A "Free Market" Means Open Immigration
by Ari Armstrong, July 1999
As an associate of the Independence Institute who occasionally writes articles for it, I was shocked and disappointed to read a recent op-ed published by the organization denouncing immigrants in Colorado.
I find particularly distressing the brazen hypocrisy in the article which on one hand praises the free market, and on the other calls for the government to interfere with private property rights by preventing businesses and others from inviting immigrants to visit and work.
Charles King, author of the article and a Senior Fellow with the Institute, claims that he supports a "sound free-market economy." Further, the Institute describes itself as "a free-market think tank." But part of the market is the labor market, and one cannot claim to advocate a free market while simultaneously calling for State control of the labor market. A more candid approach would be to explicitly call for a regulated labor market but to favor a free market in other areas. King advocates a mixed economy, not a consistently free market.
I was also surprised by the weakness of King's arguments. The article, entitled, "Massive Immigration Hurts Colorado" and published May 19 by the Institute at www.i2i.org, is more of a xenophobic tirade than a sober reflection. (This is odd, as King teaches Spanish at the University of Colorado, yet the article is slanted against Mexican immigrants.) Still, I feel I must address King's specific criticisms.
King writes of the
millions of dollars being made off the cheap labor of immigrants, legal and illegal, in Colorado, [and] billions in the country at large. There were over 45,000 illegal immigrants in Colorado in 1996; they are benefiting themselves and the businesses who hire them, yes. But they're not benefiting the country.
Let's unpack this paragraph. First, what is meant by "cheap labor?" It means that some Mexican immigrants perform jobs at wages below the price others demand. What's wrong with that? All that means is we as consumers are able to purchase goods and services at a lower price, which is great! The businesses are better off, the consumers are better off, the immigrants are better off, and other laborers are freed to perform more valuable tasks in the economy (though they may incur short-term retraining costs). In Western Colorado, fruit growers can hardly find local help to harvest crops -- without Mexican laborers, much of the fruit would rot on the ground.
So what can King possibly mean when he says that immigrants benefit themselves, business owners, and consumers, and yet they do not "benefit the country?" Is "the country" some transcendent entity above and superior to the individuals who compose it? That's the National Socialist conception of the nation, but it is wrong and antithetical to free markets. Immigrant labor benefits individuals in the country and aggresses against no one. Therefore, it is good, if we value individual people rather than some reified "nation."
King next makes a grave economic error common among socialists and anti-technology zealots:
[E]mployers of immigrant-workers pay taxes, but whatever they pay doesn't begin to pay for their displacement of thousands of American workers.
The unspoken assumption is that wealth is of a fixed amount, the number of jobs are limited, if a new person gains a job another must lose a job, and the point of economic activity is to fight over the pieces of a fixed pie.
Fortunately, King is dead wrong about the way capitalism works. Wealth is limitless, the number of jobs is limited only by the number of people, and a free labor market enables all who desire work to find it. Of course, we do not live in a purely capitalistic economic system, so government interventions in the economy frequently cause unemployment. In particular, monetary intervention, union legislation, minimum wage laws, high taxes, and licensing requirements reduce the number of jobs available. But it's ludicrous to blame immigrants for unemployment.
Further, why should taxes "pay for displaced workers?" Does King believe that economic activity revolves around government subsidies? In the free market individual savings, insurance, family and friends, and retraining funds from businesses enable displaced workers to develop new skills and find new jobs.
Next, King raises the issue of infrastructure. Generally, "infrastructure" is just a fancy word for capital that happens to be subsidized or controlled by the government. However, this semantic quibble aside, King's analysis of infrastructure is incorrect:
[T]he sixty thousand or so illegals in addition to the sixty or more thousand legal immigrants in Colorado don't begin to pay for our infrastructure (our public buildings and transportation system , for example).
I somehow doubt that illegal immigrants use "public buildings" (read, "government buildings") all that often. As far as roads go, they are paid for almost entirely by the gasoline tax, which immigrants pay at the gas pump like the rest of us.
King also claims that illegal immigrants don't pay for pollution, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, or environmental destruction. King's point about traffic is incorrect -- immigrants pay gasoline taxes which build more roads. I'll leave aside the empty assertion of "environmental destruction," as King hasn't offered a whit of evidence to support his view. Immigrants do pay as much as anyone else to counter air pollution, as the vehicles they use or ride in must meet the same standards as the vehicles of everyone else.
What about so-called "urban sprawl?" Last I checked, that staunch advocate of free markets Al Gore was most concerned with the issue. To the extent that it is a legitimate problem, much of it is caused by government intervention, not by immigrants. Is it any coincidence that new condos line I-36, after years of restrictive building laws in Boulder?
All too often, the term "urban sprawl" is used to mean, "It's fine that I moved to Colorado, but I'll be damned if I want anyone else to do the same.
King also claims that "One-fourth of federal prisoners in the country are illegals." That proves nothing. How many of the "federal prisoners" King counts are awaiting deportation and haven't even faced criminal charges or a trial? The way to reduce the number of "federal prisoners" is to fire the boarder patrol.
I have seen no evidence indicating that immigrants working in this country commit more crimes than people born here. In fact, I suspect that immigrants commit fewer crimes than average.
King next argues, "Unless immigrants continue to assimilate to an American culture, as they did up until about mid-century, we are going to become balkanized." However, if anything is keeping immigrants from assimilating, it's relegating them to the second-class status of "illegal." Apart from that, I've seen no evidence which suggests immigrants are assimilating any less than in the past. But, even if they were, that still would not imply that America is "becoming balkanized." The Balkans are rife with ethnic conflict and political struggle. In a free market, or even a relatively free market such as exists in the U.S., members of different ethnicities, religions, and social status can and do live and work harmoniously together. The freer the market, the greater the social accord.
King may call for government control of the labor market if he wants to, no matter how illogical his reasons are. But he can't legitimately claim to support the free market. A free market means open immigration.