Jim DeMint Gets Milton Friedman’s Immigration Views Wrong

Michael Hamilton is a libertarian writer living in Washington, D.C. His main interests are economics, immigration, and land-use policy.

Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint took to the pages of the Washington Post this morning to defend his institution’s latest report on immigration, in which the ludicrous claim that “amnesty” would cost taxpayers $6.3 trillion is made.

I’ll leave analysis of the study itself to others (and boy, are they really piling on), but I take exception to the very first sentence of DeMint’s op-ed:  ”The economist Milton Friedman warned that the United States cannot have open borders and an extensive welfare state.”

Every now and again a particular clip from a larger Milton Friedman speech is brought up, and this debate is rehashed in libertarian circles. In it, Friedman says, “it is one thing to have free immigration to jobs. It is another thing to have free immigration to welfare. And you cannot have both.” This is what DeMint is referencing, and he seems to think it supports either his general point of view or his immigration policy prescriptions. I believe that either is unlikely.

Within the same speech, Friedman makes an argument that put him at odds with both DeMint and the larger body of immigration work at Heritage.

Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as its illegal.

Friedman’s entire point here is that the conclusion he reaches, given that open borders are problematic for a welfare state, is not the more intuitive position taken by conservatives like DeMint. Instead, Friedman believes that Americans should celebrate immigration generally and illegal immigration specifically because it solves, at least to some extent, the problem of immigration and welfare.

Anyone with basic familiarity with Friedman’s ideas should know that open borders were his preferred policy, even if the welfare state caused him to temper that view. In fact, this exact issue was covered in great detail by many others. DeMint should have known better than to cite Milton Friedman when he would have clearly opposed Heritage’s immigration policy proposals.

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