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Open Borders Is the Only Libertarian Immigration Position


There is a common misconception in the libertarian movement that there are two positions on immigration within libertarianism: the position favoring open borders and the position favoring government-controlled borders.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Libertarianism is a consistent philosophy. It doesn’t encompass contradictory positions.

The core principle of libertarianism is what is called the non-aggression principle. It holds that people are free to do anything they want so long as their conduct is peaceful. That is, so long as people are not murdering, assaulting, raping, burglarizing, defrauding, trespassing, or otherwise initiating force against others, they are free to engage in any action they want. In sum: anything that’s peaceful.

Thus, liberty necessarily encompasses such principles as freedom of association, freedom of travel, freedom of movement, economic liberty, freedom of trade, and liberty of contract.

Those principles necessarily lead to but one conclusion: Open borders, or the right of people to travel across borders in search of a better life, sustain and improve their lives through labor, enter into mutually beneficial transactions and contracts with others, trade, invest, open businesses, hire people, visit, tour, or engage in any other peaceful activity.

Yet, there are people within the libertarian movement who claim that open borders are actually contrary to libertarian principles and that government-controlled borders are the true libertarian position.

The thing is, though, proponents of government-controlled borders end up having to go through all sorts of contortions and distortions to arrive at this conclusion. In fact, whenever I read their arguments, I get the feeling that they are doing their darnest to pound a square philosophical peg into a round hole.

For example, some libertarian advocates of government-controlled borders claim that under the principle of open borders, people would be free to trespass on private property. Therefore, they argue, open borders can’t be libertarian and should be rejected in favor of government-controlled borders.

But that’s just a bogus straw man. Under open borders, both liberty and private property rights are fully protected. Under libertarianism, including open borders, no one has the right to trespass on another person’s property.

But note something important here: People have a right to go where invited and to associate with others. Those are peaceful activities. They are as important aspects of liberty as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and every other aspect of liberty.

It’s these particular fundamental rights associated with open borders — i.e., freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of travel, economic liberty, liberty of contract, freedom of trade, free markets, and free enterprise — that government-controlled borders destroy.

For example, suppose I own a home in Ashburn, Virginia. Libertarians are not saying that foreigners or anyone else have a right to enter my home without permission. We’re saying the exact opposite. We’re saying that no one has the right to trespass onto another person’s property (or burglarize, steal, murder, rape, etc).

But what if I invite an Argentine into my house? Now that’s an entirely different matter. It’s my house. It doesn’t belong to the government. It doesn’t belong to society. It’s private property — my private property. As such, I have the right to invite anyone I want to enter it. I also have the right to invite him into my business and hire him. After all, it is my business and my money. They belong to me, not to the government or to society. They are my private property.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that my Argentine friend has the right to enter into your home or get hired by you. He doesn’t. If he entered your home without your permission, he would be trespassing. Libertarianism condemns that and every other violation of rights.

It’s my liberty and private-property rights, as well as those of the foreign citizen, that advocates of government-controlled borders destroy with their position. They want a government official to stop my guest before he enters my home to determine whether he has secured the official permission of the government to enter the country in order to visit me. If he hasn’t secured that permission, they want the government to forcibly seize him, jail him, incarcerate him, prosecute him, convict him, incarcerate and fine him, and then deport him to his country of origin.

And that’s what the proponents of government-controlled borders never ever talk about — the fact that government enforcement of their paradigm necessarily consists of grave violations of the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Consider the following hypothetical. Ever since I presented it many years ago, there has not been one single libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders who has ever been able to refute the principles set forth in the hypothetical. Unless and until any libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders successfully refutes the principles set forth in this hypothetical, the government-controlled borders paradigm will continue to stand as fatally flawed.

Two brothers own adjoining ranches in New Mexico, one on the Mexican side of the border and one on the U.S. side. There is no fence dividing the ranches. There is only an imaginary line known as the U.S.-Mexico border, which also demarks the property line between the two ranches. There is a U.S. highway that runs east-west and abuts the northern border of the U.S. brother’s property. The highway is located 10 miles from the border.

One day, the American brother invites the Mexican brother to come to his home for dinner. The Mexican brother accepts.

Under libertarian principles, do they have the right to do that? Of course they do. Their actions are entirely peaceful. They’re not burglarizing, stealing, murdering, or otherwise violating the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Is the Mexican brother guilty of trespass? Of course not. Trespass is when a person goes onto another person’s property without the owner’s consent and permission. The Mexican brother is going to where he has been invited.

