Immigration Roundtable

Immigration Roundtable: Walter Block

Editor’s note: our immigration roundtable is a series of articles presenting the views of prominent Austrian and libertarian thinkers. By necessity each article provides only a basic overview of those views, with links to original sources.

Our goal is to present each thinker’s views on immigration by excerpting his or her writings on the subject.

Earlier articles in this series addressed the views of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. This article discusses the views of Dr. Walter Block.

Professor Block has written several substantial academic and popular articles on the topic of immigration, beginning in the 1980s and extending into the 2010s. Dr. Block is probably the best-known pure “open borders” advocate among Senior Fellows at the Mises Institute; and while his primary arguments are robustly deontological he does not shy away from addressing pragmatic questions raised by critics. And unlike Mises and Rothbard in the main, Block from the outset extends the doctrine of laissez-faire movement of workers and goods from the context of economics into normative libertarian philosophy. 

His 1998 article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies titled ”A Libertarian Case for Free Immigration” begins with characteristic Blockean bluntness:

I shall contend that emigration, migration, and immigration all fall under the rubric of “victimless crime.” That is, not a one of these three per se violates the non-aggression axiom. Therefore, at least for the libertarian, no restrictions or prohibitions whatsoever should be placed in the path of these essentially peaceful activities.

Immigration across national boundaries should be analyzed in an identical manner to that migration which takes place within a country. If it is non-invasive for Jones to change his locale from one place in Misesania to another in that country, then it cannot be invasive for him to move from Rothbardania to Misesania. Alternatively, if migration across international borders is somehow illegitimate, this should apply to the domestic variety as well. As long as the immigrant moves to a piece of private property whose owner is willing to take him in (maybe for a fee), there can be nothing untoward about such a transaction. This, along with all other capitalist acts between consenting adults, must be considered valid in the libertarian world. Note that there is no freedom of movement of the person per se. This is always subject to the willingness of property owners in the host nation to accept the immigrant onto their land.

Block continues this approach in making perhaps his best-known argument for free immigration: homesteading of previously unowned land: 

The case is equally clear for allowing immigrants to settle on unowned land. When there is virgin territory, there is no legitimate reason for immigrants (or domestic citizens) to be prevented from bringing it into fruitful production. States Rothbard: “Everyone should have the right to appropriate as his property previously unowned land or other resources.” “Everyone,” presumably, includes immigrants as well as citizens or residents of the home country.

And here Block addresses the “paleo” argument regarding public or common real property and buildings, property ostensibly owned and definitely controlled by government:

Take the case of the bum in the library. What, if anything, should be done about him? If this is a private library, then the plumb-line or pure libertarian would agree fully with his paleo cousin: throw the bum out! More specifically, the law should allow the owner of the library to forcibly evict such a person, if need be, at his own discretion. Cognizance would be taken of the fact that if the proprietor allowed this smelly person to occupy his premises, he would soon be forced into bankruptcy, as normal paying customers would avoid his establishment like the plague.

But what if it is a public library? Here, the paleos and their libertarian colleagues part company. The latter would argue that the public libraries are per se illegitimate. As such, they are akin to an unowned good. Any occupant has as much right to them as any other. If we are in a revolutionary state of war, then the first homesteader may seize control. But if not, as at present, then, given “just war” considerations, any reasonable interference with public property would be legitimate. The paleos or postponement libertarians take a sharply divergent view: one should treat these libraries in as close an approximation as possible to how they would be used in the fully free society. Since, on that happy day, the overwhelmingly likely scenario is that they will be owned by a profit maximizer who will have a “no bums” policy, this is exactly how the public library should be treated right now. Namely, what we should do to the bum in the public library today is exactly what would be done to him by the private owner: kick him out. 

Block alludes to arguments made by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe and others that proper ownership (and thus decisions about access) of taxpayer-funded property resides with taxpayers, who presumably would treat “their” property like any private owner. But he does not agree that imperfect present conditions, i.e., government ownership of land and buildings, warrant restrictions on immigration any more than imperfect conditions with respect to welfare or public schools warrant illibertarian approaches:

​There are difficulties with this stance. First, as we have already seen, it is extremely likely that in the fully free society, virtually all immigrants would be taken in by a landowner in the host country. Therefore, if the paleos are to remain consistent with their own position, they should eschew all legislated immigration barriers. Secondly, and even apart from this consideration, the postponement libertarian perspective is vulnerable to rebuttal by reductio ad absurdum. If we should not allow unrestricted immigration until we have achieved the free society, but instead should curtail immigration in an effort to approximate what would take place under a fully libertarian society, let us apply this insight to other realms of controversy.

