Libertarians Can Believe in Borders

A veritable avalanche of writings by libertarians I know and respect offer claims about libertarianism, immigration, and open borders. Apparently as a libertarian, I believe that countries should not limit entrance and exit across geographic boundaries. Alex Tabarrok says the argument is economic and “moral” because “law makers and heads of state,” and presumably misinformed citizens, prevent someone from immigrating in pursuit of work. According to Bryan Caplan, we could double our economic productivity with open borders and address concerns by limiting access to welfare until a threshold of tax payment is reached (a la Milton Friedman). Michael Huemer believes we are not entitled to limit access to valuable resources or to act on the aggregate preferences of citizens, since such policies may harm potential immigrants.

Granted, the libertarian argument that there should be much freer immigration internationally has merit. We do need to let people move more easily across international borders and provide an easier path to citizenship for those who wish to be productive citizens and accept the rules and norms of their new home nation. However, it is simply not the case—not historically, not philosophically—that libertarianism is plainly and unequivocally in favor of open borders. Caplan, Huemer, and Tabarrok are far more learned scholars than I am, but they appear to be making a critical error: they are basing their positions on consequentalist/utilitarian arguments.

Support for open borders is utilitarian because it emphasizes the estimated aggregate economic gains that most economists believe would occur if we eliminated national boundaries. I agree there would be such benefits. However, that is sound economics. It is not necessarily “libertarian.”

Politically, libertarians envision collective governance effectively providing certain core services (protecting property rights, for example) but only those services. Economically, libertarians value giving individuals wide latitude in how they may act in markets, and how they may dispose of their property. This is not a surgical distinction and there is obviously a lot of overlap, but considering politics apart from economics helps clarify my position, so bear with me.

Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization and is much more consistent with anarchism than with classical liberalism— both of which are now commonly referred to as libertarian. It’s a position that rejects the entire experiment in constitutional governance and different political systems that has been a foundational belief in liberalism for hundreds of years.

Faith in constitutionalism assumes that communities can set up institutions, participate in political processes, and enforce rules and norms that allow society to function. Constitutionalists believe people have that capacity in groups. Among the rules and norms, moreover, are laws that govern the behavior of individuals. In theory, anyone can adapt to rules and practices; in reality, it is less clear. By arguing against national boundaries, these authors are in effect discarding self-government and the faith that liberalism has in self-determination even at the local or community level.

Open borders advocates insist that wealthier nations have a moral obligation to accept individuals who are currently living in less optimal political and economic systems. If they do not open their societies up, the argument goes, those wishing to immigrate will die or suffer extreme deprivation. Using Peter Singer’s well known analogy of the drowning child, Huemer argues that we have a moral obligation to allow immigrants to move freely across international borders.

Let me make two points here. First, what he and the others are doing is confusing a core value that all classical liberals, libertarians, and anarchists value—the right to exit—with a much more controversial claim, the right of entrance.

Exit is a key component of political liberalism and libertarianism. Mobility allows people the right to leave a failing jurisdiction, which could, and hopefully will, force that jurisdiction to pursue policies that will reverse its population decline. No political entity wants to suffer from shrinkage, and this is as true of countries as it is of cities and neighborhoods.  Declining populations in Detroit, for example, have prompted much soul-searching and even some encouraging turns toward the free market.

Think of it this way. You have a friend who is in a horrible, abusive marriage. This person decides to exit the marriage because the safety of themselves or perhaps their children is at risk.  You can support the idea that an abused spouse can end a bad marriage, but this does not obligate you to provide financial support to or marry this person. Exit from a situation does not require that someone else allow entrance. In fact, nations currently distinguish between refugees and immigrants and favor individuals leaving dire circumstances. They do not accept all who wish to enter, nor are they morally obliged to do so.

If for example I am living in Guatemala and want to leave, there is nothing obliging the United States to accept me simply because Guatemala is a less advantageous place to live.  A Guatemalan might choose to live in Mexico, which has a more robust state and set of public goods than Guatemala. She might choose Colombia, again where institutions are stronger and cultural values are more similar to her native country. Exit from Guatemala is something that all liberals and libertarians would support, but where that individual goes is based on the available options. Tellingly, the liberal/libertarian example of Switzerland is an example of a place with  robust free markets, limited government, and also limits on the number of foreign-born individuals allowed to become Swiss. Whether this combination of policies is economically optimal for Switzerland is another matter completely. Political reality is clearly important.

Related to this is a second point, having to do with the nature of borders. In fact borders may be consistent with a core libertarian principle, exclusion by groups. Caplan would reject this argument, claiming that problems with political decision-making make the analogy baseless.  However, instead of “groups” let’s substitute the words “homeowners’ association.” Unlike a club or group (Huemer uses the example of a philosophy discussion club), a homeowners’ association is very similar to a government with a geographically defined boundary. It sets up rules under which people gain and maintain membership. It and controls the living space of individuals. And it can discriminate based on age or any number of factors.

