The Case for Free Trade and Restricted Immigration Part 1

The Case for Free Trade and Restricted Immigration Part 1
Profile photo of Hans-Hermann Hoppe


Reprinted from the Journal of Libertarian Studies

It is frequently maintained that “free trade” belongs to “free immigration” as “protectionism” does to “restricted immigration.” That is, the claim is made that while it is not impossible that someone might combine protectionism with free immigration, or free trade with restricted immigration, these positions are intellectually inconsistent, and thus erroneous. Hence, insofar as people seek to avoid errors, they should be the excep- tion rather than the rule. The facts, to the extent that they have a bearing on the issue, appear to be consistent with this claim. As the 1996 Republican presidential primaries indicated, for in- stance, most professed free traders are advocates of relatively (even if not totally) free and non-discriminatory immigration policies, while most protectionists are proponents of highly restrictive and selective immigration policies.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I will argue that this thesis and its implicit claim are fundamentally mistaken. In particular, I will demonstrate that free trade and restricted immigration are not only perfectly consistent but even mutually reinforcing policies. That is, it is not the advocates of free trade and restricted immigration who are wrong, but rather the proponents of free trade and free immigration. In thus taking the “intellectual guilt” out of the free-trade-and-restricted-immigration position and putting it where it actually belongs, I hope to promote a change in the present state of public opinion and facilitate substantial political realignment.


Since the days of Ricardo, the case for free trade has been logically unassailable. For the sake of argumentative completeness, it would be useful to briefly summarize it. The restatement will be in the form of a reductio ad absurdum of the protectionist thesis as proposed most recently by Pat Buchanan.

The central argument advanced in favor of protectionism is one of domestic job protection. How can American producers who pay their workers $10 per hour possibly compete with Mexican producers paying $1 or less per hour? They cannot, and American jobs will be lost unless import tariffs are imposed to insulate the American wages from Mexican competition. Free trade is possible only between countries that have equal wage rates, and thus that compete “on a level playing field.” As long as this is not the case—as with the U.S. and Mexico—the playing field must be made level by means of tariffs. As for the consequences of a policy of domestic job protection, Buchanan and other protectionists claim that it will lead to domestic strength and prosperity. In support   of their claim, examples are cited of free-trade countries that lost their once-preeminent international economic position, such as 19th-century England, as well as of protectionist countries which gained such preeminence, such as 19th-century America.

This or any other alleged empirical proof of the protectionist thesis must be rejected out of hand as containing a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. The inference drawn from historical data is   no more convincing than if one were to conclude from the observation that rich people consume more than poor people that it must be consumption that makes a person rich. Indeed, protectionists such as Buchanan characteristically fail to understand what is actually involved in defending their thesis. Any argument in favor of international protectionism is simultaneously an argument in favor of inter-regional and inter-local protectionism. Just as different wage rates exist between the U.S. and Mexico, Haiti, or China, for instance, such differences also exist between New York and Alabama, or between Manhattan, the Bronx, and Harlem. Thus, if it were true that international protectionism could make an entire nation prosperous and strong, it must also be true that inter-regional and inter-local protectionism could make regions and localities prosperous and strong. In fact, one may even go further. If the protectionist argument were right, it would amount to an indictment of all trade, and a defense of the thesis that everyone would be the most prosperous and strongest if he never traded with anyone else and remained in self-sufficient isolation. Certainly, in this case, no one would ever lose his job, and unemployment due to “unfair” competition would be reduced to zero. In thus deducing the ultimate implication of the protectionist argument, its complete absurdity is revealed, for such a “full-employment society” would not be prosperous and strong; it would be com- posed of people who, despite working from dawn to dusk, would be condemned to destitution, or even death from starvation.

International protectionism, while obviously less destructive than a policy of interpersonal or inter-regional protectionism, would result in precisely the same effect and constitute a sure recipe for America’s further economic decline. To be sure, some American jobs and industries would be saved, but such savings would come at a price. The standard of living and the real income of the American consumers of foreign products would be forcibly reduced. The cost to all U.S. producers who employ the protected indus- try’s products as their own input factors would be raised, and they would be rendered internationally less competitive. More- over, what could foreigners do with the money they earned from their U.S. imports? They could either buy American goods, or they could leave it here and invest it, and if their imports were stopped or reduced, they would buy fewer American goods or in- vest smaller amounts. Hence, as a result of saving a few inefficient American jobs, a far greater number of efficient American jobs would be destroyed or prevented from coming into existence.

