An Open Debate About Open Borders

December 29, 2011

One of the most persistent divides between traditional conservatives and their libertarian/anarcho-capitalist counterparts involves a fundamental philosophical disagreement about immigration. While most conservatives view immigration primarily through the lens of preserving American culture by only accepting those immigrants who are assimilable and will tangibly benefit our society in the future, a view expressed repeatedly during debates over illegal immigration in this country, many libertarians view the subject in an altogether different light. For them, the question is not so much whether a particular cohort of immigrants will be an asset to the United States but whether we have any right to prevent them from settling in this country in the first place, which many answer in the negative.

Libertarians extol the primacy of individual rights, which in this case entails the right to emigrate from your country of birth whenever you so desire-something that I don’t think any conservative would take issue with-and to immigrate to whatever country you want to live and/or work in for an extended period of time, which is where the divide between the two camps emerges. Libertarians view the issue as one of freedom of association-and by extension, contract-wherein willing employers, such as large agribusinesses and meatpacking plants, seek out willing employees coming from nations with under-performing economies that can’t meet the personal and financial needs of their citizens. They believe that the nexus between trade and unfettered migration is inextricable, if not completely self-evident, and that the two can not be severed if a nation hopes to grow its economy. While this may well be true as a matter of law, there are numerous holes in this thesis intellectually, which opponents of open borders-even anarcho-capitalists such as Hans-Hermann Hoppe-have exposed through well-researched arguments of their own.

However, underlying the debate over whether immigration and settlement is a natural right is the assumption that all libertarians/anarcho-capitalists agree on the immigration issue, which is not as much of  a given as it would seem on the surface of things. One of the things that I’ve attempted to do with American Rattlesnake is debunk commonly held assumptions about immigration issues, and the assumption that libertarians all subscribe to Gary Johnson’s point of view is one that needs to be reexamined. There are many libertarians and  anarcho-capitalists who recognize both the practical difficulties and existential problems inherent in society based upon unfettered immigration, especially one with the vast social welfare apparatus of the United States. One of the chief exponents of the view that welfare programs need to be curtailed in order to solve the immigration problem is Gary Johnson’s opponent in the Republican presidential race, Congressman Ron Paul. Paul has repeatedly emphasized the need to do away with the generous, taxpayer subsidized social welfare programs that-while not serving as the initial magnet-provide incentives for illegal aliens to extend their stay in this country indefinitely. The population density of legal immigrants is also heavily correlated with the availability of welfare benefits. Even acclaimed economist Milton Friedman, who held a rather benign view of immigration in general, emphasized the incompatibility of a welfare state with unfettered immigration.

The same opinion is held by many libertarians today, including self-professed constitutionalist Andrew Napolitano, who views Arizona’s landmark immigration law primarily through the prism of the Constitution’s supremacy clause and potential violations of the 4th Amendment via racial or ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers. I’m not sure that the Constitutional objection to statewide laws is dispositive, because-as Andrew McCarthy has pointed out repeatedly in National Review-there is no precedent for prohibiting states from enforcing laws that are consistent with federal statutes. Furthermore, if we look to the broader issue of legal immigration, there’s nothing to suggest that the men who drafted the United States Constitution supported the sort of unfettered immigration we have endured since passage of the Hart-Celler Act fundamentally altered this nation’s demographic destiny. This is a concept that is seldom grasped by arm-chair commentators on immigration these days, whose default option is to repeat the platitudinous-not to mention, factually incorrect-bromide that we are a “nation of immigrants.” What they neglect to mention is that most this nation’s founding fathers would have been implacably opposed to the present lassez-faire system of immigration, a fact that Thomas Woods-as anti-statist an individual as you’ll find among academics-expertly limns in this Human Events column published during the height of the amnesty debate in Washington D.C.

Yet, even if we were to concede that there’s no firm historical or Constitutional foundation for this nation’s current open borders policies, can it not be argued that there is a compelling moral case for the views espoused by those at the Wall Street Journal editorial boardCato Institute, Reasonoids, and other trendy, beltway cosmotarians? You would definitely think so if you took their arguments at face value. The notion that we have no moral basis for barring certain immigrants from entry into the United States is certainly widespread in certain libertarian circles, but I don’t believe that makes the idea, ipso facto, libertarian. Julian Simon, in a 1998 essay published in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, articulated the perspective felt by many that individual autonomy takes precedence over other “public” goods, including our national borders. In an anarcho-capitalist reality, nation-states would not exist, therefore deciding who should or should not be admitted to your nation would be a moot point.

