A Stato-Libertarian Analysis of Immigration

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October 30, 2007

'We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.'

~ George Orwell

After much discussion, debate, soul-searching, and research, we think we finally understand what the closed-border libertarians are really trying to say about immigration. We think we understand the logic, and why it makes sense to some people. And while we don't agree, we also must admit that the logic is sound if (but only if) you're interested in using the power of the State for some 'good' purpose. The belief that the coercive power of the State can be used for good is perhaps the most dangerous idea in history.

In this case, 'good' simply means that the power of the State ' power that plumb-line libertarians supposedly agree that no one should have ' should be used for purposes that appeal to some libertarians! (Talk about cognitive dissonance.) It is the sweet Kool-Aid of this fallacy ' a fallacy we thought we had long since abandoned ' which so many otherwise radical libertarians seem to be drinking.

Essentially, a popular libertarian argument (as best we can repeat it) for closed borders goes like this:

The state should use aggression as required to keep too many illegal aliens from entering the U.S. because otherwise, the amount of aggression the state uses against legal citizens to support those illegal aliens will have to increase.

This argument is based on the pragmatic assumption that choosing the lesser of two evils is beneficial. Being shot in the foot is preferable to being shot in the chest. Opting to increase the power of the state in the hopes of creating conditions which will somehow reduce the power of the state may seem like a mad, dangerous, and self-defeating plan, but it appeals to a rather surprisingly large number of libertarians. For this reason it is well worth analyzing. The logic and assumptions that appear to undergird this premise are listed below. We follow each general assumption with a terse summary of the position, in parentheses.

  • a. Aggression ' defined as action taken by the State against any citizen, e.g., taxation, incarceration, fines, imposition of rules, etc. ' exists at a present level (call it X) that is relatively stable. (In other words, the amount of aggression imposed on normal citizens by the State is more or less fixed.)
  • b. Without the state providing a chokepoint for entry into the U.S. , the number of illegal aliens would skyrocket in an uncontrolled manner. (In other words, in the area of immigration, the State provides a necessary service.)
  • c. While it may be argued that the free market for labor and housing can absorb some influx of new people, it cannot be argued that this market would absorb the huge number of people who would immigrate to the U.S. without the state-imposed chokepoint noted above. (In other words, the market doesn't work all the time.)
  • d. No matter what their socio-economic, educational or cultural pedigree, any significant influx of illegal aliens ' i.e. those who enter the U.S. without taking all the proper steps to become citizens ' will result in a net increase of people receiving state-based aid, e.g., welfare, food stamps, subsidized housing. (In other words, illegal aliens will, in the aggregate, become net tax consumers.)
  • e. No matter what their socio-economic, education or cultural pedigree, any significant influx of illegal aliens, as defined above, will not result in an increase in either GNP or other wealth that counteracts the net increase of people receiving state-based aid, as defined above. (In other words, illegal aliens will, in the aggregate, become a net drain on the economy.)
  • f. The inevitable result of this significant influx in illegal aliens must necessarily be an increased level of aggression against current citizens (call this new aggression level Y), as manifest by increased taxation, specifically to fund the needs of illegal aliens. (In other words, illegal aliens will cost existing citizens money.)
  • g. Any significant influx of illegal aliens will also result in a measurable increase in people who not only take advantage of socialist state policies, but who would also support the creation of more such policies via the vote. (In other words, illegal aliens will further corrupt the political process.)
  • h. The support of illegal aliens for socialist state policies will result in even more aggression by the state against legal citizens. (In other words, illegal aliens will take part in the same practices that all other voters embrace.)
  • i. Finally, since the illegal immigrants will rely so heavily on state largesse, a pro-statist voting bloc will be permanently created. (In other words, illegal aliens will respond to incentives exactly as everyone else already does.)

Evidence, Evidence, Evidence'

The portions of this logic that are not patently false or impossible to prove generally represent either irrelevant tautologies or irrational fears. While a number of the fallacies in this argument have been successfully dismissed by others, we still feel compelled to examine the general premise via another rubric: historical evidence. If the proposition is: 'Giving the state more power over immigration will lead to a reduction in the power of the state,' there is no need to rely on mere theory, since we can simply review the abundant historical evidence. All we need to do is look at the past hundred years or so.

