Most Arguments Against Open Borders Lead to Extremely Un-Libertarian Positions

One thing that strikes me about libertarians who oppose open borders is that they approach the issue of immigration completely different from how libertarians approach nearly every other issue. Arguments against immigration typically go as follows:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. 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.” As Jason Brennan says:

At first glance, immigration restrictions look like rights violations. 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.

So libertarians who make this argument are substantially saying that if it can be shown to reduce deficits, using government force to restrict someone’s freedoms is justified.

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 Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; 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 programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

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 “sterilization 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?

Or take another example, many libertarians justify restricting immigration because immigrants are likely to vote for statist policies that will restrict liberty. Of course, this once again isn’t true, but even if it were it by itself is no reason for libertarians to support immigration restrictions. The operating principle here is that government is justified in restricting individual liberty if it increases the likelihood that pro-liberty politicians will be elected.

Again, that principle is not applied to any other issue by libertarians. Let’s say a particular demographic of citizens is more likely to vote for statist policies; by this argument, the government would be justified in reducing their population through sterilization programs in order to increase the likelihood that libertarians would win elections. Citizens who vocally advocate for statist policies through their speech also increase the likelihood that people will vote for those statist policies, so the government would be justified in restricting their freedom of speech. Obviously, both conclusions are absurd.

Further, as Bryan Caplan argues, it must be shown that there are policies that can reduce these ill-effects while violating fewer liberties than an all-out closed border policy. 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. Therefore, premise 2 is also incomplete as stated above.

So, in reality, these types of arguments against immigration are as follows:

1a. The government is justified in restricting someone’s liberties if it can be shown to stop bad effect x.

2a. X will happen if we allow for freedom of movement through immigration and there is no other way to stop x without restricting freedom of movement.

3a. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

In reality, very few libertarians accept 1a, particularly if they believe in deontological natural rights. For consequentialists, it would depend on how bad x is. But for most arguments against open borders, they would not say that x is bad enough to allow for restrictions on nearly any other liberty. Further, as pointed out earlier, premise 2a is usually false because the empirical evidence suggests that x will not be a result of open borders, there is some other way to stop x while allowing for free migration, or both.

Another argument is that there is something distinctive about immigrants that justifies the state violating their rights but not citizens. If this is the case then we can replace 1a above with the following argument:

1b. The government is justified in restricting the rights of non-citizens if it can be shown to stop bad effect x, but would not be justified in violating the rights of citizens even if it would stop x.

This isn’t really a premise, but a conclusion; libertarians must justify some argument for why it can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens. On its face, it seems like this principle is pretty absurd. For example, suppose that Greek citizens who use welfare eat unhealthily, and this is harming Germany fiscally because Germany helped bail out the Greek welfare state. The German government, therefore, passes a law restricting what Greek citizens can eat and tried to enforce it on Greek soil. Clearly, nobody, libertarian or otherwise, would call that justified. It is the burden of proof for open borders opponents, then, to prove why citizenship is in any way morally relevant to restricting liberties.

Perhaps there is an argument for why someone’s rights are all of a sudden less valuable because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line that only exists because of state force. However, I doubt that there is such an argument that is in any way consistent with libertarian philosophy.

14 thoughts on “Most Arguments Against Open Borders Lead to Extremely Un-Libertarian Positions

  1. “Obviously, both these positions are absurd from a libertarian perspective.”


    So, how do we account for libertarians ignoring that absurdity where immigration is concerned?

    Simple: Nationalism and tribalism are not dead.

    Some libertarians who will resist impositions on “citizens of my country” forget that those impositions are impositions when someone waves a street gang turf claim (“border”) at them and proposes levying those impositions only on people from the other side of the turf line.

    That’s the thin end of a long-existing wedge, but one that “alt-right” entryists are expending non-trivial effort driving into the freedom movement lately.

  2. Closed borders is an inherently conservative/fusionist position that is wholly inconsistent with libertarianism in principle, and makes its proponents look like convenience-libertarians that take up the label to support their other interests which may happen to coincide with libertarian principles.

  3. I guess it depends on what the motives are for immigration. If the political motives for immigration are to change the demographics of a country for more government via the welfare state, or to establish a voting bloc, then it is a wrong headed idea to accept more immigrants who will depend on welfare for at least a generation. When the US is 19.4 trillion dollars in debt, the last thing we need is more government or more immigrants who will depend on the government for assistance.
    Big government is in no way anything a true libertarian should champion.

  4. While I am a big supported of open borders, I do not think supporting closed borders (or open borders lite) is inconsistent with libertarianism. It relates a bit back to the foreign policy conversation Brandon and I keep going back and forth on.

    You could be a libertarian and supported closed borders if you genuinely thought it maximized human life and liberty. The difficult part is that you must weigh things equally for all individuals involved, regardless of things like their place of birth.

    For example; I for one would favor closed borders if the alternative was letting in literal zombies that wanted to eat our brains or huns that wanted to invade. In such scenarios I’m all for building a wall.

