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Migration and Liberalism

Lesedauer: 8 Minuten
Robert Nef, Liberales Institute, robertnef@libinst.ch

Lecture, European Liberal Youth (LYMEC) Congress, April 7th 2006, Winterthur

There ain’t no such thing as a classical liberal response to the question, «Are you in favour of free immigration?»

Let me start with the famous answer given by Monsieur de Gournay, son of a merchant in 18th century France. When asked, what the government should do to promote merchants, he replied, «Laissez faire, et laissez passer», let people work as they please and go where they want.

The quotation forms the basis of what is known as laisser faire liberalism, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the reference to «laisser passer» is no longer quoted: Immigration is no more popular today than it was in feudal times when kings were interested in having more subjects and more soldiers—the more the better.

Monsieur Gournay offered the classical liberal answer.

I remember Milton Friedman’s answer in a televised interview at the ISIL Congress in Costa Rica in 2002.

Question: «Professor Friedman, are you in favour of free immigration?»

Answer: «Yes, I am in favour. But you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.»

While this maybe a good answer, it solves neither the problem of illegal immigration nor the problem of an orderly retreat from the welfare state. It serves as an excellent excuse for classical liberals and libertarians when they struggle to find the right solutions to the problems of free immigration. It is no surprise that the welfare state in Europe is unsustainable and is in trouble. However, it cannot be dismantled overnight. Neither can we wait for a solution to the problem of immigration, especially illegal immigration, until we have solved the problems of the welfare state.

While I have no solution to offer, I will present three approaches, which, though different, nevertheless qualify as liberal.

Wikipedia defines open immigration as follows: «Free migration or open immigration is the belief that people should be able to migrate to whatever country they choose, free of substantial barriers. Although the two are not the same issue, free immigration is similar in spirit to the concept of free trade, and both are advocated by free market economists on the grounds that free markets are the best way to create a more productive economic system, thereby increasing the overall economic benefits to all concerned parties. Paradoxically, many libertarians, socialists and anarchists advocate open immigration, notwithstanding other noteworthy differences among these three political ideologies.»

Immigration – even illegal immigration – has its positive aspects.

Recent bills to reform U.S. immigration laws, especially the controversial bill passed by the House of Representatives last December, fail to recognize the enormous positive contributions of undocumented workers to America’s economy. «Even the more progressive McCain-Kennedy immigration bill that the Senate Judiciary Committee passed last week – which would permit about 400,000 new guest workers each year and provide a path leading to permanent residency after six years – falls short», according to Benjamin Powell, director of the Independent Institute’s Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation.

«Why allow only 400,000 guest workers per year?” asks Powell in his latest op-ed. «Since they are good for the economy, shouldn’t we welcome as many as employers are willing to hire?”

Powell also argues that proposed guest-worker programmes should «keep administrative burdens on employers to a minimum and must allow workers the flexibility to easily change jobs in our constantly evolving economy.»

To continue with Wikipedia: «Arguments against free immigration are similar to arguments against free trade, for example, protectionism what critics claim to be xenophobia. Specifically, an influx of cheap labour could easily deflate wages for workers who are already established in a particular labour market, and (at least in the short term) have a negative impact on the standard of living for the more established workers. Other critics of free immigration are concerned that it would be unfair to current homeowners if an influx of new residents greatly brought down the property values and attractiveness of living in that location, or, alternatively, increased the demand to live in the city so much that the homeowner would not be able to keep up with increased taxes from higher property values. However, free market economists believe that competition is the essence of a healthy economic system, and that any short-term negative impact on individual economic actors that is caused by free immigration is more than justified by the prospects of long-term growth for the economy as a whole.»

Is open immigration compatible with the principles of the classical liberal society?

This society builds on the self-determination of the people, not political organisations. Both contractually and compatibly these self-determined people must be able to formulate and agree on the rules necessary for co-existence and constantly adapt them to new situations.

It builds on a large number of small, non-central, competing and cooperating units, not central political control. In millions of small and micro experiments, people must learn together through trial, error and interaction.

It builds on diversity, not egalitarianism. Civil society is nothing other than peaceful coexistence, cooperation, occasional confrontation and frequent confusion between different people.

It builds on flexible roles and life patterns. In the «school of life» there are no fixed roles for instructors and learners. Everybody alternates between being a teacher and a pupil. The fundamental principle is mutual consideration and respect for human dignity.

It builds on transparency and communication. «Cribbing» is not only permissible, it is encouraged. Success is to be copied and expanded, mistakes are to be avoided or at least reduced.

It builds on self-reliance and own-responsibility. Anyone who plays truant from the «school of life» and the «school of the market» must bear the blame and the consequences.

This manifesto is not just the quintessence of a dogmatic neoliberal ideology. In an intensely networked world based upon the division of labour, it actually has a chance of medium- to long-term success. The decisive question is not «What is socially just?», but «What works?», — after all, something that does not work cannot be just.

Does free immigration work?

I will try to describe three liberal approaches to immigration and use names for the different models.

First, the «Gournay model»

Laisser faire, laisser passer, without any restrictions. It only works within a non- welfare-state framework that does not offer any benefits not financed by the immigrants themselves.

Second, the «Mises model»

The classical liberal Ludwig von Mises (an Austrian economist who emigrated to the USA in 1940) was in favour of free immigration. Of course he was also aware that while a nation state offers several benefits to its people, these benefits cannot be offered for free to all immigrants. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In other words, citizens have the right to fix a price for membership of the club called a nation state. All those willing to pay the price must be accepted without discrimination.

