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Market Borders, not Open Borders

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The attack on a Christmas market in Berlin earlier this week, apparently carried out by a Pakistani immigrant*, is just the latest in a series of violent and disturbing terrorist incidents in Germany. The event raises uncomfortable questions about immigration, culture clashes, Islam, and identity: what does it mean to be German, rather than someone who merely lives in Germany? It also raises pragmatic questions about how to provide physical security in public spaces, given such dramatic failures by the German government.

Libertarians can duck these questions, or dismiss them. We can sniff about how everyone is an individual, how Islam is not to blame, or how Pakistanis are not any more prone to murderous violence than Germans. We can argue for a holistic approach to welfare statism, foreign policy, and human migration. None of these arguments will help Germans deal with horrific criminality here and now, however. Rather than virtue-signaling to deeply illiberal and hostile audiences in government, media, and academia, we should make populist arguments for radical privatization of property and security. Imagine the actions a private shopping mall, theme park, or stadium would take immediately in response to a terrorist incident on their private property! 

We also should argue for localized decision-making regarding immigration, as with every political matter. Germans, like everyone else, want and deserve true self-determination. The smaller the political unit, the closer we come to Mises's concept of granting this power to every individual. Mass state-sponsored immigration from Islamic countries is being imposed on Germans, as a political project created by the EU and the German government. It is not the result of market demand. We are not witnessing some kind of heroic movement of labor toward welcoming employers and family relatives, but rather a coordinated and staged relocation of people who mostly are not true refugees. Libertarians are right to criticize this political project, while supporting average Germans who simply want to enjoy their cities rather than "learning to live with terrorism" as part of everyday life.

If not, we risk irrelevance or worse: the conjoining (in the public's mind) of libertarianism with all of the useless "public policy" ideas issuing from Brussels, Washington, and Berlin. The common criticism of libertarianism is that it sounds great in theory, but fails to offer concrete solutions to real-world problems. This criticism is wrong. Libertarianism offers the most pragmatic, proportional, and efficacious solutions imaginable: marketplace solutions. It is modern governments, with their political intrigue, sclerotic monopolies, inefficient bureaucracies, and perverse incentives, that cannot competently address tough problems like border control and terrorism. It is precisely because these problems are so complex and intractable that they should be sorted by the market.

The thorny issue of immigration, rife with very real externalities and distorted by "public property," calls for market order. There is a market for immigration, just as there is a market for security. Open borders advocates ignore the in-group preferences of the marketplace, just as they ignore the tremendous externalities caused by sudden influxes of migrants. The real question is not whether borders are open or restricted, but rather who decides? When someone asks for the libertarian position on immigration, my response is that libertarians want as much or as little immigration as the market demands.

Immigration and borders have been debated at length, and vociferously, by libertarians. Probably no better examples exist than several exchanges by open borders advocate Walter Block and restricted immigration advocate Hans Hermann Hoppe. There is little to say about the subject that is novel or more insightful than what Block and Hoppe already have provided. That said, certain points bear repeating or elaboration:

  • Borders satisfy innately human desires for order and separation. Borders arise and exist naturally, without being created or enforced by political entities (although they were generally less rigidly defined and more porous prior to the era of modern governments).
  • Nation is not state, as Murray Rothbard reminded us. Nations can and do emerge naturally, while states tend to be late-arriving artifices that do injury to earlier, more natural borders.
  • In-group preferences are strong. Provided groups coexist without coercion or violence, libertarianism has nothing particular to say about such preferences. 
  • Humans are not all good and well-intentioned, nor are they fungible. People with money, intelligence, or in-demand skills are better immigrants than people without these attributes. Poor and criminal immigrants impose huge costs. Any worldview that denies this, or downplays this, fails to comport with reality. Libertarianism, rooted in natural law, should by definition accord better with reality than worldviews requiring positive law. Why do we lose sight of this?
  • Humans naturally want to live in safe areas, i.e., in "good neighborhoods" on a macro scale. And they want to know their neighbors are not a threat. In other words, there is a market for security beyond one's own property — not everyone can own and control vast areas of property like Ted Turner. This is why gated communities exist. Simply stating that "nobody has a right to control any property they don't own" does not address reality.
  • Almost all instances of rapid mass migration do not occur as natural marketplace phenomena. Instead, they usually occur due to wars, famine, and other state-created disasters. So it does not follow that resistance to mass migration is anti-market.
  • Every human has a natural right to control his body and movement. No human should be falsely imprisoned, enslaved, or held in a place against his will. But the right to leave a physical place is different than the right to enter one. Entry should be denied or permitted by the rightful owner of the property in question. But when vast areas of land are controlled (and/or ostensibly owned) by government, the question becomes much more complex — and the only way to make it less complex is to privatize such land. Unless and until this happens, it is facile for libertarians simply to insist that everyone has a right to go wherever they wish.
  • The concept of open borders is mostly a big-government construct. Without state-provided incentives (food, housing, clothing, schooling, mobile phones, etc.), and frequent NGO funding for actual travel, immigration naturally would be far more restricted.
  • As stated in an earlier article, a libertarian society has no commons or public space. There are property lines, not borders. When it comes to real property and physical movement across such real property, there are owners, guests, licensees, business invitees, and trespassers.
  • Libertarianism, to borrow a phrase from Judge Napolitano, is not a suicide pact. It does not require us to ignore history, tradition, culture, family, and self-preservation. It does not require us to live as deracinated, hyper-individualized actors who identify with nothing larger than ourselves and have no sense of home.

Immigration is a complex and antagonistic issue. But facile slogans won't help libertarians have a bigger voice in the debate.

Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute. He previously worked as a longtime advisor and chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul. Contact: email; twitter.

  • *. ed note: Suspect may in fact be Tunisian.

Contact Jeff Deist

Jeff Deist is former president of the Mises Institute. He is a writer, public speaker, and advocate for property, markets, and civil society. Jeff was chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul. Contact: email; Twitter.

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