Market Borders, not Open Borders

Market Borders, not Open Borders
Profile photo of Jeff Deist

Reprinted from

The attack on a Christmas market in Berlin earlier this week, apparently carried out by a Pakistani immigrant*, is just the latest in a series of violent and disturbing terrorist incidents in Germany. The event raises uncomfortable questions about immigration, culture clashes, Islam, and identity: what does it mean to be German, rather than someone who merely lives in Germany? It also raises pragmatic questions about how to provide physical security in public spaces, given such dramatic failures by the German government.

Libertarians can duck these questions, or dismiss them. We can sniff about how everyone is an individual, how Islam is not to blame, or how Pakistanis are not any more prone to murderous violence than Germans. We can argue for a holistic approach to welfare statism, foreign policy, and human migration. None of these arguments will help Germans deal with horrific criminality here and now, however. Rather than virtue-signaling to deeply illiberal and hostile audiences in government, media, and academia, we should make populist arguments for radical privatization of property and security. Imagine the actions a private shopping mall, theme park, or stadium would take immediately in response to a terrorist incident on their private property!

We also should argue for localized decision-making regarding immigration, as with every political matter. Germans, like everyone else, want and deserve true self-determination. The smaller the political unit, the closer we come to Mises’s concept of granting this power to every individual. Mass state-sponsored immigration from Islamic countries is being imposed on Germans, as a political project created by the EU and the German government. It is not the result of market demand. We are not witnessing some kind of heroic movement of labor toward welcoming employers and family relatives, but rather a coordinated and staged relocation of people who mostly are not true refugees. Libertarians are right to criticize this political project, while supporting average Germans who simply want to enjoy their cities rather than “learning to live with terrorism” as part of everyday life.

If not, we risk irrelevance or worse: the conjoining (in the public’s mind) of libertarianism with all of the useless “public policy” ideas issuing from Brussels, Washington, and Berlin. The common criticism of libertarianism is that it sounds great in theory, but fails to offer concrete solutions to real-world problems. This criticism is wrong. Libertarianism offers the most pragmatic, proportional, and efficacious solutions imaginable: marketplace solutions. It is modern governments, with their political intrigue, sclerotic monopolies, inefficient bureaucracies, and perverse incentives, that cannot competently address tough problems like border control and terrorism. It is precisely because these problems are so complex and intractable that they should be sorted by the market.

The thorny issue of immigration, rife with very real externalities and distorted by “public property,” calls for market order. There is a market for immigration, just as there is a market for security. Open borders advocates ignore the in-group preferences of the marketplace, just as they ignore the tremendous externalities caused by sudden influxes of migrants. The real question is not whether borders are open or restricted, but rather who decides? When someone asks for the libertarian position on immigration, my response is that libertarians want as much or as little immigration as the market demands.

Immigration and borders have been debated at length, and vociferously, by libertarians. Probably no better examples exist than several exchanges by open borders advocate Walter Block and restricted immigration advocate Hans Hermann Hoppe. There is little to say about the subject that is novel or more insightful than what Block and Hoppe already have provided. That said, certain points bear repeating or elaboration:

  • Borders satisfy innately human desires for order and separation. Borders arise and exist naturally, without being created or enforced by political entities (although they were generally less rigidly defined and more porous prior to the era of modern governments).
  • Nation is not state, as Murray Rothbard reminded us. Nations can and do emerge naturally, while states tend to be late-arriving artifices that do injury to earlier, more natural borders.
  • In-group preferences are strong. Provided groups coexist without coercion or violence, libertarianism has nothing particular to say about such preferences.
  • Humans are not all good and well-intentioned, nor are they fungible. People with money, intelligence, or in-demand skills are better immigrants than people without these attributes. Poor and criminal immigrants impose huge costs. Any worldview that denies this, or downplays this, fails to comport with reality. Libertarianism, rooted in natural law, should by definition accord better with reality than worldviews requiring positive law. Why do we lose sight of this?
  • Humans naturally want to live in safe areas, i.e., in “good neighborhoods” on a macro scale. And they want to know their neighbors are not a threat. In other words, there is a market for security beyond one’s own property — not everyone can own and control vast areas of property like Ted Turner. This is why gated communities exist. Simply stating that “nobody has a right to control any property they don’t own” does not address reality.
  • Almost all instances of rapid mass migration do not occur as natural marketplace phenomena. Instead, they usually occur due to wars, famine, and other state-created disasters. So it does not follow that resistance to mass migration is anti-market.
  • Every human has a natural right to control his body and movement. No human should be falsely imprisoned, enslaved, or held in a place against his will. But the right to leave a physical place is different than the right to enter one. Entry should be denied or permitted by the rightful owner of the property in question. But when vast areas of land are controlled (and/or ostensibly owned) by government, the question becomes much more complex — and the only way to make it less complex is to privatize such land. Unless and until this happens, it is facile for libertarians simply to insist that everyone has a right to go wherever they wish.
  • The concept of open borders is mostly a big-government construct. Without state-provided incentives (food, housing, clothing, schooling, mobile phones, etc.), and frequent NGO funding for actual travel, immigration naturally would be far more restricted.
  • As stated in an earlier article, a libertarian society has no commons or public space. There are property lines, not borders. When it comes to real property and physical movement across such real property, there are owners, guests, licensees, business invitees, and trespassers.
  • Libertarianism, to borrow a phrase from Judge Napolitano, is not a suicide pact. It does not require us to ignore history, tradition, culture, family, and self-preservation. It does not require us to live as deracinated, hyper-individualized actors who identify with nothing larger than ourselves and have no sense of home.

