The Libertarian Case for Immigration Restriction

I read Mr. Woodman’s recent post with some interest since it is generally considered a truism that libertarians are not in favor of government interference, and immigration restrictions being a prime example of said interference, are, ergo, not in favor of that as well.

What I found strange was that the most prominent libertarian advocate for immigration restrictions, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, was not mentioned. This is a particularly grave omission. Hoppe is the foremost critic of the libertarian dogma of freedom of movement, and his arguments possess the most influence. He also pivots many of his arguments around a concern that Mr. Woodman has omitted: tribalism.

In his article on Lew Rockwell, On Free Immigration and Forced Integration, Hoppe writes:

To libertarians of the Austrian school, it should be clear that what constitutes “wealth” and “well-being” is subjective. Material wealth is not the only thing that counts. Thus, even if real incomes rise due to immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for one might prefer lower living standards and a greater distance to other people over higher living standards and a smaller distance to others.

The argument against immigration is fundamentally one of tribalism, though it is cloaked in economic rationalizations. Thus it is tribalism that must be reckoned with if Mr. Woodman desires to dismiss the arguments against immigration restrictions root and branch. That Mr. Woodman has not done so is regrettable, and it is an error I will attempt to address here.

Despite what I consider an omission, Mr. Woodman extensively, and mostly admirably, interrogates several consequentialist arguments “many libertarians” – presumably, he writes of those interlocutors he himself has sparred with – have made in favor of immigration restrictions. I will summarize them below.

I. Immigration Has Bad Consequences

Mr. Woodward summarizes the consequentialist argument against immigration thusly:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

However, if this logic is sound, then it gives the government carte blanche to use whatever force it wants to restrict anyone from doing anything, assuming it can prove that it causes a harm. Mr. Woodward writes:

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.

Via reductio, this leads to a situation where force can be used arbitrarily and nefariously, which libertarians and likely most people of any political persuasion would find unsavory. Therefore, the argument in favor of government restricting immigration to avoid bad effect X is both morally untenable and inconsistent with libertarian doctrine.

II. Things Fall Apart

There are several weaknesses in this argument, the first being the contention that immigration restrictions are a restriction of an individual’s fundamental rights. As Mr. Woodman writes:

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.”

Hoppe would argue that borders are anything but arbitrary lines demarcating abstract entities on a map. Rather, they reflect the outermost holdings of a nation, which claims ownership of the land, and has sole use and rights to it. In the aforementioned article, Hoppe writes:

in order to render the… argument applicable, it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).

Yet, very little territory these days is virginal, and the examples can be counted on one hand. In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

More importantly, it is absurd in any other society as well, all of which are predicated on some form of ownership. In a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land in the name of an abstract entity, the public, to whom it is avowedly beholden. In a monarchy, the sovereign wishes to enrich his own holdings and so will adopt an immigration policy that, according to Hoppe, would resemble most individual approaches to free association – acquire high-quality immigrants and offload low-quality citizens. In a democracy, the sovereign association of bureaucrats would seek to enrich itself (because it has temporary custodianship of the monopoly on taxation, rather than outright ownership), often at the expense of the existing citizenry, by allowing the immigration of any individual likely to enrich him – quality notwithstanding (Quote: “In fact, such negative externalities – unproductive parasites, bums, and criminals – are likely to be his most reliable supporters.”). Immigration thus becomes, in a democracy such as our own, a system of forced integration – the negation of the rights of some for the prerogative of others. This is Hoppe’s crucial point and the source of his opposition to opening immigration to all comers without prejudice. Here is the relevant passage:

Like a king, a democratic ruler will promote spatial over-integration by over-producing the “public good” of roads. However, for a democratic ruler, unlike a king, it will not be sufficient that everyone can move next door to anyone else on government roads. Concerned about his current income and power rather than capital values and constrained by egalitarian sentiments, a democratic ruler will tend to go even further. Through non-discrimination laws – one cannot discriminate against Germans, Jews, Blacks, Catholics, Hindus, homosexuals, etc. – the government will want to open even the physical access and entrance to everyone’s property to everyone else. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the so-called “Civil Rights” legislation in the United States, which outlawed domestic discrimination on the basis of color, race, national origin, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc., and which thereby actually mandated forced integration, coincided with the adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy; i.e., mandated inter-national desegregagtion (forced integration).

Even if Mr. Woodman rejects the validity of this argument, there is another weakness to his own: it assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry. Because immigration arguments look both inwards towards domestic concerns and outwards towards foreign ones, Mr. Woodman’s reductio is no longer applicable. (An important caveat: This comes with the assumption that any second-order effects spilling outside the country, such as, say, a global market distortion due to government programs for public healthcare in the United States, are not to be counted.)


Let’s examine that a minute.

