All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

A Free-Market Case Against Open Immigration?

A Geopolitical Border Is an Arbitrary Reason to Prohibit Freedom of Association

Recently, upon finishing Leonard Read’s superb book Anything That’s Peaceful (FEE, 1964), I felt a surge of thankfulness and honor. I’m thankful that such a wise man lived and wrote, and I’m honored to now lead the organization that he founded. Leonard Read was truly a great liberal—a liberal, of course, in the original and correct meaning of the term. Genuine liberals (as opposed to the statists who today in America have stolen this noble name) never fancy themselves fit to interfere coercively in the lives of others. As Read expressed his liberal philosophy, all peaceful and voluntary actions among adults should be immune to state interference. The only justifiable use of physical force is to defend against another who has initiated coercion.

What a marvelous and workable principle on which to build civil society! Both theory and history prove that this principle generates peace, stability, prosperity, and a culture that is rich and diverse. And yet so many people are distressingly hostile to this principle.

Leftist hostility is predictable. After all, leftists are virtually defined as those who see state-initiated coercion (or the threat thereof) as a magic potion capable of conjuring up all imaginable good and ridding humankind of all existing evils.

It is bothersome, however, to find such hostility among those who claim to be friends of liberty and free markets. In particular, during the past few years a number of pro-market writers have argued against a policy of open immigration. While the airing of different sides of the immigration argument is surely useful, I personally find such arguments as presented to be wholly unpersuasive—and even, in some cases, distressingly illiberal.

The most popular version of the so-called libertarian case against immigration runs something like this.

Each private property owner has the moral right (and should have the legal right) to ban from his property, or to admit onto his property, anyone he chooses. In a free society, no one is coerced into unwanted associations with others. Therefore, because in a fully free society all land would be privately owned and government would be limited (at most) to keeping the peace, immigration policy in this society would be what ever each private property owner decides it to be. If I wish to let 100 unskilled Irish peasants onto my property, so be it. If my neighbor chooses never to admit onto his property even people from across the street, so be it. There would, in fact, be as many immigration policies in the fully free society as there are landowners. As a practical matter, immigrants would be people who contribute through gains-from-trade to domestic citizens.

But we do not live in a fully free society. Like it or not, we’re stuck with a large and intrusive government. And this same government happens to own enormous tracts of land and public facilities. Given that excessive government is a reality that isn’t soon disappearing, the best that citizens of a democratic society can hope for on the immigration front is that their overly powerful government mimics the immigration policies that a fully free society would adopt. Because there would be no free admission in a fully free society, there should be no free admission in today’s less-than-free society. Indeed, open immigration today is tantamount to forced integration. Citizens who do not wish to associate with foreigners are forced to do so by a government that too freely admits foreign immigrants. And because force is bad, forced integration—a.k.a, open immigration—is bad.

This argument for limiting immigration appears in several different variations, but the above rendition captures the main theme. It is mistaken.

First, to ask government to mimic the outcomes of a pure private property rights system is to overlook the single most important reason why government should be strictly limited. Unlike owners of private property, government can resort to force to increase the size of its property holdings and the value of its portfolio. Government is not an owner of private property. Restrictions on government discretion are appropriate precisely because government possesses a legitimized monopoly on coercion.

Consider, for example, the constitutional protection of free speech. Would it be sensible to argue that, because each private-property owner has the right to regulate what is said on his property, government in our less-than-libertarian world should have the power to regulate speech uttered in public places or over public air waves? Of course not. But such an argument is analogous to the argument for government restrictions on immigration.

Secondly, labeling open immigration as “forced integration” is disingenuous. Such a practice is identical to labeling the First Amendment’s protection of free speech as “forced listening.” But keeping government from regulating speech is not at all the same thing as forcing people to listen. Likewise, allowing people to immigrate to America is not the same thing as forcing Americans to associate against their wills with immigrants. Under a regime of open immigration, I need not hire or dine with anyone whom I don’t wish to hire or dine with. Indeed, whenever government restricts immigration it coercively prevents me, as an American, from hiring or dining with whoever I choose to hire or dine with. An immigrant who receives no welfare payments engages only in consensual capitalist acts with those (and only those) domestic citizens who choose to deal with the immigrant. Just as trade restraints are, at bottom, restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens, so, too, are immigration restraints restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens.

Thirdly, even if some coherent justification could be given in the abstract for restricting immigration, it is curious in the extreme that any proponent of liberty is willing in practice to trust government with the power to pick and choose which foreigners we domestic citizens will be permitted to deal with on our home shores. There is no reason to suspect that government will exercise this power more prudently and intelligently than it exercises other powers.

Whether or not immigrants increase or decrease measured GDP or per-capita income is an empirical question that can be answered only by sound empirical research. (Economist Julian Simon has carried out much of this research; he finds that immigrants promote prosperity.) But the moral case for open immigration is paramount. That case is this: a geopolitical border is a grotesquely arbitrary reason to prevent people from dealing with each other in whatever peaceful ways they choose.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.