Immigration, Libertarianism and the “T” Word

As a rule of thumb, Americans libertarians generally welcome immigration into the republic. However, among the more Right-leaning factions within libertarianism there are a couple of branches that have argued (and continue to argue) that immigration is not as good for the republic as economists say it is.

One branch of the anti-immigration crowd comes from the Ron Paul/Lew Rockwell camp, the “paleolibertarians”. Prior to his 2008 presidential campaign, Ron Paul had been quoted as saying that an increase in supply of workers from Mexico would decrease the wages of native workers in the American republic.

Since the presidential election of 2008, however, the “paleo” camp has been much more open to an open borders policy. Indeed, Lew Rockwell himself seems to have backtracked from the paleo camp’s previous position. In 2009, after RP’s presidential campaign had come to an end, he wrote:

It seems that Mexicans are not so anxious to live in the great Obama utopia of debt, inflation, nationalization, bailouts, and regimentation.

Now, a person might say, well, there’s a silver lining in every recession and this is one. But listen: economic opportunities are universal. If you feel them and sense them, so do others outside the border — and they want to be part of it. If they don’t feel them and sense them, maybe it is time to wake up and realize that they don’t exist as they used to.

And while campaigning in 2012 Ron Paul correctly noted that immigrants had become scapegoats for the bad economy. What changed the minds of the paleolibertarian wing of the movement? Sheldon Richman, a left-libertarian, thinks that Ron Paul has secretly been for open borders all along.

I tend to agree with Mr. Richman. Where the paleo camp went wrong was in the 1990’s when NAFTA came into effect. The paleo camp saw NAFTA for what it is: an almost 1,000 page documents regulating commerce between the US, Mexico and Canada (almost as long as ObamaCare!) and hence predicted that NAFTA would do more harm than good.

Here is a good place to point out yet another rift in libertarian circles. In one camp you have what I will call the “absolutists” and in the other camp you have what I will call the “gradualists”. The absolutists oppose government policies like free trade agreements because these free trade agreements aren’t true free trade. The absolutists are right, of course, but the gradualists point out that even though NAFTA (for example) is almost 1,000 pages long it is still better than what we had before. The gradualists will ask: why not chip away at Leviathan rather than try to (futilely) bring it down in one fell swoop?

Anyway, I am digressing. The paleo camp’s anti-immigration stance was mostly a reaction to the US government’s NAFTA policy, and can also be viewed as part of economist Murray Rothbard’s new (at the time) plan to ally with the populist Right during the Clinton regime. The alliance was short-lived and did much damage to libertarianism’s good name. The populist Right is mostly a hodge-podge of protectionists, ignorant racists (not malicious racists, but ignorant ones) and conspiracy theorists, and libertarianism got burned good when it went to kiss this fiery and unpredictable movement. The paleo camp nevertheless diverged from the broader libertarian movement in regards to immigration: they threw out centuries of standard economic theory and coddled publicly with Right-wing populist leaders.

There is also an important political factor here: during the 1990’s libertarianism was deeply unpopular. Bill Clinton’s economic policies – vehemently opposed by libertarians – seemed at the time both sound and (more importantly) working. Ronald Reagan’s deficit spending seemed to have brought down the Soviet Union and libertarians had opposed that tactic, too. So in order to stay relevant to current debates Rothbard decided it would be a good idea to align his camp with the anti-Clinton populist Right. When Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign became the rousing success that it was, the anti-immigrant rhetoric essentially disappeared. Libertarians always come back and pay heed to the sound theories of economics.

There is another camp that sometimes marches to the anti-immigration beat. This camp, unlike the paleos, is not so much an organized camp as it is a motley mix of fellow travelers, former conservatives, curious non-conformists, and the previously apathetic. What I have discovered about this camp is that it has no organized leadership. It has no think tanks, no summer seminars for students, and no foundations. It takes no directions and its members have often stumbled upon libertarianism from a remarkable number of diverse paths. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) this anti-immigration wing is remarkably popular within libertarianism. However, after spending so much time in libertarian circles I think that I have discovered – as a good anthropologist usually does – the underlying pattern that gives this camp its cohesion: they are mostly immigrants. Indeed, aside from a few disgusted conservatives who wander in and out of libertarian circles, this second group of anti-immigrants largely come from different parts of the world. There is yet another peculiar aspect of these anti-immigrant immigrants: they all hail from Europe.

