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Should Libertarians Support a Police State?

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According to an article at NBCNews.com, when 23-year-old American filmmaker Akram Shibly and his girlfriend Kelly McCormick recently returned from a trip to Toronto, U.S. border officials took possession of their cell phones and demanded that they disclose their passwords so that the officials could peruse, study, search through, or copy the contents of the phones.  They complied.

A few days later, they were returning from another trip to Canada, where they were, once again, ordered to hand over their cell phones and disclose their passwords. This time, Shibly objected, saying “No, because I already went through this.”

According to the article, “Within seconds, he was surrounded: one man held his legs, another squeezed his throat from behind. A third reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone. McCormick watched her boyfriend’s face turn red as the officer’s chokehold tightened.”

When McCormick was asked to comply after seeing what they did to her boyfriend, not surprisingly she quickly did what those border officials ordered her to do.

Welcome to the iron fist of a police state. “Turn over your private information to us because we are demanding it and help us to search your personal affairs by giving us your password, or else we will manhandle you, grab you by the throat, and choke you until you comply. If you resist, we will arrest, prosecute, convict, incarcerate, and fine you for obstruction of justice, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct, maybe even terrorism.”

Longtime readers of FFF know that I have long disagreed with libertarians who favor immigration controls. It has never made any sense to me why any libertarian would support a violation of the core principle of libertarianism — the non-aggression principle, which holds that it is immoral to initiate force against another person. As Akram Shibly and Kelly McCormick discovered, that is precisely what the enforcement of immigration controls entail — the initiation of force against people who are engaged in purely peaceful and consensual activity.

When libertarians defend immigration controls, they are necessarily endorsing, at the same time, the police state that the enforcement of immigration controls brings into existence. That raises an important question on methodology: Will people seriously consider libertarian ideas and philosophy if libertarians are simultaneously defending liberty and a police state?

More specifically, how can any libertarian in good conscience defend what happened to Shibly and McCormick? Keep in mind that what happened to them was not an isolated instance. NBC News found 25 other instances where American citizens experienced the same thing.

Our American ancestors tried to protect people from unreasonable searches by federal officials. They understood that a free society necessarily depends on external constraints placed on the power of government officials to conduct searches of people and their belongings. That’s what The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is all about. It prohibits federal officials from searching people’s cell phones and everything else without a search warrant issued by a judge.

U.S. immigration officials, however, supported by the federal judiciary, have carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment when it comes to travelers who come from a foreign country. No search warrant required. Keep in mind something important here: These border searches are not limited to cell phones. They extend to people’s computers, their luggage, their cars, and even their body cavities. Yes, that’s right: If border officials demand it, people must take off all their clothes and permit border officials to search all their body cavities. The legal justification? Immigration controls.

This is what libertarians who support immigration control just don’t seem to get — that in defending immigration controls, they are, at the same time, defending a police state owing to the brutal enforcement measures that come with immigration controls.

Ask yourself:  Why should a person be subjected to a search simply because he has traveled to a city outside the United States? We don’t permit them to search people who travel from one city to another city inside the United States, do we?

Well, actually we do. Many years ago, as part of its enforcement of immigration controls, the U.S. government began establishing border checkpoints on highways inside the United States. Yes, border checkpoints that are several miles away from the international border. I wrote about these checkpoints as far back as 1998 in an article entitled, “Domestic Passports for Hispanic Americans.”

One of these checkpoints is about 40 miles north of my hometown of Laredo, Texas. A traveler heading north from Laredo to San Antonio comes over the crest of a hill and sees a surreal sight: an international border inspection station. When he sees it for the first time, a traveler might even momentarily think that he’s still in Mexico and approaching the international border.

But this is north of the border — several miles north of the border. Travelers are required to stop at this north-of-the-border border checkpoint. And guess what: They are subject to the same type of searches that they are subject to at the actual border — the one situated 40 miles south — cellphones, computers, car, and body cavities, even though the travelers might never have traveled into Mexico!

What happens if a person resists and refuses to answer questions, show his papers, or submit to a search? They bash in his window, forcibly drag him from his car, and beat him up. Don’t believe me? See this video by a Baptist preacher who refused to cooperate with border officials.

How can any libertarian in good conscience defend or support this immigration police state? Keep in mind that all this immigration tyranny is based on immigration controls.

And it doesn’t stop there. Immigration officials are empowered to trespass onto people’s ranches and farms that are situated not just on the border but also many miles north of the border. They call the latter “the functional equivalent of the border.” In other words, in immigration-speak ranches and farms that are several miles from the border are on the border. Under immigration controls, border agents don’t need a search warrant. They don’t need permission. If a landowner puts a lock on his gate and doesn’t give immigration officials a key in advance, they just shoot the lock off the gate and enter the premises.

How can any libertarian defend this type of thing? This is what goes on in totalitarian countries. I know — I’ve traveled in Cuba, where they have both highway checkpoints and airport checkpoints and where government gendarmes can search anyone for any reason they want without a warrant.

By now, Americans have become accustomed to showing their papers when departing on flights. Recently, people disembarking on a domestic flight into JFK Airport were required to show their papers to immigration officials. No warrant. No probable cause. The officials suspected that an illegal immigrant was on board and decided to just ask everyone to show their papers, just like officials do in Cuba and other communist and totalitarian societies.

Libertarianism simply cannot be reconciled with immigration controls. That’s not only because immigration controls violate the libertarian non-aggression principle but also because freedom and a police state are opposites. It is only open borders — that is, the free and unmolested movement of people back and forth across borders — that is consistent with libertarianism.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.