The Case for Open Borders

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June 28, 2007

Immigration policy is a thorny issue which divides libertarians. Classically, there was consensus--laissez faire, laissez passer. Free trade and open borders were seen as obvious components of liberty. With the modern phenomena of culturally conservative libertarians, the issue has reemerged, with these "paleos" arguing for free trade combined with a restrictive immigration policy. Since some of these people have impeccable libertarian credentials, such as Hans-Hermann Hoppe, it behooves us to examine their arguments supporting State policy restricting immigration.

First I will define terms, which will immediately obliterate certain anti-immigration claims resting on questionable terminology. Next I briefly survey some "red herrings" that seem popular among "conservatives." Finally, taking Hoppe as honorable antagonist, I address some additional arguments against open borders. The conclusion is that open borders are not only consistent with, but necessary to, a truly free society--but not "open borders" as Hoppe defines it, but using a more acceptable definition.

From the preceding paragraph, it may seem like I disagree with Hoppe substantially, but this is not the case at all. On all theoretical points, I agree 100% with Hoppe. The divergence comes in the definition of terms, and later in the application of the theory and the prognosis on what might happen as a result of open borders. First of all, this discussion is about immigration policy.

The Case for Open Borders

by Hogeye Bill

immigration policy - the policy a State uses in controlling travel across its borders and settlement in its territory

In a free society (free market anarchism), there is no immigration policy, only property rights. I am in full agreement with Hoppe regarding his anarcho-capitalist model vis-a-vis immigration.

Here we have a major difference from Hoppe's definitions. Hoppe defines "free immigration" (hence an open border policy) as an unconditional right to travel to and reside somewhere regardless of property ownership. Thus, in On Free Immigration and Forced Integration he writes, "With regard to a given territory into which people immigrate, it is left unanalyzed who, if anyone, owns (controls) this territory. In fact, . . . it is--implicitly--assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier)." I consider this to be a strawman, since no principled advocate of open borders supports immigration that violates property rights. I agree with Hoppe that in an anarcho-capitalist society "there exists no such thing as freedom of immigration" if it involves violation of property rights, and that "there exists the freedom of many independent private property owners to admit or exclude others from their own property in accordance with their own unrestricted or restricted property titles."

Hoppe's definition of "free immigration" is contorted and, frankly, wrong. Free immigration should logically be analogous to free speech and free trade--that someone (in particular the State via its agents) should not prevent an individual from engaging in actions that he is entitled to do. Free speech means that someone should not prevent someone from communicating in ways he is entitled to. Free speech does not mean that one may take over a television station, printing press, or lecture hall. It is not taken to mean regardless of property rights. On the contrary, freedom of speech is incoherent without assuming a theory of property rights. Similarly, free trade is the absence of anyone preventing (by initiation of force) someone from engaging in an exchange of goods or services with a consenting other. Again, the very concept is dependent upon recognition of property rights. So free immigration, rightly understood, is the absence of anyone using aggression to prevent an individual from traveling or changing residence in a way he is entitled to.

Hoppe recognizes the entitlement part when discussing free trade, and presumably for free speech, but strangely drops the entitlement context for free immigration. Thus he rigs a contrived definition of "free immigration," and argues (in The Case For Free Trade and Restricted Immigration) that: "There is no analogy between free trade and free immigration, and restricted trade and restricted immigration. The phenomena of trade and immigration are different in a fundamental respect, and the meaning of 'free' and 'restricted' in conjunction with both terms is categorically different." They are "fundamentally different" only because he gratuitously dropped the entitlement context, a context which underlies all rights, properly understood. Individual rights and property are two sides of the same coin. As Rothbard wrote, "There are no human rights that are separable from property rights."

Some people, usually of the cultural conservative persuasion, claim that open borders are bad because immigrants would swamp the welfare system and the State would go broke and be destroyed. This is, of course, quite unconvincing to anarchists, since we hate the State and would love it to go broke and die. But the argument fails even for statists, for as Hoppe himself says, "this is not an argument against immigration but against the welfare state."

Another cultural conservative argument is that "our" culture would be destroyed by too many foreigners living and reproducing in "our" nation. Again, this is remarkably unconvincing to anarchists, as we don't believe State aggression should be used to promote someone's preferred culture. Do it on your own dime, without aggression. This seems to be an acid test for self-labeled libertarian conservatives. It is amazing how many "libertarians" show their true statist colors when it comes to "preserving" their culture, race, language, or "nation." One giveaway I've noticed for these types is that they tend to say "nation" when they really mean "State." Needless to say, libertarians (whether anarchist or minarchist) cannot approve of using aggression for cultural promotion.

A third argument I've heard from some libertarians is in the form of an analogy. So long as the State controls ("owns") the roads, it is a good thing that it enforces speed limits. Similarly, so long as the State controls its turf (territory), it should control immigration. Besides the basic objection, that the State should not control roads or turf, there is another problem with this argument. While there is some objectivity and reasonable accuracy in determining a maximum safe driving speed given current automobile technology, the same cannot be said for immigration levels. We simply don't know what migration levels would be if the current US territory was stateless.

I would predict much more immigration in a free society than the statist quo, while judging from Hoppe's writings, he would predict much less. He writes, "Owing to the natural discrimination against ethno-cultural strangers in the area of residential housing and real estate there will be little actual migration, i.e., permanent resettlement." (Secession, the State, and the Immigration Problem) We have drastically different predictions, despite agreeing that road companies, airlines, hotels, businesses and industries benefiting from low-wage employees, and so on would have significant incentives for increasing travel and migration. Hoppe apparently believes that almost all homeowners and local communities would choose to implement restrictive homogeneous (some might say xenophobic) policies. I see many people (perhaps a minority, but many nevertheless) who enjoy diversity, and predict that virtually every region would have many different ethnic groups. Yes, many neighborhoods would be homogeneous, but most communities with numerous neighborhoods will generally be heterogeneous. Even in areas known for anti-immigrant sentiment, immigrants rarely have any problem finding a house to rent or buy. It only takes a small minority of non-discriminatory renters/sellers to accommodate immigrants. Hoppe writes as if a Jim Crow no-coloreds policy for foreigners will predominate almost everywhere. I just don't see that happening. Whether forced integration via affirmative action and government road building fully mitigates or offsets the more obvious forced exclusion by border nazis and immigration fedgoons is an open question.

