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Libertarians Can Believe in Borders

A veritable avalanche of writings by libertarians I know and respect offer claims about libertarianism, immigration, and open borders. Apparently as a libertarian, I believe that countries should not limit entrance and exit across geographic boundaries. Alex Tabarrok says the argument is economic and “moral” because “law makers and heads of state,” and presumably misinformed citizens, prevent someone from immigrating in pursuit of work. According to Bryan Caplan, we could double our economic productivity with open borders and address concerns by limiting access to welfare until a threshold of tax payment is reached (a la Milton Friedman). Michael Huemer believes we are not entitled to limit access to valuable resources or to act on the aggregate preferences of citizens, since such policies may harm potential immigrants.

Granted, the libertarian argument that there should be much freer immigration internationally has merit. We do need to let people move more easily across international borders and provide an easier path to citizenship for those who wish to be productive citizens and accept the rules and norms of their new home nation. However, it is simply not the case—not historically, not philosophically—that libertarianism is plainly and unequivocally in favor of open borders. Caplan, Huemer, and Tabarrok are far more learned scholars than I am, but they appear to be making a critical error: they are basing their positions on consequentalist/utilitarian arguments.

Support for open borders is utilitarian because it emphasizes the estimated aggregate economic gains that most economists believe would occur if we eliminated national boundaries. I agree there would be such benefits. However, that is sound economics. It is not necessarily “libertarian.”

Politically, libertarians envision collective governance effectively providing certain core services (protecting property rights, for example) but only those services. Economically, libertarians value giving individuals wide latitude in how they may act in markets, and how they may dispose of their property. This is not a surgical distinction and there is obviously a lot of overlap, but considering politics apart from economics helps clarify my position, so bear with me.

Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization and is much more consistent with anarchism than with classical liberalism— both of which are now commonly referred to as libertarian. It’s a position that rejects the entire experiment in constitutional governance and different political systems that has been a foundational belief in liberalism for hundreds of years.

Faith in constitutionalism assumes that communities can set up institutions, participate in political processes, and enforce rules and norms that allow society to function. Constitutionalists believe people have that capacity in groups. Among the rules and norms, moreover, are laws that govern the behavior of individuals. In theory, anyone can adapt to rules and practices; in reality, it is less clear. By arguing against national boundaries, these authors are in effect discarding self-government and the faith that liberalism has in self-determination even at the local or community level.

Open borders advocates insist that wealthier nations have a moral obligation to accept individuals who are currently living in less optimal political and economic systems. If they do not open their societies up, the argument goes, those wishing to immigrate will die or suffer extreme deprivation. Using Peter Singer’s well known analogy of the drowning child, Huemer argues that we have a moral obligation to allow immigrants to move freely across international borders.

Let me make two points here. First, what he and the others are doing is confusing a core value that all classical liberals, libertarians, and anarchists value—the right to exit—with a much more controversial claim, the right of entrance.

Exit is a key component of political liberalism and libertarianism. Mobility allows people the right to leave a failing jurisdiction, which could, and hopefully will, force that jurisdiction to pursue policies that will reverse its population decline. No political entity wants to suffer from shrinkage, and this is as true of countries as it is of cities and neighborhoods.  Declining populations in Detroit, for example, have prompted much soul-searching and even some encouraging turns toward the free market.

Think of it this way. You have a friend who is in a horrible, abusive marriage. This person decides to exit the marriage because the safety of themselves or perhaps their children is at risk.  You can support the idea that an abused spouse can end a bad marriage, but this does not obligate you to provide financial support to or marry this person. Exit from a situation does not require that someone else allow entrance. In fact, nations currently distinguish between refugees and immigrants and favor individuals leaving dire circumstances. They do not accept all who wish to enter, nor are they morally obliged to do so.

If for example I am living in Guatemala and want to leave, there is nothing obliging the United States to accept me simply because Guatemala is a less advantageous place to live.  A Guatemalan might choose to live in Mexico, which has a more robust state and set of public goods than Guatemala. She might choose Colombia, again where institutions are stronger and cultural values are more similar to her native country. Exit from Guatemala is something that all liberals and libertarians would support, but where that individual goes is based on the available options. Tellingly, the liberal/libertarian example of Switzerland is an example of a place with  robust free markets, limited government, and also limits on the number of foreign-born individuals allowed to become Swiss. Whether this combination of policies is economically optimal for Switzerland is another matter completely. Political reality is clearly important.

Related to this is a second point, having to do with the nature of borders. In fact borders may be consistent with a core libertarian principle, exclusion by groups. Caplan would reject this argument, claiming that problems with political decision-making make the analogy baseless.  However, instead of “groups” let’s substitute the words “homeowners’ association.” Unlike a club or group (Huemer uses the example of a philosophy discussion club), a homeowners’ association is very similar to a government with a geographically defined boundary. It sets up rules under which people gain and maintain membership. It and controls the living space of individuals. And it can discriminate based on age or any number of factors.

Additionally, the homeowners’ association relies on outside enforcement of these practices through coercive means. The power to enforce rules doesn’t magically appear like State Farm agents at the scene of accidents. The average homeowners’ association is prey to many of the same pathologies that public choice scholars, such as Caplan, raise regarding governments. And yet I’d wager that Caplan, Huemer, and Tabarrok would gladly allow the members of a homeowners’ association to exclude individuals from entering their community.

Arguably one of the pioneers of 20th century libertarianism was Murray Rothbard. Rothbard was initially a supporter of open borders, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, he began to worry about what immigration from the former East bloc nations might mean for the rest of Europe.  Writing in 1994, Rothbard argued against open borders (in an admittedly controversial article). The key argument here is an extension of the right to property: In Rothbard’s mind, a purely private world would have zero public property. Individuals and/or groups could exclude through ownership. That sounds more like a homeowners’ association than a club, and I think it brings up questions that libertarians have to address before we can know for certain what “the” libertarian view of open borders truly is.

Libertarianism, in short, is not exclusively predicated on economic efficiency. Rather, the libertarian’s goals are maintaining economic freedom and trying to rein in governmental power. A highly fluid and changing population dynamic might or might not aid in attaining those two goals, but one can easily imagine a place with immigration limits that would at the same time uphold relatively libertarian principles. In fact they make damn good chocolate, are armed to the teeth, and speak two languages there.

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