In Defense of Free Migration

by Richard M. Ebeling

Right at this moment, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Vietnamese are in the South China Sea. Some of them are heading for Hong Kong, others are heading for the Philippines or Malaysia or Singapore. But regardless of their destination, every one of those Vietnamese has made a choice. They have chosen to leave the land of their birth, their culture, their heritage and make a new start. They have decided that their homeland has become intolerable for themselves and their children. They hope and pray for a better life than the one they leave behind under the choking hand of socialist statism.
       It is estimated that hundreds of these Vietnamese will never see land again. Faulty navigation, lack of food and fresh water, or disease will bring them to their deaths. Many probably could be saved. Ships will pass them by that could have taken them aboard and landed them in safety, but will not. The ship captains and owners are reluctant to give shelter and assistance, because they know that at whatever port at which they land they will be quarantined, inspected, and detained, for none of the Asian countries are willing to give free entrance to these new citizens of the world. 
       But even those Vietnamese who languish in detention camps in Malaysia or the Philippines are still better off than those countless people in Cambodia who had no chance of escape and were consumed in that human bonfire that served the ends of collectivist purity and so-called people’s justice. 
       The Vietnamese refugees are not unique in their experience, either in facing oppression at home or in their decision to emigrate. Countless millions of others in the last two hundred years faced similar despotisms and chose to make a new life in a freer land. 
       What is different is that for most of those two hundred years there was at least one country that was open to those escaping from economic destitution, political oppression, or social rigidity. Today there no longer exists any nation whose gates are spread wide welcoming newcomers. Today the gates are closed, and only political pressure or public shock and indignation can push them ajar for a fortunate handful. 
       The inscription on the Statue of Liberty may still read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. ... I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” but it stands there as a cruel joke to those who see the “golden door” barred to their entrance. 
       Almost no other country on the face of the earth has had its history so closely tied with and dependent upon the free movement of men and women as the United States. 
       In the Declaration of Independence, one of the stated grievances against the British Crown was governmental barriers to freedom of movement. The King “has endeavored to prevent the population of these States,” charged the signers of the Declaration. They accused the British government of “obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass [laws] to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.” 
       Not long after the Declaration was signed, the principle was generalized when Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the natural right which all men have of relinquishing the country in which birth or other accident may have thrown them, and seeking subsistence and happiness wheresoever they may be able, or hope to find them.” 
       Since the first English settlers reached America in 1607, almost 50 million people have migrated to the United States. 
       A good many of those 50 million came to America to escape from persecution, oppression, and the control of the State. In the 19th century, four million Irish came across the Atlantic, leaving behind potato famines and British imperialism. Between 1850 and 1900, five million Germans found a now home in America, many of them escaping from the convulsions and high conscription rates caused by Bismarck’s wars of the 1860s and early 1870s. Well over one million Poles arrived before World War I, leaving behind acute poverty in territory controlled by Russia and the suppression of Polish culture and nationality in the portions of Poland under German domination. The same story can be repeated in the case of almost every other national group that contributed an ingredient to the American melting pot. 
       For every immigrant, America offered a new beginning, a second chance without the oppressive air of privilege and power. A Swedish immigrant wrote home in the 1880s that his “cap [is not] worn out from lifting it in the presence of gentlemen. There is no class distinction between high and low, rich and poor, no make-believe, no ‘title-sickness’ or artificial ceremonies.... Everybody lives in peace and prosperity.” 
       In the 19th century, it was mostly young men who would first arrive from another country, attempt to make a living and send money back home. For example, of the Italians who came to the United States, 78 percent were male; and in the case of the Greeks, 95 percent of the immigrants were male. In the 1850s Irish immigrants were sending over one million dollars a year to friends and relatives in Ireland, with half of that amount being sent in the form of prepaid tickets to assist others in coming to America. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the estimate is that 25 to 75 percent of all immigrants coming to America did so with money sent from compatriots already in the United States. Almost every one of these immigrant groups tended to start at the bottom of the economic ladder, taking the jobs considered undignified or undesirable by others. And almost every immigrant usually began his start in America by settling in that section of the city predominantly occupied by members of the same nationality, culture, and language. 