Additionally, the homeowners’ association relies on outside enforcement of these practices through coercive means. The power to enforce rules doesn’t magically appear like State Farm agents at the scene of accidents. The average homeowners’ association is prey to many of the same pathologies that public choice scholars, such as Caplan, raise regarding governments. And yet I’d wager that Caplan, Huemer, and Tabarrok would gladly allow the members of a homeowners’ association to exclude individuals from entering their community.

Arguably one of the pioneers of 20th century libertarianism was Murray Rothbard. Rothbard was initially a supporter of open borders, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, he began to worry about what immigration from the former East bloc nations might mean for the rest of Europe.  Writing in 1994, Rothbard argued against open borders (in an admittedly controversial article). The key argument here is an extension of the right to property: In Rothbard’s mind, a purely private world would have zero public property. Individuals and/or groups could exclude through ownership. That sounds more like a homeowners’ association than a club, and I think it brings up questions that libertarians have to address before we can know for certain what “the” libertarian view of open borders truly is.

Libertarianism, in short, is not exclusively predicated on economic efficiency. Rather, the libertarian’s goals are maintaining economic freedom and trying to rein in governmental power. A highly fluid and changing population dynamic might or might not aid in attaining those two goals, but one can easily imagine a place with immigration limits that would at the same time uphold relatively libertarian principles. In fact they make damn good chocolate, are armed to the teeth, and speak two languages there.

Patrick Lynch

Dr. G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. He is currently working on a book length manuscript focusing on the "state of nature" in political theory.

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  1. says

    Well said, Dr. Lynch. May I take the liberty of going further and arguing that Tabbarok’s open border argument is immoral. Like your HOA example, an open border is akin to one’s home being invaded by strangers who demand food, resources and services. We are not experiencing immigration as our great-grandparents knew it. When immigrants made a conscious choice to leave their native countries and become Americans. Not all immigrants desire assimilation or the honest desire to pursue a better life. Some are bent on doing harm and a practical threat accompanies absorbing millions of non-citizens without controls or safeguards. Nations are built and sustained on ideals, cultural norms, and acceptance of common values. It would be immoral to ignore the practical, social, financial and security implications of unfettered access. C.S. Lewis wrote in the Abolition of Man: “That a heard heart is no infallible protection against the soft head but the soft heart does not guarantee right thinking either.”

  2. gabe says

    Let’s just give this a new heading: ” LIBERTARIANS OUGHT TO BELIEVE IN BORDERS”: (lest they find themselves amongst those for whom liberty is not such a cherished ideal)

  3. Devin Watkins says

    I agree that opens boarders is not mandated by libertarian philosophy. But if you do agree that the economic calculus suggests an advantage by open boarders, other then the ability to get welfare or to vote (which can and should be limited for new immigrants), there seems little reason to not accept most people as immigrants (but for criminals/terrorists/those with communicable diseases). That doesn’t mean we are morally required to accept them, but if there is no reason not to (and benefits for doing so), what rational person would prevent them from entering?

    • gabe says


      You seem to be asking. “Why not?” – I would rather ask “Why?”

      Yes, some have asserted that there is an economic benefit to increased immigration. I suspect that the jury is still out and clearly the supposed benefit is neither immediate nor inevitable but rather rests upon certain conditions being met. What type of immigrant? How many, etc., etc.

      More importantly, what I sense is missing from the considerations of many proponents of (nearly) unlimited immigration is the effect upon social cohesion. In a sense, these proponents may have been influenced by the current belief in the benefits multiculturalism. Why not bring in all sorts of cultural variations (in a time when we ourselves are involved in what some have called a culture war) to further dilute (no, not some blood myth here) the cultural ethos. In these pages we often lament the failure of America to live up to its creedal foundations; is it reasonable to expect that we will not make a hash of it, if we continue to bring in many millions who have not the history or cultural conditioning that is (may be?, OK) essential to the proper functioning of our republic. Heck, even native Americans have a hard time of it – and we wish to bring in more who either may not subscribe to this ethos or simply do not understand it.
      If the experience of Germany amidst the current onslaught of “refugees” is any indication, we will be in for a rather *interesting* time. Yes, the plural of anecdote is not data – however, anecdotes abound – and here in the US as well.
      Also, this notion of increased world wide business simply because an immigrant, say a B-5 (?) arrives on our shores is overstated. This is a worldwide economy. So much of what the immigrant may provide in goods and services can, in many instances, be just as readily provided offshore. – and will not have the disadvantage of making current residents employment opportunities even less robust than they presently are.

  4. Mark Pulliam says

    Open borders are either a utopian fantasy of the libertarian right or a scheme to destroy the west from the left. Never a good idea.


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