After responding to a tweet by Liberty Hangout regarding a criticism of open border with a post here, I was directed to an article by Justin Modlow explaining their view on how borders should be handled. Modlow advocates privatizing the borders as the true libertarian position, which I do not disagree with, but the first part of his piece argues why open borders is not a libertarian solution. I do concede that there are some ways of framing positions on open borders that run into problems with adhering to the ideals of libertarianism, but Modlow largely does not make these points.
It is important to remember that Modlow is not arguing in favor of any interference by the government when he makes his cases against open borders. He is simply arguing that open borders is not a proper libertarian position. It is also important to note that because someone may argue in favor of open borders, i.e. no government control of the movement of people, it does not mean that the person does not have a position that allows for the control of the movement of people through respect for private property rights.
Let us begin my critique:
The gut reaction from every libertarian is that free markets require the free movement of goods and labor. This statement is entirely true, however open borders are not a market solution, but are rather a government solution. When the state opens up its borders for anyone to cross through, markets are in fact destined to be distorted, because people who may not have otherwise traveled to the United States under market circumstances will now be tempted to do so.
If the government tasks itself with function X, but it does not perform function X, how does its inaction qualify as a government solution? Would Modlow say the same if the government stopped collecting taxes or if it stopped regulating industry? The markets would get “distorted” (prices would tend towards a more natural equilibrium point) if those happened as well. The real market distortion is the fact that there are closed borders. Market distortions, which I will define as changes that occur because of an uninvited, coercive third party, are due to government action, not government inaction.
Immigration is to the level of government border controls as ability to purchase and save is to the level of taxation.
As Lew Rockwell recently stated in a speech given at the Mises Circle in Phoenix, Arizona:
“I can move onto any property I myself own or whose owner wishes to have me there. But I simply cannot go wherever I like. If all the parcels of land in the world were held privately, the solution to the so called immigration problem would be evident. In fact, there would be no immigration problem. Everyone moving somewhere new would have to have the consent of the owner of that place. When the state and its so called ‘public property’ enter the picture, the things become slightly more murky, and it takes extra effort to uncover the proper libertarian position.”
There is certainly nothing wrong with this quote by Rockwell, but as we will see, Modlow misinterprets it to fit his view of open borders. If the private property rights of landowners were properly respected, what does it matter if some land adjacent to it is “public property?” It would almost be the same as an adjacent landowner who put no restrictions on who could enter his property—though perhaps it would be more difficult to apply market pressures to public land users than a private landowner. Libertarians ought not to view government borders as anything but a meaningless construct that should be ignored. A person has the same obligations to another person on the north side of the US/Mexico border as he does to someone on the south side.
Libertarians are quick to quote Milton Friedman to prove how open borders are beneficial to the economy, however this disregards a few important factors. This discernment only takes into account the cheap and unskilled labor being imported into a country. However it neglects to take into consideration the effect it has over a nation’s culture, and genuine consumer demand.
Friedman argues that a business owner will save money by hiring an unskilled laborer from Guatemala, thereby creating greater profits, increasing purchasing power, and opening the door to new innovations, which will in turn create new jobs in new sectors of the economy. But what isn’t taken into account is the cultural shift that will take place, and that the consumers of old may no longer seek to shop with the company hiring the unskilled laborer since he does not speak English, and the customers do not speak Spanish. The market will be forced to adapt to this change, adding a hidden cost to the equation; the cost of assimilation.
I get a sense that there is a fear from Modlow of the culture he enjoys changing. It is certainly fine to have a preference for one culture over another, but it is up to the individual to preserve his cultural preference through his transactions and associations. Yes, the market would adapt to a business owner who hires a Guatemalan who speaks no English and is supposed to interface with non-Spanish-speaking customers—it would adapt by way of customers choosing to patronize someone else.
This hypothetical is silly anyway. Only a poor business manager would hire a non-English-speaking Guatemalan to interface with English-speaking customers. Businesses make poor decisions all of the time and no one with even a slight clue of how markets work, especially someone with an Austrian perspective, would ever suggest that dangerous market distortions might occur as a result of some purely voluntary transaction. Bad decisions represent opportunities for competing firms. Furthermore, costs are hidden in nearly every business decision. This is why the free market, a place where individuals should be free to test their hypotheses and learn from the collective successes and failures, is the best structure for an economy.
Modlow’s opinion that it would be a bad business decision to hire this Guatemalan does not have much to do with libertarianism. Libertarianism does not critique business decisions. The hiring of the Guatemalan may have effects on the market, but there is no libertarian commentary on it other than that both parties should be free to engage in that transaction for better or for worse. Modlow is of course free to give his opinions about whether the hiring is good or bad for the company, but it falls within the same category of commentary as his opinion on his favorite restaurant’s menu changes.