       Those who wish to immigrate to the United States today are fundamentally no different from those who came to America a hundred years ago. The Mexican who slips into the United States and resides here as an “illegal alien” tends to be a young adult male looking for work; when he finds a job, he sends a good portion of his earnings back to his family in Mexico. He usually has had no more than five years of schooling and probably speaks little or no English. The aliens tend to gravitate to the lowest-paying occupations that others prefer to turn down, and it is estimated that twenty percent of them make below the minimum wage. They live in various Mexican-American communities around the country, and except for work come into very little contact with “Anglo” Americans. 
       But there is a unique difference between the 19th-century immigrant and the 20th-century “illegal” immigrant. The earlier immigrants worked in a relatively free and open society and could expect in a generation or two to advance themselves economically and socially compared to the living standards in the “old country” and compared to when they first began to live and work in America. 
       The 20th-century illegal immigrants have no similar future to look forward to. They have only the present, and it is a present that yields nothing but fear and uncertainty—uncertainty that at any moment they may be discovered by the immigration authorities and deported, and the fear that any resistance or refusal to accept the terms set for them by their employers may result in their being turned in to the authorities. 
       However, the really fundamental difference between the 19th-century and 20th-century immigrants concerns the ideological undercurrents present, then and now. In the 19th century, freedom of movement was generally seen as an integral part of a philosophy and policy of free trade. just as the free movement of goods across frontiers was seen as the method by which individuals of the respective countries of the world could benefit from their comparative productive advantages, free movement of people was seen as the method by which individuals—each pursuing his own personal interest—could assure that labor would come to be distributed among the various geographical areas in the pattern that was most conducive to private and social prosperity. 
       The same economic influences that enticed owners of capital to shift their factors of production from one use to another tended to operate on those who supplied labor services, as well. Those countries that suffered from low productivity and low wages would “export” workers to other parts of the globe where wages were relatively higher and productive prospects were likely to raise the income positions of those who moved into the higher-wage areas. 
       The advantages from the transfer of workers would tend to benefit everyone. In the case of the workers who immigrated, it offered the opportunity to compete in an alternative labor market where their relative income share could be larger. Free immigration benefited those who remained in the home country; the shrinkage of the domestic labor force due to the emigration of others made labor a relatively more scarce resource in the market and tended to raise the level of wages in the home country. 
       The country into which the immigrants flowed benefited from the move, as well. The increase in the workforce diminished the scarcity of labor services in various lines of production. The lowering of costs and the availability of more hands for production activities meant an intensification of the division of labor, a general increase in productivity and the opportunity for the production of totally new goods and services that had been beyond the reach of consumers in the past because of the lack of manpower to provide them. 
       The economic and social principles of laissez-faire and laissez-passer were intertwined and inseparable. The advantage that necessarily followed from the unhampered exchange of goods across the borders of different countries could not attain its maximum potential unless the free movement of goods was matched by the free movement of labor and capital to where the greatest economic advantage was anticipated. 
       The advantages of laissez-faire and laissez-passer, however, require not only freedom of movement, but flexibility of wages and prices that enables an adjustment to change and progress. Need for adjustment can arise either from the demand side or the supply side. 
       If the pattern of relative consumer demand were to change, some industries would find their profitability diminished. A successful adaptation to the new circumstances would require a shifting of resources—including labor—from those areas where profitability had declined to those areas where it had increased. Resistance to lower wages, or reluctance to change occupations when the relative demand for a product declines, can only result in unemployment, a decline in output and income, and a general fall in the economic well-being of the country as a whole. The unwillingness of a few to adapt to new market circumstances rebounds to the disadvantage of all. 
