Ask Americans if they believe in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and they will say yes. But ask if they believe people should be allowed to buy all the imported products they wish without tariffs or other restrictions, and they will say no. Ask if citizens of other countries should be free to move to the United States without having to get permission from the U.S. government, and — again — they will say no.
How can those positions be reconciled? After all, freedom means the right to take any action that does not entail the use of initiatory force (or fraud). That is the notion of freedom that inspired America’s revolutionary generation, and although that vision was not carried out with consistency, in many ways modern America measures up much worse.
Let’s look at free trade and free immigration from the perspective of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Under free trade, people living in different countries may buy and sell products and services as they wish. Buyers are not penalized with a special tax, a tariff, that only applies to imports. Sellers are not limited by quota to a prescribed number of units. Neither are sellers penalized for “dumping” if they charge “too low” a price in the eyes of the government or domestic competitors. The prices and quantities of imports and exports are left to the free decisions of buyers and sellers, which is to say, the marketplace. When a buyer in Country A and a seller in Country B strike a deal, no one else’s rights and freedom are infringed. True, if a buyer purchases an import, he may not buy a similar product from a domestic manufacturer. But that manufacturer is no less free under those circumstances. He has no right to guaranteed sales. He has a right only to offer his products and to deal with consenting buyers. His freedom under free trade is as complete as it could be. (A subsidy in the exporting nation, however objectionable, does not restrict the freedom of competitors in the importing nation.)
However, in a regime of trade restrictions, the would-be buyer of an import is less than free than he would otherwise be. His freedom to buy from whomever he wishes is blocked. He is forbidden to act on his best judgment with respect to the products he wants to acquire. That restriction is enacted as a favor to someone else. Thus, the buyer’s interests are forcibly sacrificed to the manufacturer who refuses to take his chances in the free market.
The advocates of trade restrictions, or protectionism, argue that the buying activities of individuals can harm others. A commercial frequently shown on television has a mother explaining to a child that his father lost his job in the apparel industry because people are buying imports. “Why do they buy that stuff?” the child asks. “I don’t know,” says the distraught mother as she packs the family’s belongings. It is possible that if enough people buy the imported version of a product, the workers making the domestic version could lose their jobs. (Although that is not what has happened in the apparel industry, where technology, not imports, has eliminated jobs.) But that is far from the end of the story, as the commercial implies. The buyers chose imports because they preferred the quality or price or both. If, for higher quality, they paid the same price as, or more than, what was charged for the domestic product, they have enhanced their standard of living. If they paid less, they had money left over, which also enhanced their standard of living. The extra money lets the buyers purchase other products or increase the savings available for investment in new products. Thus, the buyers of imports benefit not only themselves but others also. Who? Those who make the other products they buy with the money saved or those who will benefit from the new investment. Moreover, foreign sellers have acquired dollars, which they will use either to buy American-made products or to invest in the United States. (If they trade them on the world exchange market, the recipients will face the same alternatives.)
The upshot, then, is that those who buy imports may cause some people’s jobs to be eliminated, but they also cause other jobs to be created or to pay better. Why should government policy favor the apparel worker over, say, the software programmer?
The free movement of people also meets the test of individual liberty. There is nothing inherently coercive about a foreigner’s move to the United States. He pays for transportation. He rents or buys living quarters. He works for a consenting employer or starts his own business. Opponents of free immigration see three complications. First, they argue that immigrants take jobs from Americans or lower wages. Second, they say immigrants consume more in government services than they pay in taxes. Third, they argue that large numbers of immigrants harm everyone else through environmental degradation and crowdedness. Let’s take these in turn.
Regarding jobs, the truth is similar to what happens with foreign trade. Immigrants compete for jobs, and that competition may lower wages in selected occupations. But no one’s rights are violated by job competition. Further, immigrants create jobs by demanding products and services and by starting businesses. The number of jobs in a free economy is not fixed. There is no reason to fixate on the jobs lost and neglect the jobs gained.
Regarding consumption of government services, Julian Simon and others say that, in fact, immigrants pay more in taxes than they get in services. But even were that not so, the fault would not lie with the immigrants. It lies with the legislators who pass laws providing taxpayer largess to immigrants (and citizens). The simple answer is to stop providing that largess. Those who say that we cannot have free immigration as long as the welfare state exists miss the point. Free immigration will create pressure to cut back, and then eliminate, the welfare state. Its absurdity will be so palpable that people will change their minds about its legitimacy. On the other hand, postponing freedom until the welfare state disappears is self-defeating. How will we get rid of the welfare state if it is saved from its inevitable dislocations and contradictions?
Finally, regarding the environment: This is a variation of the overpopulation argument. It is not the addition of people that creates unhealthy conditions. It is the lack of property rights in resources. If resources are privately owned, entrepreneurs and inventors will have a strong incentive to find the technological solutions to pollution problems. Even the fear of crowdedness through immigration is unfounded. The United States is less densely populated than other industrialized countries. There’s plenty of room. The densely populated countries of the West are very wealthy. Western Europe is more densely populated than Africa, Latin America, and China. There is no connection between crowdedness (a highly subjective matter; people often pay a premium to live in densely populated areas) and poverty.
Free trade and free immigration are terms that identify two aspects of personal freedom. Someone who is free need not have permission from the government to buy and sell from any consenting person in the world, and he need not have permission from government to move to another region of the world. The people who say they believe in freedom but who reject free trade and free immigration mistakenly believe that those freedoms are not entailed in the general notion of freedom and that they would violate the freedom of others. We have shown that those arguments are in error.
Freedom is indivisible because the lives of human beings are, in an important sense, indivisible. To live well, a person must be able to plan and act with reference to all aspects of his life throughout his life span. The world is open-ended; one cannot know exactly what one will know tomorrow. Part of the value of freedom is that it gives people the flexibility to grapple with uncertainty. If the government interferes with decisions about from whom one buys products or where one moves, it interferes fundamentally with how people may plan and live their lives. Trade and immigration controls are thus pernicious infringements on the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.