FRIEDMAN FRIDAY What it shows is “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state,” as Friedman said in 1999. The University of Chicago Nobel Laureate understood precisely why, pointing out that in its own paradoxical way, illegal immigration is actually a good thing but — “only good so long as it’s illegal.

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Milton Friedman quote

What it shows is “you cannot simultaneously have free immigrationand a welfare state,” as Friedman said in 1999. The University of Chicago Nobel Laureate understood precisely why, pointing out that in its own paradoxical way, illegal immigration is actually a good thing but — “only good so long as it’s illegal.


How the Welfare State Undermines Support for Immigration

When non-libertarian audiences ask my opinion about immigration, I generally point out that it is a very good sign that so many people want to come to the United States.

Almost everyone agrees with that statement, but that doesn’t put them in the pro-immigration camp. Instead, I find that many people have a “what’s in it for us” attitude.

  1. They like the underlying concept of programs such as the EB-5 visa that attract immigrants with money, and they are broadly sympathetic to immigrants with skills and education. At the risk of over-simplifying, they want immigrants who won’t rely on handouts and they like immigrants who presumably will increase the nation’s per-capita GDP (and there certainly is strong evidence that this happens).
  2. They’re skeptical of mass immigration by people with low incomes. This is mostly because they fear such migrants will impose higher costs on taxpayers, though Republican types also seem motivated by concerns about future voting patterns. The notable exception to this pattern is that business audiences are somewhat sympathetic to mass migration because they believe labor costs will fall.

When I deal with people in category #2, I sometimes ask them about Tyler Cowen’s idea of allowing limitless migration from nations with bigger welfare states. After all, I doubt people such as “Lazy Robert” will move from Denmark to the United States.

But what about poor people from poor nations? Would they like to migrate to rich nations to get handouts, rather than for economic opportunity?

Taxpayers in many nations are worried about that possibility and are not very welcoming to immigrants who will collect benefits.

Indeed, that’s motivated the Trump Administration to consider tightening rules for who gets in the country.

The Trump administration announced long-awaited “public charge” immigration regulations this week, and the furor immediately kicked up to derangement level. …But immigration regulation of this sort has been a part of our laws for more than a century…the 1882 act declared that “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge…shall not be permitted to land.” …The 1952 revisions to immigration law maintained the idea that the government may exclude “paupers, professional beggars, or vagrants” and those who are “are likely at any time to become public charges.” …In 1996, Congress strengthened the public charge provisions…why would anyone call the Trump administration’s interpretation “un-American?” …the regulations—which do not apply to refugees, asylum-seekers, and various other groups—propose guidance to determine if an immigrant would be likely to use the welfare system for more than 12 months during a three-year period.

But it’s not just a controversy in the United States.

Taxpayers in the Netherlands, for instance, are becomingless tolerant of immigrants who want handouts rather than work.

Non-Western immigrants and their descendants also depend on welfare to a much greater extent than the native Dutch. They are half of all welfare recipients but only 11% of the total population. Among recent Somali refugees granted asylum, 80% are on welfare. Holland is truly a welfare state, and the Dutch are proud of it. …This type of open and yet highly regulated society can function only if it is carried by a disciplined and well-educated citizenry… That is what the fuss is about. To put it in abstract terms: Can a welfare state become an immigration state? You know the answer: A welfare state with open borders will one day run out of money.

I can’t imagine that stories like this make German taxpayers happy.

As early as 2016, German newspapers have been reporting on migrants with recognized refugee status having holidays in countries that they “fled,” such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria. Because Hartz IV,the welfare system that certain migrants granted refugee status receive, permits 21 days per year of “local absence,” those who have recognized refugee status and have no income or assets simply leave Germany for vacation and continue to receive money from German taxpayers.

There are also concerns that welfare spending hinderseconomic integration and independence in Sweden.

