Bryan Caplan has become perhaps the leading libertarian spokesman for “open borders,” the term that many people are using to mean that national governments do not place restrictions on the movement of people across the outer boundary of a country. Although I agree with the economics of Bryan’s analysis, I strongly disagree with his rhetoric. In particular, I think the very term “open borders” is awful on two counts: It incorrectly states what the libertarian position actually is, and – perhaps more serious – it concedes the nationalist framing of the immigration question in a way that will hasten the transformation of the U.S. into a giant police state.
First let me deal with the question of the libertarian ideal. If politics weren’t an issue, and we could get the society we really want, I think both Bryan and I would want all real estate held in private hands. There would be no such thing as “immigration policy” or “border control,” except for what each landowner decided for his or her property boundary. If the current border between the U.S. and Mexico ended up being divided among 2,870 different people, owning contiguous plots of land that collectively reached from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, then those individuals would have the legal right to decide whether to build a fence to keep out Mexicans or whether to have a giant neon sign saying, “Hola Amigos!”
In a truly free society of the type that Bryan and I desire, we wouldn’t need to worry about “free loaders” coming in and getting welfare or overwhelming the “public” school system and hospitals, because all charity would be voluntarily funded, and all schools and medical facilities would be privately run.
Now to be sure, my ideal world is currently politically impossible. I don’t think the United States will ever look anything close to this vision during my lifetime. However, I still think it’s worth spelling out what the ideal actually is. That’s why I dislike the term “open borders.” I imagine that Bryan and his colleagues who embrace this term do so thinking they are the modern-day abolitionists, holding up a radical goal as a beacon to guide the messy political squabbles. But as I’ve shown, Bryan actually isn’t holding up the ideal. In effect, he’s giving us the worst of both worlds: Holding up something politically impossible – there’s no way the U.S. government is going to completely drop border enforcement and just let anybody walk into the country – while not actually championing the ideal outcome.
In short, if we’re going to hold up radical proposals as a way to frame the spectrum of the debate, then don’t stop short with “open borders,” which still concedes that the national government has to do something and so might as well let anybody in. Instead, go full board freedom and advocate, “Privatize the borders!”
In case the reader thinks my proposal is just too ridiculous, try this one: “Let the border states set their own policies for immigration.” That would throw most Americans for a loop, wouldn’t it? Instead of thinking about a guy crossing into Texas as being “a Mexican entering the United States,” instead it would be, “This guy entering Texas.” I would much rather get Americans to think through the political implications of decentralization and States rights, rather than the (admittedly also interesting and important) issue of workers’ wages and how they respond to an increase in unskilled immigrants.
Second, besides an argument from purity, let me now make the empirical claim that in practice, having a bunch of libertarians try to adopt “open borders” as the policy goal for immigration will end up giving us much less liberty. This is because Bryan et al. have conceded that it’s appropriate for the federal government to pick some policy for “the border,” and they are saying, “Don’t stop anyone.” But that stance is unrealistic; there are many reasons that Americans can understandably think, “It’s surely too extreme to have no type of barrier around thousands of miles of border.” If libertarians continue to debate the “immigration question” on nationalist grounds, then they will lose; it actually is crazy if the entire continental U.S. remains without any way to “regulate” the flow of people; that would be like building a giant shopping mall with no doors.
As I spelled out in this YouTube video, the long-run threat to liberty even for Americans is that a government fence will keep people in the country against their will. With terrorism, welfare abuse, and roving drug gangs, the American people will be manipulated into supporting a crackdown on “illegal immigration.” But the system that is put in place will ultimately be turned against them, as the U.S. continues its slide into an outright police state.
In conclusion, for both pure and pragmatic reasons, I urge libertarians to drop the term “open borders.” If they want to make empirical arguments about wages and so forth from within the current paradigm, fair enough, but then phrase it as “liberalized immigration” or something that doesn’t make it sound like a surrender. But if libertarians want to be bold and broaden the parameters of the debate, then don’t concede that the federal government has any business setting “immigration policy.” Either call for a devolution to the states, or better yet make the call to Privatize the Borders!
