When it comes to libertarianism, everyone seems to be split on the issue of borders. A large faction of libertarians believe that the US-Mexican border should be left wide open for anyone to walk through, and a smaller faction believe that the border should be sealed off and protected.
It is my contention that both arguments are wrong, and that neither open nor closed borders are the correct solution. Both violate the non-aggression principle, are harmful to the economy, and are antithetical to the principles of liberty.
A new solution is needed.
Why Open Borders isn’t a Libertarian Solution
The gut reaction from every libertarian is that free markets require the free movement of goods and labor. This statement is entirely true, however open borders are not a market solution, but are rather a government solution. When the state opens up its borders for anyone to cross through, markets are in fact destined to be distorted, because people who may not have otherwise traveled to the United States under market circumstances will now be tempted to do so.
As Lew Rockwell recently stated in a speech given at the Mises Circle in Phoenix, Arizona:
“I can move onto any property I myself own or whose owner wishes to have me there. But I simply cannot go wherever I like. If all the parcels of land in the world were held privately, the solution to the so called immigration problem would be evident. In fact, there would be no immigration problem. Everyone moving somewhere new would have to have the consent of the owner of that place. When the state and its so called ‘public property’ enter the picture, the things become slightly more murky, and it takes extra effort to uncover the proper libertarian position.”
Libertarians are quick to quote Milton Friedman to prove how open borders are beneficial to the economy, however this disregards a few important factors. This discernment only takes into account the cheap and unskilled labor being imported into a country. However it neglects to take into consideration the effect it has over a nation’s culture, and genuine consumer demand.
Friedman argues that a business owner will save money by hiring an unskilled laborer from Guatemala, thereby creating greater profits, increasing purchasing power, and opening the door to new innovations, which will in turn create new jobs in new sectors of the economy. But what isn’t taken into account is the cultural shift that will take place, and that the consumers of old may no longer seek to shop with the company hiring the unskilled laborer since he does not speak English, and the customers do not speak Spanish. The market will be forced to adapt to this change, adding a hidden cost to the equation; the cost of assimilation.
Milton Friedman’s own arguments can actually be used against Milton Friedman’s stance on immigration. Friedman was one of the first economists to argue that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This statement was meant to explain how nothing provided by the government is ever actually “free,” since the costs are paid by the taxpayers. Why then do open borders libertarians believe that free lunches exist when it comes to immigration? A Guatemalan doesn’t make it to New York because the market demanded it, but because the US government provided him with the infrastructure to get there. If the roads were privatized, then the market may have never allowed for the Guatemalan to make it to New York.
Free market economist, Murray Rothbard, corroborated this sentiment in Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation State. He writes:
“If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no person could enter unless invited to enter and allowed to rent or purchase property. A totally privatized country would be as closed as the particular property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. and Western Europe really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.”
Libertarians will generally agree that the initiation of force against consenting individuals is wrong, and this is why so many reject government crafted boundaries are in favor of open borders. But holding this logic to its rational conclusions, it would then be acceptable for anyone to travel through publicly held lands and into any neighborhood they desire, even if a community does not approve of it.
In free market circumstances, an unskilled laborer from Guatemala may not have ever acquired a job in the suburbs of New York, thereby saving the local economy the cost of having to learn new languages. But when the government steps in and allows migrants to walk throughout public territories in order to resettle wherever they desire, markets get distorted, cultures get destroyed, and consumers will be forced to pay hidden costs.
Open borders can also not be considered a libertarian solution because we must be cognizant of the fact that there are people in this world that wish to come to our country and do us harm. To say that an evildoer has a right to come here is asinine, and is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle. There are also raving socialists that would love to walk into this country and increase the nation’s tax burden so that they may receive more welfare benefits. Letting socialists get away with growing the state is clearly not a formula for freedom.
In addition to these points, we must be aware of how the government would likely respond to an open borders scenario. If we as students of economics believe in Adam Smith’s theory that men are self-interested, then the government will only open the borders if they can find benefit from this. And benefit to the government means greater power.
