Borders: Are We Having The Same Debate?


Open vs. closed borders are one of those matters that can turn any friendly gathering of libertarians into the annual family Thanksgiving political debate. Socialist, fascist, racist and a litany of other insults are hurled and passions light aflame at the mere mention of how the libertarian society should view this issue.

Liberty Hangout went as far to call open borders communist because “[…] when there are open borders, taxpayers are made to subsidize public infrastructure which immigrants and citizens alike will then travel through. The same tragedy of the commons situation present in our education system will arise with open borders as well. Open borders will then have the same effect on our economy as the public school system,” which the author argued has also suffered because of an overflow of low-skilled students, and continues by stating, “The country will become oversaturated with unskilled laborers who would have otherwise never made their way here under free market circumstances, in the same way that students who would have otherwise failed in private schools are allowed to receive a degree anyway, which lowers the utility for everyone else.”

Philosopher and inaugural presidential candidate for the United States Libertarian Party (LP), John Hospers, felt likewise and argued in his essay “A Libertarian Argument Against Open Borders”  that “[…] it would imply that Israel should be committed to a policy of open borders for Palestinians, which would surely involve intense armed conflict. Is the ‘open borders’ policy to be carried out for any person in any nation no matter what the conditions? Doesn’t it depend on what those conditions are?”

In my interactions with closed-borders advocates, it seems that their most pressing concern is that open borders wouldn’t allow them to protect their property, and force them to allow others to come and go freely, but this is not the open-borders argument. The main concern of open borders is government control of citizens’ ability to sell their labor freely across the world.

Passports, citizenship requirements, and the large cost of renouncing one’s citizenship make competing in the world-wide job market nearly impossible. Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, also purported this view in Liberalism, explaining “[…] whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, […], make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, […] their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.”

Open advocates aren’t the only ones who are victims of strawmanning viewpoints, as most are just as guilty of performing the same fallacy on closed-border libertarians. “[…] if preventing an increase in the consumption of state-provided benefits justifies restricting freedom in immigration, then it also justifies restricting freedom in, well, anything,” claims Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Will Tippens, of the Future of Freedom Foundation claims that the main argument against open borders is the influx of immigrants seeking to get on government welfare, and that closed-border libertarians want a larger government in this one aspect. As was stated earlier, the primary concern of advocates for closed is the respect of their property, not a large, state-controlled border.

So, if the primary concern of open-borders advocates is a free market of labor, which I suspect closed-border believers would support, and the primary concern of closed-borders advocates is respect for who may enter their property, again, a belief I suspect open-borders believers would support, then what is this debate actually about?

If it concerns whether one believes that people should be able to pass freely onto your property, then that constitutes a personal belief and not a political philosophy. If it concerns the abuse of the current welfare system, then that is a concern of having the institution and not necessarily a problem of immigration.

Instead of trying to create the least flammable strawman, the focus should be on understanding each side’s position and discovering that our views, perhaps, can fit inside another’s. The borders debate cannot progress if it isn’t recognized that the debate is over two different topics and that disagreement may not be as prevalent as it appears.

The following two tabs change content below.

Luke Henderson

Since joining the Libertarian Party in 2016, Luke Henderson has been active in the liberty movement through journalism and political activism. Luke is an educator, composer of fine art and electronic music, and also contributes to Think Liberty, and the Libertarian Coalition.