I recently received a good question about libertarianism and open borders: Aren’t there some libertarians who favor immigration controls? If so, doesn’t that preclude anyone from saying that libertarians favor open borders?
The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second question is no.
The fact that some libertarians favor immigration controls is irrelevant in determining whether this particular government program is libertarian in nature. After all, there are also some libertarians who favor standing armies, foreign interventionism, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Social Security reform plans, school vouchers, and trade restrictions. Does that mean that we are precluded from saying that those statist programs are un-libertarian too?
The real issue, insofar as libertarians and libertarianism are concerned, is this: Which one — immigration controls or open borders — is consistent with the libertarian non-aggression principle, which is the guiding principle of the libertarian philosophy? Since immigration controls and open borders are obviously opposite ideas, they both can’t be reconcilable with the libertarian non-aggression principle. One is and one isn’t.
As I pointed out in my recent article “Libertarianism and Open Immigration,” the non-aggression principle holds that people should be free to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful. So, no murder, rape, stealing, burglary, fraud, and the like, but otherwise anything goes. That’s why libertarians, for example, oppose governmental control over such things as drug use, adultery, education, prostitution, money, banking, economic enterprise, and all other peaceful and consensual activity.
As I pointed out in that article, people have the natural, God-given right to sustain their lives through labor, associate with others, engage in economic enterprise, enter into mutually beneficial exchanges, keep the fruits of their earnings, decide what to do with their own money, and travel and move to wherever where they wish.
The exercise of such rights might well entail crossing artificial lines called borders. Contrary to what the advocates of immigration controls sometimes maintain, that doesn’t mean that people can trespass onto other people’s privately owned property. It means that they can travel to different parts of the world, where they use, by consent of the owners, hotels, apartments, houses, and other dwellings, enter into stores, shops, and amusement parks to purchase things, and go to work for businesses that are willing to hire them.
As I also pointed out in my article, it is the immigration controller who violates the libertarian non-aggression principle by arresting, incarcerating, or even killing people who are engaged in purely peaceful, consensual actions.
There is another clue as to why immigration controls are not libertarian — the measures that are used to defend immigration controls. Notice something important here: libertarians who favor immigration controls always keep their lips sealed when it comes to the measures the state employs to enforce immigration controls. The reason that libertarians who favor immigration controls remain silent about such measures is that they’re embarrassed to come to their defense. And the reason they’re embarrassed is that they know that the enforcement measures cannot be reconciled with libertarian principles.
Consider the federal law that criminalizes the hiring of illegal immigrants. Hiring an illegal immigrant is obviously an entirely peaceful and consensual action. Yet, the state prosecutes, convicts, incarcerates, and fines any American business owner for doing so. How can any libertarian support such a thing under libertarian principles?
There are also federal laws against transporting and harboring illegal immigrants. Anyone who is caught doing such things, again, is prosecuted for a felony offense and punished accordingly. Reconcilable with libertarian principles? Not a chance.
Immigration raids on privately owned businesses. Warrantless searches of ranches and farms along the border. Immigration checkpoints on U.S. highways for people who haven’t even left the country. A government fence built on thousands of acres of privately owned property along the U.S.-Mexico border. An armed national police force known as the Border Patrol, which conducts roving searches on roads and highways.
Of course, conceivably the libertarian supporter of immigration controls could say, “I favor immigration controls but I oppose enforcement measures.” But if that’s the case, what then would be the point of having immigration controls if they’re not going to be enforced? The fact is that enforcement comes with control, just as thunder comes with lightning.
So, why are there libertarians who favor immigration controls? For the same reason there are libertarians who favor standing armies, foreign interventionism, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Social Security reform plans, school vouchers, and trade restrictions: They are conservatives who have come into the libertarian movement based on libertarian free-market economic principles but who, unfortunately, have been unable to let go of their conservative mindsets on immigration, foreign policy, education, free trade, and other areas.
What has always distinguished libertarians from conservatives is our adherence to principle. Unlike conservatives, we have never been willing to compromise (i.e., abandon) our principles for the sake of popularity, acceptance, money, and expediency. There is nothing that conservatives would love more than to have libertarians become like them. That’s one reason they are constantly exhorting libertarians to join them in opposing open borders until the welfare state is abolished.
But we libertarians must never become like conservatives. If we do, we lose not only principles and our integrity, we also lose hope of achieving a genuinely free society. If we libertarians become like conservatives, we will have to resign ourselves to doing what conservatives do — making life more palatable under serfdom and then just call it “freedom.”