Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy


Most of the time when Pope Francis speaks out on political issues, he is badly misguided. He is wrong to blame free markets for poverty, when in reality they have given millions of people a far higher standard of living. He has a terrible position on freedom of speech, claiming that there is no right to “insult other people’s faith” or even “make fun” of it. Despite some misimpressions on the part of liberals, he continues to support the Church’s opposition to birth control and equality for gays and lesbians. He has even crusaded against the life-saving technology of air-conditioning.

But, as Cato Institute immigration scholar Alex Nowrasteh points out, the Pope does deserve qualified praise for his position on immigration. He has repeatedly urged Americans and Europeans to accept more refugees fleeing violence and oppression. There is a strong moral case for liberalizing immigration policy for such people, and for doing so even before disaster strikes them. Upon arriving in the United States, Pope Francis rightly reminded us that the US was “largely built” by immigrant families.

The Pope is also right, as Alex notes, to question the traditional distinction between political refugees (who are more likely to be accepted under current international and domestic refugee law), and those whose motivations are merely “economic.” Pope Francis recognizes that the terrible conditions that motivate many economic migrants are often the result of corrupt and oppressive government policies. Many “economic” migrants are fleeing unjust governments no less than “political” refugees are.

Unfortunately, however, the Pope has the relationship between free markets and migration exactly backwards. Far from causing the bad conditions migrants are fleeing, free market policies are in fact what tends to attract migrants to their destination countries. As Alex explains:

The Pope is correct that free-markets are to blame for immigration, but not in the way he thinks. The prosperity of free-market countries attracts large numbers of immigrants from less-free ones. Economists Maryam Naghsh Nejad and Andrew T. Young recently found that improving economic freedom is a huge attraction for immigrants….

The Pope is deeply and rightly concerned with poverty but he should consider that immigration is an excellent way to fight it. Migration is one of the most successful strategies the World Bank has [studied] to fight poverty – raising the wages of Tongan migrants in this example almost 10-fold in a short period of time. No other development project has shown such dramatic improvements and the improvements are scalable….

Pope Francis is generally supportive of liberalizing immigration policy and reducing poverty around the world, but he should realize that free-markets and the migration of poor people to them is the cheapest and fastest way to alleviate much human suffering.

Ironically, the Pope’s native Argentina is a great example of the true connection between immigration and free markets. Under relatively free market policies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Argentina became one of the most successful nations in the world, and a major magnet for migrants, much like the United States and Canada in the same period. But since the 1940s, interventionist Peronist policies, of the sort favored by the Pope have impoverished the nation, and have made it far less attractive to immigrants than it was a century ago.

Some conservatives and a few libertarians worry that increased immigration might undermine the very free market policies that attract migrants in the first place. Fortunately, however, the evidence suggests that increased immigration does not increase the size of the welfare state, and does not undermine good economic institutions more generally (and may even enhance them). Both the Pope and conservative critics of immigration would do well to recognize that immigrants and free market advocates should be allies, not enemies.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor changes to this post.