Now, before I continue I must take you on yet another digression. Libertarians from other places in the world are much more hawkish than their American counterparts. This is due, I believe, to their very pertinent point of view that without the US playing the role of world cop, many states around the world would descend into dictatorship. From their point of view (and from the point of view of non-libertarians around the world as well), the United States still represents all that is good and noble about the world.

I dislike this view immensely. For one thing, libertarians from other parts of the world tend come from the elite ranks of their respective societies. This is not to say that libertarianism is inherently an elitist ideology, but only to say that libertarianism does tend to attract the best and brightest minds among the best and brightest ranks of a society. In this regard the United States is yet again an example of anomaly. Here, libertarianism courses through the every American’s veins, and a curious respect for the dignity of every individual runs rampant in our culture. The hawkish element in foreign camps can be explained, I think, with public choice theory: these elites who hold libertarian-ish views believe that they can capture some of the US government’s rent if they play along when Washington wants them to.

Where was I? Oh yes, that’s right! The anti-immigrant immigrant crowd usually makes a point in regards to their argument that goes something like this:

Immigrants can change the nature of a society irreversibly. I would not want to see suddenly tens of millions of immigrants from societies where the thinking is that separation of church and state is sinful.

The mainline libertarian responds, quite capably, with something along the lines of “this sounds an awful lot like what Americans said about Catholic immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy last century. How did that turn out for the United States?” Yet this reply is, while a good rebuttal, missing something. It is missing the subtle argument that the anti-immigrant immigrant crowd is making. If we remember that the anti-immigration immigrant crowd is composed mostly of immigrants from Europe itself then this argument’s subtle undertones can suddenly be brought into a new light for examination. Simply put, what the anti-immigrant immigrant crowd is arguing for is restrictions upon Muslims wishing to flee their fascist states for the green, capitalist pastures of the American republic. Very few of the anti-immigrant immigrant crowd wish to place restrictions upon immigrants from Angola or Samoa, but they are all adamant about keeping a tight leash on immigration from the Islamic Middle East.

This is a valid argument. Allow me to explain.

The terrorists of 9/11, and of 3/11, and of  7/05 were all Muslims, and most of them had immigrated to the largely free states of the West. Yet they decided to murder the very people who had welcomed them into their country and were willing to provide them with a fresh start on life.

With thinking like this, it is no wonder that the European anti-immigrant immigrant crowd of libertarians believes that open borders would be a bad thing for the United States. Here I wish to concede that the anti-immigration immigrant crowd is correct. It would be stupid to open up our borders to Muslim states tomorrow.

Yet I don’t think that mainline libertarians would be willing to do this, either, even among the absolutist branch.

The difference between the mainline libertarians and the anti-immigration immigrants stems from the former’s recognition that the US government is an aggressive and oftentimes hostile entity abroad that has caused much resentment throughout the Arab world. The American libertarian is able to perceive that the problem of Muslim immigration to the United States is dangerous not because of Islam itself (but what about the Catholic Germans?!), but because of the policies of the US government overseas. If the American state were to be removed from the equation of Muslim immigration, then this problem could be solved in twenty years time.

To the anti-immigrant immigrant from Europe, this position seems to be untenable. Europe has been at war with Islam for the last 1400 years and the European has been trained to distrust anything even remotely associated with the Islamic faith. To be honest I don’t blame them (the two sides have habitually engaged in mass killings against each other for over a thousand years, after all), but here again we can fall back on American exceptionalism. I don’t mean ‘exceptionalism’ in the patriotic, rah-rah sense of the word, but in the fact that the US republic has had an incredibly successful track record when it comes to absorbing immigrants into our society. If we stop dropping bombs, and start dropping translated copies of John Locke’s Second Treatise, the threat to the republic posed by Muslims (immigrant or otherwise) will cease.

