Anti-immigration libertarians are treading in dangerous waters

There's only one way for government to effectively secure its borders.

In a perfect world (Ancapistan/Libertopia), say libertarians who want to restrict immigration, we could have open borders. For one thing, they say, all property would be privatized, so it would be up to individuals to decide who will be allowed to traverse their land, roads, and waterways. Furthermore, they explain, there would be no massive welfare state encouraging the neighboring country’s proletariat to immigrate for all the freebies. There would be no arbitrary government rules about “natural born citizenry” which encourage pregnant mothers to try to birth their babies on American (that’s the country we’re talking about here, after all) soil thus securing the right to live in America for their child, and by extension (since it’s inhumane to break up the mother-child family unit) their right to live there as well.

Now, I’ve seen libertarians argue that the Mexicans (let’s face it, that’s really whom we’re talking about) who cross the border illegally are mostly looking for the freebies, and I’ve seen libertarians argue that the Mexicans who cross the border illegally are mostly looking for work which Americans don’t want to do themselves (like picking lettuce all day in fields of pesticide). Who’s right? I haven’t a clue. I’m sure the American welfare state is very enticing to the neighboring poor. I’m sure without it, there’d be less immigration from Mexico. But none of this matters to me. I’m not even going to make the pro-liberty argument which by definition is against government controlled borders.

What I want to do is concede all of the above arguments to the anti-immigration libertarians. Let’s assume that an enormous welfare state requires heavily regulated or possibly even closed borders. I don’t believe this to be the case, but let’s stipulate that it is. Now what? What are these libertarians implicitly assuming?

That the government can efficiently and effectively manage the borders. If there is one thing every libertarian should know about government it’s that government cannot efficiently or effectively perform any “service” without resorting to totalitarian police-statism. When the government minimizes costs (don’t laugh), it performs at woefully substandard levels. Think of the levees around New Orleans which failed during Hurricane Katrina, for instance. For adequate quality of service, for instance the Hoover Dam or those stretches of elevated interstate cutting through the marshes and swamps of Louisiana (very fine work), the government has to overpay enormously. The systemic defects inherent in government bureaucracy cannot be overcome, as they are due (mostly) to the absence of a profit motive. The government simply cannot provide quality services at market prices; often, the government cannot provide quality service at any price. What the government can do, however, is provide brutality very cheaply, for a while.

So, while the government won’t be able to build proper border walls at a reasonable price, what it can do is man whatever type of walls it does build (cheap, low quality walls, or massively overpriced, high quality walls) with soldiers who have orders to shoot-on-sight and ask questions later, if at all. Tossing several thousand mines outside those walls wouldn’t cost much either — we could describe it as brutally efficient. Why not require every citizen to carry government identification cards and make the penalty for failure to comply (accidental or intentional) very severe? We have examples of countries which have managed to secure their borders effectively (for the most part). I’ll name three: The former Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba. Governments which haven’t degenerated into police states just cannot accomplish it.

So I pose this question to those libertarians who claim that as long as we have a colossal welfare state, we must have strict immigration controls: what’s your libertarian plan for accomplishing this?

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  • “So I pose this question to those libertarians who claim that as long as we have a colossal welfare state, we must have strict immigration controls: what’s your libertarian plan for accomplishing this?”

    That’s a misdirection. A libertarian plan does not include “a colossal welfare state”.

    • The colossal welfare exists and that’s one of the reasons some libertarians give for the necessity of restricted immigration i.e. since we have a massive welfare state, we must restrict immigration or else the government will go bankrupt.

  • The immigration question is one of those that open up the opportunity for libertarians to trot out one of the major theorems of Misesian interventionist analysis: For every intervention into the operations of a free society by coercive government, the policy’s failures seem to require MORE interventions of a coercivist nature, thus ratcheting up illiberal government power at the expense of freedom.

    I guess the libertarian stance would be: See folks, this is the mess that your interventions have wrought. And whatever fix you propose, it, too, will likely fail, thus calling up another opportunity for more coercion in society. If you fix it, it will get worse. Until you let us provide OUR fix: Freedom.

  • Still, I feel their pain. These clueless welfare state advocates. They just wanna “do good”! Who’da thunk it that abandoning freedom for coercion could have nasty consequences?

    (I must say that I often like taking the side of the immigrationally obsessed. See the blog The Lesson Applied for recent debate. The consequences of previous interventions are especially nasty when it comes to immigration.)

  • Mr. Barnett: You linked to Mr. N. Stephan Kinsella’s LRC piece in your post.

    It would seem that Mr. Kinsella believes that, in taking the strict libertarian property rights view on which he bases his analysis, his is the correctly “plumb line” view. (Or at least potentially the properly “plumb line” view.)

