathomable now. It appears to many people, including me, that the society we live in is constantly shredding old prejudices and irrational ways of thinking. I believe this process will continue for many more years, and will probably never end.

An interesting question, then, is what common beliefs from the year 2010 will be held in contempt 200 years from now. In the year 2200, will human beings look back on our civilization with the same kind of shame that we now feel toward the slave traders from the 18th century? What characteristic of our society will elicit shock and horror in future generations?

If society continues to progress in the direction it has been for the last few hundred years, I can venture a guess, and that is:

My prediction: I believe the commonly held view that a person’s moral worth comes from their citizenship is the most pernicious and depraved idea of our age.

It is responsible for cavalier attitudes to waging war on foreigners and an indifference and unwillingness to alleviate their suffering. I hope and pray that in the coming centuries this belief will be seen as just as wicked and perverted as we now view racism.

Here is an example of the depravity I am referring to. It is the Center for Immigration Studies’ Mark Krikorian, writing shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, explaining why the United States should not allow in more Haitian refugees:

Krikorian: The impact on the job prospects of the less-skilled American workers that additional Haitians would be competing with in an environment of widespread unemployment is a matter of indifference to those whose main concern is the well-being of the foreign country rather than of the people whose interests they are supposed to be pursuing. In short, the place to help Haitians is in Haiti, not the United States.

I’m curious to know what my readers think, so I’ve made a poll with what I believe are the leading contenders for “currently common attitude most likely to offend the sensibilities of future generations.”

If I’ve left off an important one, feel free to share your own in the comments section.

Hoppe: A Libertarian Against Immigration

February 11, 2010

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.

How libertarians confuse means and ends

November 26, 2009

When it comes to arguing politics, the most common rhetorical mistake is the confusion of means and ends.

For instance, the end of libertarianism, that is to say its goal, is the maximization of liberty. Sometimes, the issues that affect freedom are complex because there are actions that increase freedom for some people while decreasing it for others.

Instead of performing the arduous task of determining how each policy will affect every single person, libertarians use heuristics, or shortcuts, as a way of efficiently making the right decision. They balance the cost of making the wrong decision with the cost in mental energy of figuring out the right one.

My complaint with the libertarian movement is that it relies too heavily on these heuristics. Too often, libertarians are unable to see when their (usually) reliable heuristics misfire and reduce freedom instead of advancing it. The rules of thumb that were created to efficiently achieve libertarians’ goals have become ends in themselves – to the detriment of liberty.

A case in point is Ron Paul’s strong aversion to free immigration within North America. In a 2006 article that appeared on lewrockwell, Paul warns us of the proposed “NAFTA Superhighway” which would run from Mexico to Canada. Paul sees the breakdown of borders as a serious threat to sovereignty and therefore a cause for concern:

The ultimate goal is not simply a superhighway, but an integrated North American Union – complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the Union. Like the European Union, a North American Union would represent another step toward the abolition of national sovereignty altogether.

This is a textbook case where Paul’s obsession with upholding national sovereignty has become an end in itself and leads him to support policies that reduce freedom. Paul’s obsession with sovereignty is so strong that he is blind to the fact that borderless travel would be a positive aspect of a North America Union and is an argument in its favor.

Paul continues:

The real issue is national sovereignty. Once again, decisions that affect millions of Americans are not being made by those Americans themselves, or even by their elected representatives in Congress…Any movement toward a North American Union diminishes the ability of average Americans to influence the laws under which they must live.

Essentially, Paul is arguing that Americans have less freedom if they lose the ability to vote on the policies that affect them. Again, Paul is confusing means and ends. Whether or not it’s a good idea for policies to be decided through voting depends entirely on how likely the voters are to select good policies. If it turned out that previously autocratic countries became more repressive upon granting their population the vote, that would be an argument against democracy. Democracy is simply a means to good government, not an end in itself.

In the same vein, if upholding national sovereignty requires restricting immigration, and therefore restricting freedom, then that is an argument against upholding sovereignty.

P.S. Oddly, Paul and other libertarians are able to understand this point if you change the issue from immigration to gun control. Libertarians widely praised the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, in which the Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban that had been enacted by the district’s city council in 1975. On that issue, libertarians didn’t mind the fact that the wishes of the district’s population were overridden by a centralized authority.

“Patriotic” immigration controls

November 8, 2009

I listened to a bizarre argument against immigration the other day. Mark Krikorian, who runs the Center for Immigration Studies and who is a frequent contributor to National Review, was interviewed by the Hoover Institute’s Peter Robinson about his book The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal.

Krikorian makes the argument that immigration hurts poor Americans, and that it should be restricted on those grounds. Robinson asks him why he isn’t interested in the increase in well-being of the immigrants who move to move to the United States. Here is Robinson’s question in full:

Robinson: You’re saying that the bottom quintile, the 20 percent poorest American citizens are disproportionately hurt, in absolute terms, they’re worse off than they would be if we did not have immigration, so the question would be, what is the moral argument on which you prefer the well-being of the bottom quintile of American citizens, who, although they may be worse off are still better off than the poor folks in Mexico? What is the argument that permits you, in good conscience, to prefer the well-being of these working-class folks in El Paso over the poor folks in Ciudad Juárez who want to move to El Paso?

An excellent question indeed. I was interested to hear Krikorian’s response, which turned out to be less than impressive:

Krikorian: It’s called patriotism. We have a greater obligation to Americans than we do to foreigners. That is a moral statement. It’s not a factual statement. You can disagree with that. There are a lot of people who do. The Wall Street Journal does. They don’t see what one philosopher calls the “concentric circles of obligation” where your own family is most important to you, then you’re countrymen, and then humanity as a whole. We have to have priorities.

I do agree with Krikorian that relationships should play a role in determining how we treat people. It’s probably a good rule of thumb to give special consideration to your immediate family members over strangers. They provide you with a ready-made support network when you are lonely, when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or if you have to move from one apartment to the other.

It’s difficult to see how countrymen are similar to family members in this sense. A person in New York is every bit as much a stranger to me as someone in New Delhi.

Further, it’s mysterious why governmental jurisdictions should enter into the equation. Why not make moral worth dependent upon business relationships instead of political ones? If I work for a transnational company – such as Wal-Mart – shouldn’t I give greater weight to the concerns of my fellow employees in Beijing than I do to someone who works at a competing firm in my own country?

There is one obvious solution to the problem of immigrants hurting poor citizens, and that is to strip the poor citizens of their citizenship. If there are people who are making you waste money on raiding fruit orchards and senseless wall-building to keep them happy, why not just kick those people out of the “circle” so you don’t have to care about them anymore? That would seem to be congruent with Krikorian’s moral reasoning.

P.S. Robinson later asks Krikorian if he argues for stricter immigration control on utilitarian grounds, and he flatly says “no.” What, if any, moral system he is using is anyone’s guess.