The Arena is a monthly debate feature designed to help readers explore issues of concern to classical liberals/libertarians. 

This month, the issue is immigration. The proposition is: The United States should open its borders. Nathan Smith will be arguing for the proposition. A. M. Fantini will be arguing against the proposition.

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by Nathan Smith

Writing to a libertarian audience, I can take some parts of the case for open borders for granted. When people are acting nonviolently, harming neither persons nor the property of anyone else, the government shouldn’t use force to stop them. Therefore, peaceful immigrants shouldn’t be interfered with. Either the government has no right to demand to see the passport of one entering the country, or at most, it can demand a passport so as to run a background check and exclude those who can plausibly be regarded as a national security threat. The current immigration system, a monstrous tangle of authoritarian micromanagement and economic irrationality, violates this principle. It should be jettisoned.

But what about the welfare state? Today, the social safety net more or less guarantees a standard of living higher than what most people in the world enjoy. If we let foreigners come in and live off social safety net programs at taxpayer expense, we would be ruined. But as Milton Friedman understood, open borders are incompatible not with the welfare state per se, but only with giving immigrants full access to the welfare state. The solution is not to keep immigrants out, but to deny them welfare, as we already do to some extent. It may also be reasonable at first to restrict their access to the ballot box through which they might lobby for access to welfare. This is both feasible and legitimate, as immigrant welfare dependency is not a big problem at present.

Open borders would undermine the legitimacy of the welfare state by taking away the border as blindfold. Such policies would make it obvious that the welfare state does nothing to help the world’s poorest, so why have it at all? Indeed, since open borders are far superior to foreign aid or the welfare state as means of helping the desperately poor, advocating open borders is by far the best way to seize the moral high ground against statists. And open borders would allow people to vote with their feet against predatory governments.

Deportation separated over 1 million family members between 1997 and 2007. “DREAMers,” who were brought here as children and have no other home, were subject to deportation until the Obama administration instituted its deferred action policy in June 2012. Decent people who are aware of these disgraceful practices can see that they must be stopped. But adult foreigners who aspire to immigrate to the United States to escape poverty, or to give their unborn children a brighter future, or simply because they love American culture and want to be part of it, should also be able to come. Human liberty means being able to act for all sorts of creditable motives, and indeed, not to need bureaucratic approval for one’s motives at all.

For the United States to open its borders to free immigration would represent a major expansion of liberty, not only for foreigners, but also for Americans who would gain new freedom—to hire, sell, or lease real estate to, teach or learn from, worship with, and fraternize with foreigners, as well as to marry them without going through the lengthy, stressful, expensive, and uncertain process of applying for a fiance visa. 

Meanwhile, immigration enforcement is a dire threat to civil liberty at home. Imagine a society in which you are not even allowed to walk about the streets without permission in the form of a government-issued ID. The Soviet Union? Yes, but also, in effect, Arizona under SB 1070, a harsh anti-immigration law passed in 2010, and Alabama under HB 56, an even harsher anti-immigration law passed in 2011. The deportation regime violates due process, and we could not remove the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants from the United States without many more wrongful deportations of U.S. citizens.

Economists estimate open borders would double world GDP. Such estimates sound implausibly optimistic, yet they are actually rather conservative. For comparison, if all the world’s people moved to the United States and earned what the average American earns, world GDP would multiply more than fourfold. Given that unlikely scenario, economic estimates compensate in various ways and arrive at lower figures. Immigrants to the United States usually see large income gains relative to their home countries, even when they look poor to Americans. But U.S. natives, on average, see their wages rise thanks to immigration. In more immediate terms, freer migration would be one of the best ways to pull the U.S. economy out of its long slump, by increasing demand for housing and bringing in more entrepreneurs, while helping to shore up the finances of Social Security.

For the first century of its existence, the United States had virtually open borders. It was not unique in that respect. Most other countries, too, permitted free migration. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the United States began excluding the Chinese and inspecting newcomers at Ellis Island, but most aspiring immigrants could reliably enter the United States. Comprehensive passport control became the norm during World War I, and by the 1930s it was tight enough that German Jews seeking to escape from Nazi Germany could not find a refuge anywhere. There have been modest changes since—crackdowns and amnesties, visas created and abolished, adjustment of quotas—all of which indicate a broken system. To simplify, however, before 1914, human beings could move and live where they wanted to. Since 1914, they are mostly trapped in the countries where they were born. Gallup has tried to measure the extent of these frustrated desires to migrate and found that one-quarter of the world’s population would like to move. Only a small fraction will be allowed to do so.

Open borders is a radical proposal, and a certain Burkean gradualism and respect for the precautionary principle may be warranted. But ultimately, justice demands that we recognize the right to migrate.

Nathan Smith is also a contributor to Open Borders: The Case.

