If you understand anything at all about libertarianism (which, I lament, too few libertarians even do) you would know that it is based squarely on defending the rights of individuals – “That to secure these rights,” to use Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrase, “Governments are instituted among Men.”
That government’s only purpose being to secure individual rights; a government itself being an entity with a monopoly over the use of force in any given geographic area; a border simply being the boundaries around that aforementioned area. This is the place from which legitimate libertarian arguments generally begin.
So with that understood then, let’s look at an important observation by young libertarian Zachary Woodman, who writes:
One thing that strikes me about libertarians who oppose open borders [however] is that they approach the issue of immigration completely different from how libertarians approach nearly every other issue.
And so they do. While most libertarian arguments are founded upon rights, when it comes to immigration the arguments of those opposed all of a sudden focus instead on consequences. So as Mr Woodman identifies, contra Jefferson the psuedo-libertarian argument against immigration typically goes as follows
- Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
- Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.
For example, many libertarians claim that because immigrants will increase deficits by using the welfare state, the government is justified in restricting immigration. Of course, this isn’t actually true, but even if it were true this in no way justifies immigration restrictions.
To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.”
And unless that someone is initiating force, that is something to which genuine libertarians are suppposed to be opposed. Jason Brennan expands the objection:
When we impose immigration restrictions, we do not simply fail to help would-be immigrants, but rather use violence and threats of violence to prevent them from making life-saving or life-changing trades with willing trading partners. We also harm our own citizens, who would benefit from interacting with those immigrants. We impose ourselves and cut off relationships that otherwise would have formed. We use violence and threats of violence to interfere with people who, if left alone, would work or live or trade together.
Can there be people who call themselves libertarians who would espouse those views? Sadly, there are, and based solely on their flawed and factually incorrect consequentialist analysis. So libertarians who make this argument, continues Woodward, are substantially saying that if it can be shown to reduce deficits, for example, then using government force to restrict someone’s freedoms is justified. A repellent idea, surely, but of a piece with the closed-fist/closed-border position of these types. And indeed …
If anti-open borders libertarians treated any other issue like they do immigration, it would lead to some pretty absurd, anti-libertarian policy positions. For an example, as long as we have government-provided health programmes, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programmes; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programmes as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilisation.
Obviously, both these positions are absurd from a libertarian perspective. Someone’s freedom from government force in areas of reproduction and what food they consume is more important than the fiscal costs. What makes the freedom of movement any different? Replace “people with lower incomes” with “immigrants” and “sterilisation programs” with “immigration restrictions” in the sentence above, and the argument is the same. If the government cannot restrict freedoms in other areas in the name of deficit reduction, what makes freedom of movement in immigration restrictions any different?
And in any case, as Bryan Caplan argues, there are policies that easily mitigate the alleged ill-effects of immigration bought up by those alleged libertarians of the closed-border persuasion. For example,
we can eliminate the welfare cost of immigration by allowing for an open borders policy but make it illegal for any immigrant to receive welfare benefits. This allows for freedom of movement but eliminates the alleged ill-effect of open borders. Additionally, there are undisputable benefits from immigration, both in terms of increased liberty of movement and economic growth, and it must be shown that the negative effects outweigh the positive effects.
Which is why these consequentialist types are always rummaging through data, and when that fails them through the more fetid parts of the internet, desperately seeking out or making up horror stories (rape! murder! no-go zones!) to scare other consequentialists.
Another argument raised by these closed-borders libertarians, observes Mr Woodward,
is that there is something distinctive about immigrants that justifies the state violating their rights but not citizens.
And it’s here that these alleged libertarians join hands with and even become members of the new and xenophobic Alt-Right. At which point, if they were honest, they would stop calling themselves libertarians and instead call themselves what they are …
- The four main consequentialist arguments I hear regularly trotted out by commenters opposed to the right of free association as it applies to immigration are …but welfare! …but Muslims! …but assimilation! …but low wages! None holds up under scrutiny.
Immigration: The four arguments
- “The thirteen years since 9/11 are the story of the west’s ongoing refusal to look seriously at the ideas motivating the jihadist cause. One leading cause of recruitment, I’d suggest, is the failure of western ‘leaders’ to fully articulate what makes the west great – leaving multiculturalism to flaccidly proclaim that all cultures are equal anyway, even if one self-admittedly loves death as much as we love life.”
Why westerners are joining jihadis
- “So there you have it. The alt-right's looming demographic nightmare is best represented by Texas, a state that is economically quite successful, draws in lots of white migrants from other states, and votes conservative… I do believe that cultural differences can be important. I just think the worries about America are absurdly overdone. We'll be fine. And if we aren't, it won't be due to demographics.”
The Alt-Right's "Demographic Nightmare" Is... Texas 2016 – Scott Sumner, FEE
- “Unfortunately, much of the popular debate on immigration is based on fallacies and misconceptions. Immigrants are not a drag on the economy. They don't take jobs from the native born population and they don't depress overall wage rates. Fears of immigrant crime are overblown. Finally, objections to immigration because of the welfare state or public property are misplaced.”
An Economic Case for Immigration – Benjamin Powell, ECON LOG