…only 20 percent of the Somali immigrants in Sweden have jobs, according to a report released on Monday by the government’s Commission… In an opinion article published in the Expressen newspaper, the author of the report, Benny Carlsson of Lund University, explained that Sweden would be well served to let community-based organizations do more…rather than relying on public agencies… Carlsson explained that…Sweden’s rigid labour market and labour protection laws also create “higher risks” for employees which amount to “higher thresholds” for Somali jobseekers. …Carlsson also cited Sweden’s social safety net which “lets people live at a decent level even if they don’t work, while the same can’t be said of the United States”.

Speaking of Sweden, stories of welfare dependency help to explain this report in the New York Times.

…four years after the influx, growing numbers of native-born Swedes have come to see the refugees as a drain on public finances. …Antipathy for immigrants now threatens to erode support for Sweden’s social welfare state. “People don’t want to pay taxes to support people who don’t work,” says Urban Pettersson, 62, a member of the local council here in Filipstad, a town set in lake country west of Stockholm. “Ninety percent of the refugees don’t contribute to society. These people are going to have a lifelong dependence on social welfare.This is a huge problem.” …Under the Nordic model, governments typically furnish health care, education and pensions to everyone. The state delivers subsidized housing and child care. When people lose jobs, they gain unemployment benefits… But the endurance of the Nordic model has long depended on two crucial elements — the public’s willingness to pay some of the highest taxes on earth, and the understanding that everyone is supposed to work. …Sweden’s sharp influx of immigrants — the largest of any European nation, as a share of the overall population — directly tests this proposition. …The unemployment rate was only 3.8 percent among the Swedish-born populace last year, but 15 percent among foreign-born… Roughly half of all jobless people in Sweden were foreign-born. …these sorts of numbers are cited as evidence that refugees have flocked here to enjoy lives of state-financed sloth. …The average refugee in Sweden receives about 74,000 Swedish kronor (about $7,800) more in government services than they pay into the system, Joakim Ruist, an economist at the University of Gothenburg, concluded in a report released last year and commissioned by the Ministry of Finance. Over all, the cost of social programs for refugees runs about 1 percent of Sweden’s annual national economic output

But is it true that migrants are looking for handouts? Are the afore-cited stories just random anecdotes, or do they suggest some countries are “welfare magnets”?

I’ve already shared some evidence that welfare recipients inside the United States gravitate to places that provide bigger benefits.

And this seems to be the case for migrants that cross national borders. Here are some findings from some new academic research showing that the generosity of Denmark’s welfare state has a significant impact on migration choices.

We study the effects of welfare generosity on international migration using a series of large changes in welfare benefits for immigrants in Denmark. The first change, implemented in 2002,lowered benefits for immigrants from outside the EU by about 50%, with no changes for natives or immigrants from inside the EU. The policy was later repealed and re-introduced. The differential treatment of immigrants from inside and outside the EU, and of different types of non-EU immigrants, allows for a quasi-experimental research design. We find sizeable effects:the benefit reduction reduced the net flow of immigrants by about 5,000 people per year, or 3.7percent of the stock of treated immigrants, and the subsequent repeal of the policy reversed the effect almost exactly. Our study provides some of the first causal evidence on the widely debated “welfare magnet” hypothesis. …our evidence implies that, conditional on moving, the generosity of the welfare system is important for destination choices.

Here’s the relevant graph from the study, based on two different ways of slicing the data.

As you can see from the red lines, migration fell when benefits were reduced, then immediately jumped when benefits were increased, and then immediately fell again when they were again lowered.

For what it’s worth, scholars believe that support for the welfare state in Europe is declining for these reasons. Taxpayers are tolerant of subsidizing their long-time neighbors, but are much less sympathetic when giving away money to newcomers.

From my perspective, the solution is obvious. I generally like immigration and generally don’t like redistribution.

So why not reduce benefits, ideally for everyone, but just to migrants if that’s the only possible outcome. That way nations are more likely to attract people (especially from low-income societies) who are seeking economic opportunity.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some immigration-related humor, we have a video about Americans migrating to Peru and a story about American leftists escaping to Canada.

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Milton Friedman

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