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Some Free-Enterprise System


The booming U.S. high-tech industry is doing so well it can’t find enough well-trained employees to handle all the work. There are too few prospects in the United States to fill the need, so companies have recruited abroad. The problem is that a foreign-born person can’t just move to the United States, even if an employer invites him. It’s against the immigration law. The law permits a limited number of special, H-1B visas (good up to six years) to be issued each year, but the demand for workers is outstripping the visa supply. When the number of visas is exhausted, companies may hire no more workers from abroad.

So it goes here in what H.L. Mencken called the land of the theoretically free.

This problem has come to the attention of some members of Congress, but in typical Washington fashion, they have ducked the real issue. The proposal and its opposition offer a faithful picture of what is wrong with government now that “the era of big government is over.”

Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) who chairs the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, has written a bill that would raise the H-1B visa cap over the next five years. It’s called the American Competitiveness Act, and it has passed the hurdle of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This is so typical for Washington. A problem, clearly attributable to government’s denial of individual liberty, is addressed through a bill that would itself violate liberty and increase the degree of social engineering engaged in by government. The fact that it lets a few more foreign-born workers into the country does not make this bill less interventionist than the current law. A person who happens to have been born on the far side of an arbitrary political boundary still must get the U.S. government’s permission to take a job offered him.

Actually, because the author anticipated opposition, the bill is more interventionist than the current law. President Clinton is against it, as are the labor unions, which is odd since computer programmers aren’t typically unionized. The opponents’ position is: U.S. companies should hire only Americans; and if they can’t find qualified Americans, the taxpayers should pay for training.

The bill kowtows to the opponents. For example, after five years, the number of visas would revert to the current level. The bill would authorize $50 million (expandable to $100 million) for 20,000 scholarships for low-income students in math, engineering, or computer science, and $10 million a year to train unemployed Americans in high-tech skills.

That’s not all. So-called “no-layoff” protection for American workers would hit employers with a $25,000 fine per violation and a two-year exclusion from all such programs if they replace American workers and “underpay” foreign workers. Penalties for willful violations would increase fivefold, and the Department of Labor could conduct investigations of past violators even without a complaint.

Some of the bill’s supporters assuredly believe it is the best they can get in the post-big-government era. Nevertheless, the current and proposed laws have only one proper descriptor: fascism. They are right out of 1930s Germany or Italy.

How dare the government tell an employer and a foreign-born citizen that they may not do business with each other! How dare it presume that someone born in the United States is entitled to a job, contrary to the wishes of the people who created that job in the first place! The rank nationalism underlying the law and bill is, well, un-American!

I could point out that if firms can’t get skilled workers, they will move abroad. I could say that a constitutionally limited government does not train workers or fund scholarships.

But I won’t — because the real point is that free enterprise means *free* enterprise. When will we stop fooling ourselves?

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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.