But while it might seem logical that freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of contract-and at its most essential level, the individual him or herself-are all prioritized over the wishes and feelings of citizens who have a vested interested in preserving the character of their nation, there are those that don’t think these competing values are necessarily mutually exclusive. In a persuasive essay written for Lew Rockwell several years ago, N. Stephan Kinsella made a very compelling argument that while the disposition of property in our society is unjust-insofar as the state has no right to expropriate land that rightfully belongs to individuals-so long as that property is entrusted to the state it has a responsibility to act as caretaker for the rightful owners. In this case, it has the responsibility to prevent the ingress of people that citizens do not want to welcome into their country. While those who are opposed to communitarianism in even its most minimal form might reject Kinsella’s public pool analogy, I think he makes a convincing case that some prophylactic measures need to be enforced to prevent the exploitation of your property-even if it’s already been subjected to theft by the state.

There are many cogent arguments against the current trendy libertarian support for open borders, several of them outlined by the first presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, John Hospers, in paper published by the Journal of Libertarian Studies over a decade ago entitled A Libertarian Argument Against Open Borders. The concluding paragraph of the essay is especially perceptive in its analysis of the problem:

Occasionally, we hear the phrase “limousine liberals” used to describe the members of the liberal establishment who send their children to expensive private schools while consigning all the others to the public school system, which educates these children so little that by the time they finish the eighth grade they can barely read and write or do simple arithmetic, or make correct change in a drug store. It would be equally appropriate, however, to describe some other people as ”limousine libertarians” —those who pontificate about open borders while remaining detached from the scenes that their “idealism” generates. They would do well to reflect, in their ivory towers, on whether the freedom they profess for those who are immigrants, if it occurs at all, is to be brought about at the expense of the freedom of those who are not.

This passage describes, in a nut shell, the quintessence of cosmotarianism, and why most Americans-and even some in the libertarian movement-continue to reject it. I could post the most meticulously researched George Borjas journal article, the most statistically devastating backgrounder from the Center for Immigration Studies, or the most irrefutable essay by Mahattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald. And although all of these sources are invaluable in the fight to define the terms of this debate, they wouldn’t hold a candle to the self-evident fact that none of the greatest exponents and defenders of open borders, be it Tamar Jacoby, or Jason Riley, or Nick Gillespie, abide by their own exhortations. None of these individuals partake of the glorious mosaic which their unyielding ideology has done so much to create.

You won’t find many Reason Magazine editors or Cato Institute scholars living in Bergenfield, New Jersey, Maywood, California, or Eagle Pass, Texas. Why, you might ask? Because they would rather pass off the tremendous costs of their bankrupt philosophy onto ordinary Americans than to admit that they might just be wrong. These people are insulated from unfettered immigration’s worst effects, including chronic unemployment, violent crime, and environmentally devasting pollution from Arizona to California and throughout the country. They have the luxury of ignoring the impact of this country’s changing demographic profile while promoting the patently absurd notion that our open borders are a boon to all but the small percentage of high school dropouts.

What’s more, they make the equally ludicrous assertion-outlined in the Caplan speech above-that importing millions of unskilled, uneducated immigrants, who will be dependent upon costly government services, from quasi-socialist nations will expand this nation’s economic liberty. Forget the fact that we now enjoy less economic freedom than our northern neighbors, a development concurrent with the greatest expansion of immigration in this country’s history, the entire premise underlying this concept is flawed. You do not build a prosperous, 21st century, post-industrial society around foreigners from countries with low human capital. And the amount of time, energy and economic resources that need to be shifted in order to improve the educational prospects and earning potential of these immigrants, e.g. the billions funneled into ESL programs each year, is so cost prohibitive that it outweighs whatever benefits can be gleaned from such an arrangement.

Another seeming inconsistency in the archetypal libertarian solution to our immigration problem is the reluctance of most libertarians to support any sort of relief for American taxpayers who are tasked with paying for millions of illegal aliens and immigrants who are dependent upon costly social services. Particularly, public schooling and emergency health care. Invoking Friedman’s argument once again, we find that while many libertarians will concede that dependency upon welfare programs is a bad thing they will do nothing to limit access to these programs by illegal aliens or permanent residents. To the contrary, if any such bill-which is immigration neutral-is proffered, they will stalwartly oppose it. Just ask new Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who supports the DREAM Act, despite the fact that taxpayers would be subsidizing the in-state tuition discounts of its recipients. Paleolibertarian writer Ilana Mercer deftly skewers  purported libertarians who routinely call for the abolition of the welfare state while adding a proviso that excludes immigrants and illegal aliens from the fiscal demands of their libertopia.

True believers in liberty, like Mercer and the late Murray N. Rothbard, recognize the inherent contradiction in persuading your fellow Americans to reject the embrace of the state while simultaneously welcoming millions of non-Americans into the country who prefer a larger and more intrusive government in almost every respect into our society. They realize that the banal platitudes used to support unfettered immigration are grossly inaccurate, if not transparent lies. They also realize that the interests of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and the hospitality industry do not necessarily coincide with the interests of the free market, and that to a large extent our current immigration policy is another form of corporate welfare, which putative libertarians would be quick to denounce in any other context. The time-saving, productivity-increasing technological innovations that would normally be welcomed by these same individuals are rejected by those who apparently think pre-industrial stoop labor is the best method of improving  our agricultural production. Finally, they recognize that the  utopian, globalist conception of freedom-where people living in Gabon or the Hadhramaut have just as much say in how we are governed as American citizens living in New York-contravenes the distinctively American, Constitutional, federalist, representative republic designed by this nation’s founding fathers.