By A. M. Fantini

Stories of the search for a homeland abound in most families’ personal histories. As the child (and grandchild) of immigrants to the United States, I’m familiar with the poignant reasons people have for leaving their native lands. It is never easy. And as debate over the Senate’s immigration overhaul bill intensifies, it’s important to acknowledge these universal themes.

As someone who is sympathetic to the idea of the common good, as well as to individual liberty and the principle of non-aggression, I am moved by the yearning of people around the world to find a better life elsewhere. Stories of poverty, persecutions, oppression, torture, and death worldwide almost make me want to advocate open borders. Almost.

But I can’t—not because I am heartless, but because of the fundamental importance I give to the classical liberal order and its prerequisites.

Most immigration arguments, for and against, are based in economics. Advocates for either position see immigrants either as a source of innovations that eventually add jobs (and wealth) to a country, or as a massive drain on public services. Milton Friedman pointed out that immigration is only good if it remains illegal, by which he meant that immigrants contribute economically as long as they don’t receive tax-funded goodies. Otherwise, free migration only ends up growing the welfare state.

My concerns, however, go beyond the economic. My experiences in Asia and South America, Europe and the Middle East, tell me there are legitimate reasons to restrict immigration—even if these reasons are not entirely consistent with the narrower logic of libertarianism.

Indeed, some of the best arguments against open borders have been expressed by Austro-libertarians like John Hospers and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Simply put, some considerations are more important than cheap labor, economic efficiency, and financial gains—principles like individual freedom, justice, and property rights. The ideology of open borders is a threat to these principles.

Throughout history, political communities have thrived so long as a majority of their members accepted certain principles—and the shared values that uphold them. This is necessary to “weave” a social fabric, develop intricate networks of trust, and forge common, unifying bonds. In the United States, learning about the political, philosophical, and moral foundations of the American experiment in liberty and self-government used to be essential for generations of immigrants. No longer.

My resistance to open borders stems from a concern over a lack of common principles and shared values. I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with ethnicity, race, or religion, or even Huntington’s stale arguments about preserving a civilization’s identity. Rather, I worry that supporters of open borders fail to recognize the dangers of welcoming immigrants who are hostile to classical liberal principles and values.

The riots in Stockholm last month illustrate just such dangers. While some pointed to ethnic, racial, or religious reasons for the violence (others blamed bad schools, over-regulated labor markets, and the welfare state), few addressed the reality that most immigrants are simply not ready—or willing—to live and work in Swedish society. There is virtually no pressure nor incentive for immigrants to embrace Swedish values.

Over the past few years, there have been similar riots in other European capitals, with immigrants railing against their adopted countries. During September’s London riots, rioters cried out, “some of [you] were calling for freedom of speech and democracy—but isn’t it time we made an uprising?”

Such statements are reflective of a wider attitude among immigrant youths across Europe. In Austria, France, Denmark, Holland, and Germany, they blame society for their isolation, marginalization, and poverty. Never mind the civics courses, free language classes, welfare benefits, and subsidized housing; at their cores, these immigrant groups reject liberal democratic values.

How should libertarians respond if immigrants are aggressively opposed to their values? Should libertarians allow immigrants to move into a community even if they seek to undermine such values and formal institutions? Should the libertarian then become a refugee himself?

Such questions point to a fundamental conundrum: In order to live in a free society, one has to abide by certain rules. The classical liberal order requires a certain degree of reciprocity among its members to continue. And there can be no liberty without some common principles and values. This implies libertarians should consider those who oppose their principles and values a threat. The free immigration of people opposed to that vision represents just such a threat.

When considering immigration controls, it’s important to be guided by classical liberal principles—and avoid increasing federal involvement. There are alternatives to spending $4.5 billion on extended border fencing and “continuous surveillance” as proposed in current legislation.

For example, apply the principle of subsidiarity. In practice, this means addressing the issue in the most decentralized (local) way possible. As Hoppe has argued, this can be far more effective in controlling immigration than depending on the state, while also reinvigorating the “intermediate social institutions and hierarchies” in society—thus ensuring the survival of classical liberal principles.

Such an approach also makes it possible to have local community involvement in the livelihoods of new immigrants. The diffuse knowledge that accrues in families, communities, and “their internal layers and ranks” can be more effective in detecting and staving off potential threats than, say, the NSA’s centralized PRISM monitoring system.

In short, we can apply libertarian principles to the real world. But this requires a modicum of realism that goes beyond the economic.

One can point to the advantages of having immigrant workers and trot out data showing the benefits of the “brain gain” from open immigration. But, in the end, if an immigrant arrives who eschews assimilation, derides local customs, rejects cultural norms and mores, and believes in ideas and values that are directly opposed to classical liberalism (the experience of contemporary Europe), then even the staunchest advocate of open borders should think twice. Without respect for institutions, the intricate web of rights and obligations and responsibilities on which a common political project depends will not long remain intact.

Mr. Fantini is the editor-in-chief of The European Conservative and serves as the secretary general of the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria.