From Open Borders to Controlled Borders: An analysis on immigration

by | Feb 1, 2022 | Philosophy

What is immigration? This question could appear banal, even a child’s question, but if we think about it, we could discover that this question could get a lot of different answers.

Without coming back too far in the past, the contemporary age has seen several huge migration movements: From Europe to America, throughout the 19th century; from the east to the west in the same American country; Jews who escaped from Germany during the National Socialist governments, or millions of people who tried to the leave poverty of communist countries; until nowadays, where Europe witnesses African migratory movements.

A political narrative has been built developing people’s emotional impact about immigration, especially in the recent years. Populist parties, belonging to both political sides, have used this subject to get as many votes as possible. 

In our era of mass politics, the argument ended up polarising, the subject became a kind of ideological war with two opposed political parts where each of them bases its propaganda on this item, carrying it to an even higher level of radicalisation.

In the following article, the subject will be described and from a libertarian point of view, knowing that the polarisation I was speaking about earlier pervaded even libertarian people, making it harder to consider a different position.

Philosophical view: Open borders

As I have just written, this theme is really controversial even starting with the main libertarian exponents’ thought. 

We should begin enouncing a starting definition to be able to develop something more articulated. The libertarian thought distinguishes what is private property and what is government property. In the first case, the situation is very easy to understand: only the owner can decide if someone might enter the property or not, as we are used to see with private properties like houses, markets or anything.

Since we live in States based on government control, the scenario is different and consequently there are two opposite libertarian positions. 

The first one is represented by some authors like Walter Block, David Friedman and Mises. According to them, there should not be any kind of restriction of free movement of people, who should have the right of travelling freely anywhere they want, with the only preliminary condition consisting of the sanctity of private property. 

Due to the fact that they assume borders as the product of an illegitimate entity, the Nation-State, therefore even political borders have to be considered in the same way. 

In a clear manner, W. Block, in A Libertarian Case for Free Immigration, wrote:


Like tariffs and exchange controls, migration barriers of whatever type are egregious violations of laissez-faire capitalism. […] Immigration consists of no more than moving to a foreign country. For the purist libertarian, national boundaries are only lines on a map, demarcating one “country” from another; there is no such thing as a legitimate nation-state.

Approaching the problem from a more strictly economic perspective, there is the huge matter related to human resources. According to abovementioned school of thought, immigration is significantly linked to a better allocation of resources, a higher production level and an improved wellness and quality of life. Living in richer countries would be a preliminary condition which could allow people taking advantage of a better rule of law, where they would avoid a lot of cultural barriers and problems tied into criminal organisations, using a higher technological level, developing in a more excellent manner their skills. 

For example, in order to set up business would be certainly easier in a country which respects private property, with fixed and clear laws to protect the rights, rather than in different juridical systems; at the same time, human resources would be better used in States where they could have a more appropriate living standards, technologies and freedom. This appears particularly important because most immigrants, belonging to third world countries built on illiberal governments. 

Milton Friedman, in “The machinery of freedom”, wrote about this:

In my opinion, the restriction on immigration is a mistake: we should abolish it tomorrow and reopen the most successful attack on poverty the world has ever seen. […] Unrestricted immigration would make us richer, as it has in the past. Our wealth is in people, not things; America is not Kuwait. If a working wife can hire an Indian maid, who earned a few hundred dollars a year in India, to work for her at six thousand dollars a year, and so spend her own time on a 30 thousand a year job, who is worse off?

According to Mises (The Freedom to Move as an International Problem, 1935), immigration is a natural vehicle to get a more advantageously reallocation of resources, moreover an instrument to preserve the peace: 

What the European emigrants seek is land where Europeans can work under climatic conditions that are tolerable for them and where they can earn more than they can in their homeland, which is overpopulated and less well provided for by nature. Under present circumstances this can be offered only in the New World, in America and Australia. This is not a problem of raw materials. It is not a question as to which state should be given sovereignty over some colonies that are scarcely habitable by European emigrants. This is a problem of the right of immigration into the largest and most productive lands, the climates of which are suitable for white European workers. Without the reestablishment of freedom of migration throughout the world, there can be no lasting peace.

