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The Libertarian Immigration Conundrum

December 8, 2005

pre-1914 world saw no immigration issues or policies, and no real
border controls. Instead, there was free movement in the real sense;
there were no questions asked, people were treated respectfully and one
did not even need official documents to enter or leave a country. This
all changed with the First World War, after which states seem to
compete with having the least humane view on foreigners seeking refuge
within its territory.

The "immigration policies" of modern states is yet another licensing
scheme of the 20th century: the state has enforced licensing of
movement. It is virtually impossible to move across the artificial
boundaries of the state's territory in the search for opportunity,
love, or work; one needs a state-issued license to move one's body, be
it across a river, over a mountain or through a forest. The Berlin Wall
may be gone, but the basic principle of it lives and thrives.

These days, with Bush's Americans First program and tightened
borders at taxpayers' expense, it seems the state is reaching its
licensing climax. To a nation built on immigration it should seem
strange to have a president investing in keeping foreigners out, and
considering fines on employers hiring immigrants, but the objective is
not a healthy, vigorous society: with border controls come easier
surveillance, regulation and control. The Europeans are leading the way
in their attempt to secure inbreeding and economic stagnation
throughout the continent, through what has become known as "Fort
Europe." No one enters, no one leaves.

Immigration is not different from other kinds of licensing even
though it has been awarded a special name. Licensing has the same
result regardless of what is licensed: licensing of physicians causes
poor health care at higher cost just as licensing taxi businesses
causes poor and untimely service at high cost — licensing on movement
means restricted freedom and higher taxes for people (whether
"citizens" or "foreigners"). From a libertarian point of view it should
be clear that all licensing needs to be done away with, including

Yet the immigration issue seems to be somewhat of a divide within libertarianism, with two seemingly conflicting views
on how to deal with population growth through immigration. On the one
hand, it is not possible as a libertarian to support a regulated
immigration policy, since government itself is never legitimate. This
is the somewhat classical libertarian standpoint on immigration: open

On the other hand, the theory of natural rights and, especially,
private property rights tells us anyone could move anywhere — but they
need first to purchase their own piece of land on which to live or
obtain necessary permission from the owner. Otherwise immigration
becomes a violation of property rights, a trespass. This is an
interpretation of a libertarian-principled immigration policy presented
by Hans-Hermann Hoppe a few years ago, which since then has gained
increasing recognition and support.

To a non-libertarian bystander, the discussion of the two
alternatives must seem quite absurd. What is the use of this
libertarian idea of liberty, if people cannot agree on a simple issue
such as immigration? I intend to show that the libertarian idea is as
powerful as we claim, and that there is no reason we should not be able
to reach consensus in the immigration issue. Both sides in this debate,
the anti-government-policy as well as the pro-private-property, somehow
fail to realize there is no real contradiction in their views.

The anti-government-policy immigration standpoint (or, the open
borders argument) and the pro-private-property ditto are two sides of a
coin; their respective proponents have simply fallen prey to the devil
in the details. Let's go through the main arguments of both camps, and
see to their respective strengths and weaknesses, and I'll show you how
this is true.

The Open Borders Argument

The people advocating "open borders" in the immigration issue argue
state borders are artificial, they are creations based on the coercive
powers of the state, and therefore nothing about them can be
legitimate. As things are, we should not (or, rather: cannot)
regulate immigration. Everyone has a right to settle down and live
wherever they wish. This is a matter of natural right; no one enjoys
the right to force his decision upon me unless it is an act of
self-defense when I am violating his rights.

In a world order based on natural rights, this would be true. It is
a golden rule, a universal rule of thumb proscribing that I'll leave
you alone if you leave me alone; if you attack me or try to force
something or someone on me, I have a right to use force to defend
myself and what is mine. I guess we can agree that this is the
fundamental agreement summarizing the libertarian idea, a "libertarian
social contract" if you wish.

The problem with this idea is that it has too much of a macro
perspective. While arguing there should be no states and therefore no
state borders, it presents arguments with an intellectual point of
departure in the division of mankind into territorial nationalities and
ethnicity. It is simply not possible to make conclusions on immigration
to, e.g., the United States, if we start our argument from the
libertarian idea. What is "immigration" in a world with no states?

The Pro-Property Argument

A less macro view on immigration is taken for granted in the
pro-property argument. Here, the individual's natural right to make his
own choices and his right to personal property is the point of
departure. Since we all have in our power to create value through
putting our minds and bodies to work, we also enjoy a natural right to
do as we please with that which we have created and place ourselves
wherever we have property owners or guests. Or, as Hoppe puts it, "[i]n
a natural order, immigration is a person's migration from one
neighborhood-community into a different one."[1]

Consequently, the immigration issue is in real terms solved through
the many choices made by sovereign individuals; how they act and
interact in order to achieve their goals. There can simply be no
immigration policy, since there is no government — only individuals,
their actions and their rights (to property).

The "open borders" argument is therefore not only irrelevant, since
it has a macro point of view; it also fails to realize property rights
as a natural regulation of movement. Since all property must be owned
and created by the individual, government cannot own property.
Furthermore, the property currently in government control was once
stolen from individuals — and should be returned the second the state
is abolished since property rights are absolute. There is consequently
no unowned land to be homesteaded in the Western world, and so "open
borders" is in essence a meaningless concept.

