As longtime supporters of The Future of Freedom Foundation know, as libertarians we have long called for open borders. One of the first books we ever published, in fact, is entitled The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration.
The arguments for open borders are based on the principles of freedom as well as pragmatic principles. As Jefferson stated in the Declaration of Independence, all people (that is, not just Americans) are endowed with natural and God-given rights, which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Such rights encompass the rights to travel and move, sustain one’s life through labor, engage in economic enterprise, enter into mutually beneficial economic arrangements with others, accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, and decide for one’s self what to do with one’s own money.
Government has no legitimate authority to interfere with this entirely peaceful activity, especially through the initiation of force.
Consider, for example, the United States, which has no trade and immigration controls between the various states. The reason for this phenomenon is not simply the Constitution, which the Framers wisely used to bar public officials from enacting border controls between the states. The reason also has to do with freedom: Americans have the moral right to freely cross borders between the respective states not because they’re Americans but because they are human beings with the natural, God-given right to go wherever they want without governmental permission.
That the United States has the largest free-trade and free-movement zone in history is a major cause of the economic prosperity that has historically characterized America. When people are free to cross borders to engage in mutually beneficial exchanges with others, they improve their respective economic position simply through the act of exchange. In each trade, both sides are giving up something they value less for something they value more.
These principles are no different with respect to international activity. Rights are inherent and fundamental, as Jefferson pointed out. They transcend governments and borders. People have the fundamental, God-given right to travel, trade, and move without governmental interference.
Does the exercise of such rights means that borders disappear, as advocates of controlled borders often suggest? Of course not! That’s a silly suggestion. When people from Maryland freely cross into Virginia, the border between the two states does not disappear. It simply means that those people crossing into Virginia remain Marylanders but are now subject to the laws of Virginia.
The same principle applies internationally. When people from France, Nigeria, or Mexico freely come here, either as tourists or to work or whatever, that doesn’t mean that America’s borders disappear. Those people simply become foreigners touring, traveling, or working in America and become subject to state and federal laws.
Some libertarians wax eloquent about the benefits that immigrants bring to a society, but then call on the government to control the borders. They cite two reasons: first, to make sure that only “good” immigrants come into the United States and, second, to protect us from the “terrorists.”
Both arguments are fallacious.
First, controlled borders violate libertarian principles, in that they involve the government in central planning. Central planning is an aspect of socialism, one in which the government plans and directs the economic activity in a particular sector of society.
As with all socialist schemes, central planning in immigration always ends up with all sorts of distortions and perversions. The reason that the immigration arena is such an enormous mess is because of this socialist central planning. For a good summary of the immigration mess, see “Don’t Let Obama Touch Immigration Reform” by Shikha Dalmia at reason.com.
Moreover, why should government officials be trusted to select the “good” immigrants. How can a team of bureaucratic central planners make that determination? As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, they lack the necessary knowledge to make that complex determination. Better to leave such a determination to the free market, that is, to the choices that consumers and producers make in a free market.
Second, controlled borders inevitably entail enforcement, which means force and violence. Libertarian advocates of controlled borders are left with no principled argument against the various enforcement mechanisms that the state brings into existence to control its borders. The Border Patrol, Customs and Immigration Enforcement, passport checkpoints, Berlin Fences, raids. They are all part and parcel of controlled borders.
Third, there is no way that controlled borders can protect against terrorists, unless perhaps there is a totally sealed border like that which exists in North Korea, which is not exactly a libertarian paradise. If someone wants to do America harm, he can easily figure out a way to get in, whether he’s a terrorist, rapist, murderer, thief, or whatever. After all, if poor illegal aliens from Mexico can enter the United States, so can prospective terrorists. Moreover, prospective terrorists with no criminal record can always come in legally as tourists on visas.
Infringing on the natural, God-given rights of people for the sake of safety from terrorists makes no sense. Better to strike at the root of the problem by dismantling the U.S. government’s military empire and bringing all the troops home from overseas, discharging them into the private sector, where they can be citizen soldiers.
Finally, some people say that as long as America has a welfare state, borders should be controlled and regulated. But should libertarians ever make such an argument? Perish the thought because then it places libertarians in the odd position of using the welfare state as an excuse for calling on the state to violate other people’s rights. In other words, libertarians should never permit statists to manipulate us into violating our principles. Anyway, the welfare state is immoral and destructive. Maybe the best way to persuade statist Americans into abandoning it is to terrify them with the thought that they might be forced into supporting the poor, tired, huddled masses from abroad.
Three great books providing the case for open borders are FFF’s book The Case for Free Trade and Open Immigration, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them by Philippe Legrain (a liberal), and Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders by Jason L. Riley (a conservative).