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What If the U.S. Had Trade and Immigration Controls?


The United States is the biggest free-trade and open-immigration nation in history. Every day, countless people cross state and county borders without any control, regulation, or restriction. No state officials are stationed at state borders to check people’s travel papers or to ask about why they are entering the state. No customs officials or drug-war officials are stationed at state border crossings to search people and their vehicles for drugs or other contraband. No travel visas are required to go from one state to another.

There are also no tariffs or import restrictions between the states. No state ever declares a trade war against another state. No one paces the floors over the trade deficits between the various states. People are free to sell their goods and services to people in other states without any state interference.

All of this is because the U.S. Constitution prohibits state officials from enacting trade and immigration controls between the respective states. If the Framers had not had the wisdom to include that prohibition in the Constitution, there is little doubt that Americans would be living under a very different system today.

Let’s assume for a moment that that is precisely what happened. Let’s assume that the Constitution had expressly authorized the states to enact domestic trade and immigration controls. Let’s imagine that for more than two centuries Americans have lived under a system in which each state imposes strict travel controls and trade restrictions against people from other states.

That would mean that when someone entered another state, he would immediately encounter a state inspection station, similar to those that exist on America’s international borders. The traveler would be asked to provide his travel papers, such as a visa to enter the state. He would be asked for the reasons he was entering the state. He and his vehicle would be subject to being searched for drugs and contraband. His name would be entered into a state database to see if he might be a terrorist or some other violent criminal.

It would also mean a complex system of interstate tariffs and import controls. State officials would do everything they could to protect their citizens from unfair competition from other states. A major objective would be to ensure a favorable balance of trade with the other states. Trade wars would erupt from time to time, but there also would likely be trade alliances entered into between blocs of states, much like NAFTA.

To make it work, the system would need enforcement. State travel police. State trade police. State immigration police. Incarceration and deportation for illegal entry into a state. State highway checkpoints checking people’s papers and subjecting them to searches. Roving state border patrol checkpoints. Warrantless trespasses onto ranches and farms along the state borders to look for illegal entrants. Raids on private businesses to check for illegal workers from other states. Even state fences and walls along state borders would not be surprising.

Now, imagine that after more than 220 years of this way of life, libertarians come along with a radical idea. The libertarians propose the abolition of all trade and immigration controls between the states. In fact, they go further. They propose that the Constitution be amended to forever prohibit the states from enacting trade and travel controls against the other states.

Statists would go ballistic. It is not difficult to imagine what they would say:

California statists: “This libertarian proposal is horrible. The entire nation will move here to get on welfare since California has fantastic welfare benefits and is a much nicer place to live than the rest of the nation.”

Montana and Idaho statists: “Every Mexican-American in the American Southwest will move here and pollute our culture.”

Texas statists: “Millions of New Yorkers living in overcrowded New York City will move here and pollute our culture.”

New York Statists: “What if everyone suddenly decides to move to New York City? Don’t we already have enough people in New York City?”

Statists in every state: “This libertarian proposal will make us unsafe. It would mean that terrorists and other criminals could freely come into our state and kill us.”

Statists in every state: “People with infectious illnesses would spread their illnesses all across the nation. Have you libertarians considered that?”

Statists in every state: “People from other states will come into our state and steal our jobs from us.”

Statists in every state: “This proposal would mean the end of tariffs and import restrictions that protect us from unfair competition from other states and ensure a favorable balance of trade with other states.”

Statists in every state: “You libertarians are so impractical. Your free-trade and open-immigration ideas are ridiculous and would end up destroying our nation.”

It was a good thing that the Framers prohibited the states from enacting trade and travel controls within the United States.

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.