Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

My eye caught this article, which stands in a long tradition among libertarians.

It is the kind of fairy tale theory that gives liberal thought a bad name in general, and classical liberal thought in particular, as it is often confused with libertarianism in the US.

My problem with arguments like these is that they make logical sense, but are practically non-sensical at the same time. I am more than willing to admit that in the ideal libertarian world free immigration indeed is a right. Yet I do not think arguments like these help us to get that libertarian ideal one inch closer. On the contrary, I am afraid it only fosters disdain and outright disbelief, even among potential supporters.

The main problem of course is that there is no ideal libertarian world. Yet libertarians all too often do not seem to care about that. They rather continue to argue about what fairy tales makes the most logical sense, rather than using their sometimes brilliant minds to come up with ideas and theories to actually foster a more liberal world. Let alone a classical liberal or a libertarian world.

To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations. Roughly, that argument goes like this: in this world most immigrants will make some claim to these existing property rights once they arrive in their host country. Higher taxation to pay for the immigration system is one thing, but also think of housing, claims to health and medical systems, social welfare programs, schools, roads, et cetera. The majority of the current population has put money into (these) public goods, certainly in Europe, and thus property rights were created. These  should be protected and can only consensually be changed.

Also, there are more intangible effects, think for example of the change in culture and social cohesion, certainly before the new arrivals are fully integrated. Hayek warned against precisely these destabilizing effects of large groups of immigrants entering a relatively homogenous territory, drawing on his own Viennese experience in the interwar years. He openly supported Margaret Thatcher to this end in a letter to The Times on February 11, 1978, which were followed by further explanations in the same newspaper in the weeks thereafter.

This is not to say we should all build (or rather attempt to build) walls, or close off borders completely. Some form of immigration is indeed called for, if only out of humanitarian perspective. That is something completely different than free immigration though.

12 thoughts on “Free Immigration is not a Classical Liberal Right

  1. Thank you for raising this important issue, Edwin. Your claim that libertarians espousing open borders would not get us “one inch closer to the libertarian ideal” is not factual. For example, Ayn Rand, responsible for countless libertarian converts was asked: “What is your attitude toward immigration? Doesn’t open immigration have a negative effect on a country’s standard of living?” This is her answer:

    You don’t know my conception of self-interest. No one has the right to pursue his self-interest by law or by force, which is what you’re suggesting. You want to forbid immigration on the grounds that it lowers your standard of living — which isn’t true, though if it were true, you’d still have no right to close the borders. You’re not entitled to any “self-interest” that injures others, especially when you can’t prove that open immigration affects your self-interest. You can’t claim that anything others may do — for example, simply through competition — is against your self-interest. But above all, aren’t you dropping a personal context? How could I advocate restricting immigration when I wouldn’t be alive today if our borders had been closed? (Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew, p. 25.)

  2. “To make a case for free immigration on the basis of rights is to deny the property rights of current populations.”

    If you mean denying the “property right” of a gang claiming to RULE the “current population” to control movement over its stated turf lines, I guess you’re right.

    If you’re talking about the actual property rights of the actual members of the population, not so much. Their property rights don’t extend to land expropriated and/or violently excluded from legitimate homesteading by the ruling gang.

    • Thanks, Thomas. You make a good point.

      A clearer phrase than “free immigration” would be “free immigration onto Govt property” or “open Govt borders.” Neither I nor Ayn Rand would advocate privately-owned borders being open to all.

  3. I am strongly pro immigration, with extensive parts of my family being recent immigrants to the US.

    That said, I find the libertarian open borders argument to be vacuous. It involves the usual Scholastic process of starting with foundational axioms and using deduction to make recommendations on how to improve the world. This is the Achilles heel of ideological libertarians, leading to absurd conclusions which never need to be actually tested empirically in the actual, messy world we live in.

    In reality, the ideologues never explain exactly where these so called natural rights come from (is the universe composed of quarks, leptons and property rights?), nor do they worry about negative externalities emerging from their foundational principles being enacted.

  4. I want to add, because of some of the comments above that I am strongly pro-immigration. The US (the nation-state) should d admit many more people who are just like me, like this immigrant. My opposition to illegal immigration has much to do with the fact that it’s invariably messy and disorderly. Of course, I realize that my position squarely relies on the existence of an effective nation-state. This fact does not bother much for the following reason. I think there are only two libertarian paths of transition. The first is the gradual modification and deliberate weakening of the state in orderly societies. (All orderly societies I have heard of have a functioning state.) With this perspective, any large influx of people who are different in important ways undermines the effectiveness of the state and will make it more defensive. More defensiveness will interfere with the pacific task of weakening the state. The second path to a more libertarian society is the Somali path or the South Sudan path. Go ahead, I am ready for the rocks that will be thrown at me! PS Edwin van de Haar is not in any way responsible for my assertions. I just caught a ride on his nice car.

    • No, dude, the US is a states-system, like Westphalia, not a nation-state.

      That’s why it’s been so successful on the world stage.

    • The generic meaning of “nation-state” is of a state largely corresponding with a nation. That’s in contrast for example with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, undoubtedly a state (“…monopoly of violence …. ” ) ruling over several nations (Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Croatian, etc…) . To my mind, the US is clearly a nation. (That’s in spite or because of immigration.) The fact that it’s state of a federal nature does not matter much because all states -including proudly unitarian states such as France – are to an extent federative. The central French government does not decide where to put the traffic light in this or that small village, for instance. At any rate, it seems to me that what matters in the term “nation-state” is the recognition that state and nation are different entities that correspond to different degrees . The recognition matters because even common language betrays us here. The American media often use the two terms interchangeably.

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