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The Chavez Tragedy


PRESIDENT BUSH’S first choice for secretary of labor, Linda Chavez, was forced to withdraw when it was learned that 10 years earlier a Guatemalan woman who was then in the United States illegally lived in her home. Chavez caused herself trouble by saying she did not know until later that the woman was an “illegal alien.” Then she conceded that she did know at the time. Chavez also insisted that she did not employ the woman (who nevertheless did some household chores), but only gave her refuge and spending money for two years.

In light of precedent, this immediately darkened Chavez’s prospects. Bill Clinton’s first two choices for attorney general were forced to withdraw because they had previously employed illegal aliens as nannies and had failed to pay taxes for them.

The allegation against Chavez was twofold: “harboring” a noncitizen who was not in the United States legally and employing someone without paying the requisite taxes. To which any good libertarian would respond: So?

As an aside, it was amusing to see Sen. Ted Kennedy and others of his ilk claiming to be “troubled” by the revelation about Chavez. They were hardly troubled; they were delighted. They had it in for Chavez the moment she was nominated. She opposes affirmative action, the minimum wage, government bilingual-education programs, and a host of other beloved statist programs that fail to help their ostensible beneficiaries but actually ladle out unearned wealth to favored constituencies. From George W. Bush she was the best that one could have hoped for as a secretary of labor — considering that there shouldn’t be a Department of Labor anyway.

It’s hard to say whether Chavez could have prevailed had she done things differently. First, by her own admission, she didn’t initially tell the whole story to the Bush people or to the press. But just as important, she got caught in a classic case of conservative hypocrisy: she had exercised a right that she would not accord other Americans. Chavez does not advocate free immigration, nor does she favor legalizing the very conduct she herself engaged in.

There’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around, however. John Fund of the Wall Street Journal pointed out that in the early 1990s, the left favored Americans’ giving refuge to people who had escaped the oppressive regime in Guatemala; leftists opposed their deportation. Should Chavez have turned Marta Mercado in to the INS? Why has no one on the left stepped forward to defend Chavez’s humanitarian action? The question answers itself. Principle is a scarce commodity.

That what Chavez did (take in an illegal immigrant) and what she might have done (employed her) are illegal shows you the severe state of disrepair our liberties are in.

The immigration issue

Let’s take the immigration issue first. The Chavez case crystallizes the matter superbly. As a New York Times editorial put it, “Harboring an illegal alien is a felony.” Here in the land of the theoretically free (as Mencken called it), you can’t have the houseguest of your choice without permission from the government. By what moral theory must Chavez get a bureaucrat’s okay before she invites an abused and impoverished Guatemalan woman to stay in her home for however long she wishes? The same folks who rhapsodize about freedom of association went berserk at Chavez’s benevolent act. These are the same folks who believe that nonsocialists are callous and cruel.

The immigration issue, freed of its grandiloquent pronouncements about national sovereignty, is nothing more than a matter of freedom of association. Chavez violated no one’s rights by what she did. Restrictions on immigration smack of presumptuous communitarianism, wherein the interests of some group take precedence over the liberty, property, and privacy of individuals. Amitai Etzioni, the leading pop communitarian, can make a consistent case for immigrant controls: he forthrightly argues individual rights should take a back seat to the interests of the “community.” (This is not to say that that principle is coherent. “Rights” forced into the back seat are stripped of their status as rights. They’re mere privileges subject to revocation.) But it’s hard to fathom how someone who believes in natural rights à la Locke can embrace restrictions on the immigration of peaceful individuals.

The employment issue

The employment issue is actually a separate one. Even though it is a crime to hire an illegal immigrant, Chavez would have equally broken the law had she hired an American citizen to clean her home but paid her less than the minimum wage and refused to withhold income taxes and FICA “contributions” (translation: taxes). The immigration aspect of this is identical to the immigration issue itself: it’s a matter of freedom of association. By what warrant does the government tell us whom we may hire? Why is place of birth a criterion?

The general employment laws are also violations of freedom of association. The minimum wage law is an obvious violation of the rights of employers and employees to bargain freely and come to mutually beneficial terms. (The common belief that workers are at an inherent disadvantage with employers is part of the Marxian residue that coats our culture.) That morally indicts the law, an indictment from which there is no recovery. Moreover, as economists have argued for decades, the minimum wage harms the most vulnerable members (and potential members) of the labor market by pricing them out of that market. It is about time that advocates of the minimum wage explain how Congress has managed to acquire the power to repeal the law of supply and demand. Until they do so, I respectfully request that they shut up.

Similarly, laws requiring the withholding of taxes violate the rights of both employers and employees — over and beyond the collection of taxes per se. Employers are conscripted to be uncompensated tax collectors and bookkeepers for the state. That’s involuntary servitude. Employees are denied the right to hold their hard-earned wages in their hands before the money is grabbed by the government tax thugs. That adds insult to injury.

Like the minimum wage, those laws do the added harm of increasing the cost of hiring workers. Many people might be eager to hire low-skilled workers for domestic chores, except that they must either get tangled up in tax bookkeeping (and OSHA rules) or break the law. Some of those potential employers will simply not hire, forgoing the convenience and depriving would-be workers of access to the first rung on the ladder to improvement.

Humanitarianism and protectionism

The upshot is that the alleged humanitarian basis of these laws is balderdash. It is special-interest protectionism all the way. And that is why union leaders and their allies in the news media jumped on the Chavez case with such gusto. They see as a threat anyone who opposes the minimum wage and affirmative action. An even greater threat is a Hispanic woman who takes these positions. And a greater threat still is that such a person would run the Labor Department. She had to be stopped at all costs.

The media are particularly at fault. Notice how they accept without question the association of the minimum wage and the welfare of low-income workers. To be against the minimum wage is to be “anti-worker.” No alternative explanation is possible; therefore, none need be considered.

The New York Times editorialized that Chavez’s conduct “cast doubt on [her] ability to oversee the core function of the Labor Department, which is to define what work is and how it should be compensated.” Does the Times realize what it is saying? Every socialist, communist, and fascist regime has tried to do just that. The results for working people were something less than satisfactory.

There shouldn’t be a Labor Department, and Linda Chavez is full of philosophical inconsistencies. But her political demise at the hands of people who have no regard whatsoever for freedom is a tragedy nonetheless.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.