It’s difficult to be around discussions involving immigration policy for very long without hearing the famous quote in 1999 from Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman: “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” And many, if not most people assume that Friedman was indifferent as to which side of the issue should have priority in remediation. Not so, as we are reminded by an essay of fifteen years ago by Robert Rector, Senior Research Fellow of the Heritage Foundation. In fact, as with most libertarians like himself, Friedman was an open-border advocate. Where he wanted drastic change was with the welfare state, not merely means-tested programs, but the entire redistributive transfer state, which at the time Rector wrote was transferring $1.5 trillion in economic resources to lower-income groups through a vast variety of benefits and subsidies, a number which I’m sure has grown considerably since then.
Friedman recognized that this arrangement greatly incentivized new beneficiaries for government transfers and new voters likely to support even greater transfers, and with it an active redistributionist state threatening limited government. His only remedy at the time, as with other active libertarian groups such as the Cato Institute, was to “build a wall around the welfare state, not the nation”, but in no instance have I heard any serious proposals from lawmakers to do this. All we get from both sides are headlines that are political posturing. There are some things that Congress could be doing to temporarily ease the problem, like fix some loopholes in asylum law, if they were really interested in something substantive beyond a campaign issue. What President Trump did was working, but it was not the final solution. At some point we need to prove Milton Friedman either right or wrong, and as Jason Riley has recently noted, today’s progressives are eager to see what happens when a large welfare state opens its borders. That’s a very dangerous experiment, but it’s now Mr. Biden’s crisis–he has opened the gates.