UPDATE: I wrote this Original Article without realizing how contentious and emotional an issue immigration is in the libertarian community. I find libertarians to have an economic cast of mind and I tend to address issues in a highly analytical way that I think is easily understood. After I wrote this, however, I found that the immigration issue really brings out emotions in everyone, including libertarians, likely because so much human suffering is at stake, so I think it makes sense for me to back up a little and explain how I got to the point where I thought libertarians had a conundrum on their hands when it comes to immigration.
As a hardcore libertarian, I never gave a second thought to the rightness of allowing immigrants to come into this country and engage in private arms-length transactions for employment and housing. I never bought the argument that they use roads we already paid for–we pay as we go with fuel taxes, and with $17 trillion in national debt, seems that nothing we have here is actually bought and paid for anyway.
On a personal level, as a New Yorker, I always loved the melting pot, and every New Yorker I knew growing up effectively volunteered for the melting pot either through immigrant parents or grandparents; and, later, as an investment banker in Money-Making Manhattan, I found we New Yorkers, no matter where from originally, all shared the same values in that “eat-what-you-kill” environment. It’s an immigrant culture, it’s eminently American and I’ve always loved it.
As the granddaughter of immigrants and a New Yorker born and bred, I just didn’t get why people were against immigration, and after some thought, I concluded that there must just be an underlying feeling of racism or xenophobia. That motive, I felt, could not be indulged, not because it’s wrong on it’s face, but because it’s unjustifiable. We have no rights as a society, only as individuals. If others wish to transact with immigrants, there is no moral justification whatsoever to stop them. If cultures change as a result, so be it. Organic change is normal. We should retain our values through strict adherence to just law and welcome new people into our communities as MLK urged us to judge one another: based on content of character not color of skin.
However, after I got on the radio and did a few shows on immigration explaining my libertarian position, I was inundated by email and opinions from the conservative to the otherwise libertarian-leaning expressing concern that I didn’t realize the danger imposed on us by excessive immigration, so I gave the topic still more thought.
Again, as a libertarian, I accept the consequences of liberty, including the liberty inherent in the rights to work and travel. But as with economics in general, I felt that immigration patterns respond to demographics and technology and as conditions changed, immigration ebbed and flowed. I have found that the feedback mechanisms inherent in free systems allow changing conditions to be adapted to without too much harm done–usually things end up for the better. For example, as immigrants entered the system and had to learn needed skills, including English, they tended to integrate in the important ways: work ethic, fair business practices, etc., and contribute in other ways: different perspectives, new cuisines, old world values. And if they couldn’t offer what was needed, they would go back. (One of my great grandparents actually did go back after his wife died, leaving my grandmother in an orphanage in New York.)
I began to notice, however, that immigration patterns were changing–not necessarily in where people were coming from, but in the fact that they were not integrating. It wasn’t a melting pot, but a fractured society with competing fundamental values. That’s not how it was in New York. We were all–my immigrant grandparents and my investment banking co-workers–there for the same purpose: the opportunity to work very hard and get ahead. Then I realized that changing immigration laws (prioritizing family reunification over needed skills, for example) as well as an increasingly dysfunctional labor market (leading to a black market for labor that is irresistible to the poor across the border) was leading to skewed immigration patterns that were likely foreseen and manipulated by the political class. That’s when I realized that libertarian principles might be exploited in centrally controlled societies to gain consent for policies that will have what we might think are unintended consequences but which were in reality the plan all along (perhaps for example, to create a less literate electorate, or one with a predisposition to vote for a larger central government.)
As a staunch libertarian, I continue to defend the rights of individuals to work and travel and of employers and landlords (and everyone else) to engage in arms’ length transactions with consenting adults, but I do realize that there are conscious forces at work that exploit our principles for their own self-interest.
“I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these people.”
Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State, 1994
The libertarian position on immigration is clear: every person on earth has the right to work and travel as long as he doesn’t encroach on the rights of others in the process. In a free society, you must accept the consequences to society of the choices individuals make, even if you don’t like them. Fortunately, in a free (capitalist) society, the pricing mechanism gives constant feedback to actors of the costs of their actions, and migration patterns, like the labor market (and in conjunction with it), would constantly adjust to reflect the changing marginal value of the choices individuals are making. The result would be an organic, gradual process of adjustment to technological and demographic changes, rather than the systemic, manipulated upheavals we experience in today’s highly controlled society.
In our controlled society, however, there are many costs and implications of government policy that individuals are literally forced to accept. These are not simply unintended consequences, but deliberate policies crafted to change our underlying culture to further the state’s purposes. These purposes include manipulating the body politic to erode voter defense of rights and liberties, especially property rights and the absolute right to self-defense, as well as (together with trade policy) manipulating the competitive landscape for goods and labor in favor of government-connected firms at the expense of entrepreneurs and individual wage-earners. Perhaps even more sinister, immigration policy may be used as a way to integrate populations and normalize laws across regions to facilitate Zbigniew Brzezinski‘s famous goal of “gradual convergence of East and West.” (For more on this last point, click here; see also my long comment in the “comments” section below.)
In the face of these abuses, is it the correct libertarian position to “take any liberties we can get” even though they are being picked and chosen for us by a power elite intentionally exploiting these principles of freedom to create a less free society?
The Libertarian Conundrum
Here are the main sticking points I see to applying libertarian immigration principles to our centrally controlled society:
Voting Away Your Rights
The United States is no longer a strictly Constitutional Republic. Our democratically-elected representatives, the executive and the judiciary, consistently violate the foundational law of this republic in countless ways from allowing the president to execute wars without declarations to encroaching on the police powers (health, education, welfare, etc.) reserved by the States in the Tenth Amendment. Our representatives hide behind the democratic process to justify their violations of the Constitution, and have manipulated the demographics of immigration to attract less-educated people from countries with a socialist tradition, while tying citizenship and voting rights around the neck of the rights to work and travel. All of this prevents libertarians from defending the rights to work and travel without giving to strangers the ability to vote away our fundamental economic and personal liberties. (Update: For more on this, please see my long comment in the “comments” section below.)