4 thoughts on “Immigration, Libertarianism and the “T” Word

  1. Well, I don’t know. I’d say that immigrants, on the whole, are pretty good for our economy. of course, it depends on who they are and who’s hiring them and if the hiring is on the up and up (and a lot of it is not).

    My daughter’s s/o is Chinese. He lived in Malaysia for his early childhood, but moved with his parents to Texas when he was ten. He’s been here since and is either 28 or 29 (think he just turned 29). When his dad was sent to Holland for work (he is an engineer and I believe the American company that hired him got quite a bit out of him), he was 16 and they wanted to allow him to stay in Texas. I volunteered to be his sponsor/guardian, as the kids were already great friends.

    Now, he started school at the local university and studied Engineering, too. He decided to drop out and become a great chef.

    Now, he’s going back to the university for basically what he did, before. His little brother is also here, named for the city we live in, and is finishing up an advanced degree in pharmacology.

    Should these young males be sent back to China or Malaysia? I think not. Have they been productive members of our society? I think so. So, when and whom do we cut off and send back? Is there a certain set of guidelines we should use when allowing some over others? Would parents to kids born her have higher rating than those who’ve not yet had kids?

    It seems to me that the question about immigration is very loaded. Not one set of rules would apply to most immigrants. And, we are a nation made-up of immigrants and all (with the exception of the P’naci people) are descendants of immigrants. I am only 2nd generation American, myself. Because the kid’s dad is first-generation, that makes my kids also 2nd generation. Should their grandfather, who immigrated to the USA and was a cardiothoracic surgeon and saved many lives in the states, be sent back due to some archaic law? I don’t think so.

    What I am saying is this: when and where do we stop? What we did right after 9/11 was pretty damaging to many people and to this nation, as a whole (and in the eyes of the rest of the world). My kids went to school with kids who happened to have been born in Iran, yet were brought to the US as infants and toddlers, and what did the state-department want to do? Were it up to them, they would have dropped these kids into Iran, a country, a culture, and a language they knew nothing of. What they ended up doing was run up to Canada (with the mass exodus) rather than chance being sent to places where they knew nothing and nobody. And, had we done this, would we have been right? I say, no; absolutely no.

  2. Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention this: Malaysia is a Muslim country. Could my daughter’s s/o (they have lived together for ten and a half years) been sent to Malaysia, based on this, alone? Yes he could have been. Would that have been right? No, it would not have been right, in my mind.

    Thankfully, he does now have a permanent (as much as it can be permanent) green-card and he could apply for citizenship. So far he has not done so, but would my daughter marry him to better his chances of never being sent-back? Yes, she would. We’ve discussed it, as much as I am anti-marriage, for anyone, I would agree to this.

    • Thanks Anne. You bring up some very good points.

      My overall argument is simply that you cannot wage war and expect to have a sane policy of immigration at the same time.

  3. Great piece. I think the only valid argument against immigration is the one of private property rights. But that also happens to be the main valid argument FOR immigration as well. But when one entity is the sole “owner” (the state), we have a one-size fits all solution that really doesn’t fit all sizes. I think that all rational people, conservative or otherwise, would absolutely favor immigration as an economic benefit if only they were permitted to see its undistorted results in action. This is simply not possible with a one-size fits all solution imposed from either perspective (pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant) or even from a compromising one. Sometimes I do get a little xenophobic and wish there hadn’t been THIS wave or THAT wave of immigration, causing THIS problem or THAT one. Some cultures really do create problems. Take the wave from Europe after the 1848 revolutions. There were certainly some rotten apples (ideologically) in that lot that we would be better off without. And that is coming from someone whose great-great-great-whatever came over from Germany around that time and eventually fought for Lincoln while the most of the rest of my ancestors, natives and immigrants, were fighting for Davis.

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