Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Immigration Is a fundamental human right


Imigration is a hot topic. Again. [And it’s arguably even more important post-Brexit – Ed.]

In 1927 the great Austrian economist and classical liberal, Ludwig von Mises, had this to say about it:

The liberal demands that every person have the right to live wherever he wants. This is not a "negative" demand. It belongs to the very essence of a society based on private ownership of the means of production that every man may work and dispose of his earnings where he thinks best. [...] When liberalism arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it had to struggle for freedom of emigration. Today, the struggle is over freedom of immigration. [Emphasis added]

That’s from his book, Liberalism, which should be required reading for all freedom-loving people. Here, Mises uses the term “liberal” in its earlier, non-interventionist or “classical” meaning. This is how I’m using the term “liberal” in this essay.

A basic tenet of liberalism is that every person, regardless of what country she happens to live in, has the same basic human rights. If it doesn’t apply to everyone, everywhere then it can’t be a basic human right. And among those rights is the right of free association.

Cap3Free association simply means that Jack is free to peacefully associate with Jill, as long as Jill wishes to peacefully associate with Jack. Indeed, Jack can’t exercise that right unless Jill can also, which is another characteristic of a basic human right. It applies broadly to all forms of association, related but not limited to political activity, religious observance, and commerce.

It does not imply that others are obliged to pay Jack’s and Jill’s costs of associating with each other and it does not imply that we are obliged to associate with others if we don’t want to.

If the government dictates that I may live and work only in the North Island, for example, that’s a clear violation of my right of free association and my right to property. It’s merely a difference in degree, but still a violation of my basic rights, if the government dictates that I can live and work anywhere except in the North Island.

It’s makes no fundamental difference if, instead of the North Island and the rest of Australasia, the restriction applies to North Dakota, Northern Ireland or North Korea.

Again, the difference between keeping people from entering these islands and keeping people from leaving North Korea is one of degree and not in the principle involved. Moreover, excluding immigration violates the right of free association of those who already live here people who wish to associate those who wish to immigrate here. If you want to hire or rent an apartment to a person who lives outside the borders, and government prevents you from doing so, your rights have been violated.

Arbitrary political borders

Let’s suppose that a street divides the city you live and work in along its central north-south axis. You reside on the west side of that street while your job lies on the east side. One day the government passes a law that forbids anyone living on the west side from crossing over to the east side, and builds a wall (at your expense) along the central street to strictly enforce that law.

There are at least two important consequences of this policy, one economic the other moral. In economic terms, it would tend to make everyone materially worse off. Under the circumstances, you would be worse off, since an option for employment, presumably the best you could find, is no longer available. Your employer is worse off because you were presumably the best worker she could find.

CaptureAnd consumers are worse off because your employment on the east side was presumably the most productive there compared to anything on the west side. But as bad as these economic implications are, the moral implications are far worse.

That’s because such a law would clearly violate the basic human right of free association. As long as your employer is able and willing to pay you a wage that you are able and willing to accept, you should be free to work for her regardless of where that is, as long as you do not violate anyone else’s basic rights by doing so.

The same goes for every other personal transaction involving homes, businesses, friendships, personal relationships, education, recreation, and so on.

But welfare!

There are many issues of varying complexity surrounding the debate over liberalizing immigration. Many other writers have ably addressed the false claim that immigrants, legal and illegal, take jobs away from incumbent Americans, for example, or concerns over changes that might occur to “American culture.” There are also labour laws – as in France where legislation has made it extremely difficult to hire and fire workers that greatly exacerbate the situation.

There’s a very popular argument, made by some libertarians, against liberalising immigration that I’d briefly like to address here. It’s that doing so would add tremendously to government spending and taxes, as ever more immigrants means having to provide them with ever more government goods and services, especially welfare transfers.

To this, economist Bryan Caplan offers one surprisingly straight-forward response:

Countries with lavish welfare states have more to worry about [from liberalizing immigration], but there is a cheap, humane alternative to exclusion: restrict migrants’ eligibility for benefits. Creative approaches abound: For example, immigrants could be ineligible for government transfers for their first 10 years of residence, or until they’ve paid $100,000 in taxes.

While for a time this would privilege incumbent residents over new immigrants, from the liberal perspective, it’s much less of a rights violation than forbidding people their right of free association. It may not be the best way to handle the problem, but it’s at least a way of doing so that avoids a infringing on a basic human right. [And look – this has been precisely the way Australia treats NZ immigrants! – Ed.]

Is it delusional?

Conservatives and even some “libertarians” have characterised this as delusional, arguing that the left-progressives in government would do everything in their considerable power to resist excluding immigrants from any redistributive programs. But is this idea any more delusional than the liberal position that it’s a worthy goal to shrink the overall scope of government authority – a belief on which FEE and organizations like it were founded?

CaptureCaplan’s proposal denies privileges to only a subset of the entire population – immigrants, legal and even illegal – that the current law already (whether you agree with it or not) excludes from certain government privileges, such as voting.

But if that’s what’s really behind their reluctance to liberalise immigration, then what hope could they possibly hold out for shrinking the redistributive state at all?  How delusional must it seem to such opponents of liberalising immigration that we could think of limiting or even rolling back welfare privileges for everyone?

The state did not create the freedom of association; free association is prior to the state and prior to the state’s artificial boundaries. As liberals, that’s something to remember and celebrate.

Let’s fight to shrink the welfare state and to liberalise labor laws, not to prevent people from exercising a basic right.


sandy-ikeda-pictureSandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.

A version of this article first appeared at FEE.


  1. It's a nice argument, entirely logical. Unfortunately there are certain practical issues.
    The big one is that the rules of the game are whatever the population as a whole say they are.
    Libertarians have thus far been unable to convince even our current population about how the game should be played.
    Import a bunch of immigrants with less liberal values, or the mind virus that is radical Islam, and how do you think it will play out?
    Higher taxes to build mosques for the new state religion probably.
    Cart before the horse old chap. Get back to me once our state has been shrunk.

  2. What are your thoughts on charging for admission?
    Being a New Zealand Citizen is a very valuable advantage. Should we be selling entry rather than giving it away. How does that fit with Libertarian thought?

    1. More to the point: what is it that makes NZ better than countries such as India?

      A libertarian immigration policy would turn NZ into a Chinese/Indian slum within a few years. There goes the advantages of being a citizen.

      Auckland's infrastructure can't cope at the moment; so what the fuck do libertarians think would happen if everyone from an overpopulated 3rd world dump had the 'right' to move here? Delusion at its finest.

  3. Easy to be a liberal when it's not your livelihood being competed with, when it's not you and yours who have to live a couple blocks from a mosque, to see daily the effects of mass immigration of foreign and alien hordes on your community.

  4. Three few swarthy looking Islam here in the apartment in Bangkok Yai. We don't like them, so much.
    One said to me, @ "Kiwi look bro he says we want to shift to New Zealand . We want to live with a nice intelligent bloke, but not too intelligent. We like our own cell at his home, you know. Its too hot here, after Erewan ". I said " I have just the man for you . PC they arrive off Emirates tomorrow. I did the Visa myself.

  5. "Immigration is a fundamental human right".

    Ah. This is where ideals run smack into the 50-metre-tall brick wall called the "Real World".

    In the real world, the vast majority of those wanting to come to live here follow the hostile-to-the-West ideology of *Islam*. In fact. *migration* is one of the central planks of Islam - the calendar of Islam even has its "year zero" as the year that Mohammed migrated from Mecca to Medina.

    Why do I tell you this? Because I don't want to see a beautiful country sacrificed on the altar of NAIVE and FOOLISH *idealism* and ignorance of Islam.

  6. There is no such thing as the right to live wherever you want. A fully free society is a fully private society, so to decide you can just march in because you have the god given right to would be a violation of property rights. I would never turn up at the border of another country and demand to be let in, as is happening in Europe. What kind of a character would that show if I did? It wouldn't be a freedom or rights respecting person who behaved that way. I agree that there is a right to freedom of association, but that is entirely different. Freedom of association doesn't necessitate the right to live wherever you want. Visiting people, and associating with them, particular via the internet in this modern age, doesn't require immigrating. If a society is to preserve it's freedom loving, rational culture, then it has to place rational criteria on who can immigrate. It must discriminate. There is no problem with people with an individualist outlook on life, but displace that culture with a collectivist, tribalist mindset, and things will go downhill very fast.


1. Comments are welcome and encouraged.
2. Comments are moderated. Gibberish, spam & off-topic grandstanding will be removed. Tu quoque will be moderated. Links to bogus news sites (and worse) will be deleted.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say it, it's important enough to put a name to it.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.