       An increase in the availability of scarce resources necessitates shifts in the relative distribution of labor among industries, as well. Labor is not a homogeneous glob; there are different types and degrees of labor skills, just as there are different types of capital goods and consumer goods. The arrival of new workers through the process of immigration means that in particular lines of employment, the increased labor supply will put downward pressure on some wages. To remain employed in their present occupation, established workers would have to accept a lower rate of remuneration. If they find this unacceptable, then they may have to shift into other lines of work. While this job shift takes place, wages in the industries into which they shift may be lowered, as well. This, in turn, may mean that existing workers in these other industries have to accept lower wages. 
       But regardless of the particular types of changes and ramifications an increase in the labor force brings about, the general long-run outcome will reflect itself in greater output and, through an intensification of the division of labor, a widening of choices and opportunities for all individuals, both as consumers and producers. 
       The expansion of rigidities through government-bestowed privilege and monopoly conflicts by its very nature with the free flow of men and material. To the extent that the protection of particular groups becomes the goal of the state, restriction on the potential competition of newcomers must be imposed and enforced. 
       In the libertarian society, national borders—to the extent that governments may still exist—would merely be administrative boundaries designating areas of responsibility for the protection of life and property. In the interventionist state, boundaries become lines of demarcation designating respective areas of privilege and power. As Wilhelm Röpke vividly expressed it, in the present era of nationalism and interventionism, “national frontiers have been changed into barbed wire fences.” 
       When the welfare and employment of specially privileged groups becomes the duty of the state, protectionist quotas and tariff walls are soon joined by barriers to immigration. The arguments often used to support immigration controls easily bear this out. It is often said that if there were unrestricted immigration, welfare rolls would climb, neighborhoods would no longer maintain their present identities and qualities, and jobs would be stolen from American labor. 
       The fear of a swarm of immigrant welfare addicts is the logical terror of those who either operate or live off the dole. A crushing load of additional welfare recipients could easily arouse the wrath of the taxpayers and bring about the end of the welfare system. This is the logical fear of those who envisage the collapse of an economic privilege if too many other people should clamor for the same benefits. In fact, historically, the immigrant has usually been a young, hard-working individual who has requested nothing more than a chance to make his own way. For example, in a recent investigation of 9,132 welfare cases in San Diego County, only ten illegal immigrants were found on the rolls. 
       Neither neighborhoods nor their qualities can be eternally preserved. Values, preferences and personalities all change over time. Some land and property values grow and others decline, but regardless of which it is, this is the natural result of the free choices of acting individuals. It is as illusory to think that cities and neighborhoods can be frozen and maintained in their present form as it would have been to try to prevent natural forces turning bustling Western boomtowns into decaying ghost towns. Those who attempt to use immigration barriers and other methods to resist change are not only fighting against the future, but the present, as well. 
       The fears of labor unions that a flood of immigrants will cause economic misery and mass unemployment is totally illusory, as well. In a country such as the United States, more hands will almost always tend to mean more production and prosperity. Unemployment follows in the wake of an increased labor force only if rigidity and privilege prevent the changes in relative prices, wages, and employment that must occur if the benefits of immigration are to be reaped. 
       The most detrimental consequence of immigration barriers, it should always be remembered, is the personal tragedy, the economic misery, and political despair of those who find themselves locked into oppressive societies with no chance of escape. Wilhelm Röpke has suggested: 
Modern nationalism and collectivism have, by the restriction of migration, perhaps come nearest to the “servile state.” . . . Man can hardly be reduced more to a mere wheel in the clockwork of the national collectivist state than by being deprived of his freedom to move....Feeling that he belongs now to his nation, body and soul, he will be more easily subdued to the obedient state serf which nationalist and collectivist governments demand. 
       We can only hope that Röpke’s deep pessimism is ill-founded, that the spirit of freedom will never be extinguished, no matter how confining and all-encompassing the power of the nation-state. But how much more glorious if the motto on the Statue of Liberty once again embodied truth, rather than hypocrisy, and America once again said to every nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Chapter 15
Table of Contents