 Public schooling is a disaster. Certainly, in the present journal, there is no need to document such a claim. That being the case, the libertarian position is clear: get rid of public education, forthwith, even if we have not attained complete liberty in other sectors of society.

The U.S. welfare policy is a disaster. The libertarian position is once again crystal clear: abolish welfare forthwith, no matter what the status of the remainder of the economy. But the paleo or postponement libertarians are once again precluded from embracing so clear, just, and simple a solution. 

Dr. Block is equally adamant on the question of immigrants voting for more government or more welfare, insisting the core issue of voting should be the focus:

The real difficulty here concerns promiscuous voting, not immigrants who might vote “incorrectly.” The problem, even apart from new entrants to our country, is that those who are already citizens now have the “right” to vote on, not whether or not, but how much of other people’s property they can legally steal through the ballot box. This is the real threat to liberty. In a free society, all the wrong-thinking immigrants in the world would be powerless to overturn (what is left of) our free institutions, for there would be no possibility of voting to seize other people’s property. 

Block concludes his paper with a rhetorical flourish about the anti-immigration policies of Left and Right — but note the Blockean proviso regarding property and sponsorship of migrants:

Are libertarians moderates or extremists on the issues of emigration, migration, and immigration? The libertarian position on migration does not constitute a compromise in that it is indubitably an all-or-none proposition: either migration is totally legitimate, in which case there should be no interferences with it whatsoever, or it is a violation of the non-aggression axiom, in which case it should be banned, fully. I have argued in this paper that the former position is the only correct one. But libertarianism constitutes a compromise position on this issue in two other senses. First, immigration is allowed if and only if there are property owners willing to sponsor (presumably for a fee, but not necessarily so) the new entrants, and not otherwise. Second, there are people on both right and left who oppose borders totally open to peaceful settlement (Chavez, Buckley), and libertarians find themselves safely on the other side of this unholy alliance. 

Fast forward to 2011, and Dr. Block continues to advocate “free movement of goods, capital” in another seminal Journal of Libertarian Studies article titled “Hoppe, Kinsella, and Rothbard II on Immigration: A Critique.” Here he attempts to rebut certain arguments made by the aforementioned Dr. Hoppe, libertarian legal theorist Stephan Kinsella, and the late Dr. Rothbard — in particular the argument that the free movement of goods and capital requires a different analysis than the free movement of people. In some cases he responds to rebuttals put forth by Hoppe and Kinsella regarding his JLS article quoted at length above. “Rothbard II” as used by Dr. Block refers to Rothbard’s later writings, especially the article “Nations by Consent.

Block starts by questioning Rothbard’s claim that full privatization of real property would entirely resolve the question of immigration:

It is tempting to think that the private ownership of all streets, (plus every other single solitary square inch of land) would resolve the immigration issue, at least among libertarians. Alas, not even this is so. Worse, there is also the question of whether or not, given circumstances as they presently are with regard to land ownership, the government is justified in interfering with the free movement of people.That is, it cannot be denied that at present, such a salutary state of affairs (complete private ownership of all property) simply does not exist. To wit, there are vast land holdings on the part of the government (streets, parks, forests, etc.), and, further, there are other vast tracts that have need been so much as trod on by a human foot (mainly in Alaska, Nevada, and other western states).

He also dismisses Rothbard’s concern, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, that artificial languages and cultures might be imposed by mass and sudden immigration:

There is simply nothing incompatible with libertarianism and destroying “cultures and languages,” provided only that the latter is done without the initiation of violence. And this goes not only for Latvia and Estonia, but for the U.S. as well.   

The point is, there is no such thing as anyone’s “own country.” This is a notion incompatible with libertarianism. What happened to the doctrine of allowing free competition in all matters? Certainly, this should apply to languages and cultures.

He then goes on to quote Hoppe’s argument that long-suffering taxpayers in a country, not recent immigrant arrivals, have the highest and most just claim to control government property or “unowned” common areas:

Given Block’s undeniable credentials as a leading contemporary theoretician of libertarianism, it is worthwhile explaining where his argument goes astray and why libertarianism requires no such thing as an open-door policy. Block’s pro-immigration stand is based on an analogy. “Take the case of the bum in the library,” he states.