The government would have a greater incentive to let evildoers into this nation than they would to let in law-abiding citizens, because the state can capitalize on tragedies in order to call for increases in their control. They would also have an incentive to let in the socialists that want to increase the tax burden.
We can also expect the leftists in this country to call on Americans to be forced to be charitable to all the immigrants seeking refuge in the United States. Leftists greatly outrank libertarians, and once the borders are opened, they will get everything they want. If the government were to open up the borders, you can fully expect the state to centrally plan society and force you to live next to someone you won’t get along with. This will create division amongst Americans, which will only help the state further enumerate their powers.
Simply put, opening the borders violates the non-aggression principle, increases a nation’s tax burden, and distorts markets, thereby creating economic bubbles. It is not good for the economy, and is terrible for freedom.
Why Closed Borders isn’t a Libertarian Solution
As aforementioned, the initiation of force against consenting individuals is wrong, and is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle. If I am from El Paso, Texas and wish to conduct business with someone from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I should have every right to do so. If I want to hire a man from Ciudad Juarez for my business, I should have every right to do so. And if I want to pay to shelter him in El Paso, I should have every right to do so.
But when the government creates artificial boundaries, the state tells me that I have no right to hire, shelter, or do business with a man from Ciudad Juarez. I am the legitimate landowner of my property and should have every right to decide what to do with it. For someone else to dictate what I must do with my land is an infringement of my rights, and is a violation of the NAP.
Immigration can be looked at in the same light as gun ownership. The majority of people that immigrate to the United States have good intentions and do not deserve to be punished for the crimes of a few. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t protect ourselves from the bad apples, but rather that we should seek solutions that don’t involve violating the rights of the innocent. For once we violate the rights of these people, we become the very evil we seek to protect ourselves from.
Much like open borders, closed borders can also distort markets. Perhaps as a business owner in El Paso, it is in the best interest of myself and my customers to hire someone from Ciudad Juarez. However the government tells me that I can’t, and that I can only hire a fellow American.
Telling me that I must hire someone based on nationality is affirmative action on steroids, and the market will not yield the best results. My business may have been as productive as possible if I hired the man from Ciudad Juarez. But because I had to hire from America, my business and my consumers will suffer the consequences. My business will lose efficiency, and my customers will lose quality in their products. The local economy is now worse off because of the government’s closed borders.
Imagine this scenario but on a much larger scale. This is the effect that closed borders will have over the global economy. Closed borders dictates who businesses must hire, instead of letting business owners decide for themselves. It’s bad economics, distorts markets, and eventually forces companies to take their businesses overseas, since protectionist policies paired with the rising cost of employment (increases in minimum wage, taxes, licensing fees, etc.) decreases a company’s incentive to stay.
The counter argument to this is that by using government to prevent the man from Ciudad Juarez from working at my company, it opened up job opportunities for Americans. This is true, but this does not necessarily equate to productivity. It can be said that a college which accepts students on the basis of affirmative action rather than merit is providing educational opportunities to minorities. However we are able to see that this results in a net loss for society, because those who deserved to be accepted into the college but were rejected will now lack the education, and those who didn’t deserve to be accepted but were on the basis of race might now struggle in college. Imagine this on a much larger scale, and you will understand the negative effects of protectionist policies.
On top of all of this, we must be aware of how the government would act should the borders be closed. Sealing off the borders would be wildly expensive, and would heavily increase the burden on taxpayers. Once you also factor in the cost of maintenance and border patrol, the price goes through the roof.
The government would also necessarily need to increase surveillance over American citizens to ensure that everyone residing in the US is here legally. Closed borders would therefore not only be an infringement over the rights of immigrants and business owners, but would be an infringement over the rights of all Americans. If we think the nanny state is bad now, how much worse would it be when a President Trump wants to use the powers of the state to hunt down and deport every single illegal immigrant?
We must also understand two more things about government. 1) that they are inefficient, and 2) that they are self-interested. If you support closed borders for the sake of security, then don’t expect to find solace in the arms of the state. Everything the government touches turns into a post office or DMV, since the government doesn’t face the threat of competition and has no incentive to provide a quality service.
