On the dole

On the LeftLibertarian2 listserv, there’s been some discussion of a pseudo-libertarian argument that’s popular with certain border creeps, to the effect that the government should strictly limit immigration because otherwise too many immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants who often work off the books and don’t pay income tax, will show up to mooch off of hard-working Estadounidenses through the welfare state. This argument has a lot of problems, some of which I’ve discussed before (1, 2). For one thing, it’s empirically bogus. By law, even officially approved immigrants are ineligible for most federal welfare benefits, while local government-funded services that immigrants can avail themselves of, such as E.R. care, government police and firefighters, government schools, government roads, etc. are mainly funded out of state or local taxes that immigrants do pay, whether or not they file with the IRS — sales taxes, excise taxes, gasoline taxes, property taxes, etc. Perhaps more importantly, as Sheldon Richman and Niccolò Adami pointed out on the list, the argument persists among vulgar libertarians and small-government conservative types for reasons that have nothing really to do with libertarian principle. As Niccolò said:

The use of the welfare argument, as I can see it is limited to use against other libertarians—like ourselves—who would otherwise look a little less kindly to the welfare state.

The truth is, however, that if you watch the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world, they’re all complaining about the lack of Americaness of the immigrants, not really about the tax evasion or the welfare.

As I mentioned on the list, the tax evasion argument ought to be a complete non-starter with genuine libertarians. The fact that many independent migrants don’t pay taxes to support Leviathan is a point in their favor, not a point against them. As for the welfare state, they 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 pay-outs 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.

For what it’s worth, I think that the focus on welfare is not actually quite as opportunistic as Niccolò claims it is. I suspect that it has less to do with rhetorical outreach to small-government types, and more to do with a felt emotional need to believe that immigrants are really a bunch of ungrateful layabouts. It’s the same basic racist dynamic that’s in play in the equivalent discussions by post-Jim Crow white conservatives about domestic welfare recipients.

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  1. smally

    I have a question: are all these libertarians against open immigration utilitarians? They are explicitly advocating for suspending people’s natural rights in order to use them as means for their end, whether that end be maintaining the glorious culture of freedom which apparently thrives in the United States, or reducing the load on the welfare state. If they are not utilitarians, why haven’t their brains exploded?

  2. Rad Geek


    The short answer is that no, not all of them are utilitarians. Some of them are, but Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for example, explicitly denounces consequentialism, and actually considers himself a rights-absolutist:

    Until now, in the debate on immigration policy too much emphasis has been placed on consequentialist (utilitarian) arguments. Apologists of the status quo have argued that most immigrants become productive and work and hence immigration contributes to rising domestic standards of living. Against this critics have argued that the existing state-welfare institutions and provisions increasingly invite welfare-immigration, and they have warned that the only advantage of the current policies over the open border alternative is that the former will take decades until leading ultimately to similarly dire effects as the latter will produce within years. As important as the resolution of these issues is, however, it is not decisive. The opposition against current immigration policies is ultimately independent of whether immigration will make per capita GDP (or similar statistical measures) rise or fall. It is a matter of justice: of right and wrong.

    His position, insofar as he has tried to make it clear, is that government-enforced international apartheid and open borders both inherently involve violations of property rights, but that, of the two, international apartheid is the lesser evil (and so the second-best option after complete abolition of the State and devolution of all property to private ownership), basically because (he thinks) it more closely reflects the way that private property owners would screen out undesirable immigrants from their own severally- or jointly-held property if they were free from government expropriation of public infrastructure and from government anti-discrimination laws.

    Now, how a professed decentralist and purported believer in Mises’s socialist calculation argument could possibly think that there is any way to approximate what the free market arrangements for continent-spanning empire of 300,000,000 people would be, or how a purported rights-absolutist could think that the rights-violations intrinsic to State confiscation and regimentation of property ought to be taken out on millions of unrelated third parties who had nothing to do with the crafting of the State’s policy, let alone taken out on them in the form of exile and confiscation of property, without the cognitive dissonance causing his head to explode—well, that I don’t really know, although I will say that Hoppe’s writing on this subject sounds a lot more like a predetermined conclusion in search of supporting arguments than like a position arrived at by prior argument.

— 2009 —

  1. Discussed at radgeek.com

    Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-06-19 – Libertarians Against Property Rights and Freedom of Association, Unabridged Edition:

    […] (For more on conservative welfare statist arguments against immigration freedom, see GT 2007-12-13: On the dole.) […]

— 2010 —

  1. Discussed at www.thefreemanonline.org

    A Matter of Priorities | The Freeman | Ideas On Liberty:

    […] contributor Charles Johnson (blogger at Rad Geek People's Daily) put it well: As for the welfare state, they [illegals] are welcome to milk it dry, as far as […]

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