What, if anything, should be done about him? If this is a private library, ... the law should allow the owner of the library to forcibly evict such a person, if need be, at his own discretion. ... But what if it is a public library? ... As such [libraries] are akin to an unowned good. Any occupant has a much right to them as any other. If we are in a revolutionary state of war, then the first homesteader may seize control. But if not, as at present, then, given “just war” considerations, any reasonable interference with public property would be legitimate. ... One could “stink up” the library with unwashed body odor, or leave litter around in it, or “liberate” some books, but one could not plant land mines on the premises to blow up innocent library users.

The fundamental error in this argument, according to which everyone, foreign immigrants no less than domestic bums, has an equal right to domestic public property, is Block’s claim that public property “is akin to an unowned good.” In fact, there exists a fundamental difference between unowned goods and public property. The latter is de facto owned by the taxpaying members of the domestic public. They have financed this property; hence, they, in accordance with the amount of taxes paid by individual members, must be regarded as its legitimate owners. Neither the bum, who has presumably paid no taxes, nor any foreigner, who has most definitely not paid any domestic taxes, can thus be assumed to have any rights regarding public property whatsoever. 

Block responds with reference to Rothbard, and an expansion of the “unowned” public library example into the idea of homesteading vast tracts of open land: 

First, the position I took is not really all that remarkable. Indeed, this was roughly Murray Rothbard’s position for many years. 

Second, while Hoppe is undoubtedly correct in mentioning that I do indeed rely on the bum in the library analogy, this by no means exhausts my arguments. Let me briefly mention a few of them before returning to the analogy, as none of these others have been so far addressed by Hoppe. To wit: what about the vast open spaces in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska that no one has ever settled. What aspect of libertarianism could an immigrant possibly violate if he somehow catapulted himself to any of this terrain and began subsistence farming? Or, trading with other such immigrants, among themselves. Or, trading with the rest of us, on a totally voluntary basis? 

 What rights would pre-existing inhabitants, say Robinson Crusoe, have to bar newcomers in such a scenario? Block answers:

The analogy is a pretty airtight one. Crusoe, and extant Americans, were here first. Friday, and the would-be immigrant who Hoppe wants to bar from this country, are attempting to come here second. If Crusoe (present occupants) bars Friday (would-be immigrants are not allowed to settle in unused dessert and mountainous regions of the U.S.), then he is in Rothbard’s analysis, claiming more than homesteading would justifiably entitle him to. Crusoe is the illegitimate aggressor against Friday. No less is true of the present occupants of the U.S.; by adopting the Hoppe analysis, they are preventing entirely innocent people from going about their lawful business of homesteading empty territory.

Now, Hoppe could reply that the only reason these mountainous and dessert areas are not presently occupied is due to the fact that the U.S. government forbids its citizens to do so, and/or illegitimately occupies these lands itself through its agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management. There are two responses to any such defense. One, Hoppe must then acknowledge that the courageous immigrants, and not the docile citizens, had the ability to ignore these unjust governmental institutions. Two, land, happily, is a superfluous factor of production, compared to labor. Thus, at any given time, there will be sub-marginal land, precisely the territory that looks so attractive to the hypothetical immigrants we are now considering. But, with the advent of these people, the margin shifts. Terrain that was previously sub-marginal, before their arrival, becomes supra-marginal with their arrival. This means that before these new people came on the scene, there is a reason in addition to governmental proscriptions why the mountains of Wyoming and the tundra of Alaska was not homesteaded and settled; it was previously sub-marginal, even though it is no longer so under our assumptions.

And what about the children of current inhabitants, who burst on the scene much like immigrants? Should we worry about their propensity to grow up and consume welfare or engage in criminal activity?

What about immigrants from the “country” of Storkovia? That is, how does the Hoppe theory handle newborns? My claim here is that anything this author can say about an immigrant I can say concerning a brand new baby, with a lag of some 18 years, perhaps. If the one will commit crimes, so will the other, in a decade or so. Ditto for welfare. And it is the same for being allowed onto the roads of the nation. If illegal immigrants should not be allowed onto the highways, why should it be licit for a citizen of, say, Texas, to enter a road in Louisiana? Hoppe might reply that parents are responsible for their children in a way that does not apply to employers of immigrants. But this only gets him so far. Remember that time lag! After 15–18 years or so, parents are no longer liable for the evil doings of their children. Given the analogy, there is no justification for treating employers any differently. Hoppe says that anyone, such as an employer who invites an immigrant to this country must obligate himself to financially support them. But this is erroneous, since it would be unjustified to impose any such obligation on parents, for their newborn children. 

