The Pragmatic Libertarian Case Against Open Borders

The attacks in Paris and Beirut have resulted in increased focus on immigration in general and the Syrian refugee situation in particular. Many libertarians have weighed in on the situation, mostly on the side of open borders, or at least on the side of admitting the refugees. Let us look at the other side of the issue and make a case against open borders and for excluding the refugees, at least under current circumstances.

The Way It Should Be

In a stateless society founded upon libertarian principles, immigration controls would be a matter of respect for private property rights, freedom of association, and non-aggression. If there were some unowned land available, then immigrants would be free to come in and mix their labor with the unowned land to establish private property for themselves. If all territory in an area is already occupied, then immigration would be on an invite-only basis in that area. Someone in the area would have to sponsor an immigrant, which would entail inviting the immigrant to one’s property and figuring out the immigrant’s living and working situation. Depending on the agreements that one has with one’s neighbors, there could also be some vicarious liability involved with inviting an immigrant who then commits crimes against people and/or property.

The only situation that requires further explanation is that of immigrants or refugees who are going to a place where they are welcome but must pass through territory where they are unwelcome in order to get there. In this case, the right to life must be weighed against the right to property. The right to life is clearly superior to the right to property, as the exercise of property rights requires one to be alive, and that which is dependent cannot overrule that upon which it is dependent. This result means that immigrants may travel through territory where they are unwelcome if it is impossible for them to get to the destination where they are welcome without traveling through territory where they are unwelcome. This right of emergency easement is subject to some restrictions which can easily be deduced from the above:

  1. While in the property of those who do not welcome them, they must not threaten in any way the ability of the property owner to stay alive, as their rights to life cannot overrule the property owner’s right to life.
  2. The immigrants must show as much respect as possible for private property by moving as fast as possible through territory where they are unwelcome and using no more resources from the property than they must in order to stay alive.

This standard allows maximum respect for private property while forbidding the use of private property rights to assist in killing innocent people, such as could happen without this standard if persecuted refugees were corralled between oppressors who seek to exterminate them and property owners who will not let them pass through their lands to reach safety on the other side.

The Way It Is

Unfortunately, the immigration policies of nation-states do not remotely resemble this standard. States overrule the desires of property owners through their monopoly on initiatory force and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to exercise exclusive control over who may enter and/or remain within a geographical area. For the state to usurp the control that private property owners should have over immigration and association is a travesty. That the state usurps control over protecting private property from invaders and then allows in inferior and/or dangerous rabble in a desperate effort to solve the economic problems that states inherently create is even worse.

Nation-states also steal from their subjects via taxation, currency debasement, and eminent domain. These ill-gotten goods are used not only to finance bureaucratic largess, but also to create massive social welfare programs and common spaces, each of which creates perverse incentives with respect to immigration. Minimum wage and child labor laws create further distortions of market signals which lead to unnatural immigration patterns.

With democratic forms of governance, voting creates even more problems. Immigrants from cultures which value theocracy over separation of church and state, socialism over capitalism, misogyny over basic rights for women, etc. will eventually use the power of the ballot box to inflict their inferior ideas upon everyone else, especially if they are allowed in at such a rate that assimilation into the prevailing culture cannot occur. Whereas voting was once limited to those who owned property and thus had skin in the game, now anyone who has reached the age of majority may vote in most Western democracies, and there are efforts to push the age limit even lower while making it easier for people to register to vote. This makes it more likely than ever that immigrants will adversely affect the prevailing culture.

The foreign policies of Western nations in general and the United States in particular have created refugee problems. Actions produce reactions, and interference in the internal affairs of other nations is no exception. When one group in a conflict is given funding, training, and supplies by an external nation-state, there is no guarantee that the effort and resources will stay on target. A group which fights for Western interests at the moment can become anti-Western later. A group can join another group with different objectives. A more powerful group can slaughter the pro-Western group and commandeer their weapons and other resources. All of these possibilities can result in enemies who have American military hardware. When Western nations conduct drone strikes and other bombings that kill civilians and destroy property owned by innocent people, it creates resentment and anger that motivate people to become terrorists in order to seek justice or vengeance in the only way they can. There is also the fact that the rational self-interest of those who wield state power is to prolong the War on Terrorism as much as possible, the body count on both sides be damned.

