Milton Friedman, Immigration, and Birth Control

Milton Friedman, perhaps the most important free market economist and libertarian activist of the 20th century, is also the favorite of immigration restrictionists for comments he made about the supposed incompatibility of immigration and the welfare state. “There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state,” he wrote in a letter from Milton Friedman to Henryk Kowalczyk. “[B]ut in a welfare state, it is a different story.”

The gist of Friedman’s argument is that, because America has embraced the welfare state, the government must expand its power further still to limit the negative impact of welfarism. But if conservatives and libertarians accept this premise, they unintentionally endorse the actions of such nanny state regulators as NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. After all, as argued here, one could justify Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas, limits on trans fats, and other such restrictive measures in the name of reducing health care costs and decreasing the burden of Medicare and Medicaid on taxpayers. Similarly, President Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services justified its requirement that businesses pay for contraceptives by highlighting the burden unwanted pregnancies impose on the health care system. “It saves money—for families, for businesses, for government, for everyone,” President Obama argued.

It’s hard to imagine Michael Blomberg saying, à la Milton Friedman, that “There is no doubt that letting consumers choose their own diets is the right policy in a world without Medicare and Medicaid.” And, to be sure, the two scenarios are not perfect analogues. But the basic underlying rationale is the same.

J.S. Mill warned of this outgrowth of the welfare state in the 19th century when he wrote that, “With paternal care is connected paternal authority.” Welfare state obligations have, he said, “never existed, and never will exist, without, as a countervailing element, absolute power, or something approaching to it, in those who are bound to afford this support, over those entitled to receive.” As Mill feared, the welfare state threatens the classical liberal order not just because it wastes money and breeds dependency, but because it is ultimately used to justify ever greater intrusions into our lives.

The conclusion of the matter is this: if libertarians and conservatives actually want smaller government, we cannot use big government to justify even bigger government. We cannot fall into the trap of believing that actions taken to prop up previous untenable interventions will actually result in a smaller state. Rather, we should adopt the attitude of John Locke, which sees an expansive welfare state as “a shame to the government and a fault in our constitution that must be remedied,” but not as an excuse for even greater governmental power.