In this way, immigration has to be considered negative freedom, in the meaning of a right to move from a State to another one. If we love freedom, we cannot forbid people to move looking for a better future and better living standards. Of course, this axiom might appear a little forced, but it has to be considered in a more complex condition where Private Property is preserved. Starting with this preliminary condition, and adding the idea about the illegitimacy of nation-states, the above axiom seems to appear a little less forced. However, it is not just a matter of rights: exchanging is what makes our societies better. We cannot consider free-market trade as a notable value, as one the best consequence of capitalism, and at the same time neglecting the importance of human exchanges, where a good multiculturalism could improve our life. Good immigration may happen, but it has to occur under a lot of circumstances which may allow it. As it will be explained further, several conditions affect the final results of immigration.

Controlled immigration

What it has been written earlier is the position of open-borders libertarian authors. On the other side, some other ones have represented opposite positions. The problems that they have highlighted refer mainly to two primary conditions. 

The first condition is constituted by the huge number of poor people in the world, especially compared to the possibilities offered by richest countries. Without any kind of restriction, huge masses of million people would move to Europe and the United States, suturing their absorption capacity. In public-based economics, with important welfare systems, local citizens could be afraid of seeing immigrants taking advantage of a lot of public services that they have not paid for. Moreover, they could consider public property as their semi-property, bringing the argument to a private-property level.

Following this consideration, authors as Hans-Hermann Hoppe have sustained the difference between a free exchange of goods, where no one is forced to buy as well as no one is obligated to sell, it means a free deal between people, and immigration. In the second situation, people move without being invited, and this cannot be considered at same level of a free trade agreement:

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.

The second objection is more strictly linked to a cultural point of view. What some libertarian intellectuals ended up fearing is destruction of local culture, as consequential of a large number of immigrants in a specific place. 

A clear example of a position orientated to controlled immigration principles is what was sustained by Jeff Deist. He, reassuming different thesis that we have already written here, asserted that:

Borders satisfy innately human desires for order and separation. Borders arise and exist naturally, without being created or enforced by political entities; 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.; Humans naturally want to live in safe areas, i.e., in “good neighbourhoods” on a macro scale. And they want to know their neighbours are not a threat. In other words, there is a market for security beyond one’s own property; 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; 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; 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.

Lew Rockwell based his theory on the principle of property. He sustained that immigration was not the same representation of free-market outcomes, and for this reason, not being based on agreements between individuals, immigration should not be accepted. To carry on his thesis, he has used as the first instance what we might call the issue of safety, something which sounds not new speaking about immigration, especially in the last years. He claimed:

No doubt some of the new arrivals will be perfectly decent people, despite the US government’s lack of interest in encouraging immigration among the skilled and capable. But some will not. The three great crime waves in US history – which began in 1850, 1900, and 1960 — coincided with periods of mass immigration.

Another point underlined by Rockwell is the theme of cultural traditions. From a certain point of view, some people have so long-time traditions and cultures that they show us how difficult could be to think about a multicultural way of life:

The twentieth century affords failure after predictable failure. Whether it’s Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, or Pakistan and Bangladesh, or Malaysia and Singapore, or the countless places with ethnic and religious divides that have not yet been resolved to this day, the evidence suggests something rather different from the tale of universal brotherhood that is such a staple of leftist folklore.

From another perspective, local culture is something to be saved and preserved, and mass immigration could be the reason for its end as Rockwell demonstrated:

If four million Americans showed up in Singapore, that country’s culture and society would be changed forever. And no, it is not true that libertarianism would in that case require the people of Singapore to shrug their shoulders and say it was nice having our society while it lasted but all good things must come to an end. No one in Singapore would want that outcome, and in a free society, they would actively prevent it.

At last, Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s position against immigration. In his “Democracy—The God That Failed”, Hoppe sustained that:

To libertarians of the Austrian School, it should be clear that what constitutes “wealth” and “well-being” is subjective. Material wealth is not the only thing that has value. Thus, even if real incomes rise due to immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for one might prefer lower living standards and a greater distance to other people over higher living standards and a smaller distance to others. With regard to a given territory into which people immigrate, it is left unanalysed who, if anyone, owns (controls) this territory. In fact, in order to render the above argument applicable, it is implicitly assumed that the territory in question is unowned and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier). Obviously, today this can no longer be assumed. If this assumption is dropped, however, the problem of immigration takes on an entirely new meaning and requires fundamental rethinking.

