A Libertarian Theory of Free Immigration, by Jesús Huerta de Soto

…libertarian doctrine traditionally declared itself, with no qualifications or reservations, in favor of the principle of complete freedom of emigration and immigration.

From the title of his essay and this sentence in the opening paragraph, I approached this piece with some caution – given my view that one cannot derive “open borders” from the non-aggression principle.  Maybe I am just a bit jumpy, given recent discussions of the topic.

I am glad, however, that I stuck to it and read the entire essay.  De Soto rightly points out the violations of the non-aggression principle inherent in the state’s management of border control.  But he also sees that this coin is not one-sided:

However, the coercive action of the state manifests itself not only in hindering the free movement of people, but, at the same time, in forcing the integration of certain groups of people against the wishes of the natives of a given state or region.

This coin has two sides, and the two sides are almost irreconcilable – and certainly not conducive to simple slogans like “open borders is the only libertarian position!”

In light of their apparently contradictory nature, the foregoing problems show the importance of isolating their real origin, and piecing together a libertarian theory of immigration that clarifies the principles that should govern the processes of immigration and emigration in a free society.

Which de Soto does.  He begins by examining the pure libertarian model, as explained by Rothbard (and which generated so much heat for me when I referred to it); it is a model of full private property rights – a model that, inherently, means borders managed by the property owner:

The conditions, volume, and duration of personal visits will be those accepted or decided by the parties involved.

And that would be that; an easy problem to solve if there were no state borders and if all property was private.

But the problem becomes more complicated when factoring in the reality of the state:

Thus, today, there is often the paradox that those who wish to abide scrupulously by the law find that their movements are not permitted, even if desired by all the parties involved. At the same time, the existence of public goods and the free availability of welfare-state benefits attract, like a magnet, a continuous tide of immigration, mostly illegal, which generates significant conflicts and external costs.

I am not allowed to invite who I choose and I am forced to suffer and pay for who I do not want.  It is not a libertarian solution to take one side of this coin and not the other – it is merely a different scheme of a state-managed border.

I have many other issues from a libertarian perspective with the open borders position in a world of state borders.  I have written extensively about these in the past, so I will merely summarize here:

  • As a property owner has the right to manage his border, he has the right to join with his neighbors to form a common agreement.
  • He and his neighbors also have the right to grant agency to a third party to manage their outside borders.
  • That the state has forced these neighbors to “hire” the state to act as the agent does not remove the right that the property owners hold.

Finally, as state borders cannot be derived by a strict application of the NAP one must look to the minarchist position; as minarchists allow for the state to provide defense…how is defense to be provided unless the state is knowledgeable about who crosses the border and for what purpose?

Returning to de Soto:

The ideal solution to all these problems would come from the total privatization of the resources which are today considered public, and the disappearance of state intervention at all levels in the area of emigration and immigration.

I have had this discussion with Walter Block who has acknowledged the issue.  It is not only the ideal solution; before a fully libertarian solution can be offered, full private property rights must be supported.

I find this much different than for issues like drug laws, prostitution, etc.  In each of those cases, the state need do only one thing: eliminate the laws that criminalize non-violent behavior.  Nothing more need be done; this action causes no damage to me or my property.  In fact, the damage to me is reduced as the government need not tax me to pay for enforcement and incarceration of these non-criminals.

But for open borders, two actions must occur: eliminating state border control and also supporting full private property rights; without both actions, attacks on my property increase.  The number of ways by which attacks increase are too numerous to list, but should be apparent.

De Soto offers some considerations for something approaching a libertarian solution to this question in a world of state borders:

However, as long as nation-states continue to exist, we must find “procedural” solutions that allow the problems to be solved under present conditions.

We are left with discovering second-best solutions as long as there is a state.  One can debate which of (or which combination of) these second-best solutions might move us closest toward the libertarian ideal, but this is what we have.

In other words, our choice is not either / or: either wide-open borders or we are inherently supporting every state violation regarding international travel.  There are options for libertarians to support other than these:

The first of these principles is that people who immigrate must do so at their own risk. This means that immigration must in no way be subsidized by the welfare state, i.e., by benefits provided by the government and financed through taxes.

This would certainly be required in a libertarian, private-property order.

The second principle that should inspire current policy is that all immigrants must be able to demonstrate that they have independent means of support, and thus will not be a burden on the taxpayers.

This would certainly be required in a libertarian, private-property order.  It strikes me that this should also be guaranteed by a sponsor.

The third essential principle is that under no circumstance should the political vote be granted to immigrants quickly, since this would create the danger of political exploitation by various groups of immigrants.

Well, there would be no such as “political votes” in the same sense in a full private property order.  But is there something libertarian about giving equal political standing to strangers in today’s order?

As long as we have states, we are going to have people who are citizens.  Are non-citizens entitled to all of the same privileges and protections that are afforded to a citizen?  Strangers, unaccustomed to anything of the local culture and tradition and mores, have an equal say in the politics of the country?  On what basis, I wonder.

Finally, the most important principle is that all immigrants must at all times observe the law, particularly the criminal law, of the social group that receives them.

This would certainly be required in a libertarian, private-property order.  And, again, this should also be guaranteed by the sponsor.

Imagine if these steps were in place today.  How much simpler – and more libertarian – would the border crossing be in such a condition?  Of course, a state agent (presumably) would still confirm proper documentation and sponsorship, but beyond this they would have no role.

That strikes me about as libertarian as we are going to get as long as there are state borders.

Conclusion

Finally, an adult enters the room.  What do I mean by this?  Someone who recognizes that this is not a simple black and white issue, not when viewed strictly through the lens of the non-aggression principle.

De Soto has described well the issues and has offered solutions that bring us toward a libertarian view on a topic where we are inherently stuck with second-best choices.  I have in the past written of very similar solutions – solutions that in a private property order would certainly be enforced.

If you want further demands for government action when it comes to immigration, keep pushing for open borders in today’s world and with today’s conditions.  If you truly want less government involvement in immigration and border control, work toward full private property rights; in the meantime, consider how de Soto’s list mimics as well as possible a private property order in a world of state borders – then advocate for these.

It would be the adult thing to do.

I will conclude with the comment I left at the site:

A very thoughtful and considered presentation, demonstrating that in a world of state borders there is no “pure” libertarian answer to the question of immigration. Instead, we are left – as de Soto has done – to discuss and develop methods and procedures that can mimic a libertarian solution within the confines of monopoly state control of borders, as much as such a thing is possible.