John Locke’s Response to Heritage: Don’t Blame Immigrants for Fiscal Problems

Washington’s largest conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, has released a study that suggests legalization for illegal immigrants will cost taxpayers trillions of dollars over the next five decades. On this point, conservatives should consider the insights of the father of limited government, the English philosopher John Locke, and his response to a comparable immigration crisis in the 17th century.

In 1685, Louis VIX of France revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights to French Protestants. The Huguenots, as they were known, flooded into England in search of religious protection. Bills were introduced to naturalize these immigrants in 1689, 1690, and 1693. Each bill was violently opposed by economic protectionists and Anglicans who opposed the inclusion of non-Anglicans.

If this sounds similar to the last few years of America’s immigration debate, it was. The pathway to full legal status for these Frenchmen was opposed much as it is for Hispanics today, and many English objected to increasing immigration. It took three failed “amnesty” efforts before John Locke decided to weigh into the debate. In 1693, he forcefully argued — on conservative premises — in favor of a more welcoming immigration policy.

In the resulting essay, “For a General Naturalisation,” Locke began with the basic premise that “people are the strength of any country or government.” He continued, “That most can be made where are most hands needs no proof… If we look into the reason of this, we shall not think it strange. The riches of the world do not lie as formerly in having large tracts of land, which supplied abundantly the native conveniences of eating and drinking… but in trade.”

Anticipating Say’s Law, John Locke understood immigrants do not take jobs because they support others with the things they produce. “You may therefore safely open your doors, and a freedom to them to settle here being secure of this advantage that you have the profit of all their labour, for by that they pay for what they eat and spend of yours,” he wrote.

Like the Heritage Foundation today, his objectors responded: “We shall not have artisans come over to be naturalized but idle people.” To which Locke replied, “Numbers of men, nay nobody, can transport himself into another country with hopes to live upon other men’s labor… they cannot expect a [handout] and therefore must depend only on what they bring with them, either their estates or industry, both which are equally profitable to the kingdom.”

But it is objected–and it is here that Locke’s reply becomes most pertinent to Heritage’s study (my response:  here)–that immigrants can expect a handout under the welfare state.

Another objection very apt to be made is that it will increase the number of the poor. If by poor are meant such as have nothing to maintain them but their hands, those who live by their labour are so far from being a burden that ‘tis to them chiefly we owe our riches. If by poor are meant such as want relief and being idle themselves live upon the labour of others; if there be any such poor amongst us already who are able to work and do not, ‘tis a shame to the government and a fault in our constitution and ought to be remedied, for whilst that is permitted we must ruin, whether we have many or few people.

Locke felt that no argument could be made against immigration based on public welfare, for if our country is intent on giving to those who need no assistance then we indeed “must ruin” with or without immigration. And this is what the Heritage numbers show, that we must reform entitlements, not start jettisoning population. If less population was the answer, Greece and Italy would have solved their fiscal problems long ago.

The conclusion that low-skilled workers—immigrants or not—can be banished without economic pain is, of course, erroneous. Moreover, the impliations of Heritage’s study — to banish the low-skilled and force out all unauthorized immigrants — does not address the problems it desribes. Conservatives must recommit themselves to fixing, as John Locke said, that great “shame to our government and fault in our constitution” that is the welfare state, rather than condemning the poor and seeking to have them removed. For it is to them “chiefly we owe our riches.”