And Block disagrees that taxpayers, in Hoppe’s view the rightful owners of government property, should be accorded more say in the control of such property than immigrants:

Let us return, for a moment to an illegal immigrant seizing a bit of Yellowstone Park, which Hoppe and I agree has been stolen from the taxpayers of America. This act, in splendid isolation from everything else, must necessarily be justified. It is a necessary precondition to returning it to its rightful owners. But Hoppe would object. What reason does he offer? That I confuse de facto and de jure? That since this land is in justice really owned by the long suffering taxpayers, it is illegitimate for anyone else, a third party, to even so much as touch it? This will not do.

To return to the illegal immigrant who is now perched on a part of Yellowstone Park and refuses to give it back to a taxpayer, the rightful owner. In like manner we may say of him that he really should return this property to its proper owner. However, we may also say that of the two options, one the status quo where the evil state retains this property, and the other where the robber is relieved of his illicit gains, the latter is certainly a better second best scenario. Thus, illegal immigration, Hoppe to the contrary notwithstanding, is justified on libertarian grounds not only for unowned property, but also for that stolen from the taxpayers of the country.

My response is that I do not at all claim that property such as government roads or libraries is “unowned.” Rather, I claim these holdings were stolen. I agree that the state now possesses them; I argue, only, that this is unjustified. And, yes, I insist, the same libertarian analysis can be applied, in this context, to virgin and stolen land. Why? This is because for the libertarian, at least as I construe him, stolen land is de jure virgin land, ready for the next homesteader to seize it (on the assumption that the rightful original owner cannot be located, or he acquiesces in the state’s seizure, or that, arguendo, we can ignore this rightful owner.)

Dr. Block also responds to arguments made by Kinsella regarding the complexity of free immigration in a situation where government owns and controls so much land and infrastructure. Quoting Kinsella:

Coming back to immigration, let’s take the case of the federal government as owner-caretaker of an extensive network of public roads and other facilities. If the feds adopted a rule that only citizens and certain invited outsiders are permitted to use these resources, this would in effect radically restrict immigration. Even if private property owners were not prohibited from inviting whomever they wish onto their own property, the guest would have a hard time getting there, or leaving, without using, say, the public roads. So merely prohibiting non-citizens from using public  property would be one means of establishing de facto immigration restrictions. It need not literally prohibit private property owners from having illegal immigrants on their property. It need only prevent them from using the roads or ports — which it owns.  

Given this reality, what sort of rules for access and use should libertarians support? Quoting Kinsella:

It seems to me establishing rules as to how public roads are to be used is not inherently unlibertarian. Even libertarians who say the state has no right to make any rules at all regarding property it possesses — even speed limits etc. — really advocate the following rule: allow anyone to use it, and/or return it to the people. This is a way of using a piece of property. But most libertarians don’t seem to have a principled opposition to the very idea of rule-setting itself. 

What rules, then, are defendable? It’s an impossible question to answer, according to Block:

Kinsella is saying, if I may paraphrase him, that government is our caretaker. As such, it must perforce set up reasonable rules. The state should act as if it were a (perhaps bumbling) private owner. In this way the people from whom the money to finance the swimming pool was stolen may at least get some services in return. But this is a fatally conservative outlook. The radical alternative is that the “rules” of the pool should be fashioned so as to eliminate these enterprises from governmental control. For example, everyone, anyone, should be “allowed” to walk off with the water in the pool, even the very bricks of which it is composed. 

And Block goes further in opposing the “caretaker” or rightful owner argument:

It seems to me decidedly unlibertarian to advocate these sorts of “reasonable” rules. A more libertarian stance would be to welcome actual chaos on all property statists steal from victims. The likelihood is that pure bedlam and pandemonium on all such terrain would deter the thieves from their evil deeds.

All I can say is that majority vote is no litmus test of libertarianism. Most Americans also favor minimum wage laws, taxes, government, affirmative action, yet no one would assert that these policies are therefore libertarian. I certainly support Kinsella’s contention that “99% of my fellow taxpayers would … prefer some immigration restrictions.” This might well enhance restitution, as he contends, but, as I have argued, restitution is a far less important libertarian concern than stopping the violence that lead to the need for the restitution in the first place.

Ultimately, Dr. Walter Block is a vociferous and prolific defender of the stateless society — and thus brooks no restrictionist immigration arguments regarding state-owned property, voting, or the welfare state. His open borders position, however, is built on an unstinting foundation of private property rights, Lockean homesteading, and the full privatization of everything government does or owns.

Read more of his immigration perspectives here, here, and here.

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