Thus, it is nonsense to claim that England lost its former pre- eminence because of its free-trade policies. It lost its position despite its free-trade policy, and because of the socialist policies which later took hold. Likewise, it is nonsense to claim that the rise of the U.S. to economic preeminence in the course of the 19th century was due to its protectionist policies. The U.S. attained this position despite its protectionism, and because of its unrivaled internal laissez-faire policies. Indeed, America’s current economic decline, which Buchanan wishes to reverse, is the result not of her alleged free-trade policies, but of the circumstance that America, in the course of the 20th century, has gradually adopted the same socialist policies that earlier ruined England.


Given the case for free trade, we will now develop the case   for immigration restrictions to be combined with free-trade policies. More specifically, we will build a successively stronger case for immigration restrictions: from the initial weak claim that free trade and immigration restrictions can be combined and do not exclude each other to the final strong claim that the principle underlying free trade actually requires such restrictions.

From the outset, it must be emphasized that not even the most restrictive immigration policy or the most exclusive form of segregationism has anything to do with a rejection of free trade and the adoption of protectionism. From the fact that one does not want to associate with or live in the neighborhood composed of   Mexicans, Haitians, Chinese, Koreans, Germans, Catholics, Moslems, Hindus, etc., it does not follow that one does not want to trade with them from a distance. Moreover, even if it were the case that one’s real income would rise as a result of immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for material wealth is not the only thing that counts. Rather, what constitutes “welfare” and “wealth” is subjective, and one might prefer lower material living standards and a greater distance from certain other people over higher material living standards and a smaller distance. It is precisely the absolute voluntariness of human association and separation—the absence of any form of forced integration—which makes peaceful relationships—free trade—between racially, ethnically, linguistically, religiously, or culturally distinct people possible.

The relationship between trade and migration is one of elastic substitutibility (rather than rigid exclusivity): the more (or less) you have of one, the less (or more) you need of the other. Other things being equal, businesses move to low wage areas, and labor moves to high wage areas, thus effecting a tendency toward the equalization of wage rates (for the same kind of labor) as well as the optimal localization of capital. With political borders separating high- from low-wage areas, and with national (nation-wide) trade and immigration policies in effect, these normal tendencies—of immigration and capital export—are weakened with free trade and strengthened with protectionism. As long as Mexican products—the products of a low-wage area— can freely enter a high-wage area such as the U.S., the incentive for Mexican people to move to the U.S. is reduced. In contrast, if Mexican products are prevented from entering the American market, the attraction for Mexican workers to move to the U.S. is increased. Similarly, when U.S. producers are free to buy from and sell to Mexican producers and consumers, capital exports from the U.S. to Mexico will be reduced; however, when U.S. producers are prevented from doing so, the attraction of moving production from the U.S. to Mexico is increased.

Similarly, as the foreign trade policy of the U. S. affects im- migration, so does its domestic trade policy. Domestic free trade is what is typically referred to as laissez-faire capitalism. In other words, the national government follows a policy of non-interference with the voluntary transactions between domestic parties (citizen) regarding their private property. The government’s policy is one of helping to protect its citizens and their private property from domestic aggression, damage, or fraud (exactly as in the case of foreign trade and aggression). If the U.S. followed strict domestic free-trade policies, immigration from   low-wage regions such as Mexico would be reduced, while when it pursues “social welfare” policies, immigration from low-wage areas becomes more attractive.


Insofar as a high-wage area such as the U.S. engaged in unrestricted free trade, internationally as well as domestically, the immigration pressure from low-wage countries would be kept low or reduced, and hence, the question as to what to do about immigration would be less urgent. On the other hand, insofar as the U.S. engaged in protectionist policies against the products of low- wage area and in welfare policies at home, immigration pressure would be kept high or even raised, and the immigration question would assume great importance in public debate.

Obviously, the world’s major high-wage regions—North America and Western Europe—are presently in this latter situation, in which immigration has become an increasingly urgent public concern. In light of steadily mounting immigration pressure from the world’s low-wage regions, three general strategies of dealing with immigration have been proposed: unconditional free immigration, conditional free immigration, and restrictive immigration. While our main concern will be with the latter two alternatives, a few observations regarding the unconditional free immigration position are appropriate, if only to illustrate the extent of its intellectual bankruptcy.

According to proponents of unconditional free immigration, the U.S. qua high-wage area would invariably benefit from free immigration; hence, it should enact a policy of open borders, regardless of any existing conditions, i.e., even if the U.S. were ensnarled in protectionism and domestic welfare. Yet surely, such a proposal strikes a reasonable person as fantastic. Assume that the U.S., or better still Switzerland, declared that there would no longer be any border controls, that anyone who could pay the fare might enter the country, and, as a resident then be entitled   to every “normal” domestic welfare provision. Can there be any doubt how disastrous such an experiment would turn out in the present world?. The U.S., and Switzerland even faster, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants, because life on and off American and Swiss public streets is comfortable compared to life in many areas of the third world. Welfare costs would skyrocket, and the strangled economy disintegrate and collapse, as the subsistence fund—the stock of capital accumulated in and inherited from the past—was plundered. Civilization in the U.S. and Switzerland would vanish, just as it once did from Rome and Greece.