To make sure you understand the type of claim, switch contexts for a minute. Instead of worrying about new people “entering America” from other countries, instead think about it as new people entering America from their mothers’ wombs. In other words: newborn babies. It horrifies most people – not just radical libertarians – to think of the United States government enforcing quotas on population growth in the case of existing U.S. citizens having more children.
Indeed, if you take just about any of the usual arguments for the U.S. government limiting immigration, you’ll find that it probably applies just as much – or not! – to the U.S. government limiting citizens from having more children. Yet even though existing, unskilled mothers who are U.S. citizens might have children who don’t speak English, will reduce the wages of current workers, will overwhelm the local schools and hospital, will grow up to vote for more welfare benefits, etc., just about nobody recommends that the U.S. government fix the “newborn problem” by sterilizing existing U.S. citizens, or by deporting their newborn children. Walter Block and Gene Callahan spelled this out a while ago (though Callahan has since changed his position).
However, we shouldn’t draw an erroneous conclusion from the childbirth analogy and conclude that the United States government should have “open borders.” After all, libertarians don’t think that newborn babies have the “right to move freely” into their neighbors’ dining rooms, or into a local factory. The standard libertarian view is that all real estate in a community should be privately held, with the individual landowners making decisions about who is and is not allowed on the property.
This is what I’m suggesting when it comes to real estate that happens to lie alongside a border with another nation-State. Yet for some reason, what most people recognize as a sensible (though admittedly politically unattainable) stance in a local community, all of a sudden sounds crazy when it comes to borders with foreign countries.
In order to defuse these worries, let me make a simple observation. First, consider the following map, showing what the southern border would look like, if my proposal were implemented:
Of course I’m being simplistic in the above diagram, but I’m just making a point here. I’ve taken the existing map of the U.S./Mexican border, and supposed that the real estate has been privatized into the hands of 12 new owners. (To help compare this new map with the existing one, I’ve retained the original state boundary lines, and kept them a lighter thickness than the new black lines which I invented.)
Now if they saw this particular map, the critics to my original article would say something like, “Murphy you idiot! Your proposal is tantamount to NO BORDER AT ALL! I mean, suppose Jim, Sue, Bob, et al. are generally wise and have a smart enforcement policy, but that Pam is unaware of the risks of ebola and just lets anybody onto her property! Then the whole country would be vulnerable because of that one weak link in the chain. Man you libertarians are dumb.”
Yet hold on a second. Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that Pam in the diagram above has no restrictions on the influx of people onto her land, and that this policy horrifies most people in the free society of what is now called “the United States.” Why wouldn’t the problem be contained like this? You see, it’s not simply the border real estate that would be privatized; the entire country would be divided into plots and held privately. So if Pam really did have some “nutjob” policy, letting ISIS fighters or lepers or mass-murdering cocaine kingpins roam around her land freely, then Meg, Ed, Bo, Mark, and Eve could contain the problem with their own border policies. It would be as if Mexico simply had a “peninsula” that extended upward into current U.S. territory (which is why I’ve shaded Pam’s land as yellow).
Think about that for a minute: Just about everyone in the current U.S. immigration debate takes it as a given that the Mexican authorities are going to do whatever they’re going to do, and that the U.S. government is allowed to build fences and place troops on its southern border in response. Nobody except Ann Coulter thinks the U.S. government should conquer the Mexican government in order to make Mexico do a better job preventing undesirables from trying to cross the U.S./Mexican border. So by the same token, it would be absurd to limit Pam’s ability to set whatever policies she wants on her land – and it is her land, by stipulation – when everybody around her could simply respond to her policies with their own.
In conclusion, let me admit that of course there are all sorts of complex issues and concerns that I haven’t addressed in this brief article. But I hope I’ve prodded you, the reader, to stretch your mind beyond the very limited debate that we normally get on the question of immigration.
Robert Murphy, economist, consultant and author of several libertarian books
First Published on LibertyChat.com, September 2014