A better analogy than comparing immigration to speed limits on roads is available. Fixing limits on migration seems more analogous to government price fixing. A State setting an immigration level is like the old Soviet Union setting prices on toilet paper, potatoes, or Kalashnikovs--and with even less information. At least the Soviet Union could look at prices on the free(er) markets in "capitalist" countries, and get a clue. But there is virtually no information about what immigration levels would be without government border nazis, passports, and immigration restrictions. Back to the road analogy: Current immigration limits may be setting the speed limit on interstate highways at 5 mph, for all we know.

Hoppe gives several arguments for State-restricted immigration. The first, involving an errant definition of "free immigration" was discussed above. Hoppe argues (in On Free Immigration and Forced Integration) that a proprietary State (e.g. monarchy) would have a better policy than a democratic State. Maybe, but a stateless society is superior to either form of rule--laissez passer AKA open borders AKA no government intervention at all dominates both. Thus we must reject his suggestion of emulating a proprietary State.

Hoppe contrasts micro-migration ("migration from one neighborhood-community into a different one . . . decentralized admission by a multitude of property owners and owner-associations") with macro-migration ("immigration by 'foreigners' from across state borders . . . centralized admission by a state".) However, it must be noted that, in the first case, the distance traveled from one neighborhood to another may be very far. I.e., micro-migration may well be immigration from a neighborhood in Guatemala or India to a neighborhood in California. Thus we must resist drawing the mistaken conclusion that micro-migration decided by consenting homeowners prevents cultural diversity.

Finally, in The Case For Free Trade and Restricted Immigration, Hoppe offers a consequentialist argument, that an open border policy would lead to dreadful chaos--"Civilization . . . would vanish . . . . National suicide." His description of the consequences of open borders starts reasonably enough. "The U.S., and Switzerland even faster, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants, because life on and off American and Swiss public streets is comfortable compared to life in many areas of the third world. Welfare costs would skyrocket . . . ." But then he goes on to predict disaster, not for the State (which we don't mind at all), but for the economy: ". . . and the strangled economy disintegrate and collapse, as the subsistence fund--the stock of capital accumulated in and inherited from the past--was plundered." While the demise of the State would no doubt be accompanied by some economic disruption, one would expect the economy to survive the transition, and of course thrive in the long run without the State sucking its blood. Most market firms (as opposed to political firms) will likely adjust rather quickly to the disintegration of the State. Neither civilization nor the economy needs the State!

Let's see precisely where Hoppe and I differ in our prognosis. We agree that "the domestic state-welfare programs and provisions would collapse as a consequence." We agree that the welfare States will have "collapsed under their own weight." We differ in our estimation of what happens next. Hoppe writes, "Somehow, out of the ruins of the democratic welfare states, we are supposed to believe, a new natural order will emerge." That doesn't quite express my take. I think that stateless societies have a good chance of emerging in many places, what with the popular disgust for the late State, its worthless money, and its broken promises. The prospects for liberty will be greater than ever before seen in modern times. But it's no sure thing--no forgone conclusion. The masses may opt for a new tyrant, as people in crisis France opted for Napoleon, and people in crisis Germany opted for Hitler. But people in the USSR, with virtually no tradition of liberty, opted for devolution. There is ample justification for hoping, if we libertarians do our job of education well, that former US subjects will accomplish many wonderful secessions, and maintain many stateless areas and enclaves after the fall of empire. Given the choice of devolution or tyranny, it's not unreasonable to expect many Americans to choose freedom and agora.

Hoppe worries (in Secession, the State, and the Immigration Problem) that the large number of immigrants will not assimilate, making a "natural order" impossible. "When the welfare state has imploded there will be a multitude of 'little' (or not so little) Calcuttas, Daccas, Lagos', and Tiranas strewn all over Switzerland, Austria and Italy. It betrays a breathtaking sociological naivete to believe that out of this admixture a natural order will emerge." This objection is puzzling to me, since Hoppe eloquently argued in the same article that such homogeneous assimilation is totally unnecessary for a natural order, or for trade to occur. So different communities have different Private Defense Agencies, different customs, even different languages. So what? There's nothing in that which prevents natural order market anarchism.

I concur wholeheartedly with Hoppe's prescription: "The solution to the immigration problem is at the same time the solution to the general problem inherent in the institution of a state and public property. It involves the return to a natural order by means of secession." I see open borders as hastening the secession, and as leveraging the contradictions of State leading to its speedy demise. This contrasts with Hoppe's reluctance to let the State hang itself by its own welfare system. But then, I hate the State. Between its incessant wars and its redistributive plunder, I relish the prospect of breakup and devolution. Bring it on!

open border policy - the State does not (initiate force to) restrict people from traveling or residing anywhere they are entitled to travel or reside

closed border policy - the State imposes significant restrictions (by initiating force) on people with respect to how or where they travel or reside

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Hogeye Bill is a chess master, songwriter, and freelance anarchist. He is author of the popular Anarcho-capitalist FAQ and an online history of anarchist thought entitled Against Authority. He currently resides in Ozarkia (northern Arkansas in statist-speak) unless he is on the lam again.