When the members of an ingroup debate the merits of eugenics or Medicare, they debate how these policies will affect themselves – alone – well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via taxation or force on themselves will lead to the salutary result they desire.

When they debate over whether to admit immigrants from an outgroup, their debate hinges on whether the assumed future behavior of the members of that outgroup will affect them well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via force on others will lead to the salutary result they desire.

In both cases, the policy that wins does so based on the opinion of the ingroup as to its efficacy for whatever definition of welfare they have set for themselves. As welfare is a subjective term and does not only include economic goods, this ultimately reduces to this: welfare is whatever the people want it to be.

The ingroup can then argue, with complete logical consistency, that it both supports freedom (for itself, within the borders of its territory) and does not support it (for the outgroup, which is outside its territory and wants to come in). The reductio-into-slippery-slope that Mr. Woodman would like us to believe force inherently leads into is, in this case, fallacious. Force can certainly be directed outwards without being directed inwards. One could make an argument that acceding to a government imposition of force in one area is itself a slippery slope to force everywhere, but that is a different argument, and not the one being made.

III. Conclusions

To summarize the lines of argument thus far:

  1. Freedom of movement is a fallacy predicated on incorrect notions of land ownership. Movement from one sovereign territory to another is instead privilege of movement.
  2. Within a publicly held system such as our own, privilege of movement is dependent on the consent of the government which holds lands in the name of its citizens, its own ingroup.
  3. However, because the government seeks to enrich itself – often at the expense of its avowed ingroup – it will often pursue immigration policies that are detrimental to the ingroup, who are in turned forced to bear the burdens of the policy that enriches their overlords.
  4. The end result of democratic “free” immigration is forced integration, a betrayal of libertarian principles.
  5. Various logical points.

Mr. Woodman challenges libertarians to “justify some argument for why it [government] can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens.” It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

While Mr. Woodman has provided examples of policies restrictive of immigration being or becoming harmful economically, that does not negate the truth that a harmful economic policy may also come bundled with a salutary domestic policy. The citizenry, who do not want to associate with X group, have had their biases enshrined in law according to their desires.

Despite the centrality of tribalism in immigration, it is understandable why Mr. Woodman failed to attack the root of anti-immigration arguments. As we can observe in the current American election cycle, arguments against immigration generally take a utilitarian strain. Indeed, Donald Trump has based his opposition to immigration on the following issues:

  1. Immigrants are increasing the level of crime because many of them are criminals
  2. Immigrants are not adequately screened, leading to point one
  3. Immigrants are harming the economy

As stated by Mr. Woodman, there are clear arguments to be made against these points. However, he has failed to address why these arguments are convincing: tribalism, the doctrine of sticking with one’s kith and kin at the expense of others, is the root ideology. And there are clear – and libertarian! – arguments in favor of it.

I expect, and welcome, a hearty critique of Hoppes’s position, my articulation of it, and my response to Mr. Woodman’s article.


9 thoughts on “The Libertarian Case for Immigration Restriction

  1. My main problem with H3’s argument is that it implies legitimacy for the state – which I find especially considering H3 is an anarchist.

    I agree with H3 that individuals, and a collection of individuals, are free to agree to keep out ‘undesirables’ such as communists or French people. However the problem is that said agreements exist at no level beyond gated communities/co-ops/home owner associations.

    Could all the current residents in the United States agree that we will refuse to give entry to Frenchmen? Yes, but we haven’t. One could argue that we have agreed to migration restrictions, in the form of the federal government, but this is not a position an anarchist can ever take. If the state is illegitimate an anarchist cannot justify its existence for X issue. Minarchist libertarians, classical liberals, and others can argue for migration restrictions then, but anarchists cannot.

    The other issue I have, which I think Walter Block has pointed out, is that H3’s theory allows for a scenario where you’re placed into a ‘donut trap’. For example, your neighbors could buy all the property around you and refuse you exit or entry. In H3’s world you would be stuck. As Block (?) points out though we do have a freedom of movement in these types of scenarios based on easements. Your neighbor may own his property, but you still have the right to cross it within reason. That means that you can, if you’ve been placed in a donut trap, to move across your neighbors property for the purpose of exiting/entering.

    You cannot destroy or otherwise use your neighbor’s property. If he places a barrier with the intent of trapping you, you are allowed to destroy or circumvent it but that’s it. You can’t do stepping on his flowers when you can reasonably walk around them. If he builds a suitable road you should use that. Etc etc.

    Property is a bundle of rights, so none of this is meant to mean that your neighbor isn’t the real owner of his property. It just so happens that you possess the right to traverse his property within reasonable means.

    So yes, there is a freedom of movement.

    Now if we’re discussing a ‘right to adobe’, the right to set up a camp on anyone’s property and start living on it, I agree with H3 that no such right exists.

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s