Mass immigration is always justified to Americans in economic terms, but it is an open secret that the support for current policy in the technical literature is non-existent. Partly this is an empirical issue: lower-skilled immigrants just don't produce that much—a discovery associated with Harvard University economist George Borjas. But partly it's a question of thinking through the matter more carefully. As Milton Friedman told me in a December 27, 1997 Forbes interview:It's just obvious that you can't have free immigration and a welfare state." Click here to see him breaking the news to a collection of libertarian loonies last year.
Now another Nobel laureate economist has recognized the same reality. In his most recent Business Week column (October 23, 2000), Gary S. Becker says "under current conditions [i.e., the perverse incentives produced by the welfare state] the U.S. should not allow unlimited immigration from Mexico or anywhere else."
Milton Friedman is a tough guy; Gary Becker is not. When Leslie Spencer and I interviewed him for our February 15, 1993, Forbes cover story estimating the costs of affirmative action—STILL THE ONLY ESTIMATE EXTANT, incidentally, thanks to the cowardice of American academe—he actually declined to give his opinion of the policy, although it is condemned by the whole thrust of his work. So we gave him a good boot. Similarly, his Business Week column is full of politically-correct whistling past the graveyard.
But still, he's made the point: the existence of the welfare state makes this Great Wave of immigration a completely different proposition from the previous 1890-1920 Great Wave.
And Becker, like Friedman in the discussion linked above, also deals with the libertarian loonies' knee-jerk comeback—"let's just abolish welfare for immigrants!" (No-one could be so impractical? These are people who seriously debate whether traffic lights are unacceptable government coercion.) Both economists rightly doubt that Congress would have the backbone to maintain such a distinction. Friedman gently questions whether the resulting two-tier society is really compatible with liberal ideals.
Actually, there are other obvious reasons why immigrants can't be cut off from the welfare state:
America's post-1965 immigration disaster cannot be retrieved by half-measures - nor by waiting three centuries for Mexico to develop, as Becker wimpishly wonders. There is no answer but an immigration moratorium. That can upset only those to whom immigration is, mysteriously, an end in itself.
October 23, 2000