The Republican Left
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on March 30, 2006.
It's a wonder that the Left in Boulder and across Colorado hasn't fallen in love with Congressman Tom Tancredo, for the economic doctrine he preaches is protectionism and wage controls. When union bosses and anti-globalizers make the same economic arguments, the Left stands up and cheers.
Actually, some leftists have joined forces with Tancredo. Even though now Tancredo links immigration controls to the war on terror, before the 9/11 attacks he gained the support of former Governor Dick Lamm in an effort to impose a five-year moratorium on immigration, the Rocky Mountain News reported in 2001.
At a March 20 event in Denver sponsored by the Independence Institute, Tancredo argued that the rule of law is important and that secure borders can still allow trade and legal immigration. Yet on those issues Tancredo is joined by free-market advocates.
Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal and Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute agreed that immigration should be legal, not illegal, and that the borders should be secure against those with criminal backgrounds, contagious diseases and ties to terrorism.
The debate, then, is over how much immigration should be allowed within the legal framework. Tancredo wants to limit immigration, while Moore and Griswold want to allow as many peaceful immigrants (or temporary guest workers) as employers are willing to hire.
The reasons Tancredo gave for limiting immigration even within a legal framework are cribbed straight from the Left's economic playbook. Companies that want to hire "cheap labor" exert "economic influences" to prevent restrictions on immigration. Against Moore's argument that high rates of immigration have accompanied economic growth and low unemployment, Tancredo said that there's no "direct line" between immigration and economic strength. But Moore's observation does not have to hold in every case to be useful; Tancredo's weak counter proves only that governments can screw up the economy in ways other than by limiting immigration.
Tancredo argued that, in industries that seem to rely on immigrant labor, often there are high-tech substitutes for labor, such as harvesting machines in agriculture. Tancredo is correct that capital can substitute for labor, but the optimum balance of labor and capital can be determined only in a free market, not by political command.
Tancredo argued that tough enforcement would be necessary to prevent employers from skirting requirements to pay "prevailing wages" and health-care benefits. Tancredo thus assumed that wage controls would be part of an immigration policy.
Tancredo described with concern "people who will work for less" unless armed agents prevent them from doing so. He said the federal government needs to "go after employers" who engage in what philosopher Robert Nozick calls "capitalist acts between consenting adults."
My purpose here is not to refute Tancredo's economic protectionism -- though it manifests gross economic ignorance -- but merely to point out that it is, in fact, leftist in orientation.
Others at the event made genuinely conservative arguments in favor of limiting immigration, and even the open-market advocates paid deference to these. The main concern is assimilation. It's fine for immigrants to come here, as long as they become genuine, English-speaking Americans rather than America-hating secessionists.
For example, John Andrews (the former state senator) argued that there is a moral and cultural dimension to immigration. He wants the U.S. to be a "shining city on the hill," and such a city has both gates and walls to welcome some but not all. Conservatives argue -- and I agree here -- that the welfare state sometimes encourages immigration for all the wrong reasons.
Against the conservative worry about assimilation, Alex Cranberg, who helps run an oil (let's hear the collective Boulder snicker) and gas company and funds private education vouchers, presented a brief history of anti-immigration sentiment since the late 1800s. Germans, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians preceded Mexicans as "threats" to the culture and economy.
Cranberg lambasted the new Malthusians for their hysterical population fears and bogus economics. He agrees that welfare creates disincentives, but generally "opportunity for folks is what brings them here." Because English-speakers tend to make more money, there are natural incentives to learn the common language. And generally Mexican immigrants don't want to duplicate the same political pathologies from which they just escaped.
For Cranberg, the "conservative movement stands for growth." I can live with that. But what I stand for is something that was mentioned not a single time during the entire Denver event -- individual rights. Yes, the federal government has a responsibility to protect the rights of citizens by securing the borders. But the same government has a responsibility to protect the rights of citizens to contract with willing workers. The assimilation that's really needed is that of both conservatives and "liberals" to a culture of individual rights and free markets.