Libertarians Can Believe in Borders: Pat Lynch Responds to His Critics

At Bleeding Heart Libertarianism Chris Freiman has written a thoughtful reply to my post exploring why libertarianism might be consistent with closed borders.  David Henderson at our sister site, EconLib, has agreed with one of Freiman’s points.  I wanted to briefly respond to both of them.

First off, the phrase “open borders” is understood differently among libertarians.  Some individuals support the idea that anyone can move freely across national borders.  Others would place limits based on security risks, health risks, or perhaps criminal records (how such information would be processed and who decides such a thing is unclear).  Bryan Caplan argues that individuals should be allowed to migrate anywhere but not receive host country welfare benefits.  Considering his research on democratic government it’s a surprising argument.

I define open borders as the free movement and settlement of anyone to whatever nation she chooses to live in without limits or exclusions.  Any restrictions on immigration for say security, now puts the camel’s nose under the tent and gives the government discretion, and this makes my point that libertarians may not agree on how much immigration and mobility should exist.

Second, both Freiman and Henderson use the analogy of American states to illustrate how adjoining borders can exist and still be open.  I find this puzzling.  Setting aside the historical and contextual circumstances of how U.S. states came to be required to be open under the U.S. Constitution, U.S. states are not nations.  The political boundaries represent nothing more than bundles of public services and living options.  However both Virginians and West Virginians are Americans and receive the benefits as well as pay the costs of being part of that national political community.  Neighboring nations might agree bilaterally to allow citizens to move freely between the two jurisdictions, but that is a sovereign choice negotiated nationally.

Third, Freiman claims that when nations refuse to accept an immigrant they “do not simply withhold benefits from would-be immigrants—they actively and coercively interfere with them. Closed borders forcibly exclude immigrants from working for employers who want to hire them and buying housing from willing sellers.”

Most countries happily allow foreigners to purchase property.  This is irrelevant to the point about immigration.  Regarding work, to begin I’d argue technology is creating more transnational opportunities that don’t require migration.  In the spirit of debate I’ll accept the claim that the state is the one doing the coercion (although in my previous piece I did not).  On this point, Freiman and others have diverse views.  Freiman’s concern is the limits placed on individuals and businesses to individually contract.  Caplan and Tabarrok claim that withholding access to a better labor market is a moral wrong.  Those are different positions with different implications.

If we accept Freiman’s position that the state is coercing people from employing others by limiting access to the nation by immigrants, I would say that libertarians (although not anarchists) do accept some collectively agreed upon limits on contracting, such as selling someone into slavery or paying for heart transplants among the living.  If the labor is say in a factory or a landscaping business a libertarian state could simply create a migrant worker program or match low skill workers to businesses without granting a path to citizenship.

If the focus is on skilled workers who are superior to other citizen applicants I don’t see how the morality argument holds.  In that instance I assume we are discussing highly educated and qualified individuals who I would guess do not desperately need access to international labor markets.  Besides as competition for educated workers increases, most nations are moving towards granting greater mobility to highly skilled individuals.  The Swiss have just a system which I noted in my earlier piece.

Finally Freiman argues that my analogy to HOA’s is faulty because while I would voluntarily allow the HOA to threaten me over an unkept lawn, “private organizations to which people expressly consent can be justified in restricting liberties in ways that the state is not—and this goes for the liberty to enter, too.”

First off, many localities have laws requiring maintenance of property because property owners understand that they themselves suffer when their neighbors ignore basic upkeep.  The demand for such laws is not from some shadowy bureaucrat holed up in an office.  It comes from individuals who don’t want abandoned homes and absentee homeowners ruining neighborhoods with overgrown lawns and dead trees.

Second, to say the state can’t tell you how to cut your lawn doesn’t mean the state can’t limit entrance.  A libertarian state might well have more compelling reasons for not allowing the free flow of immigrants into a country than it would for yard management.  Such a policy would not necessarily hinder “night watchman state” responsibilities we commonly associate with libertarianism nor create an unbearable burden to citizens.  If it did, a self-governing polity could easily pressure the government to alter the policy, as easily as it could impose limits on welfare recipients, the view of my detractors.

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. gabe says

    ” Any restrictions on immigration for say security, now puts the camel’s nose under the tent and gives the government discretion”

    Whose nose should be under the tent?

    I would think Art I Sect. 8, tells us that it is precisely the governments nose that *ought* to be under it – in fact, in front of it’s entrance.

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