What Libertarians Say About Immigration?

After the recent massacre in Orlando, there are a couple of threads of conversation that have emerged. One is, of course, gun control and the need for the federal government to achieve greater firepower monopoly.  The second topic is immigration, which primarily consists of Donald Trump calling for ending the immigration of Muslims into America.  

Today's topic is, what do Libertarians say about immigration.  

Let's begin by defining some terms. These days many Libertarians (myself included) prefer the term Classical Liberal to the term Libertarian. We all come from the John Locke tradition who taught us that man is endowed with inalienable rights--rights that are inherent to us as human beings, not something granted to us by sovereigns.  Thomas Jefferson more closely articulated this view of rights of man than the other founding fathers, who often referred to their "rights as Englishmen." 

If one accepts the principle that all humans have inherent rights by virtue of being born as human (as opposed to rights granted by virtue of the benevolence of a sovereign), then the logical consequence is to require "a robust though rebuttable presumption in favor of individuals and groups leading their lives as they see fit, within a broad range of legitimate variation, in accordance with their own understanding of what gives life meaning and value." [William A. Galston, Liberal Pluralism: The implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice 3 (2002).]

If we accept the presumption of inherent rights, then the legitimate authority of others (including sovereigns, majorities and governments) to restrict individual behavior must be quite limited. This is the only logical conclusion if one accepts the Classical Liberal position that rights are inherent to men.

Since Libertarians accept the view that rights are inherent,  Libertarians believe, unless there are powerful reasons to the contrary, people should be left alone to manage their own affairs as they see fit. There are some exceptions to that general principle, but they are few in number. One of the legitimate exceptions to the rule of leaving others alone is in response to a violent action--either physical violence or the violation of a property right (property rights violations include a trespass, theft, or contamination of another's property).  Classical liberals articulate their reluctance to interfere with others, except in the foregoing events, as the non-aggression principle.  Libertarians uniformly agree that no one should initiate violence; however, we are not pacifists and pretty much uniformly agree that vigorous, even violent repudiation of violence directed at us is appropriate. 

According to James Ostrowski, Progressivism, a Primer on the Idea Destroying America, Classical liberals accept the following core tenets: 

First, the right of self-ownership

Second, the right to own property

Third, that rights are natural (not created by government)

Fourth, that people have the right to revolt and overthrow governments that systematically violate natural rights. 

Classical liberals believe that natural rights are discovered, not granted.  Further, only some of the natural rights are articulated in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.  We do not believe the Bill of Rights sets forth all of the rights of humans, nor did the framers of the Constitution believe it did so when they wrote the 9th Amendment providing,  "[T]he enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."  (Bet many of you did not know that.  Today we fight so hard for the few rights articulated in the Bill of Rights--freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures --that it's hard to conceive that we have even more rights that we ought to exercise and defend.)

The foregoing introduction is long way to get to the topic of immigration, but I thought it necessary to lay a foundation for what follows.  Both the arguments for open borders made by the left libertarians and the arguments for restrictions on immigration preferred by the Classical Liberals are based on the theory of the rights of man.

All Libertarians agree that human rights are inherent, i.e. whether the government of Somalia recognizes them or not, the people of Somalia have the same inherent human rights as the people of a very free country (which I would not consider the USA today to be). Some left libertarians state that "the freedom to immigrate is a basic liberty along with the freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, occupational freedom, and so on. A truly liberal state would respect all of these liberties." The writer is using the term "freedom" as a synonym for a right and he sees the right to travel as a right inherent to all human beings. 

It is at this juncture of recognizing an inherent right to travel that left libertarians and other libertarians part ways.  

It's a fundamental and irreconcilable parting of the ways based upon the left libertarians accepting the concept of public property -- governmental ownership of property--while simultaneously not endowing the government with any control over the property. Classical Liberals, including Hans Hermann Hoppe, do not accept that the government has the legitimate right/ability to own property. Hoppe's analysis of the rights of man to exclude others is based upon the theory that all property is privately owned and the private owners (the taxpaying citizens only) must consent to its use.

I will briefly digress to note that the ownership of tracts of land within the North American continent by the federal government was not contemplated in the Constitution.  The ever excellent Tenth Amendment Center has gathered information and analyzed historical information about the ownership of land by the government.  I commend this article to you if you would like to learn more about this important topic. 