Libertarian Utopia

Immigration will thus be naturally restricted in a free society,
since all landed property (at least in the Western world) is rightfully
owned by self-owning individuals. Just like Nozick argues in his magnum
opus Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a society based on natural
rights should honor property rights in absolute terms, and therefore
the rightful owners of each piece of property should be identified
despite the fact that humankind has been plundered by a parasitic class
for centuries.

This view is, though philosophically proper, also utopian, just like
Nozick showed, since it is not possible to identify who has a right to
what through original acquisition. First of all, it is not possible to
distinguish private property correctly simply because rightful and
stolen properties have been mixed over and over again through the
centuries. Who is the rightful owner of property being 9/10 the product
of one's labor and the remaining 1/10 (perhaps the land on which I have
built a house) acquired in good faith from someone not being a rightful
owner? Imagine that sort of thing happening over and over for

Also, there is no one to say what the rightful but
long-since-deceased original property owners would have wanted with
their property if they had been allowed to keep it or if their lives'
product were not legally inherited by their families. It is not
reasonable to suppose all of them, in every generation, would have had
their sons (and daughters) inherit everything were it not for state and
church coercion.

What is to be considered just property when the
welfare-warfare state is eventually abolished is not at all clear. Can
one take for granted the subjects (citizens) of a certain state have
the right to an equal share of what is currently controlled by the
government? Are they, at all, the rightful owners to what they
currently control with the state's legal protection? If we intend to
seek the just origin of property, we need to roll back all transactions
until the times before the modern state, before the monarchies and
feudalism, and probably to a time before the city states of ancient
Greece. If we do, how should we consider the produced values of the
generations we've effectively dismissed?

There is probably no way to sort out this unbelievable mess along the lines of absolute property rights. It should be dealt with this way, but I dare say it will be a practical issue when we get to that point, rather than a philosophical one.

A State Immigration Problem

Another problem of immigration and property arises from the social
welfare system financed by money extorted from citizens. With the open
borders argument, private property rights might be undermined even
further if immigrants are entitled to special rights such as housing,
social security, minority status and rights, etc. Also, immigrants will
automatically become part of the parasitic masses through enjoying the
common right to use public roads, public schooling, and public health
care — while not paying for it (yet).

The concept of private property rights seems to offer a solution to
this, but it is not really a way out: it is not as simple as "private
property rights — yes or no?" Private property rights is a
philosophical position offering a morally superior fundamental
framework for how to structure society, but it does not offer guidance
in what to do with non-property such as that currently controlled by

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It is deceivingly simple to claim all of the state's subjects have just
claims to "state property" since they are entitled to retribution for
years of rights violations. This is, however, only part of the truth.
It is also a matter of fact that all
private production to some degree is part of the rights violation
process, with direct state support through subsidies, tax breaks,
patent laws, police protection etc., or indirectly through state
meddling with currency exchange rates, "protective" state legislation,
through using publicly owned and maintained property and services for
transportation, and so on. There is simply no such thing as just private property anymore in the philosophical sense.

Therefore, it is impossible to say immigrants would be parasites to
a greater degree than, e.g., Bill Gates: the Microsoft Corporation has
benefited greatly thanks to state regulation of the market, but has
also been severely punished in a number of ways. We are all both
victims and beneficiaries. Of course, one might argue that forced
benefits are not really benefits, but only one aspect of oppression.
Well, in that case it would also be true for immigrants, who too are or
will be victims of the state (but perhaps not for as long as you and I).

A Libertarian Stand on Immigration

We must not forget libertarianism is not a teleological dogma
striving for a certain end; it rather sees individual freedom and
rights as the natural point of departure for a just society. When
people are truly free, whatever will be will be. Hence, the question is
not what the effects of a certain immigration policy would be, but
whether there should be one at all.

From a libertarian point of view, it is not relevant to discuss
whether to support immigration policy A, B, or C. The answer is not
open borders but no borders; the libertarian case is not whether private property rights restrict immigration or not, but that a free society is based on
private property. Both of these views are equally libertarian — but
they apply the libertarian idea from different points of view. The open
borders argument provides the libertarian stand on immigration from a
macro view, and therefore stresses the libertarian values of tolerance
and openness.[2] The private property argument assumes the micro view and therefore stresses the individual and natural rights.

There is no conflict between these views, except when each
perspective is presented as a policy to be enforced by the state. With
the state as it is today, should we as libertarians champion open
borders or enforced property rights (with citizens' claims on "state
property")? Both views are equally troublesome when applied within the
framework of the state, but they do not contradict each other; they are
not opposites.

Per Bylund works as a business consultant in Sweden, in preparation for PhD studies. He is the founder of Anarchism.net. Send him mail. Visit his website. Comment on the blog.

[1] Hoppe, "Natural Order, the State, and the Immigration Problem" in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 16, No. 1, p. 81. (Download PDF.)

One might argue tolerance is rather a liberal or classical liberal
value, not libertarian. But tolerance is in a sense part of natural
rights, since the fundamental agreement in the libertarian social
contract ("I leave you alone if you leave me alone") calls for
accepting others choices as their own. I do not need to support them,
but I have to respect and not interfere with them.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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