Opinion: The Libertarian Case Against Open Borders

Though it is widely assumed that a policy of unrestricted immigration is the default position for libertarians, this shouldn’t be the case. There are many libertarian arguments against open borders. Many libertarians reason that immigration restrictions violate the right to free movement: If individuals have sovereign rights, their right to move freely cannot be arbitrarily restricted by third parties, such as governments. What this argument misses is that no government is obligated to accept free moving individuals into its territory. Voluntary associations, social clubs, and corporations all discriminate when choosing potential members, and there is no reason why a state shouldn’t do the same. Companies refuse to hire unqualified applicants. Universities reject students with bad grades. Likewise, governments can — and should — reject potential immigrants who are likely to be bad citizens.

Open borders advocates should remember that mass immigration may encourage unjust economic redistribution. New arrivals qualify for support from the welfare state, despite not having contributed to it through taxes. Those benefits should go to native-born Americans who have helped fund it. Historically, this wasn’t a problem. Kay Hymowitz, in an essay for City Journal, explains:

In the Ellis Island era, the country took in ‘the tired and poor,’ but it did not—it could not, in those hard-knock times—offer them more than a chance to manage on their own . . . There was no Department of Health and Human Services, no state and city welfare offices, no food stamps, Medicaid, housing subsidies, no Department of Education with Title I funds to augment local school budgets, no ESL classes or special education for immigrant children.

More immigrants will further strain the country’s overburdened welfare state with their disproportionate use of welfare, food stamps, and other government largesse. The government already has 27 trillion dollars of debt — increasing that to fund benefits for new citizens is foolish. Some libertarians say the solution is to abolish the modern state, and return to the small government of the 19th century. But at the very least, that change would have to happen before opening the borders — and it is not realistic to think this change is coming any time soon.

Even libertarians who believe there should be no state at all, “anarcho-capitalists,” cannot support the unrestricted movement of people. Murray Rothbard explained why, in a fully privatized country, there would be no mass immigration:

. . . 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. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.

Libertarians might consider promoting an immigration system based around competition, much like the job market. Foreigners, while living outside of the US, could apply for visas, listing their education, talents, intentions, etc. After a background check confirmed each applicant’s truthfulness, the government could ask businesses, civic groups, and voters what kinds of people they were interested in having as new neighbors, employees, and citizens, and select newcomers accordingly.

This system would be more discriminatory, and yield better results, than the current one, or any version of an “open borders” policy. English-language skills and Western cultural values would be valued over “diversity,” educated entrepreneurs would be more likely to come than criminals, etc. American citizens are consumers of immigration, and like their peers in other markets, they deserve the best product. Since the state is not obliged to accept immigrants, it must act in the interests of its citizens when doing so. “Immigration reform” should strive to ensure that the immigrants most likely to succeed and integrate get in first. Libertarians value economic efficiency, and no system with a lottery or “anything goes” stance is efficient. Businesses work best when they are extremely selective about who they hire. The same is true of countries.

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