Returning to the immigration topic, Walter Block is likely the best libertarian spokesperson for the open borders position. Even he admits it will be cultural suicide for the West to engage in the practice of open immigration, but he thinks it is what liberalism requires if all human rights are equally valued (which, I suppose, if nothing else proves the old saying that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds").

Block asserts the right of individuals to exclude others from their private property but avers that "the freedom to exclude and set conditions for entry onto private property cannot be extended to the socialized public sphere." By that he means, the US government has no authority to set up border controls and restrict the use of "public" spaces (such as roads) by anyone.

Block's asserts that the Hoppeans say "elimination of democracy and of public property...is unrealistic,"  i.e. he avers that under Hoppe's scheme immigrants will always be coming on public property.  As I have previously written about, in some painstaking detail, that is the exact opposite of what Hoppe does say in Democracy, The God That Failed. Hoppe wrote extensively about the process for ending democracy and returning authority to individuals and local communities and also about the process of re-distributing real property currently treated as public property to its rightful owners.

After mis-stating Hoppe's position, Block goes on to reject state (as opposed to federal) authority over immigration (such as that recently asserted by the state of Texas) because it is a "state enhancing government program."  Block sees no difference between the United States Government (the "USG") resettling immigrants into any locality and a local government refusing to accept new people moving in. Block sees both of these as inappropriate governmental action, but ultimately comes down on the side of free immigration since he accepts each human has an inherent right to travel. I disagree with Block on this point.

Block doesn't want to further empower the State (by which he means government at every level) by allowing it to bar new immigrants, but I think he takes his argument too far and effectively strips other humans of certain of their fundamental rights. By insisting upon the primacy of the right to travel, he tramples on the right to assemble and the right of freedom of association.

Block, Hoppe and I all agree that all humans have a fundamental right to secede from the territories over which governments exercise their monopoly powers to make laws and levy taxes.   Having acknowledged that individuals have the right to secede with other like minded individuals, then I contend there is a distinction with a difference between a local community of individuals acting through a local government to reject new settlers and the USG resettling new settlers within an existing community.   

In Block's universe, these two governmental actions (immigrants being resettled and immigrants being excluded from a local community) are equal. In equating them, Block renders another human right--the right to choose with whom one will associate--a meaningless intellectual construct BECAUSE individuals are left with no means to act collectively to repudiate the power of the government.  When Block equates state government action (or presumably municipal or county government action) with the exercise of power by the USG, he denies people a means to freely associate to accomplish their goals. Block denies that there can be legitimate intermediate authority between the power of the USG and the lone individual. We need no one to explain to us the loser in that scenario.

By enshrining the right of the individual to travel as he/she likes and the right of the single settler to invite into the community (even at the expense of the community) anyone a particular resident/employer may desire, while simultaneously denying the right of like minded people to assemble and bar the new comer from the locality, Block renders the right of freedom of association and the right to assemble moot. 

Block may argue that he has not denied people the right to assemble, but what is left is a hollow right indeed--a right which allows them to assemble to express their grievances but not to take action to lead their lives as they see fit within a broad range of variation.

By enshrining the right to travel as the supreme right of the individual, Block effectively negates any possibility of people being able to create a community. For what is community if it is not, as Wendell Berry said, "the mental and spirtual condition of knowing that the place is shared and that the people who share the space, define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives." Unless there is a commonality of interest among members of a community, then interest groups will use their "electoral strength to oppress each other, which is the antithesis of community.  Unless communities can exclude those unlike themselves in their fundamental beliefs and values,  they are forced to import their slave masters.

Without the ability to say "not us" there is no us and without the ability to form an "us" there is no power to withstand the force of the State. I think that the USG knows that it is destroying communities and creating anomie and isolation through forced immigration. As I wrote here, I think that is the intended result

Me? I value all human rights and recognize that some are in tension with others. I value the right of people to freely associate and to create the communities that are meaningful and fulfilling for them, their families and their neighbors. In the end, I side with Hoppe. People have a legitimate right to organize themselves and to exclude others from their community for whatever reasons are significant to those in the community. Residents not approving of the discrimination engaged in by their neighbors have the right to leave and to create other like minded communities or to secede and establish their own rules.   

I acknowledge it will take some sorting out, but it is the kind of thing that people are capable of doing.  Those people who desire to live in a genuinely diverse community of multiple ethnicities and beliefs are likewise free to create such communities of any size that they may desire and be able to sustain.  They are constrained only in their ability to impose on others their view of what gives life meaning and value. That is the truly liberal position on immigration. 

 


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