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Libertarians & immigration

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2007

One of the most bizarre developments in the past decade or so is the insistence by a small handful of people who parade under the banner "libertarian" or "advocate of free markets" that the state has both the right and the duty to limit immigration.

The most popular version of the so-called libertarian case against immigration runs like this:

Each private property owner has the moral right (and should have the legal right) to ban from his property, or to admit onto his property, anyone he chooses. In a free society, no one is coerced into unwanted associations with others.

Therefore, because in a fully free society all land would be privately owned and government would be limited (at most) to keeping the peace, immigration policy in this society would be highly decentralized, in the hands of each of the many property owners. Each property owner would choose his own "immigration policy."

But we do not live in a fully free society. We're stuck with a large and intrusive government, one that owns enormous tracts of land and public facilities. Given that excessive government is a reality that will not soon disappear, the best that citizens of a democratic society can hope for on the immigration front is that their overly powerful government mimics the immigration policies that a fully free society would adopt.

Because there would be no free admission in a fully free society -- again, each private owner could chose to admit or not to admit anyone seeking to enter his property -- there should be no free admission in today's less-than-free society. Indeed, say these "libertarian" skeptics of immigration, open immigration today is tantamount to forced integration. Citizens who do not wish to associate with foreigners are forced to do so by a government that too freely admits foreign immigrants.

From a pro-individual-liberty perspective, this argument for limiting immigration is deeply confused.

First, to ask government to mimic the outcomes of a pure private property rights system is to come dangerously close to asking government to treat the entire country as if that country is the private property of the state. What an irony!

Anyone who advocates such a policy overlooks the single most important reason for strictly limiting government's power: Unlike true owners of private property, government can resort to force to increase the size of its property holdings and the value of its portfolio. Government is not an owner of private property. Restrictions on government discretion are appropriate precisely because government possesses a legitimized monopoly on coercion.

Consider, for example, the right of free speech. Would it be sensible to argue that, because each private-property owner has the right to regulate what is said on his property, government in our less-than-libertarian world should have the power to regulate speech uttered in public places or over public airwaves?

Of course not. But such an argument is analogous to the "libertarian" argument for government restrictions on immigration.

Secondly, labeling open immigration as "forced integration" is disingenuous. Such a practice is identical to labeling freedom of speech as "forced listening."

In fact, of course, keeping government from regulating speech is not at all identical to forcing people to listen. Likewise, allowing people to immigrate into a country is not the same thing as forcing citizens of that country to associate with immigrants.

Under a regime of open immigration, I need not hire or befriend anyone whom I don't wish to hire or befriend. Indeed, whenever the U.S. government restricts immigration it coercively prevents me, an American, from hiring or befriending on my own property whomever I choose to hire or befriend.

An immigrant who receives no welfare payments engages only in consensual capitalist acts with those (and only those) domestic citizens who choose to deal with the immigrant.

Just as trade restraints are, at bottom, unjustified restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens, so, too, are immigration restraints unjustified restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens.

Thirdly, even if some coherent justification could be given in the abstract for restricting immigration, it is curious in the extreme that any proponent of liberty is willing in practice to trust government with the power to pick and choose which foreigners we domestic citizens are permitted to deal with on our home shores.

There is no reason to believe that government will exercise this power more prudently and intelligently than it exercises other powers.

Whether immigrants increase or decrease measured GDP or per-capita income is an empirical question that can be answered only by sound empirical research. But the moral case for open immigration is paramount.

That case grows from the recognition that a geopolitical border is a grotesquely arbitrary reason to prevent people from dealing with each other in whatever peaceful ways they choose.



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