In his critique of democracy, Hoppe considers immigration as a direct consequence of increasing political support, in any situation where government is publicly owned:

Once again assuming no more than self-interest (maximizing monetary and psychic income: money and power), democratic rulers tend to maximize current income, which they can appropriate privately, at the expense of capital values, which they cannot appropriate privately. Hence, in accordance with democracy’s inherent egalitarianism of one-man-one-vote, they tend to pursue a distinctly egalitarian—non-discriminatory—emigration and immigration policy. As far as emigration policy is concerned, this implies that for a democratic ruler it makes little, if any, difference whether productive or unproductive people, geniuses or bums leave the country. They all have one equal vote.

Reality lies somewhere in the middle

Willing to get all the good of both positions, we certainly could say that it might be possible to find a synthesis between thesis and antithesis.

We have to be solid and uncompromising: it is not our culture which makes people different but it is our approach to inviolable rights doing that. We should consider every person who believes and respects individual freedom, private property and the inviolability of every human being as an added value to our society.

Subsequently, immigrants could play two different roles: Developing and improving themselves, taking advantage of every available resource offered in a new country, in a sort of American self-made man; or trying to live at the expenses of native people and using everything local welfare-state guarantees. 

The matter of the relationship with a dominant culture is something no different than what it has been written so far. Once more, the issue is relative and linked to principles and values incomers bring with them. The concept of nation identified with the concept of nation-state has no reason to exist. At the same time, if we consider the idea of ‘nation’ as the consequence of whole of traditions, values and shared culture, the situation might change.

The Western World, over the last centuries has been able to create sophisticated societies based on individual rights, every kind of different culture could be accepted as long as these rights are respected.

A clear example is what Murray Rothbard sustained about it. Although he has been endorsing pro-immigration’s thesis for several years, in the late 1980s, he changed his mind, having a shifted towards a more nationalistic position, assuming a middle-ground position in which he presupposed a whole of privatised countries that were able to decide about who could enter:

I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these peoples. […] However, on rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho-capitalist model, it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have “open borders” at all. If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no immigrant could enter there unless invited to enter and allowed to rent, or purchase, property. A totally privatized country would be as “closed” as the particular inhabitants and property owners desire.

Nations by Consent, 1994

Despite some important premises, immigration can be an opportunity we could seize. Europe has found peace, after centuries of wars, thanks to economic trade, cooperation, globalisation and human exchanges; for not speaking of the United States, which have been built on immigration system.

Certainly, immigration as an economic factor cannot be the only one, or the most important one, when we consider the economic efficiency in a specific country. For this reason, we could have different situations in particular countries although they have had similar exchanges of people or they have not.

If we think about the USA or Canada, it seems quite clear the success of immigration in particular economic structures which were able to take advantage of it. On the other way, some Latin-American countries did not have the same growth and prosperity, although they have had a similar immigration level.

Taking into consideration a lot of states would give us several different answers about the importance of immigration in the economic field. The impact of immigration depends on different economic factors: the possibility to absorb new human capital, the economic wealth, kind of immigration (skilled or unskilled) concerning real needing of a specific country.

The reasons behind the various reactions to immigration are probably too complicated and too long to be faced here. Overall, we should consider that immigration plays a specific role into the economic systems, where sometimes it is not the main actor rather than a consequence of them. In situations of prosperity and growth it may represent a further boost, especially when it becomes the way to get a specific kind of labour force. Otherwise, in harder periods, the same kind of immigration may have opposite results.

Again, we have to place this concept under some key requirements which allow us to sustain the idea of good immigration. The main one is its relationship with the concept of Private property as a fundamental human right. According to this, we have two possibilities: considering immigration legitimate, namely when it has done respecting individual right abovementioned, or considering it illegitimate, when this did not happen.

In the end, the theme is extremely complicated. There is no single position that has to be accepted. Whether according to philosophical approaches, or following practical examples. Some core points could be cleared, and along them, it is possible to develop a lot of concepts.