TGIF: Immigration in an Nth-Best World

by | Mar 1, 2024

TGIF: Immigration in an Nth-Best World

by | Mar 1, 2024

shush

We live in an nth-best society. It’s neither fully libertarian (though libertarians disagree over exactly what that would mean) nor totalitarian like the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Maoist China, or North Korea. It’s somewhere in between, closer to libertarian than many other places but not close enough.

One challenge for libertarians is knowing which proposals to favor and which to oppose in an nth-best society. Merely reciting the nonaggression obligation is not enough if our goal is to persuade many people that the freedom philosophy is both right and practical.

A mixed economy, the system combining markets with heavy doses of government interference, produces problems that libertarians need to address to be relevant. Many problems concern so-called public property, government-controlled land and buildings, many of which are presumptively open to all U.S. residents. Roads, parks, museums, and courthouses are examples. Libertarians would privatize most or all of it. (Roderick Long notes that nongovernmental publicly owned property can exist and has existed.) However, simply proclaiming the pure libertarian vision based on private property fails to address today’s acute problems involving public property, such as the obstruction and defilement of sidewalks and parks by disorderly homeless, jobless, and troubled individuals who prevent civil self-supporting taxpayers from using those facilities as intended.

It is equally unreasonable to address those problems by giving politicians and bureaucrats carte blanche to regulate “the people’s” property.

If this sounds relevant to the immigration issue, go and buy yourself a cigar. There’s a view floating around social media and elsewhere that free immigration, or open borders, is not a libertarian position because “we the people,” the true owners of government-controlled property, have the same right as any private owner to set rules for entry and use. Non-owners properly could and perhaps should be excluded. This rule-setting presumably would occur through the democratic process, that is, voting.

Right off the bat, that seems odd. The democratic process is majority takes all  — the bloc of minority “owners” would lose out. If 50 percent minus one welcomes new arrivals to deal with and 50 percent plus one does not, the smaller group loses out simply because it is smaller. If a member of the minority persists, he is punished.

This would seem like Rousseauian “general will” libertarianism, except that’s a contradiction in terms.

This position is presented as the grown-up libertarian position in today’s world. I disagree.

Bear in mind that this proposal is intended to answer naive, immature, likely new social-media libertarians who believe that in today’s mixed economy, the government must not set any rules whatsoever for public property. I’m sure such libertarians exist, but libertarians are not logically or morally obligated to favor the no-rules position. On the other hand, a better version of libertarian theory also does not entail restrictions on people’s nonaggressive freedom of movement.

Those who think otherwise prove far too much. If “we” through the democratic process may shut immigrants out by keeping them off “our” public property, why can’t we make other rules? How about a rule that says if you hold certain political or social views, you can’t drive on the roads or use the courts and libraries? Why the distinction between the native-born and the foreign-born? A country is not a country club.

Making rules for today’s public property requires nuance and reasonableness. There is a difference between excluding drunken, unwashed, screaming people without clothing from the DMV and excluding civil people without government permission papers from the roads and sidewalks. Forbidding homeless people from defecating, urinating, and discarding drug paraphernalia in public differs from forbidding Americans to hire, sell to, rent to, or live with, and otherwise associate with any peaceful people they choose regardless of where they were born.

The first instances disrupt taxpayers’ peaceful use of public property; the second do not. Is the nondisruption principle a distinctively libertarian standard? Not specifically, but so what? We’re in an nth-best society, remember. Culture, convention, and context help determine exactly what constitutes disruption, but the spirit of individual liberty never disappears. We can expect hard cases, but that doesn’t make the principle worthless.

Is the principle arbitrary? No. In a partially free society, public property is presumptively open to the public: if someone makes it impossible for others to use it as intended, that person can properly be excluded. (Not by any means, of course.)

Could the nondisruption principle be used to justify any government restriction, such as closed borders? No. The case for any given rule should not rest on hypotheticals or highly unlikely events not intrinsic to a situation. That’s why a border wall is different from a stop sign. There is no necessary connection between immigrants freely coming here to look for jobs, sellers, buyers, houses, apartments, friends, lovers, spouses, etc. and the disruption of public property. We can easily imagine the orderly movement of people over the border if residency and work were legal and entrepreneurial Americans were free to create businesses that match newcomers with opportunities. If a specific disruption occurs, law enforcement should be directed at actual disrupters, not at whole classes of people just because they might be disruptive. Americans might be disruptive too.

What about the tax burden, which is a different sort of potential problem from acute disruption? For a full discussion, see Bryan Caplan’s graphic nonfiction work, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Caplan is a libertarian, but more importantly here, a solid social scientist who knows the immigration data as well as anyone. (The Cato Institute also has examined the data closely. For example, here.)

The story revealed by that data is not what most people imagine. Caplan writes: “Free immigration with a U.S.-style welfare state is not a recipe for fiscal disaster. Even under open orders, the burdensome immigrant would be the exception, not the rule…. Most immigrants pull their own weight — and then some. A few don’t [just as with the native-born]. But that’s a flimsy reason to ditch the principle of free immigration.” (Nor would we ditch the principle of free reproduction because some Americans will produce future net tax-consumers.)

Libertarians would better use their time working to shrink and repeal welfare-state programs than trying to save them from the stresses and strains they’re bound to encounter. Despite hard cases in the world as we find it, the presumption should favor liberty for all, even newcomers. How can that not be the libertarian position?

Open borders are moral and desirable because prohibiting free movement necessarily aggresses against nonaggressors, including Americans; condemns the most wretched people on earth to poverty and tyranny; and keeps us all from getting richer. Strictly speaking, the right at stake is not the right to immigrate. Rather, it’s the right not to be subjected to initiatory force. The right to immigrate, as Roderick Long might put it, is just one of many specific applications of that one right.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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