An Immigration Conundrum?

I just got an invitation from the Libertarian Party in Illinois to speak at their October convention on the immigration issue. This should probably be an effect of my Mises Daily Article on the Libertarian Immigration Conundrum. I still don’t know whether I will be able to fit the “LPI” into my schedule, but it is a very hot and very interesting topic – especially from a libertarian point of view (and, no doubt, in the libertarian movement).

In the article I describe the two main libertarian approaches to immigration: open borders, i.e., free migration, and border and immigration control as a legitimate means of protecting private property and securing the value of it. These two views seem to be each other’s very opposites: the former champions no borders at all and thus seems to imply there is no stopping of foreign invasions of immigrants; the latter makes use of the existing state and its violence to protect domestic private property from foreigners.

But as I argue in the article mentioned above, there is no real contradiction. The former doesn’t imply all sorts of invasions are welcome – there would still be property rights and the protection of those rights are at the very core of what a legitimate state (according to the minarchist argument) or the freed market for security and protection (the anarchist argument) would do. Does anyone really believe that libertarian proponents of the “open border” argument really mean immigrants should be allowed to live off other people’s property?

The latter utilizes the artificial, but existing, territorial borders of the state, and the fact that those very borders are “protected” by the state, as a first defense for private property, and thus refuses to accept foreigners into the realm of protected private property. This may sound strange, but the argument takes into account the history of the state as well as the current distribution of private property.

What this means is that the argument against open borders considers the effect of government over time: that the state for centuries has stolen “the people’s” property, thus the “property” of the state belongs to the people and should not be available to immigrants. It is not unowned property for the grabs, but property temporarily controlled by the state that should be returned to the rightful owners, who are definitely “citizens” (not foreigners).

These two approaches do emphasize different facts, but it does not necessarily make them opposite views. The “open borders” argument, for instance, stresses the fact that people (no matter their nationality) have the right to travel freely as long as they do not violate the rights to private property. The “controlled borders” argument clearly identifies the right of property owners to not have their property involuntarily seized or claimed by immigrants.

But the fact is that the conflict between these two approaches exists only if our point of departure is the welfare state: when the state hands out alms to whoever it deems “in need.” As long as there is a welfare state, the libertarian “controlled borders” argument has a point in saying foreigners are likely to be parasites on the property stolen from the citizenry by the state. Also, state laws limiting the right to people’s property through letting “everybody” make use of it also means foreigners get “something” out of “nothing” (they haven’t been oppressed by the state and thus have no legitimate claim on it, but still gain from the “benefits” or privileges handed out by it).

However, it should be equally troublesome to make use of that same state to enforce border controls and keep people out (and thereby violating their rights) of the “country” simply because the state has already stolen so much property. It is like allying with your mugger in order to make sure he or she doesn’t pass on your property to someone else.

The two approaches are both troublesome in that they are somewhat limited in their perspective. Where adherents of the “open borders” argument tend to discuss immigration from a macro perspective, “controlled borders” proponents discuss the topic from a very micro perspective. The problem exists in that the individual gets lost in a macro perspective, whereas immigration doesn’t exist in the micro view and thus cannot be discussed at all if that perspective is chosen (since immigration is an abstract and thus macro concept).

This discussion is likely to go on, perhaps forever. I elaborate on these points in the article mentioned at the beginning of this post: The Libertarian Immigration Conundrum. And I will further discuss the illusion of conflict at the LP Illinois convention, if I get there.

About Per Bylund

Per Bylund

→ Read more by