This system is based on the notion that the state is an institution open to those prepared to pay the entrance fee or those who find a person or an institution who is ready to pay an advance.

The model may not be the practice in Switzerland as a whole, but some small jurisdictions in some Swiss cantons have systems that approach it.

The Swiss system of citizenship is based on local, cantonal and national citizenship, local citizenship being the most important and the most difficult to obtain. However, if the immigrant is ready to pay the price, the process can be much easier, at least in some smaller mountain communities.

Third, the «Röpke model». Röpke was a German economist who was forced to emigrate to Switzerland because of his opposition to Hitler.

The model is based on a completely different philosophy of citizenship.

Röpke believed that the political community is a corporation of free individuals. One of the most fundamental rights is the right to determine who is to be granted club membership. In fact, to obtain citizenship and even the right to immigrate depends on being elected as a new member of the community. This approach is not unlike the Swiss solution. At the local level in some cantons people are asked in an open election whether they are ready to accept a person as a new citizen. They have the right to vote against the motion without any arguments.

The Swiss Supreme Court recently rejected this radically democratic approach and several smaller communities have been compelled to change their rules and regulations.

While it is true that immigration to Switzerland, which can be temporary, is subject to less stringent rules that the acquisition of citizenship, the two issues are closely interwoven. An exception is the asylum law for political refugees whose lives are under threat in their countries of origin. Drawing a distinction between economic migrants and political refugees in Switzerland repeatedly poses awkward questions regarding the procedure to be followed and always leads to problematic individual cases.

Immigration and the minority question

A country can benefit greatly from minorities that share the language and mentality of neighbouring states and important trading partners. For the majority population the protection of minorities is a necessary price to pay, in compliance with international law. The obsession with the expenditure has prevented us from realizing the full potential of the minority issue when risk-minimisation makes way for opportunity-maximisation. In an open society, diversity is an opportunity and not a handicap.

Minorities should not fear heterogeneity and overlapping identities. Immigrants often fall victim to the ideal of ethnic purity and consequently may adopt this principle themselves in their dealings with the outside world. Albeit understandable, this is hardly the best survival strategy. Minorities would be better advised to adopt and adhere to the following motto: «If I want to be accepted by the majority, I should bring some benefits. I will then be respected not because of my cultural status but because of the benefits I have to offer.»

Over-protecting immigrant minorities «from above» or «from outside» can stifle the growth of a minority-friendly environment. The best way of dealing with immigrants lies in the principle, «I am accepting you because you bring me a net benefit even though you are different». However, a principle like this cannot be translated into practice through compulsion or subsidies. On the contrary, such measures may be counterproductive, as they may exacerbate the existing tension and the propensity for aggression.

Assistance for minorities offered by the central authorities may not only anger the majority (envy), but can also hamper the minority in its efforts to stand on its own feet. If one walks on crutches for too long, one eventually forgets how to walk without them. Minorities should not be discriminated against or persecuted. By the same token, however, they should not be seen as people in need of social assistance in their efforts to survive. If this kind of minority protection based on «enlightened self-interest» is not artificially supported «from above» or «from outside», there must be a mechanism of highlighting the beneficial contributions of minorities. Initially it may appear naive to purport that such a mechanism may arise spontaneously of its own accord.

The mechanism most suited for underlining the advantages of diversity and heterogeneity is the mechanism of competition — the peaceful competition of systems and countries.

At first it may appear that homogeneity, ethnic purity and centralisation are more successful in economic terms. However, in the vast majority of cases, this assertion,, cannot stand up to the test of history. Particularly now, in the modern age of globalisation, the benefits of diversity, ethnic impurity, overlapping systems and non-centrality will become more apparent. Heterogeneous societies will make rapid progress and put this to good use. Countries that have undergone such experiences could share them with others. However, in the name of ongoing diversity, they should not aspire to serve as permanent and universal examples.

Each minority problem and each group of immigrants is a special case. Examples from other parts of the world may be helpful, but all the minorities and majorities in actual conflicts must find their own way to peaceful coexistence, through peaceful competition, cooperation and sharing the profits of good business. We cannot expect animosity between different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups to be transformed into sympathy in a matter of a generation or two.

If different groups compete and cooperate in free markets, and if they have to solve their political problems through plebiscite they soon discover that peace is the most successful and profitable strategy. It is possible for different groups to conduct successful business together with a minimum of national solidarity. Open markets do not create common emotions but they do foster peace, loyalty and fairness.

The Swiss experiment shows that people can live together in the same nation state quite successfully without extensive networks of mutual sympathy and without national patriotism that runs deep in all.

Classical liberals see immigration as an opportunity and not a burden.

However, we should be honest enough to admit that every community has the right to define membership. When immigration leads to a selection of people who are ready to do the dirty work, it impacts negatively on the social structure of a country. Switzerland was successful in the nineteenth century because it encouraged the immigration of elites.

To limit immigration and allow new citizens to be selected as new members of a club on the basis of enlightened self-interest is not illiberal.

If a country allows in immigrants whose chances of integration are virtually non-existent, it solves one problem by creating a new one. It is better to say ‘no’ at the border, than to discriminate against immigrants inside the country.

A liberal immigration policy must therefore always try to combine the following divergent principles:

  1. Gournays «Laisser passer» concept;
  2. Mises’ pricing concept;
  3. Röpkes «membership by consent» concept.
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