Mises Wire

Immigration Roundtable: Ludwig von Mises

[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.]

An audio version of this article is available here.

Immigration remains a contentious issue in the US and across the West. Libertarians have not been immune. While the reflexive tendency favors freedom of movement, this reflex is not dispositive wherever private property exists. The right to leave a place — the right not to be imprisoned or enslaved — is different than the right to enter a place, at least in a society with any degree of private-property norms.

The Mises Institute offers more intellectual diversity on the topic than most organizations, although our writers and scholars generally do not favor “open borders” in the current sense of the term. Their views range from complete elimination of borders and open homesteading of unowned land (Block) to fully private property societies permitting access only according to covenants (Hoppe). Others focus on reducing welfare state inducements, decentralizing immigration policy and border controls, exploring market-based sponsorship programs and alternatives to current lottery systems, and decoupling immigration from naturalization, citizenship, and voting.

Any discussion of immigration benefits from the following caveats:

  • No truly libertarian approach to immigration is possible when governments at all levels own (i.e., control) vast amounts of “public” land, including coastlines and ports, highways, airports, roads, military installations, parks, and common spaces.
  • Thus the debate, at present, centers around the question of what government should do under current conditions with regard to immigration.
  • There are no easy answers to how government agents should control government property such as roads and other “public” commons. Real economic calculation is impossible when the state controls resources, and “non-economic” considerations are impossibly subjective. 
  • “Welfare,” in the form of various taxpayer-provided goods and services, makes the issue more complex.
  • Democratic voting, coupled with high-time-preference politicians, makes the issue more complex.

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

We begin with Ludwig von Mises. Mises first addressed the topic of human migration at length in Liberalism, published in 1927 during the interwar period and influenced by the death and destruction he witnessed a decade earlier as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army.

In a section from Liberalism titled Freedom of Movement, Mises approaches immigration from both economic and social perspectives: “First, as a policy of trade unions, and then as a policy of national protectionism”:

Attempts to justify on economic grounds the policy of restricting immigration are therefore doomed from the outset. There cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor. When the trade unions of the United States or Australia hinder immigration, they are fighting not only against the interests of the workers of the rest of the countries of the world, but also against the interests of everyone else in order to secure a special privilege for themselves. For all that, it still remains quite uncertain whether the increase in the general productivity of human labor which could be brought about by the establishment of complete freedom of migration would not be so great as to compensate entirely the members of the American and Australian trade unions for the losses that they could suffer from the immigration of foreign workers.

Immigration restrictions, then, are un-economic impediments on labor in the same manner as restrictions on goods. They operate to keep wages artificially high, just like protective tariffs.

But Mises was not blind to the cultural concerns surrounding mass immigration:

The workers of the United States and Australia could not succeed in having restrictions imposed on immigration if they did not have still another argument to fall back upon in support of their policy. After all, even today the power of certain liberal principles and ideas is so great that one cannot combat them if one does not place allegedly higher and more important considerations above the interest in the attainment of maximum productivity. We have already seen how “national interests” are cited in justification of protective tariffs. The same considerations are also invoked in favor of restrictions on immigration.

In the absence of any migration barriers whatsoever, vast hordes of immigrants from the comparatively overpopulated areas of Europe would, it is maintained, inundate Australia and America. They would come in such great numbers that it would no longer be possible to count on their assimilation. If in the past immigrants to America soon adopted the English language and American ways and customs, this was in part due to the fact that they did not come over all at once in such great numbers. The small groups of immigrants who distributed themselves over a wide land quickly integrated themselves into the great body of the American people. The individual immigrant was already half assimilated when the next immigrants landed on American soil. One of the most important reasons for this rapid national assimilation was the fact that the immigrants from foreign countries did not come in too great numbers. This, it is believed, would now change, and there is real danger that the ascendancy, or more correctly, the exclusive dominion of the Anglo-Saxons in the United States would be destroyed. This is especially to be feared in the case of heavy immigration on the part of the Mongolian peoples of Asia.

These fears may perhaps be exaggerated in regard to the United States. As regards Australia, they certainly are not. Australia has approximately the same number of inhabitants as Austria; its area, however, is a hundred times greater than Austria’s, and its natural resources are certainly incomparably richer. If Australia were thrown open to immigration, it can be assumed with great probability that its population would in a few years consist mostly of Japanese, Chinese, and Malayans.