Immigration is a complex and antagonistic issue. But facile slogans won’t help libertarians have a bigger voice in the debate.

  • a Texas libertarian

    “Libertarianism offers the most pragmatic, proportional, and efficacious solutions imaginable: marketplace solutions. It is modern governments, with their political intrigue, sclerotic monopolies, inefficient bureaucracies, and perverse incentives, that cannot competently address tough problems like border control and terrorism.”

    – I could frame this and mount it on my wall.

    The main two arguments used by libertarians to justify the libertarian-ness of the globalist, pro-refugee, open border, destruction of western society propaganda of the mainstream Left are 1) the freedom of movement argument and 2) the argument that public property is unowned and thus ready to be homesteaded by foreigners. Both of these arguments are framed ingeniously to get those who don’t favor forced integration to appear to be advocating state intervention. Both of these arguments have been lent much credibility by the master libertarian, Murray Rothbard. He may have switched on the freedom of movement argument towards the end of his life, but I believe he held to the end that public property is in effect unowned and that one way of dismantling the state is to allow those who work in the public sector to homestead the property they currently operate.

    Freedom of Movement

    It is instructive to note that the only way to achieve truly global ‘freedom of movement’ is to have a one world super state. Classical liberals were advocates of freedom of movement, yes, and much of libertarian thought can be attributed to them, true, but we must not lose sight of the advancements that libertarian thought has made since the 1800s. One of these is the primacy of peacefully acquired individual property rights and the recognition that any state is by definition an aggressor on such rights.

    Property indicates borders and the right of exclusion as well as inclusion. This means in the ideal anarcho-capitalist society there is no such thing as freedom of movement; there is only consensual movement or trespass. As Jeff explained, freedom of movement is a positive right, and like any positive right, it necessitates an aggressive political apparatus to grant it. The freedom of movement argument is a fundamentally anti-property rights mentality, and this explains why the supposed anarchists (Lefties) in the UK were against Brexit; they wanted the EU super state to force open the borders of the European states for them and for millions of anti-western young male African and middle eastern migrants (to show how compassionate they are).

    Homesteading Public Property

    Public property is created by an aggressive property riots violating agency, and thus this agency cannot claim a just title of ownership, but aren’t the resources used to create such property justly owned by private individuals? Shouldn’t they be entitled restitution for the theft committed by this agency? What right does a foreigner, or worse, a public official, have to this property? It should be clear that public property is justly owned proportionally by taxpayers, i.e. those who were forced to fund its construction, although it is currently held hostage by the aggressive agency who committed the theft.

    Walter Block’s advocacy of the open borders position is baffling to me, since he clearly sees the advantage of using the state’s resources against it. He is a professor of public university, and he led the charge for the Libertarians for Trump campaign. In the anarcho-capitalist society there would be no voting, so why doesn’t Dr. Block advocate to abstain from voting? In the same way that Block advocates strategically using the democratic mechanism to achieve liberty (or the lesser of two evils), one could advocate for restricted borders to do the same. Immigration, like voting, does not exist in the anarcho-capitalist society, therefore our advocacy concerning these state creations is not an issue of principle, but of pragmatism.

Profile photo of Jeff Deist

Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute. He previously worked as a longtime advisor and chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul.

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