A cheap excuse for opposing open borders

Gary Becker’s argument that immigrants should pay £30,000 to enter Britain puts the free market ahead of free movement.

Patrick Hayes

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This article is republished from the April 2011 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

‘No one has the right to pursue his self-interest by law or by force… You want to forbid immigration on the grounds that it lowers your standard of living – which isn’t true, though if it were true, you’d still have no right to close the borders… How could I advocate restricting immigration when I wouldn’t be alive today if our borders had been closed?’

It may come as a surprise that this principled defence of open borders comes from none other than philosopher Ayn Rand, one of the most ardent advocates of free-market capitalism (1). Rand, so wholly despised by the liberal left that Noam Chomsky called her ‘one of the most evil figures in modern intellectual history’, made her case for open borders on the grounds that the state should have no right to interfere in people’s free movement and that the free movement of labour is a benefit to society.

While he’s sympathetic to such a ‘libertarian’ approach, 1992 Nobel Prize winner and freakonomics forefather Gary Becker – whose free-market views mean he has inherited Rand’s accolade of being one of the most reviled figures among the left – no longer thinks such an approach to immigration is possible. The world, he argues in The Challenge of Immigration: A Radical Solution, is ‘very different now from the way it was at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century’.

Becker’s principal objection to open borders is pragmatic: the welfare state is now just too big and enticing. It is, he argues, ‘human nature – responding to incentives – to move to a country and get a lot of benefits, such as welfare benefits’. He believes that a ‘significant fraction’ would take advantage of an open-borders policy to scrounge off the state. ‘The welfare state’, he concludes, ‘makes it very unattractive to go back to the immigration policies that the USA had in the late nineteenth century’.

Becker is not alone in taking this approach. As Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs points out in the introduction to The Challenge of Immigration, ‘It is frequently the case that those who are well disposed towards a market economy and the free movement of capital are not in favour of free – or even freer – immigration.’

Booth cites fear of ‘cultural change’, the burgeoning welfare state, and the pressure migration would exert on an already inflated housing market, as reasons why free marketeers increasingly don’t see it as being in their interests to extend their principles to free movement. It is in this vein that Becker proposes what he calls the ‘radical solution’ of using the price mechanism as a form of immigration control. The logic is simple: charge people £30,000 for a permit to live in the country. Other than terrorists and known felons, the government should let anyone in who can afford to stump up the cash.

The beauty of this, for Becker, is that it allows what he calls the ‘better’ type of immigrants to come in. These fall into three categories: skilled, young and committed immigrants. Skilled workers would come as they would earn more than they would at home and could pay back the charge quickly; the young would enter because in the long run they’d benefit from welfare; and the committed would pay up because they would genuinely want to become a part of the country they’re moving to.

Becker points out that charging immigrants to come into the country unburdens the state of the responsibility for trying to determine who ought to be allowed to enter. Instead, the immigration price tag naturally sorts out the wheat from the chaff. This would also help swell the state’s coffers. If, having sorted the wealthy wheat from the impoverished chaff, demand was still too high, the price could simply be raised until the numbers applying reached a manageable level.

A win-win situation – what’s not to like?

Well, three things in particular. Firstly, be it for narrow economic reasons or for social reasons, why should any entity – the state or, in this case, the market – have the right to decide who can or cannot enter a country just because they happen to be born somewhere else?

Furthermore, while Becker clearly doesn’t trust the state to decide which immigrants can come in, he still wants it to enforce his proposed approach. His ‘free market’ proposal is not about allowing the free flow of labour. It’s about using free-market principles to put controls on immigration and to use the price mechanism as a state-enforced reason to keep out unsavoury, poverty-stricken types.

The greatest problem with Becker’s approach, however, is the basis of his pragmatism: that is, the rise of the welfare state has made an open-borders approach unfeasible. It doesn’t seem to occur to Becker that, if the welfare state is the obstacle that it seems to be, perhaps he should choose to tackle that head on instead. But due perhaps to his patronising, deterministic view that it’s ‘human nature’ to respond to welfare incentives, like dogs to dog biscuits, Becker evidently has no faith in the idea that a public debate could be won about welfare reforms.

Far from being ‘radical’, what remains, then, is a fudged compromise: state-enforced controls on free movement that use free-market principles to decide who does and doesn’t get in. A £30,000 tariff may mean that a type of person to Becker’s liking enters the country, but for the vast majority of potential immigrants such a tariff would mean they were locked out for good.

A truly radical solution to the challenge of immigration doesn’t involve tinkering around with border-control policies out of a misplaced sense of realism. It involves trying to win the debate for unfettered free movement for all.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

This article is republished from the April 2011 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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