On the Freedom Of Movement

On the Freedom Of Movement
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]

8. Freedom of Movement

Liberalism has sometimes been reproached on the ground that its program is predominantly negative. This follows necessarily, it is asserted, from the very nature of freedom, which can be conceived only as freedom from something, for the demand for freedom consists essentially in the rejection of some sort of claim. On the other hand, it is thought, the program of the authoritarian parties is positive. Since a very definite value judgment is generally connoted by the terms “negative” and “positive,” this way of speaking already involves a surreptitious attempt to discredit the political program of liberalism.

There is no need to repeat here once again that the liberal program?a society based on private ownership of the means of production?is no less positive than any other conceivable political program. What is negative in the liberal program is the denial, the rejection, and the combating of everything that stands in opposition to this positive program. In this defensive posture, the program of liberalism?and, for that matter, that of every movement?is dependent on the position that its opponents assume towards it. Where the opposition is strongest, the assault of liberalism must also be strongest; where it is relatively weak or even completely lacking, a few brief words, under the circumstances, are sufficient. And since the opposition that liberalism has had to confront has changed during the course of history, the defensive aspect of the liberal program has also undergone many changes.

This becomes most clearly evident in the stand that it takes in regard to the question of freedom of movement. 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. This principle takes on a negative character only if it encounters forces aiming at a restriction of freedom of movement. In this negative aspect, the right to freedom of movement has, in the course of time, undergone a complete change. 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. At that time, it had to oppose laws which hindered the inhabitants of a country from moving to the city and which held out the prospect of severe punishment for anyone who wanted to leave his native land in order to better himself in a foreign land. Immigration, however, was at that time generally free and unhampered.

Today, as is well known, things are quite different. The trend began some decades ago with laws against the immigration of Chinese coolies. Today in every country in the world that could appear inviting to immigration, there are more or less stringent laws either prohibiting it entirely or at least restricting it severely.

This policy must be considered from two points of view: first, as a policy of the trade unions, and then as a policy of national protectionism.

Aside from such coercive measures as the closed shop, compulsory strikes, and violent interference with those willing to work, the only way the trade unions can have any influence on the labor market is by restricting the supply of labor. But since it is not within the power of the trade unions to reduce the number of workers living in the world, the only other possibility remaining open to them is to block access to employment, and thus diminish the number of workers, in one branch of industry or in one country at the expense of the workers employed in other industries or living in other countries. For reasons of practical politics, it is possible only to a limited extent for those engaged in a particular branch of industry to bar from it the rest of the workers in the country. On the other hand, no special political difficulty is involved in imposing such restrictions on the entrance of foreign labor.

The natural conditions of production and, concomitantly, the productivity of labor are more favorable, and, as a consequence, wage rates are higher, in the United States than in vast areas of Europe. In the absence of immigration barriers, European workers would emigrate to the United States in great numbers to look for jobs. The American immigration laws make this exceptionally difficult. Thus, the wages of labor in the United States are kept above the height that they would reach if there were full freedom of migration, whereas in Europe they are depressed below this height. On the one hand, the American worker gains; on the other hand, the European worker loses.

However, it would be a mistake to consider the consequences of immigration barriers exclusively from the point of view of their immediate effect on wages. They go further. As a result of the relative oversupply of labor in areas with comparatively unfavorable conditions of production, and the relative shortage of labor in areas in which the conditions of production are comparatively favorable, production is further expanded in the former and more restricted in the latter than would be the case if there were full freedom of migration. Thus, the effects of restricting this freedom are just the same as those of a protective tariff. In one part of the world comparatively favorable opportunities for production are not utilized, while in another part of the world less favorable opportunities for production are being exploited. Looked at from the standpoint of humanity, the result is a lowering of the productivity of human labor, a reduction in the supply of goods at the disposal of mankind.

Attempts to justify on economic grounds the policy of restricting immigration are therefore doomed from the outset. There cannot be the slightest doubt that migration barriers diminish the productivity of human labor. When the trade unions of the United States or Australia hinder immigration, they are fighting not only against the interests of the workers of the rest of the countries of the world, but also against the interests of everyone else in order to secure a special privilege for themselves. For all that, it still remains quite uncertain whether the increase in the general productivity of human labor which could be brought about by the establishment of complete freedom of migration would not be so great as to compensate entirely the members of the American and Australian trade unions for the losses that they could suffer from the immigration of foreign workers.

The workers of the United States and Australia could not succeed in having restrictions imposed on immigration if they did not have still another argument to fall back upon in support of their policy. After all, even today the power of certain liberal principles and ideas is so great that one cannot combat them if one does not place allegedly higher and more important considerations above the interest in the attainment of maximum productivity. We have already seen how “national interests” are cited in justification of protective tariffs. The same considerations are also invoked in favor of restrictions on immigration.