Milton Friedman’s own arguments can actually be used against Milton Friedman’s stance on immigration. Friedman was one of the first economists to argue that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This statement was meant to explain how nothing provided by the government is ever actually “free,” since the costs are paid by the taxpayers. Why then do open borders libertarians believe that free lunches exist when it comes to immigration? A Guatemalan doesn’t make it to New York because the market demanded it, but because the US government provided him with the infrastructure to get there. If the roads were privatized, then the market may have never allowed for the Guatemalan to make it to New York.
Libertarians do not believe that the immigration free lunch exists, so Modlow’s argument is a strawman. If roads were privatized, why does Modlow believe that the Guatemalan might not make it? There is no reason to believe that the costs associated with using private roads would be burdensome, especially when compared to the costs of fuel or a ticket, food, lodging, et al to make an almost 3200-mile drive from Guatemala to New York. And if the reason he could not make the trip were due to the market, what reasons would private road owners have for preventing him from reaching his destination?
Would Modlow also be against a Guatemalan taking a vacation to New York since he would use taxpayer-funded roads that he did not pay into?
It is not the immigrant’s fault that some things are provided to them for free by the government, in this case access to the roads. But another reason why Modlow’s argument fails is because once the Guatemalan immigrant starts working, he would presumably begin to pay taxes and would no longer be getting a “free lunch.” Furthermore, taking Modlow’s argument to its logical conclusion, it would follow that it is anti-libertarian to allow any immigration whatsoever on the same grounds given the current situation of the government and its borders. I have never heard a single libertarian (or anyone in general) make that argument.
Modlow is making a nuanced argument against open borders by appealing to the welfare that immigrants often receive. I addressed this point in my previous article:
It is true that the immigrants do represent a potential burden to the existing citizens of a given state. In the United States, for example, many illegal immigrants will find themselves on some sort of welfare or use some product or service (like hospitals or schools) required to be supplied by the business owner or the taxpayer. These requirements, however, are set by governments and imposed by them on their citizens. Preventing immigration on the grounds that they might engage in what amounts to theft in the eyes of libertarians is charging them with a pre-crime. Furthermore, since libertarians do not believe in the absurdity of determining rights based on citizenship status, this would also be similar to using the state to prevent people who are on some form of welfare from having children since the children will also put an additional burden on the taxpayer. I think only the most radical of the neoreactionaries would support that.
Free market economist, Murray Rothbard, corroborated this sentiment in Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation State. He writes:
“If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no person could enter unless invited to enter and allowed to rent or purchase property. A totally privatized country would be as closed as the particular property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. and Western Europe really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.”
Libertarians will generally agree that the initiation of force against consenting individuals is wrong, and this is why so many reject government crafted boundaries are in favor of open borders. But holding this logic to its rational conclusions, it would then be acceptable for anyone to travel through publicly held lands and into any neighborhood they desire, even if a community does not approve of it.
It is important to recognize the rights of the immigrant when dealing with this problem. Michael Huemer points this out with the hypothetical of “starving Marvin”:
In the last version of the story, I coercively prevented Marvin from reaching the local marketplace, on the grounds that doing so was necessary to prevent my daughter from having to pay a higher than normal price for her bread. This action seems unjustified. Would I succeed in defending my behavior if I pointed out that, as a father, I have special obligations to my daughter, and that these imply that I must give greater weight to my daughter’s interests than to the interests of non-family members? Certainly the premise is true—if anything, parents have even stronger and clearer duties to protect the interests of their offspring than a government has to protect its citizens’ interests. But this does not negate the rights of non-family members not to be subjected to harmful coercion. My special duties to my offspring imply that, if I must choose between giving food to my child and giving food to a non-family member, I should generally give the food to my child. But they do not imply that I may use force to stop non-family members from obtaining food, in order to procure small economic advantages for my children.
Rothbard is not incorrect with his assessment, but it is important to recognize who is doing the coercion. It is the state, not the immigrants. So while it is true there is coercion of the citizens when there are open borders, it is also true that there is a greater rights violation of the immigrants when the borders are closed. The same goes for Modlow’s assessment of the logical conclusion regarding anyone walking into any neighborhood.
In free market circumstances, an unskilled laborer from Guatemala may not have ever acquired a job in the suburbs of New York, thereby saving the local economy the cost of having to learn new languages. But when the government steps in and allows migrants to walk throughout public territories in order to resettle wherever they desire, markets get distorted, cultures get destroyed, and consumers will be forced to pay hidden costs.
