David R. Henderson  

Lynch and Freiman on Open Borders

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Over at the our sister site, the Library of Law and Liberty, my friend Patrick Lynch wrote a post titled "Libertarians Can Believe in Borders." While I can conceive of good arguments against completely unrestricted immigration, and while some of those arguments have caused me to hesitate to recommend no such restrictions, I don't think Patrick's arguments hold up.

While I was noodling this over the weekend, I came across a post by Christopher Freiman, "Libertarians Can't Believe in Closed Borders," that handles Patrick's main arguments nicely. So I don't need to start from scratch. It's short and I recommend the whole thing. I will give one highlight, though.

Patrick had written:

Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization and is much more consistent with anarchism than with classical liberalism-- both of which are now commonly referred to as libertarian. It's a position that rejects the entire experiment in constitutional governance and different political systems that has been a foundational belief in liberalism for hundreds of years.

Freiman responds:
I'm not sure why support for open borders implies support for the elimination of meaningful national boundaries. Think of it this way: there's an open border between Virginia and West Virginia but that doesn't mean that we've eliminated state boundaries for the purposes for political organization. It just means that the state of Virginia can't forcible exclude West Virginians from entering.

So what would be a good argument against unrestricted immigration? Commenter Sean II, responding to Freiman, gives it, writing, "[the] dose makes the poison." I don't endorse everything he said and I don't like his tone, but the point he makes is valid and important. Here's how I would put it: How can we say, based on relatively tiny increases in the number of immigrants to this country, what would happen if the annual number of immigrants ten-tupled?


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
MikeP writes:

Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization...

Support for open borders implies nothing of the kind.

National boundaries, being frontiers of sovereignty, are vitally important because they prevent other nations' laws and enforcement from crossing the border. There is nothing inherent in that positive fact that suggests that a nation must prevent other nations' goods, services, capital, or individuals from crossing the border.

Indeed, even an anarchy's borders are vitally important, as that's the point where government intrusion begins.

If you noodle into underlying theory, notice that conception of an immigration problem seems to require assumption of public space: If all property (including ports, airports, border properties, and highways) were private, then policing of entry would fall to each private property owner. In 1997 I wrote "Foreign Relations for a Free Nation" for a libertarian readership. Here is a link to the section on immigration policy.

NZ writes:

Mr. Henderson, imagine the bet you would find most edifying to win against an immigration restrictionist. What would the terms be?

Patrick Lynch writes:

My friend David Henderson has taken one part of my argument and presented a response that has no bearing on the question of how NATIONAL borders are handled and generalized it. In fact Freiman seems to have forgotten his history. In fact when states had the right to limit border trade they did so under the Articles of Confederation. This does not address this particular aspect of the argument or the other relevant points in the piece. I find it interesting that my point in the article was not to argue that libertarians SHOULD oppose open borders (a term I am finding increasingly difficult to understand because people seem to conceive of it differently) but that there is nothing inherent in libertarian thought that precludes such a position. I would recommend a full read of what I wrote before one delves in Freiman's response, which frankly I view as quite weak.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Patrick Lynch,
I also recommend a full read of both your piece and Freiman’s. The reason I highlighted this part of Freiman’s response is that it makes the point that you can have a country and borders without restricting movement across those borders. So your statement, Patrick, that "Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization” is false. That was Freiman’s point with his discussion of state borders. And at no point did Freiman ever deny that there used to be limits of trade across state borders. But notice that getting rid of these limits did not change the fact that there were still state borders.

Patrick Lynch writes:

David thanks for the reply. Frankly I do not see how this is false at all. West Virginia and Virginia are not nations; they are states constituted in a compact that requires free movement across states. Freiman makes no mention of the historical evolution of this arrangement at all, so I guess he does not deny it. Again I agree that creating the union did not eliminate state borders, but it sure changed the nature of them and creates a very different dynamic between the two.

It seems to me a somewhat more serious argument that might be made would be to compare states and countries in a free trade zone such as the Alianza del Pacifico or the EU. There free movement is possible and guaranteed among a group of sovereign states, but that's was agreed to as a change of their political arrangements. Constitutionalism approved of the change. In both instances the organizations are certainly open to free trade and movement of peoples. But again, zones such as Mercosur exist and are hardly consistent with free market economics, so I don't see how this is more than policy, not philosophy.

Jon Murphy writes:

I'm about as open borders as they come. I treat the situation as an economic one, drawing on Julian Simon. Human minds are the ultimate resource. Each new person is not just one more mouth to feed, but also a new creative mind, a productive pair of hands, and another dose of "the ultimate resource."

Economically speaking, there isn't much of a difference between increased immigration or a baby boom. I can't think of a reason why one should be treated with caution while the other celebrated.

Shane L writes:

"...based on relatively tiny increases in the number of immigrants to this country, what would happen if the annual number of immigrants ten-tupled?"

