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The Case for Unilateral Free Trade and Open Immigration

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The American people are extremely fortunate. Two hundred years ago, their Founding Fathers used the Constitution to prohibit American government officials from ever enacting trade and immigration restrictions between the respective states of the Union. This meant that the citizens of any state could buy and sell goods and services with the citizens of any other state, without tariffs or import restrictions. It also meant that citizens of one state could travel or move to another state without permission, passport, or other restriction.

Most American politicians and bureaucrats today honestly believe that free trade and open immigration are harmful to a society. Therefore, if today’s government officials were not prohibited by the Constitution from enacting trade and immigration controls between the respective states, life in the United States would be dramatically different. Each state would enact a host of import restrictions, tariffs, and immigration controls to protect the citizenry from “foreigners” and “foreign goods” from other parts of the country.

For example, the state of Georgia would impose import quotas on goods from Florida. Why? Because there is a trade imbalance between the two states — that is, Georgians are purchasing more from Floridians than Floridians are purchasing from Georgians. There would be trade negotiations and trade summits between the governors of the two states, as they tried to negotiate the trade imbalance between their respective states. If the negotiations failed, a trade war between Georgia and Florida would ensue.

Another example, the state of Texas would impose strict immigration controls restricting the immigration into Texas of those weird New Yorkers. After all, there is a high unemployment rate in Texas and, therefore, the Texas economy could not absorb an additional inflow of people. Moreover, an influx of New Yorkers would cause wages in Texas to drop — and the New Yorkers emigrating to Texas would take jobs away from Texans.

Kansas would impose immigration controls on California, because the latter has a much higher incidence of AIDS cases. “We can’t permit free immigration from California,” the Kansas officials would say, “because we might get inundated by AIDS patients.

Fortunately, due to the wisdom and foresight of Americans two hundred years ago, these types of restrictions cannot be imposed by American politicians and bureaucrats today. And make no mistake about it — the only reason they are not imposed is because the Constitution does now allow their imposition. Without these constitutional restrictions, American politicians and bureaucrats, being firmly committed to the idea of trade and immigration controls — and being so subject to the pressures, influences, and financial contributions of special-interest groups — and believing that trade and immigration restrictions are the key to economic prosperity — would riddle American society with them.

It is impossible to overstate the importance and benefits Americans have in living in what is the largest free-trade and free-immigration zone in the world. We travel across state boundaries and never see a customs or immigration official. In fact, the usual way we know we are in a different state is that we see a road sign that says: “Welcome to the state of . . . .” We buy and sell goods across state lines without ever concerning ourselves with whether we are violating some type of tariff or import or export control — or with whether we are alleviating or aggravating some trade imbalance with another state.

And it is this principle — the principle of free trade and open immigration within the fifty states — that is one of the major reasons that the American people have — and have had — the highest standard of living in history.

For standards of living of people can rise through the mere act of exchange!

For example, suppose you have ten apples and I have ten oranges. I value one of your oranges more than my tenth apple; and you value one of my apples more than your tenth orange. We trade — one apple for one orange. Our standard of living has improved — through the mere act of exchange! Thus, the more people are free to trade, the higher the standards of living tend to be.

And the same principle applies internationally — when people are free to trade and travel — whether it is with people of another state, another city, or another nation — they are able to improve their standards of living.

Then, why have American government officials (despite their apparent devotion to freedom) imposed a strangulating set of import restrictions and tariffs on the goods and services coming into the U.S.? And why have they tightly restricted the flow of people traveling or moving to the U.S.?

The reason lies in politics and special-interest groups.

Consider the following example. Suppose a Toyota is priced at $15,000. A Chevrolet Impala, let us say, sells for the same price. You, as a consumer, decide that you like the quality of the Toyota better. You decide to buy the Toyota.

General Motors screams to the U.S. government: “Force Mary to buy from General Motors.” Union workers chime in: “Mary’s purchase of a Toyota will take our jobs away.” Government officials bow under the pressure. They do not force Mary to buy the Impala. But they say to Mary: “If you buy the Toyota, you pay $15,000 to Toyota and a $5,000 tariff (tax) to the U.S. government.” If Mary buys the Chevrolet, her standard of living — from her perspective — is not as high as it could have been. If she buys the Toyota, the government has, in effect, legally stolen the sum of $5,000 from her; and her standard of living has dropped by $5,000.

The worst part of it is that the people who pay the biggest price for tariffs and import restrictions are the poor, because these taxes are regressive — that is, their weight falls disproportionately greater on poor people. In other words, the same government that professes to have such a big concern for the poor with its welfare state, impoverishes the poor through trade restrictions for the sake of wealthy special-interest groups.