In the absence of any migration barriers whatsoever, vast hordes of immigrants from the comparatively overpopulated areas of Europe would, it is maintained, inundate Australia and America. They would come in such great numbers that it would no longer be possible to count on their assimilation. If in the past immigrants to America soon adopted the English language and American ways and customs, this was in part due to the fact that they did not come over all at once in such great numbers. The small groups of immigrants who distributed themselves over a wide land quickly integrated themselves into the great body of the American people. The individual immigrant was already half assimilated when the next immigrants landed on American soil. One of the most important reasons for this rapid national assimilation was the fact that the immigrants from foreign countries did not come in too great numbers. This, it is believed, would now change, and there is real danger that the ascendancy?or more correctly, the exclusive dominion?of the Anglo-Saxons in the United States would be destroyed. This is especially to be feared in the case of heavy immigration on the part of the Mongolian peoples of Asia.

These fears may perhaps be exaggerated in regard to the United States. As regards Australia, they certainly are not. Australia has approximately the same number of inhabitants as Austria; its area, however, is a hundred times greater than Austria’s, and its natural resources are certainly incomparably richer. If Australia were thrown open to immigration, it can be assumed with great probability that its population would in a few years consist mostly of Japanese, Chinese, and Malayans.

The aversion that most people feel today towards the members of foreign nationalities and especially towards those of other races is evidently too great to admit of any peaceful settlement of such antagonisms. It is scarcely to be expected that the Australians will voluntarily permit the immigration of Europeans not of English nationality, and it is completely out of the question that they should permit Asiatics too to seek work and a permanent home in their continent. The Australians of English descent insist that the fact that it was the English who first opened up this land for settlement has given the English people a special right to the exclusive possession of the entire continent for all time to come. The members of the world’s other nationalities, however, do not in the least desire to contest the right of the Australians to occupy any of the land that they already are making use of in Australia. They think only that it is unfair that the Australians do not permit the utilization of more favorable conditions of production that today lie fallow and force them to carry on production under the less favorable conditions prevailing in their own countries.

This issue is of the most momentous significance for the future of the world. Indeed, the fate of civilization depends on its satisfactory resolution. On the one side stand scores, indeed, hundreds of millions of Europeans and Asiatics who are compelled to work under less favorable conditions of production than they could find in the territories from which they are barred. They demand that the gates of the forbidden paradise be opened to them so that they may increase the productivity of their labor and thereby receive for themselves a higher standard of living. On the other side stand those already fortunate enough to call their own the land with the more favorable conditions of production. They desire?as far as they are workers, and not owners of the means of production?not to give up the higher wages that this position guarantees them. The entire nation, however, is unanimous in fearing inundation by foreigners. The present inhabitants of these favored lands fear that some day they could be reduced to a minority in their own country and that they would then have to suffer all the horrors of national persecution to which, for instance, the Germans are today exposed in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Poland.

It cannot be denied that these fears are justified. Because of the enormous power that today stands at the command of the state, a national minority must expect the worst from a majority of a different nationality. As long as the state is granted the vast powers which it has today and which public opinion considers to be its right, the thought of having to live in a state whose government is in the hands of members of a foreign nationality is positively terrifying. It is frightful to live in a state in which at every turn one is exposed to persecution?masquerading under the guise of justice?by a ruling majority. It is dreadful to be handicapped even as a child in school on account of one’s nationality and to be in the wrong before every judicial and administrative authority because one belongs to a national minority.

If one considers the conflict from this point of view, it seems as if it allows of no other solution than war. In that case, it is to be expected that the nation inferior in numbers will be defeated, that, for example, the nations of Asia, counting hundreds of millions, will succeed in driving the progeny of the white race from Australia. But we do not wish to indulge in such conjectures. For it is certain that such wars?and we must assume that a world problem of such great dimensions cannot be solved once and for all in just one war?would lead to the most frightful catastrophe for civilization.

It is clear that no solution of the problem of immigration is possible if one adheres to the ideal of the interventionist state, which meddles in every field of human activity, or to that of the socialist state. Only the adoption of the liberal program could make the problem of immigration, which today seems insoluble, completely disappear. In an Australia governed according to liberal principles, what difficulties could arise from the fact that in some parts of the continent Japanese and in other parts Englishmen were in the majority?

  • Albert

    It is clear that no solution of the problem of immigration is possible if one adheres to the ideal of the interventionist state, which meddles in every field of human activity, or to that of the socialist state australian visa consultant

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

More in Articles


Ma Bell Suppressed Innovation for Thirty Grueling Years

Bill FrezzaJuly 29, 2016

The Central Role of Saving and Capital Goods

Ludwig von MisesJuly 28, 2016

Industry Is an Effort Followed by a Result

Frédéric BastiatJuly 27, 2016

Can We Still Avoid Inflation?

F.A. HayekJuly 26, 2016

The Attack on Internships Is Wrongheaded

Jeffrey TuckerJuly 25, 2016

The Tragic Consequences of Success

Bryce McBrideJuly 22, 2016

The Problem with Government Is Not Poor Management

Doug FrenchJuly 18, 2016

British Say “No” to EU Power and Plunder

Richard EbelingJuly 15, 2016

Give Me Liberty Part 2

Rose Wilder LaneJuly 14, 2016