The Libertarian Argument for Open Borders
Libertarians should support open borders, with possible exceptions for the exclusion of convicted criminals and people carrying disease.
Since its beginnings in the Enlightenment era, libertarianism has been a cosmopolitan ideology. Yet, some people in the libertarian camp have made calls to “secure the border” or to restrict immigration for other reasons, like keeping out people they worry will undermine the cultural foundations of liberty. Today, I’m going to offer a broad overview of immigration policy from a libertarian perspective. First, I will offer several libertarian arguments for open borders. These are the economic gains open borders make possible, the institutional benefits open borders create, and respect for people’s right to free association. Second, I will discuss two objections against open borders commonly raised by critics. These are the question of whether the government should pick and choose, allowing in only beneficial immigrants, and a concern about the effects that open borders would have in concert with the welfare state. After dealing with those specific objections, I will point out some flaws common to those and other objections to free immigration.
The Case for Open Borders
Essentially, borders are barriers to trade. Imagine if tomorrow the government declared that to travel or move goods from North Dakota to South Dakota, you had to go through a customs station, show documentation, answer questions, etc. just like you would have to do to travel from New York to Ontario or Montana to Alberta. There would be a lot less travel and commerce between North and South Dakota, right? And both States would be poorer as a result! That thought experiment suggests that existing border controls are doing a lot of economic damage. Some economists have projected that allowing free immigration to any country could, as a median estimation, double world GDP. The more potential trading partners you have, the greater the potential gains from trade. Allowing people to gather where they wish is a way to facilitate realizing those gains.
What can be done to spread freedom around the world? One answer is to make different governments compete for citizens. States with private property protections, low taxes, and something like the rule of law are more attractive places to live than places that lack those institutions. When people leave the jurisdictions of bad governments, it deprives those governments of material support. That only works, though, if other countries are willing to take in the people who have left.
Freedom of Association
One of the fundamental rights all humans have is the right to associate, or not, with whomever they choose. Immigration controls infringe on that right. If you want to meet your friend for coffee, you have a right to do that so long as you do not violate anyone else’s rights in the process. Crossing an international border does not harm anyone’s person or property, so it is a protected action. Preventing you from crossing the border to see your friend, or preventing them from coming to visit you, is no more justifiable than the government erecting roadblocks around a church or other private gathering place to prevent people from meeting there.
Objections to Open Borders
Why Not Pick and Choose?
There’s a line of thought that goes like this. Sure, immigrants may on net be a boon to the economy, but some of them are a drain. Sure, many immigrants assimilate into the American mainstream, but some of them hold political views less libertarian than the median American, or cultural values less conducive to a free society. Why not, then, let in the beneficial immigrants, and keep the harmful ones out?
The thing proponents of this view are missing is this: Why would you ever trust a government, any government, to make that determination? Why would you think a government had an interest in making that determination correctly, or the means to do so?
If the government were capable of determining in advance which immigrants would be economically advantageous, why not also trust it to determine which energy companies are best? And yet we know how the Solyndra fiasco turned out. The whole thing is just economic central planning in disguise.
The possible exceptions to this rule are exclusion on the basis of criminality or for public health reasons. Such restrictions are based on verifiable facts about things that have already happened, rather than speculations about what might happen in the future. This is in line with the libertarian impulse that people’s rights should only be restricted if they have violated the rights of others, as in the case of criminality, or if their action would endanger the lives or property of others, as in the case of quarantine. Even still, there is potential for abuse. Persons the government deems threats not to its citizens but to its own power might be excluded for politically motivated convictions in other countries. If you give the state discretion, experience shows that it may well use that discretion in unjust ways.
What About the Welfare State?
Another common objection is that the arrival of immigrants might lead to the expansion of the welfare state. This is a good argument for abolishing the welfare state and a bad argument for restricting immigration. So long as we live in a mixed economy with socialist elements, libertarian changes in any given area run risks of this type. Those libertarians who are not opposed to taxation in general are typically against special carve-outs, such as special tax breaks for married couples or people with children. Yet, gay marriage and gay adoption expand the number of people eligible for those carve-outs. Is that a good reason to oppose gay marriage and gay adoption? No, it’s a reason to reform the tax code.
John Locke put it in no uncertain terms in his essay “For a General Naturalisation:”
Another objection very apt to be made is that it will increase the number of the poor…If by poor are meant such as want relief and being idle themselves live upon the labour of others; if there be any such poor amongst us already who are able to work and do not, ’tis a shame to the government and a fault in our constitution and ought to be remedied, for whilst that is permitted we must ruin, whether we have many or few people.
The welfare state may be bad, but that’s no reason for libertarians to support immigration restrictions.
Some General Problems with Objections to Immigration
Most objections to free immigration prove more than the person objecting would like. Walter Block and Gene Callahan point out that many arguments leveled against immigrants—they cost taxpayers money, they are permitted on public property, a sufficiently large number of them could wipe out our cultural identity—apply just as readily to domestically bred-and-born infants (p. 55). They might end up on welfare! They have strange customs, an alien culture! They might vote Democrat! Of course, they might do these things, but concerns about negative consequences are hardly reason to give in to statism and exclude peaceful immigrants from our society by force, as Block points out in a different paper (p. 185). Moreover, say Block and Callahan (p. 63), why stop at trans-national border crossings? Most arguments for restricting that sort of movement would also give us reason to prevent intra-national movement of persons.
Libertarianism has a long history of favoring the free movement of goods and persons across government-imposed borders. That history goes back to the Enlightenment and continues today. In the Second Treatise (section 118), Locke says that when a child comes of age, he is “at liberty what government he will put himself under, what body politic he will unite himself to.” In Liberalism, Ludwig von Mises writes “There cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor.” In his paper on immigration, Michael Huemer concludes “that for the most part, advocates of restriction have failed to satisfy the burden of justification created by the harmful, coercive nature of their favored policy, and that a far more liberal immigration policy is demanded by respect for individual rights.”
If you found this essay compelling and want to learn more about the libertarian position on immigration, I found this lecture by Shika Dalmia very helpful in developing my own understanding of the issue. I’m the fellow in the purple shirt.