Overcoming the Libertarian Impasse with Open Borders and Immigration

Per Bylund’s article “Refugees and Migrants in a World of Government Meddling” is a decade old, yet it is the most sensible one

I’ve come across on the issue of immigration and how libertarianism should address it.

Bylund points out that while libertarianism doesn’t promote the state nor its borders, it doesn’t advocate the concept of “open borders,” either.

…the immigration issue seems to be somewhat of a divide within libertarianism, with two seemingly conflicting views on how to deal with population growth through immigration. On the one hand, it is not possible as a libertarian to support a regulated immigration policy, since government itself is never legitimate. This is the somewhat classical libertarian standpoint on immigration: open borders.

On the other hand, the theory of natural rights and, especially, private property rights tells us anyone could move anywhere — but they need first to purchase their own piece of land on which to live or obtain necessary permission from the owner. Otherwise immigration becomes a violation of property rights, a trespass. This is an interpretation of a libertarian-principled immigration policy presented by Hans-Hermann Hoppe a few years ago, which since then has gained increasing recognition and support.

Bylund also does what open border advocates will not do (at least from what I’ve read): confront the impact of the welfare state on immigration and the implications this has if there were open borders (emphasis added).

Another problem of immigration and property arises from the social welfare system financed by money extorted from citizens. With the open borders argument, private property rights might be undermined even further if immigrants are entitled to special rights such as housing, social security, minority status and rights, etc. Also, immigrants will automatically become part of the parasitic masses through enjoying the common right to use public roads, public schooling, and public health care — while not paying for it (yet).

Additionally, the concept of “freedom of movement,” a term so often used by open border libertarians, is misleading in its description of what is actually happening. People only have the right of movement on their own property, not that of others.

Instead, what open border advocates are saying (perhaps unwittingly) is that one group of people have the right to enter property controlled by a state and paid for through the expropriation of others. Obviously, this is not quite the desired libertarian scenario. Neither, however, is the idea of having the state decide who can and cannot enter private property.

In this regard, open border advocates have a legitimate point; immigration laws make it so that Person A cannot enter the property owned by Person B even if they are invited. Bylund argues that in a purely libertarian society, this is how the issue of would be handled, by leaving it up to the property owners themselves.

Immigration will thus be naturally restricted in a free society, since all landed property (at least in the Western world) is rightfully owned by self-owning individuals. Just like Nozick argues in his magnum opus Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a society based on natural rights should honor property rights in absolute terms, and therefore the rightful owners of each piece of property should be identified despite the fact that humankind has been plundered by a parasitic class for centuries.

However trying to apply this principle when the state is involved presents us with a conundrum. How do we treat state-owned property and state resources available to those who did not pay for it but have access to it by entering the jurisdiction (i.e. immigration)?

Whatever the answer, Bylund says that neither position can be applied through the state and still be considered libertarian (bold emphasis added).

From a libertarian point of view, it is not relevant to discuss whether to support immigration policy A, B, or C. The answer is not open borders but no borders; the libertarian case is not whether private property rights restrict immigration or not, but that a free society is based on private property. Both of these views are equally libertarian — but they apply the libertarian idea from different points of view. The open borders argument provides the libertarian stand on immigration from a macro view, and therefore stresses the libertarian values of tolerance and openness. The private property argument assumes the micro view and therefore stresses the individual and natural rights.

There is no conflict between these views, except when each perspective is presented as a policy to be enforced by the state. With the state as it is today, should we as libertarians champion open borders or enforced property rights (with citizens’ claims on “state property”)? Both views are equally troublesome when applied within the framework of the state, but they do not contradict each other; they are not opposites.

I would add, however, that there is a significant difference between open border libertarians and libertarians who are opposed to open borders. The latter (which includes me) aren’t in favor of state immigration laws, but we are compelled to oppose open borders because we cannot overlook the existence of the welfare state and how open borders would lead to greater violation of people’s property rights at the hands of the state.

Yet open border advocates, for some reason, will not acknowledge this problem. The argument that opposition to open borders stems from nativism, xenophobia, nationalism, or racism misses the legitimate grievance underlying all these disagreeable mindsets.

I’m perfectly willing to hear open border advocates out on solutions, but talking past the arguments made against their position is not going to convince me or anyone else that the primary objective and libertarian stance is open borders irrespective of how large or small the welfare state is.  The best solution to the immigration debate is to focus on reducing and abolishing the welfare state. Emphasizing open borders before achieving this, in my opinion, is putting the cart before the horse.

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3 Responses to Overcoming the Libertarian Impasse with Open Borders and Immigration

  1. Pingback: American’s Berlin Wall | The Anarchist Notebook | Libertarian Anarchy

  2. Pingback: How Open Borders Could Lead to Closed Borders | The Anarchist Notebook | Libertarian Anarchy

  3. Pingback: Why We Fight | The Anarchist Notebook

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