Despite being a strong anti-nationalist and anti-colonialist, Mises understood the natural fears of those who worried about “inundation” while also acknowledging a Lockean settlement argument:

The aversion that most people feel today towards the members of foreign nationalities and especially towards those of other races is evidently too great to admit of any peaceful settlement of such antagonisms. It is scarcely to be expected that the Australians will voluntarily permit the immigration of Europeans not of English nationality, and it is completely out of the question that they should permit Asiatics too to seek work and a permanent home in their continent. The Australians of English descent insist that the fact that it was the English who first opened up this land for settlement has given the English people a special right to the exclusive possession of the entire continent for all time to come. 

But Mises, a son of the former patchwork Austro-Hungarian Empire, also clearly understood the value of self-determination as something very different from jingoist or insular natavism. The concerns of ethnic or linguistic minorities could not be dismissed:

The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution to which, for instance, the Germans are today exposed in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland.

It cannot be denied that these fears are justified. Because of the enormous power that today stands at the command of the state, a national minority must expect the worst from a majority of a different nationality. As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying. It is frightful to live in a state in which at every turn one is exposed to persecution — masquerading under the guise of justice — by a ruling majority. It is dreadful to be handicapped even as a child in school on account of one’s nationality and to be in the wrong before every judicial and administrative authority because one belongs to a national minority.

As Dr. Joe Salerno points out in his seminal article “Mises on Nationalism, the Right of Self-Determination, and the Problem of Immigration,”  Mises was exceedingly careful to distinguish between “militant” or “aggressive” nationalism and a peaceful, liberal nationalism that did not seek to subjugate at home or expand abroad:

 Thus for Mises, the choice was never between nationalism and a bland, atomistic “globalism”; the real choice was either nationalism that was cosmopolitan and embraced universal individual rights and free trade or militant nationalism intent on subjugating and oppressing other nations. He attributed the rise of anti-liberal nationalism to the failure to apply the right of self-determination and the nationality principle consistently and to the utmost degree possible in the formation of new political entities in the wake of the overthrow of royal despotism by war or revolution. The consequence was peoples differentiated by language, heritage, religion, etc. artificially and involuntarily bound together by arbitrary political ties. The inevitable outcome of these polyglot, mixed-nation-states was the suppression of minorities by the majority nationality, a bitter struggle for control of the state apparatus, and the creation of mutual and deep-seated distrust and hatred. 

Salerno also points out Mises’s strong view that only liberal, laissez-faire governments could accept the notion of completely free immigration:  

Thus, Mises views immigration as always and everywhere a “problem” to which there is “no solution,” as long as interventionist political regimes are the norm. Only when the crossing of state borders by members of a different nation portend no political dangers for the indigenous nationality will the “problem of immigration” disappear and be replaced by the benign migration of labor that creates unalloyed and mutual economic advantages for all individuals and peoples. From Mises’s perspective, then, the solution to the immigration problem is not to legislate some vague, ad hoc right to the “freedom of movement” between existing fixed-boundary states. Rather, it is to complete the laissez-faire liberal revolution and secure private property rights by providing for the continual redrawing of state boundaries in accordance with the right of self-determination and the nationality principle. Then — and only then — can the continual and wealth-creating reallocation of labor throughout the world required by a dynamic capitalist economy be peacefully accommodated without precipitating political conflict. 

As Lew Rockwell states, in these important senses Mises cannot be claimed by advocates for ”open borders” today. He believed in a form of liberal nationhood, but nationhood nonetheless — and advocated for political subdivisions along cultural, linguistic, and historical lines. He was a democrat, a utilitarian, and a realist; his cosmopolitanism did not extend to a vision of a borderless and stateless world. But it’s safe to assume his experiences in the Great War, and the freedom he enjoyed taking trains from Vienna to London without showing a passport, strongly affected his views on immigration. 

For further reading from Mises on immigration, see Nation, State, and Economy from 1919 and this article by Matt McCaffrey highlighting selected readings. Surprisingly, his magnum opus Human Action contains few direct references to the immigration issue, save for his observations that migration barriers could not be removed for aggressors during wartime.

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