Bryan Caplan offers this challenge liberaltarians:

From what philosophic point of view is “maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + the immigration restrictions lots of domestic redistribution naturally encourage” better than “maximizing growth + no redistribution + free immigration”?  Whether you’re concern for the poor is Rawlsian, utilitarian, or even dogmatically egalitarian, “no redistribution + free immigration” is the way to go.

I consider myself a liberaltarian, so I’ll take up Bryan’s challenge.

I think the key disagreement here is that I don’t think redistribution policies are actually a binding constraint on immigration. Specifically, I disagree with Bryan’s presumption that domestic distribution actually encourages that much of a restriction on immigration, or at least that the immigration restrictions we have would go away or significantly loosen if we suddenly abandoned all redistribution policies.

This is because people would oppose immigration pretty much regardless of how much or how little immigrants benefitted from welfare and redistribution policies. How do I know this? Well, because Bryan Caplan told me so. In his excellent book The Myth Of The Voter Bryan identified the anti-foreign bias, which is a “tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners”. No amount of minimal government is going to do away with this bias, and I don’t think it will help reduce it much on the margin either.

You know why else I think more immigration is consistent with welfare policies? Because Bryan Caplan told me so. In the slides to the presentation he gave on immigration for the Future of Freedom foundation, Bryan specifically counters the Milton Friedman’s claim that “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” Here is his rebuttal to Friedman:

  • Was he right?  Key fact about the U.S. welfare state: Most of the money goes to the old, not the poor.  New immigrants tend to be young.
  • Julian Simon and others calculate that the average immigrant is a net tax-payer.
  • – Absurd?  Remember – much gov’t spending is non-rival.  Immigrants help spread the cost of national defense, debt service, etc.
  • – Further result: Illegal immigrants are a great deal for taxpayers.  People who pay taxes on fake SS#s are pure profit for the Treasury.
  • – Others aren’t as optimistic as Simon, but almost no serious researcher finds a big negative fiscal effect of immigration.
  • Even if the complaint were true, there’s clearly a much cheaper and more humane alternative: Freely admit immigrants, but make them ineligible for benefits.

So Bryan is right and immigrants are net tax payers and they help spread the costs of national defense around, then more immigrants should make our welfare state that much easier to maintain.

If an anti-foreign bias prevents people from seeing that current immigrants provide us with net economic benefits even with our welfare policies, then it would seem foolish to abolish those welfare policies on the hopes that it will somehow convince people to suddenly abandon the anti-foreign bias that prevents them from seeing that they don’t matter in the first place.

So Bryan’s challenge to liberaltarians is not so tough, especially when you have Bryan on your side backing up your arguments.