Arizona’s new immigration law has a lot of enemies. Of course there are the usual partisans of the left who are either ideologically opposed to enforcing our national sovereignty or see the Latino community as their only hope to stave off a resurgent GOP. But aside from the usual suspects, libertarians are also vocal critics of the bill.
John Adler rounded up a couple of these voices for a post at the Volokh Conspiracy. He first cites Matt Welch of Reason Magazine:
I have sympathy for people who are freaked out by desperate immigrants and ruthless smugglers trampling over their property in southern Arizona, and as I’ve said elsewhere, us pro-immigrant types too easily skate over rule-of-law objections. Federal immigration policy is a failure, and poses real public policy challenges that no amount of righteous indignation and/or handwaving makes disappear.
But anti-illegal immigration crackdowns almost always end up restricting freedom for the rest of us. And giving cops more power is almost always felt more on the receiving end by people–including people just as law-abiding as you and I–who don’t look like the norm. Remember, the stated goal of the new law is “to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona.” Those who think you can surgically accomplish “attrition” without inflaming and driving out legal residents, too, are kidding themselves.
John then notes that Glen Reynolds of Instapundit has also hopped on board
This is a good argument for focusing border security at . . . the border, where it doesn’t impact ordinary citizens day-to-day. Shifting from border security to internal security is both an admission of failure at the borders, and a much more far-reaching and intrusive approach.
And finally John himself chimes in:
It’s certainly true that some amount of internal enforcement is necessary, but internal enforcement should not be our primary emphasis. I also believe that if legal immigration were easier, there would be less incentive for otherwise law-abiding aliens to enter the country illegally. I believe border security is important, but I also believe the country should be more welcoming to those who wish to come here to work or study.
There are two claims being made. The first is pragmatic: this is an ineffectual means to stemming illegal immigration. The second is philosophical: allowing law enforcement officers to check immigration status is a big-government encroachment of civil liberties. Based solely on the philosophical objection it is clear that libertarians should oppose this bill.
Or is it?
For a nation that was founded in the philosophy of classical liberalism, libertarians (the modern-day equivalent of classical liberals) have grown too accustomed to living at the margins of American politics. Perhaps libertarians have simply stopped caring about political influence while much of the conservative vs. liberal battle has been reduced to debates about social policy. And yet the Tea Party movement that is emboldening the GOP, threatening Democratic supremacy, and enlivening the conservative movement in America is essentially a libertarian phenomena.
The goals of the Tea Party are to reimpose traditional limits on government authority, stop the growth of government spending, and reduce the burden of public debt we are leaving to our children. The central message of the Tea Party movement is even simpler: the government works for us.
The truly bizarre thing about American politics today is that we have a federal government that wants to encroach into all aspects of our lives, and yet consistently fails to live up to its few genuinely constitutional responsibilities. The progressive elites want to use government to dictate everything from the food we eat to the light bulbs we use in our homes to our thermostat levels to the healthcare we receive. And yet – when it comes to healthcare – the recent bill failed to regulate interstate commerce by mandating that states allow interstate purchase of insurance policies. The commerce clause is one of the most frequently abused parts of the Constitution, and yet this would have been one of the rare legitimate applications of that clause. So why was it left out?
The same idea applies to our borders. It’s unquestionably the responsibility of the federal government, and yet – going back through Republican and Democratic administrations – the feds seem to be too busy interfering with how American citizens lead their lives to bother doing their job at our nation’s borders.
It’s in the interests of libertarians – and the whole country – to change this pattern. The old libertarian approaches aren’t working. In the Reagan era libertarians believed that a simple way to limit the size of government was to keep government revenue low. The theory was that government would be limited to only spending the revenue plus some practically limited level of debt. It didn’t work.
As Steve Chapman describes in the Washington Examiner this “starve the beast” approach doesn’t work. What really happens when you limit government revenue without directly limiting government expenditures is that the beast merely changes its diet. Instead of living off of government revenue, the government switches to debt. This is effectively a form of subsidy in which future generations subsidize current consumption of government goods. And as basic economics will tell you: once you subsidize something it is consumed at above the equilibrium rate. With China looking for a place to store their billions of dollars, we’ve got a perfect storm of practically unlimited government spending financed by astronomical levels of debt.
The indirect approach has failed.
That’s why this libertarian supports Arizona’s bill. I’m not happy with it as an ending point, but I view it as a valuable transition stage. I’m not comfortable with living in a country where I have to carry around proof of citizenship, even if my driver’s license counts and I carry that pretty much everywhere as a matter of course. I’m not comfortable with it because I want to live in a country with substantially more practical civil liberty than the one I live in today, not less.
But I realize that Arizona’s immigration bill is a necessary step to getting to that world. It is a clarion call to remind the people, the states, and the federal government what their proper rights and duties are. Since the indirect approach has failed, we need to build a popular consensus to directly limit government spending, and that requires elevating this issue significantly in the national consciousness. This law - and the debate surrounding it – does that. It builds on the Tea Party’s message that the government works for us. That means we want less legislation about how much sodium goes in our food and more dedication to border protection.
Then there is the central fact that rule of law is necessary in creating a free society. If we didn’t appreciate the role of law and order in protecting civil liberties, we’d be anarchists. A free society can not exist in a world where the law of the land is routinely flaunted and the responsible government authority merely shrugs. A free society depends on a limited government that proactively fulfills the few responsibilities it does have, and the Arizona bill is nothing short of the people of Arizona twisting the arm of the federal government to get it to live up to its responsibilities.
I understand and share libertarian qualms with Arizona’s immigration bill, but given the safeguards in place to keep the law within Constitutional bounds, I feel it’s a necessary evil to bring about a great good. It’s time for libertarians to stop being satisfied with skulking about the margins of American politics and reassert the central role of classical liberal/libertarian philosophy in American government. Both aspects are necessary: the limits on government power overall, and proactive administration within those limits.
This law will help us get there.