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Perspective ~ A Matter Of Priorities

by Sheldon Richman for the Foundation For Economic Education

‘Tis the political season, which means the season to bash immigrants. This goes especially for so-called “illegal aliens,” that is, residents without government papers. (As if that’s a big deal.)

Candidates and others who are set on securing the Mexican border—the Canadian border seems of less concern—and expelling those who had the audacity to come to the land of the free without permission mainly rely on two arguments: jobs and welfare. If those are the best arguments they’ve got, they don’t have much.

The first is easily dismissed. Any free-market advocate knows that what is in short supply is not work but workers—if government does not interfere with individual freedom. This is not news, but just another way of saying that we live in a world of scarcity. Free people can loosen the bonds of scarcity, but can never eliminate them. This will be true as long as a quantity of resources put to one purpose can’t simultaneously be put to some other purpose. Under freedom long-term involuntary unemployment is impossible. If tomorrow we need only half the number of people it takes today to make a steady supply of some product, we’ll be able to afford things we can’t afford today and our living standard will rise.

To be sure, we live in a society blanketed by government intrusion that ossifies labor and other markets in a variety of ways: taxes, minimum-wage laws, occupational licensing, anticompetitive favors to business, union laws, and more. Such interventions may make it tougher for unskilled or low-skilled workers to find new jobs if the old ones are lost to someone willing to work for less. The wrong way to address that problem, though, is to go after immigrants who are “taking jobs from Americans.” The moral claim to freedom, including the freedom to deal with those who have jobs to offer, should not be a function of where one was born. It’s a function of being human, no matter the birthplace. Let’s free the markets rather than restrict the freedom of individuals.

A similar point applies to welfare. I don’t know what percentage of immigrants, “legal” and otherwise, take benefits provided by the state. Everyone can cite a study to support his intuitions on the matter. Such cherry-picking of data always makes me uncomfortable.

Fortunately, we don’t need data on an issue like this. If you don’t want people taking welfare benefits, go after the dispenser of the benefits, not the people who simply accept what is offered. If you fear that immigrants will strain the government’s schools and hospitals, ask why government is in education and health in the first place. I don’t hear Wal-Mart and other private retailers complaining about new customers.

To listen to some immigration opponents, you’d think the worst thing that can possibly happen is for a foreign-born person—especially one without government papers—to take a welfare benefit. Why it matters where a welfare recipient was born, I can’t say. After
all, independent migrants pay taxes, so why are they less entitled than American citizens? No one should be eligible, but if immigrants are to be singled out, shouldn’t they be tax-exempt too? That’s not a bad deal.

At any rate, I can think of worse things than “illegal aliens” taking welfare:

  1. Native-born Americans’ taking welfare. After all, they were born in the “land of the free.” Shouldn’t they know better?
  2. Police-state tactics designed to prevent immigration or to catch people who made it through. Those tactics include storm-trooper raids at workplaces, witch hunts of employers who take the idea of free enterprise seriously and hire whomever they please, and ominous national-identification devices.
  3. The routine exploitation of people who are vulnerable to thugs and cheats because of their “illegal” status.

I like what Freeman contributor Charles Johnson (blogger at Rad Geek People’s Daily, wrote online about this: “As for the welfare state, they [“illegals”] are welcome to milk it dry, as far as I’m concerned. The sooner the damn thing is on the brink of collapse, the better. Besides which, receipt of government benefits is not ipso facto a violation of anyone’s rights—it’s the funding that’s the problem, but illegal immigrants aren’t complicit in the existence of taxation—and insofar as they are able to receive some minimal payouts from the State, that may as well count as partial restitution for the daily threats, terror, and violence that the state and federal governments routinely inflict against the property and liberty of all undocumented immigrants.”

It’s really time we got our priorities straight.

The destructive wildfires in California last fall were tragic enough. Must they be turned into a crusade for more government power? Steven Greenhut pulls aside the curtain.

According to the standard political framework, no one person should be against imperial wars and for free-market money. But as Steven Horwitz shows, historically these two positions were a staple of the freedom philosophy.

New York City’s mayor wants to charge people to drive into Manhattan. Known as “congestion pricing,” any resemblance the idea has to the free market is purely coincidental. Becky Akers explains.

Over the last couple of years the power of prosecutors to ruin innocent people’s lives has become too obvious to ignore. Wendy McElroy discusses the infamous Duke “rape” case.

Politics is portrayed as a noble endeavor, but if you scratch the surface you find some people trying to force other people to pay for their pet projects. George Leef applies this principle to so-called historic preservation.

Government wrecked the railroads in Britain, but voluntary efforts are bringing them back. Does this mean there’s an alternative to providing services either through force or love of money? James Payne takes up the question.

Here’s what our columnists’ deliberations have yielded: Richard Ebeling considers the nature of interventionism. Donald Boudreaux unveils the real reason Prohibition was repealed. Burton Folsom revisits a time when presidents actually vetoed spending bills they thought were unconstitutional. John Stossel warns against expecting the government to be able to cool down the planet. Walter Williams emphasizes the economic role of property rights. And Robert Murphy, reading the claim that the Federal Reserve isn’t really bailing out big mortgage lenders, protests, “It Just Ain’t So!”

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman on January 2008.

About The Author

Sheldon Richman is the editor of The Freeman and In brief. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.