Immigration Is a Fundamental Human Right

The law should not keep people in or keep people out

Immigration is a hot topic in this election year. In 1927 the great Austrian economist and classical liberal, Ludwig von Mises, had this to say about it:

The liberal demands that every person have the right to live wherever he wants. This is not a "negative" demand. It belongs to the very essence of a society based on private ownership of the means of production that every man may work and dispose of his earnings where he thinks best. [...] When liberalism arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it had to struggle for freedom of emigration. Today, the struggle is over freedom of immigration. [Emphasis added]

That’s from his book, Liberalism, which should be required reading for all freedom-loving people. Here, Mises uses the term “liberal” in its earlier, non-interventionist or “classical” meaning. This is how I’m using the term “liberal” in this essay.

A basic tenet of liberalism is that every person, regardless of what country she happens to live in, has the same basic human rights. If it doesn’t apply to everyone, everywhere then it can’t be a basic human right. And among those rights is the right of free association.

Free association simply means that Jack is free to peacefully associate with Jill, as long as Jill wishes to peacefully associate with Jack. Indeed, Jack can’t exercise that right unless Jill can also, which is another characteristic of a basic human right. It applies broadly to all forms of association, related but not limited to political activity, religious observance, and commerce.

It does not imply that others are obliged to pay Jack’s and Jill’s costs of associating with each other and it does not imply that we are obliged to associate with others if we don’t want to.

If the government dictates that I may live and work only in North Dakota, that’s a clear violation of my right of free association and my right to property. It’s merely a difference in degree, but still a violation of my basic rights, if the government dictates that I can live and work anywhere except in North Dakota.

It’s makes no fundamental difference if, instead of North Dakota and the rest of the United States of America, the restriction applies to North Dakota or to North Korea.

Again, the difference between keeping people from entering the United States and keeping people from leaving North Korea is one of degree and not in the principle involved. Moreover, excluding immigration violates the right of free association of those who already live in the U.S., people who wish to associate those who wish to immigrate here. If you want to hire or rent an apartment to a person who lives outside the borders, and government prevents you from doing so, your rights have been violated. (For more on this topic, see "15 Common Arguments against Immigration, Addressed.")

Arbitrary political borders

Let’s fight to shrink the welfare state and liberalize labor laws, not to prevent people from exercising a basic right.Let’s suppose that a street divides the city you live and work in along its central north-south axis. You reside on the west side of that street while your job lies on the east side. One day the government passes a law that forbids anyone living on the west side from crossing over to the east side and builds a wall (at your expense) along the central street to strictly enforce that law.

There are at least two important consequences of this policy, one economic the other moral. In economic terms, it would tend to make everyone materially worse off. Under the circumstances, you would be worse off, since an option for employment, presumably the best you could find, is no longer available. Your employer is worse off because you were presumably the best worker she could find.

And consumers are worse off because your employment on the east side was presumably the most productive there compared to anything on the west side. But as bad as these economic implications are, the moral implications are far worse.

That’s because such a law would clearly violate the basic human right of free association. As long as your employer is able and willing to pay you a wage that you are able and willing to accept, you should be free to work for her regardless of where that is, as long as you do not violate anyone else’s basic rights by doing so. The same goes for other transactions that involve homes, businesses, education, recreation, and so on.

But welfare!

There are many issues of varying complexity surrounding the debate over liberalizing immigration. Many other writers have ably addressed the false claim that immigrants, legal and illegal, take jobs away from incumbent Americans, for example, or concerns over changes that might occur to “American culture.” There are also labor laws – as in France where legislation has made it extremely difficult to hire and fire workers that greatly exacerbate the situation.

There’s a very popular argument, made by some libertarians, against liberalizing immigration that I’d briefly like to address here. It’s that doing so would add tremendously to government spending and taxes, as ever more immigrants means having to provide them with ever more government goods and services, especially welfare transfers.

To this, economist Bryan Caplan offers one surprisingly straight-forward response:

Countries with lavish welfare states have more to worry about [from liberalizing immigration], but there is a cheap, humane alternative to exclusion: restrict migrants’ eligibility for benefits. Creative approaches abound: For example, immigrants could be ineligible for government transfers for their first 10 years of residence, or until they’ve paid $100,000 in taxes.

While for a time this would privilege incumbent residents over new immigrants, from the liberal perspective, it’s much less of a rights violation than forbidding people their right of free association. It may not be the best way to handle the problem, but it’s at least a way of doing so that avoids infringing on a basic human right.

Is it delusional?

Some “libertarians” have characterized this as delusional, arguing that the left-progressives in government would do everything in their considerable power to resist excluding immigrants from any redistributive programs. But is this idea any more delusional than the liberal position that it’s a worthy goal to shrink the overall scope of government authority – a belief on which FEE and organizations like it were founded?

Caplan’s proposal denies privileges to only a subset of the entire population – immigrants, legal and even illegal – that the current law already (whether you agree with it or not) excludes from certain government privileges, such as voting.

But if that’s what’s really behind their reluctance to liberalize immigration, then what hope could they possibly hold out for shrinking the redistributive state at all?  How delusional must it seem to such opponents of liberalizing immigration that we could think of limiting or even rolling back welfare privileges for everyone?

The state did not create the freedom of association; free association is prior to the state and prior to the state’s artificial boundaries. As liberals, that’s something to remember and celebrate.

Let’s fight to shrink the welfare state and liberalize labor laws, not to prevent people from exercising a basic right.

Further Reading

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