Enter the libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders. He proclaims, “Not so fast, Mexican brother. You haven’t secured the permission of the U.S. government to cross the border to have dinner with at your brother’s house. Until you do, you cannot cross the border onto your brother’s property.”

Suppose the Mexican brother responds, “I have the fundamental right to go wherever I am invited and welcomed. I have the right to associate with my brother. I have a right to eat dinner at his home when he invites me. I intend to exercise my liberty by traveling onto my brother’s property, enter his home, and have dinner with him.”

Now what? Now come the enforcement measures, a subject, as previously noted, that libertarian proponents of government-controlled borders never ever discuss. The reason they never ever discuss them is because immigration enforcement measures involve grave violations of the libertarian non-aggression principle.

To enforce the immigration controls, the federal government must send Border Patrol agents to the border to stop the Mexican brother from proceeding with his plans. But wait a minute! In order to do that, the agents must cross onto the property of the U.S. brother in order to get to the imaginary line that separates the two tracts of land. But the American brother won’t give them that permission.

That then means trespass. Yes, trespass by the government’s Border Patrol. Yes, trespass that violates the libertarian non-aggression principle. If there are locked gates or no gates, the Border Patrol will just shoot them off or cut open the fence. If there is no road from the highway to the border, they will just make one, even if it destroys the natural habitat on the ranch.

And there is absolutely nothing that the American brother can do to stop it. If he tries, they will arrest him, prosecute him, convict him, incarcerate him and fine him for obstructing justice and interfering with a law-enforcement officer in the performance of his duties. In other words, they will initiate force against him.

What happens with the agents reach the border? They will order the Mexican brother to stay right where he is and direct him not to cross the border. What happens if the Mexican brother crosses anyway and attempts to travel to his brother’s house? They will arrest him, prosecute him, convict him, incarcerate him, fine him, and then deport him. If he resists with violence, they will meet force with force. In other words, in their enforcement of border controls, they will violate the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Or they will construct a government-owned fence between the ranches. How do they do that? They use eminent domain to steal part of the U.S. brother’s ranch — enough land to build their fence on. And if the fence doesn’t work (and it won’t), they will build a wall, similar to the Berlin Wall.

They will also establish government-run permanent checkpoints along that east-west border, where domestic travelers are required to stop, show papers, and submit to total searches of their persons and automobiles — without judicially issued warrants. And they’ll have roving Border Patrol agents, which stop cars at random and search people’s vehicles. All to make certain that the Mexican brother and other Mexican citizens aren’t traveling north to get jobs, visit, tour, of engage in other peaceful activity.

And they’ll start raiding privately owned businesses in the northern part of the country to search for illegal immigrants who have succeeded in bypassing the enforcement measures along the border. Yes, businesses that have knowingly invited the immigrants to work in their businesses. Where are the immigrants living? In privately owned edifices that have been voluntarily rented or sold to them.

Or the government will encourage American citizens to become snitches by reporting people who they suspect of not being in the country legally.

While the scenario set forth above is hypothetical, the immigration enforcement measures are not. They are reality. They have converted the American Southwest into a border-control police state. It’s that police state that libertarian proponents of immigration controls implicitly defend and implicitly claim is consistent with libertarianism.

So, what’s really going on here? As the libertarian movement has grown, it has necessarily attracted many conservatives who have become disillusioned with the socialism and interventionism that characterize the liberal-conservative movement. While they’ve been able to embrace many libertarian positions, they have simply been unable to embrace all libertarian positions.

For example, there are a number of libertarians of a conservative orientation who still favor foreign interventionism and the existence of the national security establishment. Some of them even support the interventionism that has converted Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and the rest of the Middle East into a hellhole of death, misery, and suffering. They just can’t bring themselves to let go of that part of conservatism.

And it’s the same with immigration. All too many libertarians who have come into the movement from the conservative side have just been unable to embrace the libertarian position favoring open borders. Given such, however, they and the movement would be better off if they simply acknowledged that fact, by saying something like, “I’m a libertarian but I just have been unable to embrace every aspect of libertarianism, such as immigration (or foreign intervention or any other libertarian position).” That would be better than trying to pound a round philosophical peg into a square hole and, in the process, lead people into believing that libertarianism encompasses contradictory positions on immigration or any other issue.

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.