    • Zombies, by definition are undead, non-living entities, and therefore not possessed of rights which accrue to the living. Zombies, therefore, have no right to Life, Liberty, or Property, and closing the borders against them involves no violation of rights.

  5. The reason, I think, why the issue of immigration is so sensitive and difficult for many to address reasonably is because like “justly acquired property”, the notion of “citizenship” is founded upon what feels like a natural inalienable right but for pragmatic reasons, the instinctual claim of belonging to a homeland, or a culture has been taken and worked into a legally recognised status relying inevitably on some arbitrary definitions.

    Our instinct regarding a claim of citizenship is unevolved. It is the same instinct that would have caused early humans to defend the group to which they belonged and to have felt a sense of entitlement to the shared benefits of belonging to that group. For early humans though such groups would have numbered probably less than 200 and the extent of the geographical claims to land entitlement would be unequivocally land in use by the group or natural rights derived from the fact of habitual occupation of land by the group in day to day life.

    Closed border libertarians seem to be attempting to take these instinctive natural rights, suited to small groups of early humans, and apply them to nation states. The only possible way to do this is by introducing all sorts of arbitrary definitions and means of categorisation which when sanctioned and enforced by the state inevitably result in the injustice and oppression that this article exposes.

    • I largely agree with you, and I think this is a mistake to apply those instincts suited for the micro-level of intimate social groupings of property holders and applying them to the macro-level of nation states Hayek critiqued this in Fatal Conceit:
      “Moreover the structures of the extended order are made up not only of individuals but also of many, often overlapping, sub-orders within which old instinctual responses, such as solidarity and altruism, continue to retain some importance by assisting voluntary collaboration, even though they are incapable, by themselves, of creating a basis for the more extended order. Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to liver simultaneously within different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules of the micro-cosmos (ie., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once.”

      Your comment does make me reconsider something that I said in my latest response to Strebe about immigration. Perhaps there is some deeper link between tribalism and libertarianism than I previously thought.

  6. For what it’s worth, I do suspect that some people–for instance, nationalistic Israeli Jews–might be willing to support natality policies that openly discriminate between different groups–such as Jews and non-Jews–if such policies were actually perceived as being necessary in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish character. For instance, an Israeli government policy that would give generous childcare subsidies and tax breaks to Jewish families with a lot of children but not to Arab families with a lot of children. Indeed, there could also be negative incentives–such as having the Israeli government impose penalties; for instance, having Israel cut off Arab families who have a large number of children from the social safety net. Still, I am unsure that even nationalistic Israeli Jews or other nationalists would actually be willing to support taking this argument as far as it can be taken; for instance, I suspect that even some or even many nationalistic Israeli Jews would balk at a hypothetical Israeli government policy that denied Israeli citizenship to “excess” Arab Israeli infants and deported these infants out of Israel and into some other country–even if such a policy was actually necessary in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish character.

    People who are civil nationalists might object to such blatant preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, and/or religion in regards to fertility/natality policies but might nevertheless approve of preferential treatment in regards to this based on other grounds, such as IQ. For instance, having the state aggressively encourage high-IQ people to reproduce more and low-IQ people to reproduce less in order to create more geniuses and reduce the risk of dysgenics. Still, even such people would probably balk at, say, deporting “excess” low-IQ infants out of the country or forcibly sterilizing low-IQ people–though they might very well be willing to support a policy that gave incentives for low-IQ people to voluntarily get sterilized without giving high-IQ people any incentives to get sterilized.

    “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.”

    And what about the US-born (and/or First World-born) descendants of these immigrants? What if they are going to end up being a burden on the social safety net for generations?

    Anyway, though, Yes, there can certainly be tensions between the interests and desires of a political (native) majority and those of either a political (native) minority or foreigners. I don’t think that the interests and desires of a political (native) majority should *always* prevail against the interests of either of these two other groups. The question is, of course, where exactly to draw the line in regards to this. I also agree that less invasive solutions should be preferred over more invasive solutions.

    As for immigrant voting patterns, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if white immigrants will converge to white American voting norms over several generations, but–for instance–what about black immigrants? If the US is going to accept hundreds of millions of black immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, are they going to vote like white Americans after several generations or like black Americans? Because black Americans still vote very differently from white Americans right now in spite of them living in the same country for centuries. Ditto for Jewish Americans in spite of them largely living in the same country with white gentiles for a century or more. The jury might still be out on Hispanics and Asians, of course. But Yeah, even after decades or more, different groups could continue to have different voting patterns. For instance, Deep Southern US whites were probably the most conservative whites in the US in 1860, and the same is likewise true even today. Likewise, Poles and Germans in Imperial Germany did not vote the same way in 1871–and they likewise did not vote the same way in 1912. Similarly, Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs still have extremely different voting patterns right now in spite of them living in the same country for over 70 years.

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