How about other countries? The US has a population of 318 million people; Norway has 5 million. With open borders I would expect many tens of millions of people to migrate within a few years, with millions more continuing for years into the future. They would migrate from the poorest countries, which tend to have the fastest population growth at the moment, to the richest countries, which tend to have little or no population growth. How long would Norway be remotely Norwegian with open borders? I don't know, but I'd like to see that discussed. Small, wealthy countries could see their indigenous populations quite quickly reduced to tiny minorities.

Shane L writes:

An extra little point.

"Think of it this way: there's an open border between Virginia and West Virginia but that doesn't mean that we've eliminated state boundaries for the purposes for political organization."

True, but any disparities in wealth between the two states are small, and I imagine differences in culture are pretty minimal too. Hence I would not expect massive migration from one state to the other that would cause the cultural norms of the recipient state to change.

James Hanley writes:

Patrick Lynch,

At this point it's very unclear what your point about borders is. You say U.S. states had trade restrictions under the Articles, which is true but doesn't address the question of whether open borders means elimination of national sovereignty. The states did surrender a great deal of sovereignty when they ratified the Constitution with its interstate commerce clause, but they had only restricted movement of goods, not people, so that example, as far as I can see, takes you nowhere.

Then you bring up the EU, which I agree is relevant, but there we have a case of free movement of people (in parts of it), without the elimination of national sovereignty.

I don't see how you've made the case, either in your original essay or in these comments, that "Support for open borders implies the elimination of national boundaries for the purposes of political organization..." (which we know is not true for municipalities, or U.S. states, or Canadian provinces), or that it means the elimination of national sovereignty (given that everyone other than diplomats who lives in the U.S. is still subject to its sovereign powers).

NZ writes:

@Jon Murphy:

Economically speaking, there isn't much of a difference between increased immigration or a baby boom. I can't think of a reason why one should be treated with caution while the other celebrated.
That's true, if when speaking economically it's customary to ignore things like the genetic differences that inform behavioral differences between populations.

Or, if you don't think genetics has much impact on behavior, in a baby boom you get to raise the new generation, in your culture with your values, and you have time to prepare for their entry into the labor supply.

Or how about the basic fact that the next generation--those carrying on our genetic legacy--are literally written into the Constitution ("our posterity") as who this nation is for.

James Hanley writes:

NZ,
Considering there were no immigration restrictions when the Constitution was ratified or even soon after, it's more plausible to read posterity as "those who come after us" than as literally meaning just genetic descendants.

NZ writes:

@James Hanley:

I'll grant you that it's somewhat plausible, but not that it's more plausible or even as plausible.

The notion of kin and family was bigger back then, and the expectation of being flooded with immigrants with very different cultures and genetic backgrounds was lower. James Madison was trained in many languages--yet the Constitution was written only in English, with no reference to possible translations.

Another clue might be in the opening phrase "We the people of the United States," the operative word being "of" which I take to mean born there, raised there, of the United States. This at least suggests that the posterity mentioned are also of the United States.

MikeP writes:

While the frequently repeated but always false statement that open borders means no borders is the most striking part of the article, there is another claim that deserves attention:

Caplan, Huemer, and Tabarrok are far more learned scholars than I am, but they appear to be making a critical error: they are basing their positions on consequentalist/utilitarian arguments.

The reason that they -- and I -- base positions on consequentialist arguments is that the moral case for open borders is so blatantly obvious that you either believe it or you don't.

Seriously, why should a condition of birth -- namely where one was born -- be a legitimate cause for denying inalienable rights of free association, contract, travel, residence, or employment? It's hard to square what we thought was self evident --

...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

-- with abrogating rather than securing the rights of individuals under a government's jurisdiction because they were born somewhere else.

Like I said, you either believe Jefferson's words or you don't. If you don't, then maybe you'll believe a consequentialist argument that tries to start from even more evident shared premises.

Jon Murphy writes:

@NZ:

There is nothing inherently genetically different between two people born on different sides of an invisible line. There are genetic differences between people, sure, but what side of an invisible line they are on does not cause them. If identical twins are born, one in Canada and one in the US, you couldn't reasonably argue that they are genetically different.

NZ writes:

@Jon Murphy:

How many would-be immigrants are the identical twins or even close relatives of established natives in real life?

In real life, invisible lines do in fact influence mating patterns (as well as a bunch of other things that you'd think would just ignore invisible lines and fly over them, such as language, diet, time orientation, and religion). Mating patterns, aggregated over enough people and over enough time, lead to significant genetic differences between populations.

Jon Murphy writes:

@nz I'm exploring your argument that invisible lines cause differences. That simply is not true. QED, the "genetics" argument is not one against immigration.

But it seems to me that if the problem is "they" are just too genetically different from "us," (an argument which I reject on moral and scientific grounds), then opening the borders would solve that. By increasing the likelihood of mating, then it would reduce the genetic differences among the people, thus destroying the "genetic" barrier.

Jon Murphy writes:

I guess I'd also like to know why some people are genetically predispositioned to wealth and others are not.

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