Clearly, state immigration controls have expanded radically since the 19th Century. According to the theory, these massive increases in immigration controls should have reduced the power of government as a whole. At the very least, these additional controls should have stemmed government waste, political corruption, and kept state-sponsored aggression at a fixed level.

It's hard to imagine any libertarian needing a chart to see the empirical flaw in this proposition.

We can also ask: 'Has the fear of immigration ever contributed to expansions in government power in the past?' If immigration scares have been used to expand government power in the past, it's hard to imagine how such fears in the present can ever reduce government power in the future.

One of the greatest expansions in US state power ' in fact, the expansion that is arguably required for all other expansions ' was the creation of state schools in the mid-19th Century.

A central justification for the introduction of state education was a fear of immigration. A general paranoia about foreign values 'taking over' American culture provided great fuel for the introduction of standardized cultural indoctrination in the form of state schools. Particularly, Protestant Americans in the mid-19th Century feared that the growing influx of Catholic immigrants would place American society under control of the Pope! (And let's not forget the 1901 Anarchist Exclusion Act, which prohibited the entry into the US of people judged to be anarchists and political extremists. How many of us would be turned back or deported today?)

We can also look at how state power was affected by the fears of the 'Yellow Peril,' or the large increase of Chinese and Japanese immigration in the mid-19th Century. Did the desire to keep such immigrants out result in an increase, or a reduction in state power? (Hint, take a look at the Asian Exclusion Act, Chinese Exclusion Act, etc.)

The Dillingham Commission labored from 1907 to 1911 writing a 42-volume report warning that the 'new' immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe threatened to subvert American society. These recommendations were the basis for the Quota Acts of the 1920s. Open immigration as a concept took a severe blow during the First World War, as state power vastly increased. In 1921, the Emergency Quota Act restricted immigration from any given country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the US in 1910. (For more of this timeline, please click here.)

Similarly, just as the 'free movement' of immigrants is opposed in the present, the liberation of slaves ' the abolition of slavery ' was opposed in the past, and for many of the same reasons. In particular, the fear that a new special-interest voting block would overturn historical freedoms was a common component of pro-slavery rhetoric.

Over and over, we can see that increased fears of immigration (and by extension immigrants) are followed by overall increases in state power.

Many libertarians look back with fondness to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Of course, there were virtually no immigration restrictions in the 18th Century, when the United States was far more free than it is today. As immigration restrictions have grown, so has state power.

Cause and Effect

It could be argued, of course, that it was the increases in state power that resulted in additional immigration restrictions. In some cases, this may be true, but in many other cases, such as public education, fear-mongering empirically preceded expansions in state power, and were directly used to justify such increases. The 'cause and effect' relationship between ideas and laws is very difficult to prove ' and in some cases may be impossible ' but the essential lesson here is that increases in immigration controls have never led to overall reductions in state power, but have always preceded overall increases.

This is perfectly logical, since we know that increases in specific government power and spending are almost never offset by decreases elsewhere. When we demand that immigrants be kept out because we are afraid of them abusing the welfare system (a demonstrably false fear), we are demanding that government increase its spending on immigration control. Do we then rationally expect government spending to decrease on welfare, let alone overall?

It will never happen, because it never has happened.

As Santayana famously said, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'

Of course, some libertarians would argue that increased immigration controls in the past may have been responsible for somehow reducing the acceleration of the growth of state power. This teasingly seductive thesis is, however, impossible to prove. The challenge remains that this was never ' and is not now ' the goal of immigration controls.

Libertarians do not argue that we need to keep illegal immigrants out because that will retard the inevitable growth of the state by a few percentage points a year ' in other words, that increased immigration controls will result in a budget deficit of only $2 trillion a year, rather than $2.02 trillion a year. Put that starkly, few libertarians would find such a goal to be particularly compelling or the most worthwhile use of our scarce time and resources.