    However, he cites not only libertarian property rights and restitution, but also majoritarian sentiment as a proper basis for restitution to the taxpayer in the particular case of gov’t borders, which is an interesting reason for why a “plumb line” Hoppean argues in favor of some kind of government control of borders.

    If we’re going to take a strictly property rights view, I think it would be just as “plumb line” for libertarians to argue against gov’t control of borders on the basis that they seek to provide an easement to immigrants, such as we would have in the absolutely stateless alternative universe.

    Why the granting of easement may be construed to be even more “plumb line” libertarian, and is thus the argument taxpaying libertarians should be making to taxpaying nonlibertarians, compared to Mr. Kinsella’s argument, is that it logically concludes with not de facto advocating for gov’t agents to run about the borders rounding people up for not having the proper papers and sticking them into KBR corporate welfare detention centers–perhaps for months at a time–before being shoved back to the other side of the border and back into the piss poor poverty-ridden conditions they fled from. (Much of which was created to some degree by one-sided NAFTA trade policy favoring politically connected U.S. business interests at the expense of Latin American business interests.)

    (BTW, I’m well aware that Mr. Kinsella does not advocate for or condone the gov’t actions/policies cited in the above paragraph. But as a “plumb line” anarcho-capitalist he knows full well that is frequently the logical conclusion of allowing some degree of gov’t monopoly control over any property, whatever rationale he may be offering for it. Thus he must recognize the consistency of this logic with regard to gov’t borders or else reduce himself to being a minarchist reformist on the immigration issue.)

  • Mike, my article was to provide a simple argument against unrestricted immigration. I did not imply that I agreed with it. I was trying to emphasize a few points: that the real owners of public property in (say) the US are the taxpayers, not outsiders; that there is no way for the state to manage the property in a way that satisfies all owners, short of returning it; that if an outsider is prevented from using the public property held by the state but owned by US citizens, this does not violate the rights of the outsiders, any more than if the natural owners were to forbid them use of it. But it’s an argument about second- or third-bests, and one meant to focus on the main point: some private people (victims of the state) are the natural owners of or claimants to the property; the state is the legal owner, but should not be. Ideally it should dissolve itself and return the property to the real owners; but if it does not, the question arises as to what rules it should set if and so long as it does legally control the resource. I sought to tie in some implications of this notion to the immigration issue.

    In any case, let me be clear that I completely oppose any state laws or action that restricts immigration.

  • “So I pose this question to those libertarians who claim that as long as we have a colossal welfare state, we must have strict immigration controls: what’s your libertarian plan for accomplishing this?”

    I think that’s an incorrect construction.

    A solution would be to allow unlimited visas which carried neither political franchise nor entitlement eligibility. No one needs to provide “papers” UNLESS they want to avail themselves of the coercive apparatus of the state. No one is ‘illegal’ for existing.

  • They come here to work. Undocumented workers end up paying tens of billions into Social Security which helps keep the whole system afloat for US citizens. Undocumented immigrants might be able to hit up a food bank run by a church,(oh boy cans of pumpkin mix left over from Thanksgiving) but they are not eligible for Federal social services. They don’t have a valid ID, they are not eligible for welfare, may this is why they tend to be such hard workers, that and their inability to safely organize in unions makes them targets for superexploitation. This drives down wages for non immigrant workers. Theres really two ways too approach that as a working class American citizen, hate on undocumented immigrants or fight for their rights so the bosses can no longer use them to drive down our wages. So we can work together to get what we all deserve as workers. In the last four years with unemployment as high as it is there has been a net emigration from the United States. Sure individuals cross the border every day but overall more people have returned to Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Look it up its true what better proof do you need immigrants are here to work.

    About our welfare state. Our “welfare state” is pretty minimal compared to many other countries in the world. I accept you political stance that you are against it all but you still have to admit its much more meagre than what you find in Europe or Canada. Our state funded colleges are too expensive for most tax paying citizens to send their kids too. Increasingly a wealthy layer of foriegn students are what these corporate colleges cater too. Instead of hating on workers who pick our fruits and veggies for us for 5 dollars an hour getting bombed by pesticide planes how bout hating on the fact a bunch of “whiz kids” from around the world are coming to scoop up the jobs we really want for ourselves and our kids. Obamacare has only made worse an already terrible system of healthcare, now government is in the game as a subsidizer and enforcer of shark insurance companies corrupt semi public semi private hospitals, grossly overpaid doctors and pharmaceutical companies that act like drug dealers. I believe that government is best for some things and the private sector is better for other things. When they blend together the public gets screwed.