The question of immigration has proved a consistently thorny one to libertarians, ordinarily so united on questions of public policy.
Some argue that freedom of mobility is a fundamental human right and that therefore any restriction on immigration is unjust. Others claim that a nation has a right to protect its borders. Still others eschew theoretical arguments in favor of pragmatism, pointing to the problems Europe is experiencing after having imported a large number of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East with customs and religions foreign to their own.
Consensus is elusive, even as unmeasured quantities of ink continue to be spilled arguing over what is to be done with all those pesky immigrants. For a long time now, the solution has seemed to me to be an obvious one, and yet one that I rarely, if ever, see put into words. I hope now to rectify that with my proposal for an immigration policy based on a traditional understanding of property rights.
Same Words, Different Meanings
As with many policy areas, I believe that much of the trouble we find ourselves in result from an imprecise use of language, from confusing the metaphorical with the actual. English is a tongue which, for better or worse, demands certain shortcuts which, though convenient in everyday speech, can lead to catastrophic misunderstandings. Let us begin by quickly looking at the various uses for the first person possessive pronoun “my” or “our.”
In general, applying “my” to a noun implies ownership. I own my furniture, my books, my television, and my computer. They are mine because I have the right to do what I like with them, and control how they are used without appealing to a higher authority for permission. This is the traditional view of what it means to own property.
“We” do not own the country, or at least not all of it. But “my” can be used in a different sense, which causes some confusion. We often say things like “my street,” “my neighborhood,” “my friends,” “my country,” or “my hometown.” In this case, “my” does not signify ownership at all, but rather some loose association with a person, such as physical proximity or emotional attachment. No one claims to own their friends, nor would they be likely to remain friendly should such a claim be put forth. Likewise, when one uses the expression “my street,” they mean “the street where I live” not “the street I own.”
Or do they? On examination, it turns out many people do feel a sort of possessiveness to places where they live and feel personally affronted if others behave badly regarding these places. In the absence of an explicit neighborhood association contract, a homeowner has no legal or ethical right to dictate what his neighbor does on his own property, yet this does not diminish the moral outrage felt at a prominently displayed collection of lawn gnomes or pink flamingos.
Oddly, physical distance seems to have little diminishing effect on this feeling of possessiveness. A citizen feels that he has some sort of controlling stake not only in his street, but in his town, his county, his state, and his country despite the fact that he owns none of these things. Middle school civics may teach us that America is “our” country and that “we are the government,” but the absurdity of this claim is evident the first time we are forced to pay taxes or suffer under the heel of some oppressive regulation. No sane person would treat himself in so degrading a way.
We each have the right to govern our own property, but beyond those borders, our control ceases.
And so we end up with claims like “a country has the right to protect its borders” when, in fact, it is impossible for a country to have any rights at all. A country is not a person. A country cannot own property, much less act to defend that property. Only individuals can act. One might as well try to confer rights upon such abstract concepts as hope or long division. No greater would be the absurdity.
One may counter that, all right then, we as individuals have the right to defend our country from interlopers. But here again, we run into the problem that “we” do not own the country, or at least not all of it. I own the property that I own, and you own the property that you own, but the fact that both of our properties lie within the area called “America” does not mean that I can tell you what to do with your land any more than you can tell me what to do with mine. We each have the right to govern our own property, but beyond those borders, our control ceases.
The Private Property Solution
What does this have to do with immigration? Well, simply put, it means that while each of us has the right to decide who to let enter the property we own, none of us has the right to dictate the same to others. If I wish to allow a Mexican citizen to live in my house and work in my garden, what business is it of you to stop me? And if you want to house and employ a Somalian national, by what right do I interfere?
As a general opponent of legal restrictions on immigration, I often see my position described as “open borders,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe that every individual should be allowed absolute control over the border of his or her property. This means that if you object to immigrants, no one can force you to let them into your home, your factory, or any other plot of land you happen to own. On the other hand, if you choose to allow immigrants free passage through your property, I see no reason why anyone else should be able to prevent you from doing so.
Allowing individuals the sovereign control of their property means that only those who choose to house and employ immigrants need do so.
Collective rights and individual rights cannot coexist. One must always trump the other. If “we” as Americans claim a collective right, as I have sometimes heard, to control who works in the country, that can only come at the expense of our individual property rights. How can I really be said to own my house, after all, if my neighbors have the right to come in and evict an innocent migrant I may be housing or employing at my own expense?
Allowing individuals the sovereign control of their property, on the other hand, means that only those who choose to house and employ immigrants need do so. It is true that you might see some immigrants working in a local shop or living down the street from you, and that this might cause you distress, but why should you have any control over these variables in the first place? If you wish to decide who works at the grocery store, buy it. Then you can enact any employment policy you want. Otherwise, nothing has changed in that the business and personal decisions of others have never been yours to make.
But what about public property? It’s a somewhat more difficult question because, as a good libertarian, I fail to recognize the legitimacy of public property at all. Again, the claim that government property belongs to all of us is easily disproved. Try walking towards the Pentagon carrying a jackhammer, see how far you get, and then tell me that you own the place.
For the time being, as long as we are afflicted with the charade of public land, I suppose one could argue that whether or not immigrants should be allowed to live and work on public property should be a matter for a popular vote, or for popularly elected representatives to decide. In a sense, that is sort of what is happening with sanctuary cities across the country. But none of this supersedes the rights of citizens to either extend or deny the use of their private property to anyone they choose, country of origin notwithstanding.
This property rights view of immigration won’t make everyone happy — no solution will — but it is one way of consistently applying the Lockean principles of property to a debate that has divided the libertarian movement and indeed the country as a whole.