But, I Thought We Wanted Anarchy?

A cartoon we saw some time ago provides most of the context one needs to understand the typical stance of the most ignorant anti-immigrationists. Certainly, the more reasoned thinkers, and honorable people like Ron Paul, understand that such a view is lunacy. The problem is, if one supports closed borders 'this one time,' one is in bed with those who have a, shall we say, less nuanced view of freedom. In for a penny, in for a pound?

Immigration Debate - 2007

The problem with supporting or nourishing this view, if only just a little bit, is this: anarchy and free markets are never a given. It is of limited use that we all agree on that end point, since that end point will likely never come in our lifetimes. It is important that we agree on what is a step in the right or wrong direction, since many such steps will come in our lifetimes.

Building a border wall, an idea with which even Ron Paul apparently agrees, is a step that is rather close at hand in the mind of many. If the most libertarian, by far, of the candidates for President of the United States thinks building a wall to keep Mexicans out is a good idea, at what point do we ask, 'Huh? What?' If we'll compromise on this, what else will prove 'practical' in the long run?

Expanding government power to keep some people out, under the theory that they might either vote or use social services ' and thus lead to expanded aggression ' is not truly libertarian. If you think aggression now is necessary to forestall more aggression in the future, this is essentially the same argument underlying gun control and pre-emptive intervention all over the globe. Of course, if those who vote for increases in state power are in the wrong morally as well as practically, what does that say about those who support increases in state power over immigration?

It is also strange to note that libertarians argue that the state is woefully and destructively counter-productive in social policies ' in every area except immigration. The welfare state creates more poor, libertarians unerringly argue. Do we really believe that increased anti-immigration policies will do anything but create more illegal immigration? If the state is successful in keeping immigrants out, that just raises the economic value of getting in, unless the demand for illegal labor disappears. (Does anyone think the State can do that?) The prospect of increased wages for those who get through will simply raise the price that can be paid ' in bribes or other countermeasures ' to get through. The government can't keep drugs out of prisons, but it can effectively keep immigrants out? It's exactly the same principle.

Thus the argument for immigration controls calls libertarian theory itself into question! On this one issue, libertarianism does not work. On this one issue, apparently, a libertarian (laissez faire) immigration policy is ultimately bad for liberty! This is almost identical to the logic employed by those who believe a truly libertarian foreign policy is bad for liberty, or gun control advocates who believe a truly libertarian gun policy is bad for liberty, or drug warriors believe a truly libertarian drug policy endangers liberty.


We're far from the only libertarian thinkers who are a little disturbed over Ron Paul's stance on immigration specifically, and the closed-border argument in general. What concerns us is that so many otherwise seasoned, battle-worn libertarians are willing to cast aside that which we thought was inarguable and unassailable ' our belief in the absolute evil of the State ' because we've supposedly got a horse in the race.

We gave up believing that all we needed was the 'right guy' in office just about the same time we realized, in the words of the immortal Harry Browne, that 'government doesn't work.'

A central tactic of governments around the world is to make people afraid of each other, rather than of their governments. Libertarians are generally cognizant of this reality in many areas. We understand that environmental fear-mongering is designed to justify increases in state power, as does playing on fears about drug use, poverty, sickness and so on.

It is time that we expand this understanding to immigration as well. A recent Internet blog entry echoes this truth:

''even when mass migration is political and invasive, dismantling the welfare state and privatizing as much land as humanly possible are the only responses that don't lead to intolerable collateral damage in terms of liberties and property rights.'

By giving the government more power t keep others out, we are only giving the government more power to keep us down.

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Wilton D. Alston's picture
Columns on STR: 14

Wilt Alston writes from Upstate, NY.  When he's not training for a marathon, or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.


Wilton D. Alston's picture

This is an essay that was actually co-authored by me and Stefan Molyneux. For reasons having to do with the hosting platform, it does not (and cannot, apparently) show Stef as a co-author. Simply because I'm proud of the work that Stef and I did together, I will spell that fact out here in the comments.