Black Market for Labor
The modern state corrupts the labor market in numerous ways: minimum wage, welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance and college subsidies to name a few. These encroachments on the free market for labor creates a wage floor under which Americans will not work. Many of these Americans cannot perform labor equal in value to the wage floor. This creates a failure in which there are many unemployed Americans at the same time that there is a need for workers in less skilled jobs. This in turn creates a black market for labor that is filled by less skilled workers from other countries who do not have the luxury of a cushy safety net and are desperate enough not to be deterred by illegal status.
As we see with the Drug War, it takes extreme brutality to prevent people from engaging economically in a black market. There is no natural aversion to arms’ length transactions so there is no self-policing, shame or guilt, there is only the need to avoid authorities and many will take their chances to make the deals they want to make, whether they be for drugs or a job. Unless you are like Singapore and are willing to kill to prevent black market transactions, you will have them. The answer is to eliminate the state-created failures in the labor market and allow the domestic labor market to clear with the workers at hand.
Perhaps the most common libertarian argument against open-borders in a statist society is the fact that the state confiscates roads or steals your money to build the roads then lets others use them even though it is your property. The argument is, the newcomers don’t own the roads, you (in the name of your government) do and have the right to prohibit outsiders from using them. (This is actually my least favorite libertarian argument against open-borders because the taxpayers of the United States, it could be argued, have not yet actually paid for the roads; rather, their government has merely borrowed the money for the roads and infrastructure in the name of our children to the tune of $17 trillion and counting. New immigrants, therefore, would be voluntarily signing up their children to bear this burden and share in it equally.)
Access to All by All
The state takes your money and builds roads right up to your doorstep whether you like it or not, giving everyone in the country easy access to you and your property. Furthermore, the modern state makes laws that prohibit you from associating with other individuals of your choosing. If you would prefer not to expose yourself or your family to a culture you don’t understand (whether for good reasons or not), you can’t enforce that in your place of business, your apartment building or your child’s school. The state does not allow you absolute control over the borders of your own private property, therefore you are at its mercy to centrally-plan with whom you and your family associate.*
The Only Possible Libertarian Solution
The only possible way to restore the universal right to work and travel without violating the rights of anyone else is to establish a free society. Barring that, we could restore some of the foundational principles of the United States and perhaps fold in a few more safeguards. (To reiterate, these are compromises far, far inferior to establishing a free society.) Here are some ideas…
- Institute a just foreign policy that respects the rights of sovereign nations rather than engaging in regime change and nation-building; using government to further “American interests abroad” creates a moral obligation to address the refugee crises caused by the resulting upheavals.
- Eliminate all labor laws, Welfare, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, minimum wage, etc.
- Eliminate indiscriminate college subsidies which disconnect student choices from market feedback creating skill mismatches that result in both unemployment and labor shortages in the unskilled and highly skilled job markets alike. (For more on this, click here.)
- Restore the freedom of association on private property
- Return to the Constitutional Republican form of government
- Don’t allow democracy to erode basic rights
- Set standards for voting for all Americans, including native born, to ensure voters understand the need to protect individual rights from government overreach. (Because of the conflict of interests, however, the state could not actually be trusted to implement these safeguards in good faith, which is the beginning of the argument for why the idea of self-limiting government is a Utopian fantasy, but I digress!) Standards could include:
- Demonstrate an understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
- Demonstrate an understanding of American history & the Enlightenment principles on which this country was founded
- Demonstrate an ability to discuss politics in English so as to be able to keep up with political discourse
- Enact “Illegal Entry Disenfranchisement” (akin to felony disenfranchisement) so that if you entered this country illegally you never get the right to vote. The goal would not be punitive, but to reduce the incentive of the government to deliberately attract the least educated to enter illegally and then give them citizenship en masse every ten years as they do now.
The Libertarian position on immigration policy in a statist society is contentious because it is a competing rights issue: can we abridge the rights of others in order to try to retain as many of our own rights as possible? Given that the state is thoroughly incompatible with the rights to work and travel, the insolubility of this conflict demonstrates once again that only a free society is a just one.
For my recent on-air discussion of immigration from a libertarian perspective, click here.
See also, Rothbard’s article cited above, Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State, The Mitrailleuse, No Panaceas: Libertarian Challenges to Open Borders, and Borders, Culture, and Decentralization.
If you’ve gotten this far, don’t miss the comments below – there’s quite a lively discussion going on down there! Plus I threw in some color on why I think our libertarian principles are being exploited by a power elite who would diminish our freedoms not expand them.
*Update: I believe the point “Access to All by All” generated some misunderstanding. To clarify, I am personally not bothered in the slightest bit by other cultures and never felt particularly wedded to my own, which I guess would be Brooklyn/New York. I do, however, recognize that private citizens have the absolute right to include or exclude whomever they choose from their property (as opposed to the government which has no rights to exclude citizens from public property nor to dictate how private property is used such as to segregate the population). If that right of the individual to the use of his private property is regulated, all of a sudden everyone has to decide on everything. For example, if adoption agencies can’t discriminate against any married couples, the society as a whole must decide what “marriage” is rather than just allowing the birth parents, private adoption agencies and adoptive parents come to voluntary agreements. Incidentally, without the totally artificial levels of immigration generated by the black market for labor discussed above, it’s unlikely there would even be a cultural impact from foreign immigration that our society would be unable to absorb.