Liberty and migration.

Many libertarians support relaxed immigration.  I don’t wish to argue for or against any particular policy – or even suggest that a liberty-oriented framework is right for this question to begin with – but want to examine the conceptual consistency of a liberty-based defense of greater migration or open borders.

To start, let’s define the purpose of a liberty-oriented state.  One might observe that a minimal amount of government coercion is necessary to attenuate threats to life and property that exist in pure anarchy (in fact, the idea of property is conceptually meaningless without a state that is willing to protect it coercively).  Such a state probably enforces some property rights, militates against tortious behavior, and possibly engages in other action that secures a broader basket of liberties (maybe freedom from hunger through welfare or freedom from stupidity through public education, though there is a natural limit to redefining positive liberties in the negative since there is obviously no philosophical merit to the freedom from being slightly uncomfortable on a transcontinental flight).

Reasoning in favor of further coercion ought to be precise about the broader liberty being protected.  This is naturally relevant to immigration law because, in anarchy, people would be violently defending their own borders.  There are clearly enough people in this country that are very invested in the effort to reduce migration from the southern border and I would guess their opponents would not have the conviction to physically prevent the building of a border wall by a volunteer army thereof.  This does not happen today because the state coercively prevents such organization.

Of course, some extremely fundamental liberties are secured through this coercion (ignoring the many other laws that then constrain the realization of these liberties):  hiring anyone that can afford to live nearby, marrying and starting a family with a foreigner, and taking care of your elderly parents, among many others.  Even if you don’t agree that it is within the state’s remit to secure some of these liberties, it is clear they are fundamental and reasonable to advocate.

But in the modern state immigration is inextricably connected with a host of other coercive results – the dilution of native franchise in the election of a government that has the authority to choose who should be richer and who should be poorer; which people commit what crimes deserving incarceration for how long; indeed who should live and who should die.  Immigration also naturally entitles migrants to native property.  (Note that the possibly-true economic claim that immigration makes people richer is not relevant to the political claim that it naturally incurs a native liability in doing so).  Those not libertarian might argue that this is a good thing, but that’s not relevant to the premise of this post.  Those who are libertarian might argue against the existence of such transfer programs to begin with, but there are two problems associated with such a response.

  1. Such transfer programs do exist, and libertarian arguments in favor of open borders seem to be held and argued-for independently and therefore the point isn’t immediately relevant.
  2. Removing transfer programs erected within a liberty-oriented state on the altar of permitting grander migration might itself violate the people’s liberty of coordinating to help poor and weak natives.  This is obviously a rather complex invocation of some sort of second-order liberty –- that is, the liberty of a people to abridge some rights of individuals to secure a higher-order liberty for the people.  It seems to me that any philosophy grounded in human history and culture would afford at least some agency to people and not just individuals.  But I only wish to point out this problem rather than arbitrate its validity in detail.

It may be possible to reconcile open migration within libertarian thinking by removing birthright citizenship and generally making citizenship somewhat unavailable.  Whether or not this is a practically good idea, it creates more problems for the purpose of this argument than it solves.

  1. It creates the new questions, including fundamentally “who should be a citizen”, that retain central features of the old question “who gets to come in”.  Maybe certain economic liberties are no longer at stake, say hiring foreigners, but many political liberties remain unclear, like the right to have American children that have many of the liberties we argued Americans should have.
  2. Ad infinitum it creates a permanent, de jure class of second-class people.  Do these people not have the right not to be taxed without representation?  Their right to “exit” isn’t a good enough answer, especially because the liberty-oriented justification of their presence is solely as an exercise of native liberty.  Offering the right of exit as defense also shares the same flaws as arguing that taxes in general are not coercive because people can always choose not to work.
  3. Expanding on (2), it also creates a phantom line of between the total set of liberties secured by the government, and the subset thereof afforded to migrants.  If the justification of their arrival is premised only on native rights, there seems nothing conceptually abhorrent about permitting their slavery, or perhaps less abominably, imposing greater taxes on their production.  It’s possible to solve this problem by appealing to a “liberty of a people” type argument like the one outlined above, but such an argument is specifically predicated on closed borders of some kind.

This extreme might highlight why a liberty-oriented framework is not practically relevant for this question – since in reality we a migration policy that gives some rights, but not others, to foreigners until they pass an arbitrary requirement to become citizens that might be considered acceptable by many people.  But that’s not philosophically interesting.

The constraining factors of a “second best” solution should also be noted.  A libertarian may want only small coercive transfers, if any, and generally limited government; and open borders may be ideologically consistent in this version of his ideal world.

But when we don’t have open borders, every quasi-legal migrant — that is everyone that is either permitted into the country or not coercively removed after their arrival — represents the active choice of the government to permit the migration of some and not that of others.  It is possibly true that in this world, factors like economic genius or familial connection should be prized over geographic happenstance.

The other interesting thing is that affording some rights to non-citizen migrants – as we obviously should – would seem to also logically imply the security of such rights to the same people before they are migrants.  It is indeed true that we don’t want and should fight against people starving on the streets.  But if that person is an Indian migrant it’s not clear why we shouldn’t at least in principle fight just as hard against his brother starving on Indian streets.

(Unless, of course, the reason we don’t want someone starving on the streets is to prevent public consumers of those streets from suffering the image of starvation.  Just as we would probably ban slavery since it is aesthetically disgusting, the right move for the wrong reasons.)

Or perhaps commitment towards liberty does justify, or even require, coercive sacrifices of lower-order freedoms to secure the life and liberty of non-citizens abroad.  But this probably includes interventionist militarism, sometimes known as “neoconservatism”, which is unlikely to find support among many, or even most, people that want more immigration or open borders.  Arguments against such intervention from liberals probably reference some idea of foreign self-determination, which would also afford natives here the right of constraining immigration policy through ideas of who they are as a people, rooted in ideology, history, religion, and likely allergic to unbridled migration.

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