In short, the issue before the house is not whether it is an abandonment of principle for libertarians to embrace sensible immigration restrictions, it’s why institutional libertarians representing organizations like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation have stifled an honest, open intellectual debate about this subject. Even as the negative repercussions of our government’s devotion to open borders become harder to ignore for all but the most oblivious, the gatekeepers of respectable opinion on this subject continue to narrow the parameters of discussion to their own narrow, ahistorical perspective. I don’t expect that to change any time in the near future, but those of us who want an intellectually honest debate about the most important issue of our time can at least begin to clarify its terms, if for no other reason than to educate those novices interested in how mass immigration has impacted our society who are asking themselves how they should view these changes from a liberty-oriented perspective.



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4 Responses to An Open Debate About Open Borders

  1. Ricardo on December 29, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    Good article; posted on my blog:

    Also on the post’s bottom are links to help fight this scurge pass them on.


  2. Jeff Lewis on December 31, 2011 at 8:07 PM

    I don’t recall the last time I said “EXCELLENT ARTICLE” about an overview of the immigration (legal and illegal) debate, but the “Open Debate About Open Borders” article warrants it.

    I’m not into shouting matches, but have made numerous observations that mirror the author’s of this article, and share his frustration with the “limousine” eggheads and anarcho-libertarians. I usually find they are one of two types of idiot, useful or blithering, or both.

    I would make one addition to the title and the premise. The open debate about open borders needs to be an “honest” one, and THAT is something that is very hard to find.

    In my dealings with Members of Congress, state legislators, inside-the-Beltway think tanks, media pundits, etc…, few are able or willing to have an open, honest discussion/debate about immigration, but suffice to say, the problem is unsurpassed in world history, and tens of thousands of Americans have for the chaos of unfettered legal and illegal immigration since 9/11/2001 WITH THEIR LIVES!

    VIDEO of FIRE Coalition’s 45 minute press conference on Capitol Hill, Nov. 3, 2011 can be viewed here:

    Until a situation or set of circumstances are properly identified as a problem, the solution or resolution is unattainable. As one of our partner organization’s leadership tells his group often: “If you don’t know where you are going, ANY road will get you there.”

    Jeff Lewis, National Director, FIRE Coalition

  3. TiredVet on January 1, 2012 at 1:32 AM

    Yes….excellent article.
    Having had the unique experience of being on all sides of this issue, I have to agree totally. None of these Libs would be so quick to promote open borders if they came to work one day, only to find an illegal alien at their desk, and they were sent home.

    Another issue…the health of nations…when I was working in Immigration Detention, during the early ’80′s, I routinely spoke with aliens from Central America, who were using political asylum as way into the country. They claimed they had to flee being persecuted. I always posed the question to them “If we have these problems here in America, where will you run to?” Not once did I get a response. My response to them was to ask what good they were to me if their idea of facing persecution was to run away, rather than fight for their country. Perhaps patriotism is a bad word to the Libs, but to me it means something. It is what made the Continental Army survive horrifying conditions to eventually prevail.
    The health of the other nations matters as well. The Dream Act is a perfect example of that. Those countries need the constant supply of educated youth to move forward. It does them no good if their best and brightest all come here and stay. If they want their youth educated in order to benefit their country, then let their government pay whatever the tuition is, so the students don’t have to work. They can study, and return home to benefit their own country. On a more realistic level…I attended Community College, after Viet Nam, in Southern California. There were many Mexican students attending there, and they happily paid full tuition to get the better quaity of education.

    The argument for open borders rings hollow in real life. If we have no right to deny a person entry to our country, then how do we have the right to deny them entry to our home? We have to have some ability to do what is best for ourselves as a nation….and we should be able to expect the same from the citizens of other nations. The vast difference between our relationship with Canada, versus our relationship with Mexico is evidence of that. We can have virtually open borders with Canada because they play pretty much by the same rules we do.

    My firm belief about why the current regime is trying so hard to maintain open borders is far more sinister. If we keep the southern border porous, when Mexico collapses into a warlord run economy, we will be overrun with “refugees”……a very different status from “illegal alien”, at least in the world’s view. Refugees means the U.N. can come in to manage them…..and we will never get them out….I hope I’m wrong…

  4. cujo47 on January 20, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    I hope you are wrong also, but am very afraid that this is what it is all about and is known by both parties. It is all about their globalisation and the GOP is as involved as the dems.

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