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The Chinese Exclusion Act Was An Assault on Private Property

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Tags Labor and WagesProtectionism and Free TradeU.S. History


In Hans Hermann Hoppe’s original and controversial essay “The Case For Free Trade and Restricted Immigration,” he outlined a defense of state action for the restriction of immigration according to certain, specific qualifications. Of particular note is his invitation proviso, in which he argues that so long as a state exists, it is responsible for protecting the person and property of its citizens, and restricting immigration to only those migrants who have an “invitation” — most likely in the form of a contractual agreement for employment or property rental.

Hoppe’s position is, in its simplest form, that a per se right of migration does not exist. Instead, what right can be derived from the principles of private property “is the freedom of independent private property owners to admit or exclude others from their own property in accordance with their own restricted or unrestricted property titles” (emphasis mine). The role of the state, failing the preferable “corrective solution” of the privatization of public lands and the decentralization of the government, is to enforce this prerogative of private property owners. Hoppe calls this the “preventative solution” to immigration.

As the debate over the right to restrict immigration has blown up in the libertarian community, the focus from all sides has almost exclusively been on the matter of preventing potential migrants. But this means overlooking the corollary point of Hoppe’s argument, which is the right of property owners to admit migrants, by hiring them or renting them a home or through some other valid exercise of their own private property rights.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that many of the United States immigration policies have violated Hoppe’s invitation proviso by preventing the legitimate migration of foreigners who were able to voluntarily enter into labor contracts with American businesses.

The first sweeping immigration law in the US was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law was a reaction to the growing anti-Chinese sentiment that was erupting throughout the country, particularly in the West. The anti-Chinese and anti-immigration movement followed the predicable evolution of domestic workers growing increasingly disgruntled at having to compete with foreigners for jobs.

But although many of the early Chinese settlers might have violated the invitation proviso (though the principle of original appropriation, which has been consistently violated by government territorial claims, would have justified many of the early California settlers anyway), thousands of the Chinese workers that Americans were reacting to did meet Hoppe’s requirements.

When the Central Pacific Railroad was having trouble maintaining its labor force, it reluctantly hired fifty Chinese workers from California. After proving themselves to be productive workers — and because Chinese laborers were willing to accept lower wages than whites — the Central Pacific started recruiting laborers directly from China. To do this, it offered contracts to Chinese men prior to their migration into the United States, and the provisions of the contract often assumed responsibility for the cost of transport, usually in the form of loans that made the Chinese liable for a certain period of work to cover the cost.

Despite the anger this aroused among naturalized citizens, these labor contracts unequivocally met the standard Hoppe outlines with his invitation proviso. The result was the migration of well over 10,000 Chinese through voluntary labor agreements.

These contracts were not exclusive offered to the Chinese, either. Other businesses commonly advertised for contract labor, especially in eastern European countries. Often, these contracts were facilitated by middle-man agencies that traveled to Europe or Asia, negotiated contracts between the potential laborer and the American business, and then facilitated passage into the country.


Labor Unions spearheaded the movement against these voluntary arrangements because, along with the typical racist sentiments that were prevalent in the nineteenth century, foreign workers were seen as less likely to agree to pay union dues. Thus, immigration restrictions began to gain steam in the 1880’s and after.

While there was a mixture of immigrants who came prior to having a Hoppean “invitation” and those who met this requirement, it is undeniably evident that the immigration laws passed by the US, according to Hoppe’s immigration arguments, violated the private property rights of many business owners who were thus prohibited from voluntarily entering into labor contracts with foreign workers.

Immigration laws have continued to violate the right of private citizens to admit immigrations according to the invitation proviso into the present day. During the Syrian refugee crises, Tho Bishop noted similar instances of immigration laws interfering with the rights of private citizens to financially sponsor Syrian immigrants by providing them with shelter and living expenses for up to a year. This, of course, is equally consistent with Hoppe’s invitation proviso, but it was made illegal by statutory law.

Hoppe’s immigration theories continue to be a matter of controversy among libertarian theorists. But regardless of whether or not one subscribes to Hoppe’s ideas, it is important to put his theories in proper context. This means that it is necessary to recognize the cases in which the government, according to Hoppe, would be justified in restricting certain immigrants on behalf of property owners, but one must not forget that private property owners retain the ultimate right to admit migrants on a voluntary basis as an extension of their legitimate property rights.

Chris Calton is a 2018 Mises Institute Research Fellow and an economic historian. He is writer and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

See also his YouTube channel here.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Image source:
Chinese Railroad workers memorial via "Loco Steve" www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/
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