I have already given some reasons why the Guatemalan immigrant is a bad example from the standpoint of the New York businessman, but let us also deal with the reality that these are not the jobs that immigrants from Latin America take when they enter the US. They usually take agricultural work, which is unskilled, low-paying labor that most Americans do not want. So currently, there are definitely market reasons for immigration to the United States, so much so that many are willing to take the risk of crossing the border illegally in order to take the work.
Unfortunately, Modlow appears to not have much of a grasp on the machinations of migration. Most Americans do not care about how many wealthy immigrants cross the borders since they usually have jobs lined up and are better equipped to assimilate into their communities. Poorer migrants, however, cannot “resettle wherever they desire,” but instead tend to settle into low income neighborhoods they can afford. And as these things usually happen, people of the same ethnicities usually settle together in the same neighborhoods. Over time they build wealth and make their neighborhoods points of interest for the native citizens (e.g. many large cities have a “Chinatown”). In my own experience, no one seems to have a problem with the large population of Mexicans that live near me. In fact, I challenge you to find a place with better Mexican food (or the awesome Mexican supermarket a few miles from my house)!
But my appreciation of the Mexican culture near me is merely a subjective preference and does not have anything to do with libertarianism. Modlow is worried that “cultures get destroyed” when immigrants move in. So what if they do? If Modlow wants to discuss culture and why he prefers one over another, he should by all means do it, but he should not dress it up as a discussion about libertarianism.
Two great books on immigration to both the United States and around the world and how government policies affect it are Migrants to the Metropolis and Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882.
Open borders can also not be considered a libertarian solution because we must be cognizant of the fact that there are people in this world that wish to come to our country and do us harm. To say that an evildoer has a right to come here is asinine, and is a clear violation of the non-aggression principle. There are also raving socialists that would love to walk into this country and increase the nation’s tax burden so that they may receive more welfare benefits. Letting socialists get away with growing the state is clearly not a formula for freedom.
This is another strawman of the open borders argument. No advocate of open borders says, “We want everyone to be able to cross borders, even terrorists we know that are going to try to kill us.” In the eyes of libertarianism, “foreign” terrorists should be treated no differently than “domestic” terrorists. His argument is also a dangerous one to make because it is the same exact argument the proponents of gun control make, which I’m sure Modlow rejects.
The fear of socialists moving in is just absolutely ridiculous. Are we really going to get into discussing every possible negative outcome of open borders despite the likelihood?
In addition to these points, we must be aware of how the government would likely respond to an open borders scenario. If we as students of economics believe in Adam Smith’s theory that men are self-interested, then the government will only open the borders if they can find benefit from this. And benefit to the government means greater power.
The government would have a greater incentive to let evildoers into this nation than they would to let in law-abiding citizens, because the state can capitalize on tragedies in order to call for increases in their control. They would also have an incentive to let in the socialists that want to increase the tax burden.
Okay, so if the government privatized the borders as libertarians want it, should we be fearful of some ulterior motive of the government to gain power? Yes, the government does a lot of evil intentionally, but let us also not ignore the fact that many people in government actually have good intentions but government is simply incapable of solving the economic calculation problem (among others).
And if the government wants to let evildoers into the country, does anyone think it matters whether the borders are open or closed?
We can also expect the leftists in this country to call on Americans to be forced to be charitable to all the immigrants seeking refuge in the United States. Leftists greatly outrank libertarians, and once the borders are opened, they will get everything they want. If the government were to open up the borders, you can fully expect the state to centrally plan society and force you to live next to someone you won’t get along with. This will create division amongst Americans, which will only help the state further enumerate their powers.
The government is going to attempt to centrally plan regardless of the status of the borders. The issue of borders cannot be looked at in a vacuum. It is not necessarily true that the state would raise taxes in order to accommodate the influx of new immigrants. The opening of borders could signal just the opposite—a trend of general liberalization by the government. Regardless, this is why libertarians need to constantly be advocates of less government power in all aspects of life.
In my opinion, while he is right to say that privatization should be the end goal, Modlow fails to present an adequate case of why favoring open borders is an anti-libertarian position. Part of his problem is that he does not seem to understand the arguments of advocates of open borders. He makes unfounded assumptions and lacks empirical knowledge of immigration. He also makes the mistake of conflating libertarian arguments with preferences on business decisions and culture.
Bob Murphy has written a good article on why libertarians should stop using the term “open borders” to describe our position and I largely agree with his assessment. But when critiquing the open border position of a libertarian, it is important to remember that advocating no government control of the movement of people is not the same as advocating for no control of the movement of people at all.