Nearly all developed nations currently have anti-discrimination laws which forbid discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, and many other characteristics. This means that if a government fails to respect the wishes and property rights of its citizens and invites in a number of people from countries that said government is bombing, then the citizenry cannot even refuse to associate with these people.

In the politically correct environment of contemporary Western nations, the results will be more identity politics, tension and violence between different racial and cultural groups, higher taxes, less valuable currency, lower wages, higher national debt, and more criminal activity. But as all of these negative outcomes lead people to ask the state to solve these problems and few people can figure out that the state is to blame and we cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking that created them, the state has every reason to create this situation.

From Here To There (Or Not)

The very presence of the state is sufficient proof that the libertarian approach described in the first section will not be used. Initiatory force is the means of the state, and when all they have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the presence of the state, the immigration problem is thus a matter of forced segregation (in the form of immigration controls and/or closed borders) or forced integration (in the form of open border and anti-discrimination policies). Those who wish to use a libertarian approach (or any other third option, for that matter) to immigration must therefore seek the abolition of the state, but very few libertarians are willing to even talk about what is necessary to bring this about within our lifetimes, let alone take action in that direction. In fact, there is almost a perfect overlap between libertarians who have come out in favor of importing Syrian refugees and libertarians who will denounce anyone who argues in favor of the use of defensive force against the state.

The Lesser Evil

Because a libertarian approach to immigration is not a choice that the state offers and libertarians are largely unwilling to do what would be necessary to make this choice available, we are left with attempting to choose the best of two bad options and making a pragmatic case for which option is the lesser of two evils. Again, the only options that states afford us are forced segregation (in the form of immigration controls and/or closed borders) or forced integration (in the form of open border and anti-discrimination policies). Let us explore the case that immigration controls are a better option than open borders within the current context.

This is really no more complicated than examining the logical conclusions of combining an open border policy with the current nature of statism. In a free market, wages in a particular region would reflect the market demand for workers in that region. Workers would respond by migrating to different areas to meet the demand for their services. In a statist society, this does not work so well. The combination of welfare programs, minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and other such distortions of market signals drive artificial waves of immigration which would not otherwise occur. Like a breaker switch stuck in the ‘on’ position, the market signals are forcibly prevented from conveying that enough migrants have come to a particular region. It is also unreasonable to assume that governments which are so incompetent at everything else would somehow be excellent arbiters for deciding which immigrants are best suited to enter the country. The overload of immigrants, some of whom we may expect to be of poor quality, means that some will not find work and thus will either turn to government welfare programs or criminal activity (but I repeat myself). This creates costs which are paid through taxation and/or currency debasement. This eventually becomes unsustainable and leads to a collapse of the system.

At first glance, this may appear desirable or even necessary. After all, it is essentially impossible to eliminate welfare programs through political means, so it stands to reason that those who wish to eliminate them must use anti-political means, such as overloading them until they collapse. The problem with this technique is that it is likely to head in an anti-libertarian direction, as its original proponents realized. People who have learned to depend on government handouts for their survival are not suddenly going to become anarcho-capitalists when the welfare state fails; rather, they will demand with the threat of massive social unrest that the state solve their problems. The state will be all too happy to pretend to do this by implementing anything from a basic income guarantee to full communism, both of which are not steps toward liberty, fake libertarians notwithstanding.

The choice at present is to allow this chain of events or to stop it. Of course, stopping this chain of events with government policy presents its own set of problems. The Cold War taught us that governments build walls not to keep people out, but to keep them in. Welfare statism is unsustainable even without immigrants overloading it, and closed borders will be used to restrain the rich and keep them paying into the system as well as to keep out the poor from other nations who would collapse the system faster. And contrary to some closed-border libertarians, the point should not be to get the state to act like a private property owner would, as this is impossible on two counts. The very presence of a state makes private property impossible, and it is impossible to know precisely how private property owners would behave toward immigrants in a counterfactual world which currently has no states. Restrictions on immigration are only a stopgap method for dealing with an imminent problem which must not go unaddressed and is not going to be solved by the correct answer anytime soon.