TGIF: The Right to Move

by | Jan 5, 2024

TGIF: The Right to Move

by | Jan 5, 2024

ellis island

If people individually own themselves and have a right to be free of aggressive force, then they have a right to change their location in ways consistent with other people’s rights. Whether you call this moving around relocating, emigrating, or immigrating, doesn’t much matter. The default position is that each individual may rightfully move to somewhere else permanently or temporarily.

Inside the United States, nobody questions this. People freely move from state to state, etc., sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. They need no one’s permission.

Why should things be different when we talk about countries rather than smaller jurisdictions and when the individuals who do the moving are not recognized as citizens of the destination country? An opponent of the freedom to move might begin by rejecting self-ownership and nonaggression, so the argument with him would take place at that basic level. But what if the opponent of the freedom to move espouses support for self-ownership and nonaggression? That’s a different kettle of fish.

Remarkably, both kinds of opponents make a similar case for why government control of the borders is necessary. Starting from a different basis, they agree on the alleged need for coercive social engineering by politicians and bureaucrats, who might be pursuing agendas that most people would want no part of.

We often hear it said that just as no one has a right to enter your home without your permission, so no one has a right to enter the country without the permission of the purported equivalent of the owner. That owner is said to be “the people,” in whose name the government claims to act. The truth of the matter is different.

I can see a collectivist taking this shaky position, but an individualist advocate of self-ownership? A country isn’t a home. It’s not a country club either. Homes and country clubs are rooted in private property and voluntary contract. But a country is not. The view that a country is owned at all has been the basis of collectivism and tyranny.

A property owner may decide he doesn’t want someone or some group to enter his property. Fine. But by what right does he impose his rule on other property owners? It does not matter if a majority of property owners and others likes his rules. The dissenting minority — individuals with rights — might welcome newcomers as potential employees, employers, tenants, landlords, customers, sellers, friends, romantic partners, or what have you. Majorities shouldn’t be able to nullify the rights of dissenters or those of aspiring migrants.

Relocation in itself violates no rights. If a rights violation occurs, that should be dealt with, not the relocation. We can always imagine dire emergencies  — “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” is a dubious principle — but this does not justify routine militarized border control, walls and fences, internal checkpoints, employment databases, etc. By definition, dire emergencies are the exception. The words “Show me your papers” should make Americans (and everyone else) cringe.

People today, like in the past, imagine that they see signs of cultural decline and threats to democracy from foreign-born newcomers. When I hear the latter fear expressed, I want to reply sardonically, “We’re capable of growing our own anti-freedom voters, thank you. We need no help from foreigners.” Seriously, though, who can be sure how immigrants will vote in the future, especially if their alternatives include a strong freedom party that welcomes newcomers? Meanwhile, let’s work on shifting the public’s business from the flawed democratic arena to the realm of private property, contract, and social cooperation in the free market.

As for the wish to protect the culture from change, nothing so surely spells tyranny. Imagine what would have to be done to carry out such a plan. Who would you want to run the cultural ministry? It wouldn’t work, of course, but trying would be a road to hell. Besides, do you want to live in a place without a constant flow of new restaurants? And why stop at the change that originates outside the country? What about the sometimes radical change that occurs from domestic sources?

The logic of immigration control ought to worry every freedom advocate — for we can ask, as noted, why stop at national borders? Why not control movement between states, counties, cities, towns, and neighborhoods? (Maybe I shouldn’t given anyone ideas.) If you can’t accomplish a goal through voluntary exchange, then leave it alone.

That control mentality blinds people. As Bryan Caplan points out, when poor people move to rich places, their productivity skyrockets, so they make not only themselves better off, but also the people around them. Yes, some unskilled high-school dropouts would see some decline in income because of competition from new workers who speak little English. Change —  progress — always has a relatively small short-term downside for a few people. But even they, and most certainly their children and grandchildren, will be better off: more goods, lower prices, more employees, more employers, and a larger variety of offerings, not to mention fresh energy and cultural stimulation.

Remember the ever-present potential for gains from trade! Despite the impression given by demagogues, we have nothing resembling open borders, and the problems at the U.S.-Mexican line are the homemade product of U.S. anti-immigration policy.

As Oscar W. Cooley and Paul L. Poirot wrote in a 1951 Foundation for Economic Education pamphlet, “The Freedom to Move”:

Can we hope to explain the blessings of freedom to foreign people while we deny them the freedom to cross our boundaries? To advertise America as the “land of the free,” and to pose as the world champion of freedom in the contest with communism, is hypocritical, if at the same time we deny the freedom of immigration as well as the freedom of trade. And we may be sure that our neighbors overseas are not blind to this hypocrisy.

A community operating on the competitive basis of the free market will welcome any willing newcomer for his potential productivity, whether he brings capital goods or merely a willingness to work. Capital and labor then attract each other, in a kind of growth that spells healthy progress and prosperity in that community. That principle seems to be well recognized and accepted by those who support the activities of a local chamber of commerce. Why do we not dare risk the same attitude as applied to national immigration policy?

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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