Since unconditional free immigration must be regarded as a prescription for national suicide, the typical position among free traders is the alternative of conditional free immigration. According to this view, the U.S. and Switzerland would have to first return to unrestricted free trade and abolish all tax-funded welfare programs, and only then should they open their borders to everyone who wanted to come. In the meantime, while the welfare state is still in place, immigration would have to be made subject to the condition that immigrants are excluded from domestic welfare entitlements.

While the error involved in this view is less obvious and the consequences less dramatic than those associated with the unconditional free immigration, the view is nonetheless erroneous and harmful. To be sure, the immigration pressure on Switzerland and the U.S. would be reduced if this proposal were followed, but it would not disappear. Indeed, with free-trade policies, both foreign and domestic, wage rates within Switzerland and the U.S. may further increase relative to those at other locations (with   less enlightened economic policies). Hence, the attraction of both countries might even increase. In any event, some immigration pressure would remain, so some form of immigration policy would have to exist. Do the principles underlying free trade imply that this policy must be one of conditional “free immigration?” They do not. There is no analogy between free trade and free immigration, and restricted trade and restricted immigration. The phenomena of trade and immigration are different in a fundamental respect, and the meaning of “free” and “restricted” in conjunction with both terms is categorically different. People can move and migrate; goods and services, of themselves, cannot.

Put differently, while someone can migrate from one place to another without anyone else wanting him to do so, goods and services cannot be shipped from place to place unless both sender and receiver agree. Trivial as this distinction may appear, it has momentous consequences. For free in conjunction with trade then means trade by invitation of private households and firms only; and restricted trade does not mean protection of households and firms from uninvited goods or services, but invasion and abrogation of the right of private households and firms to extend or deny invitations to their own property. In contrast, free in conjunction with immigration does not mean immigration by invitation of individual households and firms, but unwanted invasion or forced integration; and restricted immigration actually means, or at least can mean, the protection of private households and firms from unwanted invasion and forced integration. Hence, in advocating free trade and restricted immigration, one follows the same principle: requiring an invitation for people as for goods and services.

In contrast, the advocate of free trade and free markets who adopts the (conditional) free immigration position is involved in intellectual inconsistency. Free trade and markets mean that private property owners may receive or send goods from and to other owners without government interference. The government stays inactive vis-à-vis the process of foreign and domestic trade, because a willing (paying) recipient exists for every good or service sent, and hence all locational changes, as the outcome of agreements between sender and receiver, must be deemed mutually beneficial. The government’s sole function is that of maintaining the trading process (by protecting citizen and domestic property).

However, with respect to the movement of people, the same government will have to do more in order to fulfill its protective function than merely permit events to take their own course, because people, unlike products, possess a will and can migrate. Accordingly, population movements, unlike product shipments, are not per se mutually beneficial events because they are not always—necessarily and invariably—the result of an agreement be- tween a specific receiver and sender. There can be shipments (immigrants) without willing domestic recipients. In this case, immigrants are foreign invaders, and immigration represents an act of invasion. Surely, a government’s basic protective function includes the prevention of foreign invasions and the expulsion of foreign invaders. Just as surely then, in order to do so and subject immigrants to the same requirement as imports (of having been invited by domestic residents), this government cannot rightfully allow the kind of free immigration advocated by most free traders. Just imagine again that the U.S. and Switzerland opened their borders to whomever wanted to come—provided only that immigrants be excluded from all welfare entitlements, which would be reserved for U.S. and Swiss citizens. Apart from the sociological problem of thus creating two distinct classes of domes- tic residents and thus causing severe social tensions, there is also little doubt about the outcome of this experiment in the present world. The result would be less drastic and less immediate than under the scenario of unconditional free immigration, but it too would amount to a massive foreign invasion and ultimately lead to the destruction of American and Swiss civilization. Thus, in order to fulfill its primary function as protector of its citizens and their domestic property, a high-wage-area government cannot follow an immigration policy of laissez-passer, but must engage in restrictive measures.

Profile photo of Hans-Hermann Hoppe

Hans-Hermann Hoppe, an Austrian School economist and anarchocapitalist philosopher, is professor emeritus of economics at UNLV, a distinguished fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and founder and president of The Property and Freedom Society.

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