Immigration and Closed Borders


The Paris terrorist attacks have caused a rift in the libertarian community. To the surprise of many, some libertarians advocate for a closed border policy. I was in shock too when I first heard of this position considering libertarianism is about natural rights, and what more basic right is there than movement? This debate is extremely complicated, and it is unfortunate many see it as a straightforward discussion.

Ask any run-of-the-mill libertarian on the street about the debate and they will claim there are two sides: the open border libertarians, i.e. the true and consistent libertarians, and the closed border libertarians, i.e. reactionaries who either use utilitarianism or are changing up libertarian principles to make them fit what they believe is beneficial. This is a false dichotomy. These two sides definitely do exist, but there are more.

Closed Border Positions

There are primarily 4 positions I have observed under the closed border tent.

  1. Neoreactionaries. They are cultural purists, and many of them believe they are simply race realists. Coincidentally, they often come off as racist against non-Europeans (though the author would consider himself a race realist and not racist nor a neoreactionary in the least bit).
  2. Those who fashion themselves after Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. They take the libertarian theory of property to its logical conclusions: a private law society would only allow for invitation immigration. Another crucial point they make is that the roads are privately owned by the taxpayers. The property rights violations increase when considering there is anti-discrimination legislation, thus causing, as Hoppe calls it, “forced integration.”
  3. Reactionaries. These are the libertarians who were never principled libertarians. Some are former neoconservatives, and they see the threat of mass immigration from South America and the Middle East as Cultural Marxism, i.e. cultural disintegration. They use some type of reasoning similar to utilitarianism, but their goal is cultural preservation and not utility maximization.
  4. True utilitarians. These are also unprincipled libertarians who are libertarians purely because they believe utility maximization would be more closely achieved in a private property system.

Open Border Positions

There are primarily 4 positions under the libertarian open border tent.

  1. Emotion-driven libertarians. These are libertarians who mean nothing ill to immigrants, and wish to show compassion to them, especially those who are poverty-stricken. Some are “left-libertarians” (also see this speech given by Hoppe about right vs. left-libertarianism).
  2. Principled libertarians. These libertarians look at the base of libertarian theory, i.e. free association, and reach the conclusion that preservation of libertarian principles must entail open borders. Libertarians from both sides, i.e. “right” and “left” libertarians, take this stance. It was the opinion of Murray Rothbard until later in his life.
  3. Utilitarians. They have studied the subject and have decided open border immigration helps the economy. The benefits are not only cheap labor, but also highly skilled labor from foreign countries.
  4. [Other] principled libertarians. They follow the tradition of Rothbard and Hoppe too, but deduce the policy recommendation of closed borders as wrong. An example of such a believer is Stephan Kinsella.

Which Borders Matter?

The libertarian answer to this question would be “only private property borders ethically matter.” The government cannot own property — a government can only possess property insomuch it steals from those with the proper rights in a good or blocks people from using unowned resources — and traversing unowned land is perfectly fine. There are no property rights in unowned land, by definition, and thus no property rights could be violated by traveling across the land. So, the only non-arbitrary, legitimate constraints on a scarce resource are those formed by an individual who has property rights in a good.

Every principled libertarian must consider this answer as true. Every closed border libertarian that is not a principled libertarian might explicitly agree with the principled libertarians, but they presuppose the answer as being not true when they advocate for state policies to restrict access to areas where the property rights holders invited outsiders. If they wish to be principled libertarians, then they lack a property theory that could allow for a closed border policy recommendation.

Hoppe has such a theory of private property that would allow for it. He claims taxpayers have property rights in the “public property”, e.g. roads; the taxpayers are funding the roads and thus have better objective, intersubjectively ascertainable links to the land than outsiders. Of course, the original, proper owner of the land has a better objective claim to it, and we are talking about the 2nd or 3rd best claims to land. Moreover, Hoppe claims the state would be a better trustee if they excluded the use of the public roads by non-taxpayers, i.e. immigrants, since less people’s rights would be violated than if there were an open border policy.

Imagine 1 taxpayer is an open border advocate, but the 99 other taxpayers — all 100 funding a specific road — are closed border advocates. If the goal is to reduce aggressions, then clearly the solution would be a closed border policy to prevent immigrants from using the road.

Hoppe and the adherents to this specific form of libertarian theory of property rights admit both policy recommendations are not perfect. In either case there will be property rights violations. The very possession of the land by the government and the taxation to fund the road are aggressions, and thus a suboptimal result must occur. Those commenting on the open-closed border debate, if they pick a policy over the other, must choose between two unnecessary evils.

What Border Policy is the Best Policy?

The correct policy recommendation is not obvious, and this obscurity is a direct result of state intervention. The closed border approach will lead to less aggression (every person should agree that more U.S. taxpayers than not want border policies more like a closed border policy than an open border policy); however, the open border policy will stop institutional aggression, i.e. aggression committed by the state, and will only allow individual cases of aggression to occur, i.e. individual immigrants trespassing.

It will be best if I describe the issues with both policy recommendations.

Problems with Open Borders

Immigrants will trespass on “public” property. There will be a mass of aggressions committed, and the taxpayers would not be able to legally stop them from trespassing.

Anti-discriminations laws then stop the taxpayers from discriminating against the immigrants. This is quite literally “forced integration.”

The influx of immigrants and the forced integration with them changes the customs of the region. The aggressions against the taxpayers are already unjust, but the change in culture around the taxpayers is simply rubbing salt in the wound.

Additionally, there has been a positive correlation observed between influxes of immigrants and higher violent crime rates. One could surely show how the influx of immigrants is a cause, possibly the primary cause, for the spike in crime rates, but I will leave it to another writer to do this task.

There are more problems that arise, such as if the immigrants are more statist they will change the political landscape for likely the worse, but there are too many to list and discuss in this article.

Problems with Closed Borders

While there are many issues with open borders, a closed border policy includes systematic aggressions. There are aggressions committed via the use of state coercion to keep invitees off lands the owners invited them to, and there are more aggressions through the funding of the policy enforcement, i.e. taxation.

The Solution

Following in the steps of Rothbard and specifically Hoppe, one can find a libertarian and justifiable answer to the immigration problem. It is crucial to recognize the taxpayers as those who have the 2nd or 3rd best claims to the “public property,” and to say otherwise would be ridiculous since there are objective links between the public property and the taxpayers, i.e. their funding to maintain the public property.

Contrary to Hoppe, however, the correct policy recommendation is an open border policy. While there might be more aggression committed if borders are left open, a closed border policy requires institutional infringement of rights. Possibly, at this moment, the aggressions committed under an open border policy might lead to more aggressions overall, but the likelihood of aggression tomorrow, the day after, the year, or a decade after is lower than under a closed border policy . A state policy, e.g. taxation, is more likely to keep recurring than an individual aggression.

As libertarians, we must oppose any and all aggression, and, foremost, we must oppose institutional aggression. This type of aggression is more difficult to rid ourselves of, and it is more permanent than one guy jumping a fence. This debate should not involve wild emotion. People pointing fingers at others for being supposedly less morally or ethically righteous than they are harms any real discussion of the principles at the heart of the debate.

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