The not-so-scary implications of arguments against open borders

On February 16, Jason Brennan published an article arguing that arguments made by libertarians against open borders have disturbing implications that said libertarians almost never address, such as advocacy of censorship, voting restrictions, eugenics, internal migration restrictions, etc. In this rebuttal, I will address these implications and show on a point-by-point basis that some such implications are not only not so scary, but are actually vitally important to the maintenance of a libertarian social order.

“Closing borders is in the first instance a form of economic protectionism. When we close borders, we forbid people from making willing, mutually-beneficial trades with one another.”

Not necessarily. People can engage in economic activity with one another without crossing a border by either having someone else ship goods between them or having some neutral location in which economic activity may take place.

“At first glance, it looks like we’re violating a right of freedom of movement and a right of freedom of association. Perhaps such restrictions can be justified, but we need a good reason.”

Such restrictions can be justified, and a good reason is that forbidding such restrictions violates private property rights as well as the freedom of association of the property owners who do not wish to associate with immigrants. The only exception is for 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; the exercise of property rights requires one to be alive, and that which is dependent cannot overrule that upon which it is dependent. The result is 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. If there is any other path, they must take it and avoid the territory in which they are unwelcome.
  2. While in the property of those who do not welcome them, they must not threaten in any way the ability of the property owner(s) to stay alive, as their rights to life cannot overrule the property owner’s right to life.
  3. 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.

“But now look at the reasons people give, and ask whether these reasons imply not merely that we should close borders, but that we may do a whole host of other illiberal things. Consider:

We need to close borders to maintain a liberal culture. If you think so, then to maintain a liberal culture, you should also in principle be willing to censor certain points of view, or forbid or ban certain religions. You might also favor forced indoctrination into liberal ideas.

We need to maintain our distinctive culture. Again, if that’s a good reason to close borders, why is it not also a good reason to censor certain ideas, ban certain forms of music, or ban certain religions? Why not mandate that people support and participate in certain cultural practices? Why not require people to speak certain languages at home, or read certain books?”

Clearly, using illiberal means to maintain a liberal culture is inherently contradictory. But the goal of a libertarian should be the maintenance of a libertarian social order, not a liberal one. Therefore, let us address the objections with this goal in mind.

Maintaining a distinctive culture is a good reason to restrict immigration. A society does not exist in and of itself; it is a mental abstraction and grammatical shorthand to refer to each person within a certain geographical area. Adding people of a fundamentally different disposition to an area will make the society there have a greater resemblance to the place where the immigrants originated. It is amazing that so many libertarians fail to understand this, given the effort to change the culture of New Hampshire in a libertarian direction by increasing the number of libertarians there. By the same reasoning, importing communists or Islamists will change the culture of a community in those directions, and those directions are anti-libertarian.

The implication that certain ideas should be censored, or that certain cultural practices should be required, is consistent with a libertarian understanding of private property. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in Democracy: The God That Failed, a community established for the protection of libertarian values (self-ownership, liberty, property) cannot abide the promotion of ideas which are fundamentally opposed to these goals. This means that no right to unlimited free speech exists because like other liberty rights, it should not be used to violate private property rights and freedom of association.

We need to prevent domestic wages from falling. If so, would you (if the facts turned out the right way) also forbid women from entering certain jobs?”

There is no need to do this. In a free market, egalitarian nonsense will be defeated by rational incentives which respect inherent biological differences between the genders, such as the greater standard deviation in intelligence test results and the greater average physical strength for males versus females. The result that fields which require high intelligence and/or great physical strength will be male-dominated (though not male-exclusive) will be understood as natural rather than demonized as sexist.

“Immigrants won’t vote the right way. If you find that persuasive, then in principle you should be open to forbidding certain parties, banning certain people from voting, or engaging in political censorship.”

Properly understood, libertarianism is antithetical to any kind of statism, but is particularly opposed to democracy. To quote Hoppe, democracy promotes shortsightedness, capital waste, irresponsibility, and moral relativism. Whereas a monarch (or any other private property owner with allodial title) owns the capital stock of the property, elected officials serve as temporary stewards. This means that while an allodial title holder is incentivized to care for property to preserve it as an inheritance and capital good, an elected official is incentivized to plunder property while he or she can. Democracy encourages moral relativism by replacing objective ethics with an appeal to the masses. A libertarian strategist would be wise to seek to ban certain people from voting, as the perverse incentives of democracy grow as democracy becomes more inclusive. As discussed above, censorship is consistent with a libertarian understanding of private property.

Immigrants will cause crime. Isn’t this also an argument for eugenics or for internal migration restrictions? For instance, should New Hampshire ban young black men from Washington, DC [statistically more likely to commit crime than the average New Hampshirite] from moving there? If banning rap music reduced crime, would you favor that?”

People have a right to defend themselves from aggression, and they may do so by politically incorrect means as long as those means are consistent with libertarianism. Eugenics as historically practiced by states flagrantly violates the non-aggression principle, but passive forms of eugenics (aka allowing people to suffer the consequences of their poor decision-making) are permissible. The state of New Hampshire should not ban people based on race or censor rap music, but a private property owner or covenant community thereof should be free to do so within their private property.

Immigrants will eat up the welfare state or consume too many public goods. Is this not also an argument for restricting births, or forbidding internal migration, or even requiring some people to give birth?”

No, this is an argument for ending the welfare state and privatizing all public goods.

We have a right to self-determination, and we may choose to exclude people. Is this not also an argument that ‘we’ may choose to exclude some people from having children?”

This is only true in a certain sense. The rules of a covenant community may include anything from prohibitions to requirements concerning childbirth. As long as everyone who formed the covenant agreed to it voluntarily, the penalty for violating it could be expulsion from the property or any other punitive measure that does not violate the right to life of the parents or children.

We collectively own our institutions and may exclude people, or dictate the terms on which they associate with us. If so, doesn’t this also license us to do pretty much whatever we want, including censoring people, forbidding some from having children, and so on?”

This argument assumes that a collective exists and has ownership of the government, which is another collective. To exist is to have a concrete, particular form in physical reality. To say that abstract objects exist is to beg the question of where they exist, to which there is no answer because there is no empirically observable entity. To say that collectives exist is beg the question of what physical form they take, as all available physical forms are occupied by the individuals which are said to comprise the collective. Thus, there is no “we”; there is only you, I, and every other individual person. By the same token, the government does not exist; each person, each building, each gun, etc. exists. Additionally, to own something is to have a right of exclusive control over it. Part and parcel of this right is the right to physically destroy that which one owns. As governments use force to stop citizens who attempt to physically destroy the state, the citizens are not the de facto owners of a government.

“Now, perhaps the defender of immigration restrictions can come up with plausible accounts of why immigration restrictions are permissible, but then explain why they are not committed (at least in principle) to these other illiberal policies.”

This is unnecessary because there are good reasons to commit to other illiberal policies, at least within the confines of one’s private property or a covenant community.

“But one thing I’ve noticed, when reading the various arguments philosophers and others have put forward for immigration restrictions, is that they almost never bother to explain why not. They make broad arguments that have scary implications, arguments that do not specifically show that we may close borders, but arguments that, if sound, imply all sorts of illiberal things. But the authors of these arguments just don’t notice where their arguments lead.”

To conclude, such implications are not only not so scary, but are actually vitally important to the maintenance of a libertarian social order. Libertarianism requires borders, as private property cannot exist without them. Private property may be used in an illiberal or even tyrannical way by its owners, but the alternative of embracing open borders is not freedom; it is totalitarian statism.

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