Consider immigration controls. There are good and honorable people from the Republic of Mexico today sitting in American penitentiaries along the Mexican border. Their crime? Trying to enter into a trade with an American — a trade by which both of their standards of living would be improved. The Mexican wants to work, and an American wants to hire him. But the same government that “loves” the poor with its welfare state, slams the jailhouse door on the poor who have committed the heinous American crime of trying to improve their lives through labor.

Consider the Haitian people. Using its political and military power to control international trade, the U.S. government has imposed a trade embargo on the Haitian people — using force to prevent goods and services from reaching Haiti, which, in turn, has caused death and destitution from starvation. Then, when the Haitian people attempt to survive by trying to escape to the U.S., American government officials capture them and forcibly return them to the death and destitution that awaits them. In other words, despite its supposed devotion to the poor through the welfare state, the U.S. government, through its powers over trade and immigration, condemns thousands of the poorest people in the world to death and destitution.

The ultimate argument against trade and immigration controls, however, lies not in economic terms — that is, that free trade and open immigration result in higher standards of living. The real argument lies in moral principles. A person has the right to do what he wants with his own money. He has a right to buy anything he wishes from whoever wishes to sell to him. He has a right to sell what belongs to him to whoever wishes to buy it. He has a right to employ anyone he wishes, so long as the employee wants to work there. He has a right to work for anyone, so long as the employer wants him to work there. Individuals have a right to travel and trade — whether domestically or internationally — without interference from government officials.

What should be the trade and immigration policy of the United States — and, for that matter, all other nations? To unilaterally drop — without negotiations, agreements, or treaties — all trade and immigration controls. This would mean that Americans, upon returning from an overseas trip, would return to the U.S. in the same way they return to Dallas from San Francisco — without ever waiting in a line to see a customs or immigration official. It would also mean that people all over the world could simply get on a plane and travel to Minneapolis or New York or Memphis, also without ever having to see a customs or immigration official. It would mean that businessmen all over the world could buy from Americans and sell to Americans the same way that Texans buy from and sell to Virginians.

What is the response of the “controllers” to a world of free trade and open immigration?

“They’ll go on welfare.” Well, one solution is to end the dole for everyone, including Americans. Alternatively, immigrants are not citizens; therefore, there is no requirement that they be permitted to be on the dole. Thus, if “no dole” was an express condition of immigration, immigrants who would come to the U.S. would be the types we want — people who like to take risks, work hard, and be self-reliant and independent — energizing qualities that every society should cherish.

“They’ll enter our public schools.” Then, prohibit them from doing so. The result would be that they will form their own private, independent schools — and, consequently, provide the nucleus of a new type of person in America: an independent thinker who loves knowledge for its own sake, unlike the public-school student, who simply learns how to memorize and obey.

“They’ll take jobs away from Americans.” Every American who works today does so under the assumption that he can be replaced with a worker who has moved from another state. All that open immigration would do is open the market even more. But with one big benefit — the new spending by immigrants would open up a wealth of new employment opportunities in the businesses that would have to open or expand to meet the new economic demands.

“They’ll dump their products on Americans.” Then, retaliate by dumping your products on Americans or on foreigners — consumers will love it! More important, when a person opens a business, he does so under certain risks. One of these risks is that someone else might satisfy the consumers better than other sellers — and that this might happen through low prices or even free goods being given to consumers. If a businessman does not want to take that risk, then he should not go into business.

“They’ll get their governments to subsidize their reduced goods.” Again, this is a risk that exists in the business world, even domestically. Unfortunately, we live in a world in which people permit their governments to plunder them in order to give a dole to others, including businessmen. No one forces someone to open a business. If a person does not want to take the risk of a government giving a competitor a dole, then there is a simple solution: do not open the business.

“Millions of people will immediately move to the United States.” Perhaps. But we must first keep in mind that U.S. government import restrictions create miserable economic conditions in many countries that encourage people to want to emigrate. Once those restrictions are lifted, there is a probability that with the increased economic prosperity in foreign countries, many would-be emigrants would choose to stay at home among friends and family. But if millions did come, great! History has shown that cheap labor, like cheap goods, is a tremendous economic boon to the people of a society. Give us your tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free — and watch economic prosperity here soar!

Trade restrictions and immigration restrictions are one of the most abominable features of American society today. They have brought impoverishment to millions of poor people — both domestic and foreign. And they violate one of the most fundamental precepts of a free society — the right to do what you want with your money and your life. The times call for leadership — and the American people should lead the world by forcing their government officials to unilaterally lift all trade and immigration controls — and, ultimately, by constitutionally prohibiting American government officials from ever imposing them again.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.