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Is Immigration Really the Problem?

May 31, 2011

Tags Free MarketsGlobal EconomyInterventionism

I am constantly awestruck by the prodigious destructive capacity of my children. My three-year-old daughter can break things that I can't even take apart; seemingly sturdy objects quail before her wrath. One of my greatest fears is that, as an adult, she will channel this knack for destruction into its most logical outcome: a career in public "service."

One of my favorite rhetorical games to play with proponents of bigger and better government is to challenge them to name an area where government action proves superior to private action. Most answers, if any are tendered, relate to military spending, criminal justice, or infrastructure construction and maintenance — sectors that are hardly models of temporal or pecuniary efficiency. Of course, to even have this discussion, it is necessary to ignore the mounds of shattered glass that pile up as government bricks break window after window to create projects for the public good. Is it any wonder that the urban centers that have been the beneficiaries of the most sincere intervention by our magnanimous central planners most closely resemble the aftermaths of natural disasters or the ravages of war?

When we draw Hayek's famous concept of the "fatal conceit" of central planners out to its logical conclusion, we must conclude that all legislative activity, whether explicitly economic or not, is burdened with the threat of producing dramatic, unintended, and undesirable consequences. In his magnificent work, Our Enemy, the State, Albert Jay Nock described a delicate balance between "State" and "social" power.

Thus the State "turns every contingency into a resource" for accumulating power in itself, always at the expense of social power; and with this it develops a habit of acquiescence in the people. New generations appear, each temperamentally adjusted … to new increments of State power, and they tend to take the process of continuous accumulation as quite in order. (p. 10)

The consequences of this shifting of power often create new crises, which call for new legislative solutions and new opportunities for the growth of state power. Fair-minded individuals may differ on what is necessary to limit the inherent danger of government abuses; proposals run the gamut from strict constitutionalism to anarchy, but only the strongly deluded fail to recognize the risks that exist when one individual or group is given coercive power over the actions of another.

A prime example of this phenomenon is on display with every bit of news about our southern border. Among many other factors, the "War on Drugs" and the welfare state have added to a plethora of enticements that encourage — even incentivize — an influx of immigrants seeking a better life than can be had south of the border. Regardless of the reader's conclusions about immigration policy, it is clear that government policy has had the general effect of exacerbating the difficulties inherent in this situation.

It has been well explained how the "War on Drugs" artificially limits supply and increases risk, thereby increasing prices and profit margins. This, obviously, creates a financial incentive for individuals to become drug mules and risk the hazardous journey across the border with illicit substances. Surely this effect is an unintended one, but government intervention in this realm creates and augments the very market it is aimed at quelling. State action may paint a market black, but cannot drive it out of existence.

But what about the "War on Immigration"? All that is needed, we are told, is the development of a comprehensive immigration-reform policy. Then the Rio Grande will flow with milk and honey and the deserts will bloom with high-paying jobs. A recent trend has been for states and municipalities, frustrated with federal inaction, to attempt to take matters into their own hands.

In my area, the approach that has gained traction is to crack down on those who rent homes and provide jobs to undocumented individuals. A recent law passed by the Summerville town council mirrors legislation that has been put into place throughout the country. This law makes it illegal to rent out an apartment or house without first verifying the immigration status of potential tenants. This is further proof that governments have a tendency to complicate and intensify the problems that they set out to solve. To explain this point, it is first necessary to consider the most common complaints about illegal immigrants:

  1. They take low-paying jobs.

  2. They receive social services (such as reduced-cost housing, WIC, and other welfare benefits) that far outstrip their contributions to the local and national economy.

  3. They commit crimes and turn to illicit means to provide for themselves.

The veracity of these charges has been explored ad nauseam, and at least partially refuted, but that is not the goal of this essay. For our purposes, presume these claims to be legitimate, universally proven allegations. Assuming that illegal immigrants are absolutely guilty of all the above charges, attempt to answer this question: How will legislation that denies jobs and housing to individuals already in our communities lighten the burden they place on society?

Is this not the fatal conceit magnified? Will they not become more dependent on social services and more likely to resort to crime to attain their daily bread and shelter from the elements? What other choice is there? This approach is similar to laws that prohibit homelessness. If we can eradicate an undesirable thing simply by legislation, why not prohibit joblessness, too? Or poor eyesight? Or stupidity?

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Presumably, the goal is to send the message that illegal immigrants need to move on down the road. But what happens when the next town, and then the next, enacts similar laws? Eventually, there is no escaping the consequences of such laws; the cure creates the disease, just as minimum wage laws create unemployment.

Perhaps a better approach is to simply free the market, including the labor market, and dismantle the welfare state. If we were all responsible for our own healthcare, education, and sustenance, then none but the most strident racist would possibly lose sleep over the legal status of their employee or neighbor. If we find the wisdom and boldness to exchange the wars on drugs, poverty, and immigration for a war on legislation, then maybe we will find greater freedom and prosperity for all.


Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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