Professor Ben Powell on Mises's Migration Conundrum
Was Mises for open borders, as the term currently is used?
The short answer is "No," as Professor Ben Powell from Texas Tech University explains in a new academic paper titled "Solving the Misesean Migration Conundrum." But Powell goes further than merely explaining Mises's view— he also proposes a solution to the problem of immigrants dramatically altering the liberal institutions of destination nations and failing to assimilate (two problems open borders advocates generally deny). The resulting policy prescription takes the form of "unrestricted immigration with selective restrictions," designed to achieve economic gains from immigration while addressing such concerns. Powell's own work on immigration is well known, as is his strong support for completely open borders—so it is noteworthy that he does not attempt to distort Mises to fit his own policy preference.
Unfortunately the paper is behind a paywall imposed by its publisher, the Review of Austrian Economics, so we can only excerpt here. (We can only lament the absurd and stubborn refusal to put all academic journals online, free of charge. Academics struggle to generate interest in their work, and this is especially true for Austrian-friendly economists and others with minority viewpoints. In our age of on-demand content, paywalls are laughably out of touch).
Powell starts by examining two primary sources for Mises's views on immigration, namely Nation, State, and Economy (1919) and Liberalism (1927). Both were written during Mises's prolific interwar period, before the rise of Nazism and his flight from Vienna to Geneva and ultimately New York City. But neither book gives us a thorough treatment of the matter. As Powell points out, "in his voluminous writings Ludwig von Mises dedicated relatively few pages to the topic of immigration." In fact, as pointed out early in our Immigration Roundtable series at mises.org, Human Action contains only a few small references to the issue. We can only wish he had written more later in his career, with the hindsight of World War II and the reordering of national boundaries it caused.
Powell recognizes, as did our article linked above, that Mises primarily saw immigration as a matter of international labor mobility. Thus any restrictions on migration have the same destructive effects of protective tariffs on goods:
The economic theory underlying the trade of goods, capital, and labor is fundamentally the same. On narrowly economic grounds, for anyone concerned with maximizing economic output, or in Misesian terms “the commonwheel,” unrestricted migration is optimal. Mises recognizes this point when discussing Ricardo in Nation, State, and Economy, writing that “the tendency inheres in free trade to draw labor forces and capital to the locations of most favorable natural conditions of production without regard to political and national boundaries.
But "in Mises we find a tension that prevents him from unequivocally advocating for unrestricted migration," Powell tells us. Nation, language, and culture exist independent of government, an obvious point Mises took pains to allow for. Powell quotes Mises from Nation, State, and Economy:
When “immigration takes place into a country whose inhabitants, because of their numbers and their cultural and political organization, are superior to the immigrants. Then it is the immigrants who sooner or later must take on the nationality of the majority” The process of assimilation “proceeds the faster the closer are the contacts of the minority with the majority and the weaker the contacts within the minority itself and the weaker its contacts with fellow nationals living at a distance” Furthermore, assimilation is “furthered if the immigrants come not all at once but little by little, so that the assimilation process among the early immigrants is already completed or at least already underway when the newcomers arrive."
Language and culture evolve, of course, but for Mises the problem is illiberal states and the potential weaponization of state apparatus by newcomers:
The problem, for Mises, lies in the fact that states, in his time and ours, are not liberal. They are interventionist. Once states interfere with economic activity, some people are able to use the state to secure economic gains for themselves at the expense of others living under that same government. Once different nations are living under the same government, they come into conflict with each or, as Mises put it, “Migrations thus bring members of some nations into the territories of other nations. That gives rise to particularly characteristic conflicts between people.”
And Powell provides this uneasy quote from Liberalism:
The entire nation, however, is in unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. 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…. 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.
Powell then lays out his summary of Mises's objections, i.e. the "conundrum":
However, the institutions of freedom are not exogenously given. Among other factors,they depend on the ideology, political beliefs, and culture of the population controlling the state. Immigrants often migrate from origin countries with dysfunctional institutional environments that lack economic freedom. If the immigrants’ own belief system, was, in part, responsible for that dysfunctional system, and they bring those beliefs with them to the destination country in too great of numbers, too rapidly, to assimilate to the beliefs in the destination country, they could erode the very institutions responsible for the high productivity that attracted them in the first place. Thus, immigration itself could, in principle, turn a relatively free destination country, where Mises wouldn’t see immigrants as a problem, into a more interventionist state where immigration does create the problems Mises fears.
Powell's solution? Start with a "baseline presumption of free trade and unrestricted immigration," given the strong economic case for labor mobility and free trade. Then target narrow exceptions from the optimal policy for war, national defense, and fears of institutional deterioration.
A plausible deviation from the optimality of free trade can be found in the “national defense” exemption. If a particular good is vital to national defense, and a particular country is geographically situated such that potential adversaries would be able to cut off the supply of this good, in the event that they go to war with each other, then, in times of peace, the country in question may find it optimal to protect (or subsidize) the industry producing the vital good, so that a domestic supply would be available in the event that the countries go to war with each other. Note how specific this deviation from free trade is. General protection against imports of many goods is not justified. Protection is justified in only the one specific good. Also note, that even if this specific protection is justified in one country, that does not imply that it is justified in another. If protection is justified in land-locked and surrounded Lesotho, that does not imply that the United States, with large coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, could justify the same protection.
Fears of institutional deterioration, and Mises’ specific fears that large sudden flows of immigrants could lead the immigrants to become the majority and turn an interventionist state against the native born, should be similarly thought of as “national defense” exceptions to the baseline of unrestricted immigration. As with the trade example, these exceptions need to specific and well identified, and any deviation from unrestricted migration should be as narrow as possible to only target the problem, while leaving in place as much of the gains from unrestricted immigration as possible. Also, as with trade, just because one country can identify a specific exception, that does not mean that the same exception is justified in other countries.
Powell applies this institutional lens to the controversial issue of Muslim immigrants in Europe:
...in the European Union there are roughly 13 million predominantly Muslim immigrants who originated in the Middle East or North Africa. 4 This too is clearly below the threshold of them becoming the majority “nation” that Mises fears. Absent any concrete evidence of these immigrants decreasing European economic freedoms, or otherwise harming European institutions, the presumption of unrestricted migration should remain. But it’s conceivable that, after a period of unrestricted migration, the stock and continued flow of Middle Eastern and North African immigration could reach a level that one of these two fears become justified. If it does, then the appropriate immigration policy response is to put a quantitative limit on Middle Eastern and North African immigration, while leaving immigration from all other regions of the world unrestricted.
Another example of the institutional principle? Israel, which Powell states "would soon cease to be Israel" if it allowed unrestricted immigration from surrounding Middle East countries. But does allow unrestricted immigration for Jews worldwide, and thus represents a "case of selective unrestricted immigration."
This is a fascinating paper, and worthy of greater attention. We only wish it were available online.
As an addendum, critics of the Mises Institute sometimes claim our writers fail to "follow" Mises on immigration (when they are not claiming we follow Mises cultishly). This paper refutes that argument. But Mises's views are not dispositive on immigration or any other issue, and nobody truly knows what he would say about current conditions were he alive today. And more importantly, mises.org and our academic journals offer a variety of perspectives on this thorny issue: from Walter Block's homesteading of government property to Hans-Hermann Hoppe's "full cost principle" to Ryan McMaken's call for wholly local, decentralized immigration policy. The term for this is "diversity of thought."