It’s important to also realize that since the state is self-interested, they are going to utilize these closed borders to increase their power as much as possible. Additionally, we must recognize the dangers of handing over this much power to the state. Walls that are meant to keep people out can just as easily be meant to keep people in.
To summarize, closed borders are not a libertarian solution for the same reasons as open borders. It violates the NAP, is harmful to the economy, it increases our tax burden, and is antithetical to liberty.
The Only Libertarian Solution
PRIVATIZE THE BORDERS. If the public land on our nation’s borders were to be privatized, the best elements of open and closed borders would be maximized, and the worst elements would be minimized.
Private property owners would have a real incentive to protect their land in order to retain its value. Private defense firms on the border would be incentivized to adequately protect their consumers, as they would be motivated by profit. The constant threat of market competition would keep their services as efficient as possible and ensure maximum protection of our nation’s borders.
Since the land would be privatized, no one’s rights would be violated. Private property owners would be free to invite whomever they please onto their property, and would be equally free to keep anyone off of their property. The profit motive would be enough to incentivize land owners to thwart off dangerous threats, and would be enough to incentivize them to welcome peaceful immigrants looking to better their lives.
Markets would not be distorted because every action would be backed by consumer demand. Because of this, the economy will be as efficient as possible and ensure maximum purchasing power.
While an open borders society presents us with the challenge of integration, that problem would be quelled if the borders were privatized. The possibilities would be endless. Instead of having to worry about how a Guatemalan will adapt to New York, small communities on the border would have an incentive to set up educational programs in order to adequately assimilate them into the American culture. New Yorkers would no longer have to worry about having their culture destroyed, or having to pay the hidden cost of integration.
How To Get There
“In an anarcho-capitalist world, with all private property owned, immigration would be up to each individual property owner to decide. Right now on the other hand, immigration decisions are made by a central authority. The wishes of property owners are completely disregarded. The correct way to proceed therefore is to decentralize decision making on immigration to the lowest possible level, so we approach more meticulously and closely the proper libertarian position in which individual property owners consent to the various movements of peoples.”
– Lew Rockwell
In order to get to a society where everything can be privatized, I believe that in the current framework of our republican form of government, it is best to first leave immigration to the states to decide. Each of the 50 individual states will have to incur the cost themselves, and a certain level of competition will exist amongst them.
If New York wants to accept refugees, they shouldn’t have to force Arizona to do the same. And if Arizona wants to build a wall, they shouldn’t force New York to do the same. Eventually this should be decentralized to the point of individual private ownership over all land where private property owners can make their own decisions and respond aptly to economic indicators.
After the states assume this role, the task should later be taken on by counties. After counties, their respective towns. And after each town, each private property owner. Libertarians must advocate for everything to be decentralized down to the individual level. It is the rational conclusion of our logic, and is certainly achievable in our current framework of government.
I do believe that if libertarians are as vociferous in their support for privatized borders as they have been for open borders, eventually our message will spread and begin to resonate with the American people. It is difficult to sell the message of open/closed borders for the many reasons I listed above. But privatized borders do not present us with the same problems, and should therefore be an easier to message to sell.
The argument for either open or closed borders can never be a consistent one, and this is why there is so much infighting over the matter, and why we never gain ground. The government will necessarily grow if either policies are implemented. The only consistent libertarian argument is one for privatized borders. No one’s rights are violated, the economy is backed by consumer demand, the culture is not distorted, and the people will be sufficiently protected from legitimate threats to their freedom.
The first step towards achieving a society in which borders may be privatized is to start selling this message, and begin having a conversation about a solution that only few have pondered. We as libertarians must stop promoting the black and white idea of open or closed borders. It’s an outdated concept, and our philosophy is now light-years ahead.
I myself have been on both sides of the argument, and would have classified myself as being pro-open borders up until just a few days ago. We as the leading intellectuals of our society must be the founding fathers of our time, and present new and exciting ideas to the public. The American people are tired of the open/closed border banter. It’s time to sell them a radically innovative idea that will push the liberty movement forward by eons.
It’s time to privatize the borders.