Mises Wire

Protectionism, the Freedom to Contract, and Immigration “Reform”

Protectionism, the Freedom to Contract, and Immigration “Reform”

Congressman Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan has declared that he doesn’t want an award from the US Chamber of Commerce, which he says isn’t really devoted to “free enterprise.” So far, so good. The US Chamber of Commerce is indeed anything but devoted to free markets as is obvious from its frequent support for corporatist programs from the “stimulus” to the auto bailouts to No Child Left Behind. In short, the Chamber is a rent-seeking organization that seeks government favors for its members, day in and day out.

So, if one wishes to oppose them from a free-market perspective, there is plenty of reason to do so.

Bentivolio, regrettably, has decided that the Chamber is wrong, first of all, because it is too much in favor or free trade, and therefore in league with “Communist China.” Apparently, the Chamber’s support of friendly relations with a foreign country is just too much for Bentivolio to stomach. A cold war with China seems to be much more to the Congressman’s liking.

Moreover, the self-described free-marketeer Benitvolio is angry with the Chamber because it wants more flexibility to employ foreign workers. The Chamber is for “big companies seeking cheap labor” Bentivolio thunders. They “exploit people for profit” he adds. It’s odd for a guy who claims to be for free enterprise to claim that employers “exploit people for profit,” and it’s also unclear if Bentivolio is okay with small companies “seeking cheap labor” (because we all know how small businessmen really relish the chance to find some high-priced labor), or if it’s just big companies that “exploit.”

Bentivolio’s newfound concern about the exploitation of workers appears to stem from his opposition to immigration “reform.” This is fair enough given the many problematic aspects of the so-called amnesty bill, but Bentivolio is unforgivably vague in his stated reasons for opposing reforms.

Is he opposed to the economic aspects of immigration, or is he opposed to the political act of expansion of citizenship? This is of course an important distinction since, from a free-market perspective, using immigration law as a means of protecting domestic labor from competition is thoroughly illegitimate while opposing the political act of expanding citizenship or other political “rights” is another matter entirely.

I suspect that Bentivolio’s position here is guided by the fact that he’s discovered that opposition to immigration wins him votes with populists and other voters who think that it is the role of the state to manage the size and nature of the workforce for the benefit of the existing native population.

We’ve seen at all before, of course, and nationalist-populist anti-immigrant efforts have spanned the gamut of supporting punitive measures from punishment of the immigrants themselves to punishing and micromanaging employers and landlords who dare to do business with people who lack the proper government approvals. Obviously, there’s nothing “free market” about fining and imprisoning landlords who rent apartments to not-government-approved persons, or employers who offer jobs to the same, or locking people up for the “crime” of exchanging labor for wages without government approval. Yet this doesn’t stop “pro-freedom” activists from demanding these very same measures.

In spite of himself, Benitvolio is not completely wrong. The government’s plan for “amnesty” has nothing to do with expanding economic freedom, and everything to do with expanding the welfare state and certain interest groups, and if the Chamber wished to put a stop to the harassment of employers and landlords in these cases, it could advocate for an end to the harassment itself.

Instead, the Chamber is playing a political game, and getting a little bit of what it wants (fewer shakedowns from from the Fed’s immigration police) while helping the supporters of amnesty obtain their political goals of more welfare for more low-income American citizens. This has been the Chamber’s M.O. for decades.

As Murray Rothbard shows here, there is no economic argument against employers being free to hire foreign nationals.[1] The claim that some human beings are taking “our” jobs is nothing more than a claim that it is the job of the government to use violence to exclude some workers from the marketplace for the benefit of other workers. There is no difference between arguing that the state should intervene to ensure that no Mexicans get “our” jobs, and arguing that the state should intervene to make sure that migrants from Massachusetts can’t move to Illinois and take the jobs rightfully reserved to Illinois-born workers.

Similarly, it is not “exploitation” for an employer from a wealthy state like Colorado to offer a job to a worker from a poor state like West Virginia, any more than it is exploitation for a US employer to offer a job to a worker from Mexico. It’s a voluntary agreement, so long as the state doesn’t intervene in its usual violent way.

If freedom were Bentivolio’s concern, he could consistently vote in Congress to de-fund welfare programs (for both native-born and foreign-born residents) and also de-fund federal regulators and agencies (i.e., the federal government’s bloated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)) while he’s at it. It’s unlikely that a look at Bentivolio’s congressional voting record would reveal any such inclinations, however.

If our goal is to expand economic freedom, then we fail to see what hiring and firing, and buying and selling should have to do with government-granted citizenship, provided workers and employers are free to make agreements among themselves. But in fact, the relentless drive to incentivize permanent migration with lax welfare laws and other political perks inserts a variety of what should be irrelevant issues into the debate, much as government meddling in the private agreements known as “matrimony” has made marriage a political issue.

So why the government’s obsession with expanding citizenship? One reason is that leftists are executing a specific social-engineering agenda. The other reason is that employers (the ones reviled by Bentivolio) seek expanded citizenship because the federal government, through federal law, has wrongly tied the freedom to be employed to the attainment of citizenship or some other government writ.

But in a free society, the freedom to be employed or buy or rent a house would be completely separate from the citizenship issue. Just as a matter of natural law, and as a matter of the freedom to contract, persons must be free to sell or buy labor with whomever and whenever they wish, and sell or rent real estate to whomever they wish, without any government permissions at all. The citizenship issue, on the other hand, is something quite different, and something that comes with a host of political perks, complications, and – as any American taxpayer knows – financial obligations.

Respecting the freedom of employers to hire foreign nationals does not require the expansion of citizenship or any other government privilege. Bentivolio is no doubt too obtuse to see this since the immigration issue has been corrupted by a long litany of issues irrelevant to the private-property issues at hand. These issues include: pro-Anglo-Saxonism, anti-Anglo-Saxonism, protection for domestic wages, environmentalism, overcrowded freeways, national security, and more.

If Bentivolio thinks that amnesty is a bad idea, he can certainly oppose the expansion of citizenship while simultaneously supporting an expansion of economic freedom for workers and employers alike. In other words, it’s perfectly possible for him to be both for free markets and against amnesty, but then he might anger the voters who think it’s the government’s job to pad their wages by deporting the competition.


[1] I prefer the term “foreign nationals” to describe foreign citizens living in the United States because it is the most neutral. In the context I wish to use here, foreign nationals can be either migrant workers or people actually seeking a permanent residence in the United States. Terms like “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant” are problematic because they assume the worker or resident in question is in fact seeking permanent relocation. In fact, we know this is true less than half the time: we know that 60 percent of migrants surveyed say they plan to return to Mexico after saving up or sending home a planned amount of money. 50-70 percent of them actually do return, often repeating the cycle more than once (those with the lowest education levels are most likely to return to Mexico). People who fit this profile are migrant workers, not immigrants. and naturally, if citizenship were not on the table, such workers would continue to be either temporary or permanent residents who maintained their economic freedoms but who would remain outside the political sphere.

Moreover, the use of the term “foreign national” emphasizes the fact that a denial of citizenship here does mean the person lacks citizenship, as he or she retains his or her citizenship in her home country. Such a person should retain the ability to freely travel to and from the home country, and communicate freely with persons or institutions there, including financial and political ones.

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