Institutions of Liberty Require Immigration Crackdown
By Alec Rawls © 1997/1998. (1475 words) Originally published in The Thinker, 4/30/97.

For institutions of liberty to work, both practically and morally, the first object of immigration policy must be to secure a substantial minimum of domestic prosperity for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Systems liberty -- of individual choice and responsibility -- depend on people having options that offer a tenable minimum of welfare, so we can know that that people's choices have not been coerced by the most primitive material exigencies. Nominally free choice is not genuinely free if it is coerced and when choice is free accountability becomes in some ways (not all ways) problematic. Immigration policy is a key determinant of domestic prosperity and hence of morally ascertainable freedom and responsibility.

How does immigration affect prosperity? Ever since Malthus, economists have understood that unchecked population growth outstrips resources, driving prosperity down to subsistence. Immigration is a basic component of population growth.

Of course, population can be checked by forces other than the "malthusian constraints" of malnutrition and disease. It can also be checked by voluntary reproductive restraint. But the resulting increase in prosperity will be short lived if people can immigrate freely to wherever wages are higher. As long as there is unbridled reproduction abroad in the world, wages in countries with open immigration will follow "the iron law of wages" (where wages above subsistence induce population growth, increasing the supply of labor and driving wages back down to subsistence).

This is a little oversimple. Most importantly, while population growth necessaril moves an economy out along its production function, where marginal product of labor (the prime determinant of wages) diminishes, people can also change the production function. They can raise it everywhere, by creating innovations in product or production. Thus to increase domestic prosperity, we should let in those who can raise the production function and keep out those who would push us too far along it into diminishing marginal productivity and wages, especially for those at the bottom of the ladder.

To many this will sound like a "beggar thy neighbor policy", after the fashion of trade wars, but on the contrary, it is the very essence of cooperation. Each nation has the obligation to enforce reproductive responsibility within its own borders. We not only help ourselves, but we help others, when our external policies reward responsible rather than irresponsible behavior. Where trade wars make all nations worse off, mutually offering incentives to responsible behavior makes all nations better off. If incentives are not in line with the costs that people impose on each other, cancers grow. Fuel gets shunted to engines of negative net value, which drop their wrenches into every engine of positive value.

The primary engine of value is liberty itself. Our first objective must be to secure the space for institutions of liberty to work. Consider an example. If everyone had the opportunity to earn a tenable minimum of prosperity, then everyone would be far better off if OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) did not exist. OSHA sets down detailed safety standards and practices for every occupation. It imposes socialist, command economy, answers to questions that could be solved by individuals without encountering any particular problems of market failure.

Ideally, the only role of the government should be in rooting out force, fraud and anti-trust. As long as workplace hazards that are known or should be known are disclosed, employers should be free to offer, and employees free to accept, whatever combinations of remuneration for hazard that they wish. If a particular safety precaution is worth more to workers than it costs (in direct outlay and productivity) then firms that offer the precaution, along with wages that are lower by the cost of the precaution will outcompete other firms in the labor market. Self-interested behavior on both sides will lead to the efficient choice and degree of safety precautions. Instead of idiotic "solutions" imagined by a bureaucrat in Washington -- one's that free choice would improve on by a factor of fifty -- we get constant innovation and refinement of safety precautions, tailored to people's individual abilities and the discovered market price of risk.

It is fashionable on the left to scoff at the idea that markets can actually work (when the evidence is that they can even work when bound by fifteen layers of government taxation, regulation, obstructionism, red tape and outright stupidity). Any market that is not saturated with competing purchasers of labor is presumed to leave workers at the mercy of employers (when the truth is that any valuable relationship bestows bargaining power on all parties). But the present case does not even involve bargaining over the division of benefits. It is simply a matter of precautions which are worth more to one of the parties than they cost. It is an efficiency question, not a distribution question. The market for risk can't help but work because ultimately it is just this simple: so long as everyone has tenable minimum options, no one has to accept any hazard for pay that they don't want to. If they accept hazard for pay it is because the extra pay they can earn for hazard is worth it to them. They are making a personal decision.

Of course, people who have free choice will choose to do all kinds of risky things, both for the monetary remuneration and for the psychic rewards. In my career as a carpenter, I've done more dangerous things than I want to think about. It's the nature of the job. That three hundred pound beam has to go up in place and somebody has to go to the top of the ladder. We make the best choices we can, and nobody has a gun to his head. Anyone who wants to leave can. Dangerous work isn't for everyone. (Just don't pretend to be one of us, if you are going to cut out when the load shifts.)

There's only one proviso: there can't be a gun to anyone's head. People must have that option to walk away, and that requires a tenable minimum of opportunity abroad in society, measurable by the unskilled wage (where there is no risk premium).

Our current immigration policy -- a one two punch of legalizing illegal immigrants, then focussing on family reunification -- might as well have been designed to flood the unskilled labor market and depress the unskilled wage. It is the epitome of irresponsibility and incompetence.

A society need not rely entirely on population control to achieve a tenable minimum of options for those at the bottom. It can also institute a system of safety nets (ideally, with all aid billed to each recipient's account, to be paid back according to ability to pay, which keeps the books straight, so that perverse incentives are avoided and cancers not fed). But safety nets, important as they are, can only serve as a shock absorber. Society's ability to lean on them in a permanent way is very limited. On the one hand, even when the books are kept straight, there is still subsidization involved, which distorts incentives and feeds irresponsible behavior. We can't go very far with it before we get into the cancer problem (which is rampant under current safety nets).

Second, the benefits of safety nets must be weighed against the burdens they impose on the responsible parts of society. The whole reason it is important to help people get a leg up on life is because of how much can be done in a productive lifetime. If the burden of helping the least well off get a leg up on life keeps others from doing what they could with their lives, the accomplishment is halved.

These limitations on safety nets, along with the implications of population for prosperity, are basic economic facts that cannot be eluded by moving to a different economic system. Socialists love to seek out instances where liberty is unable to achieve an ideal solution -- as when people lack tenable options, so their choices cannot be regarded as voluntary in a morally meanginful sense -- and try to use them as grounds for renouncing markets and liberty. But institutions of liberty create maximum prosperity. If they have not, in some instance, created enough prosperity, it is preposterous to deduce that we should therefore shift to a arrangements that create much less prosperity. The proper course is to take what control we can of the economic facts that we are faced with, such as population growth, and try to secure the necessary space for institutions of liberty to work.

If proper incentives to responsible childbearing (one's that fully enforce obligations to meet the costs incurred) are ever universal worldwide, it may be plausible to consider open borders. For now, keeping out the unskilled and uneducated should be our main immigration policy goal, to be overridden only in the narrowest cases of family reunification and political persecution.

(Alec Rawls is a graduate student in economics.)

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