Immigration, Borders, and Liberty
Editor’s Note: Originally published at The Roots of Liberty June 2017.
Just about a year ago, then-Secretary of State John Kerry told the graduating class at Northeastern University that they were about to graduate into a complex and borderless world. Given the continued hotness of the potato known as immigration (one further complicated by the questions of refugees and Radical Islam), and the Supreme Court’s partial reinstatment of Trump’s travel ban, this anniversary seems an apt moment to contemplate the interplay between the essence of a nation and the precepts of liberty.
The freedom to move about is as fundamental an aspect of liberty as any other one that can be named. It stems from the basic premise of self-ownership, a premise that is without meaning if it does not include the right to do with one’s self as one pleases (hindered only by the equal rights of others). There is, in America, substantial law and precedent protecting this right at the domestic level.
Staunch libertarians and their wild-eyed (and sometimes embarrassing) better-than-thous, the anarcho-capitalists, extend this fundamental right across borders, arguing that any restriction of movement between nations is itself a violation of human rights. If one’s an anarchist, sure, one can believe this, but for those who believe that there is at least some proper role for government in people’s lives, this idea is a bit of a “bridge too far.”
People who support liberty and limited government argue about how much government is the right amount, but it is the rare bird who disputes that national defense and protection of individual rights are fundamental and proper roles of government. It is in the fulfillment of these roles that we find the problems with freedom of movement across borders. Simply put, how can a nation protect its citizens and their rights if it does not control who comes in and out of the country? If a nation doesn’t monitor and manage entry and exit, thieves, murderers, terrorists, soldiers of foreign powers would be able to come and go, greatly complicating the government’s duties to defend the nation and to protect individual rights. Thus, even a high-fidelity adherence to basic principles of liberty supports the premise of national sovereignty and controlled, secure borders.
I’ve written that I am an open-borders advocate, a position that, once understood, aligns just fine with the concept of secure borders. Open borders means robust flow of people, unhindered by arbitrary quotas or social engineering, and subject only to the protection of citizens from bad actors. Thus, I echo Charles Koch’s view:
I would let anybody in who will make the country better, and no one who will make it worse.
Yes, this means denying entry to known and presumed terrorists, to known criminals, to welfare cheats, etc, but it also means welcoming anyone who wants to work, without quota, without religious or ethnic tests, and without presumption of “job-stealing,” “over-burdening the system,” etc. This is a position that probably doesn’t sit well with either of the loud voices in the current debate, i.e. the build-a-wall, round-em-up nativists who put Trump into the White House and their ideological opposites, the progressive gainsayers whose position seems to be little more than “if they say red, we say green” and thus want to fling the doors wide open.
It’s also a position that comes with a major caveat, one ably discussed by the great Milton Friedman. Free immigration into a welfare state, even an incompletely realized one, is one that’s perversely incentivized. Those who are motivated by the prospect of working in a freer society will be overshadowed by those motivated by the prospect of not having to work. The welfare state is itself, of course, a violation of liberty, wherein productivity and wealth creation (i.e. the fruits of my labor) are taken by force for redistribution according to whatever criteria those in power choose to apply. I don’t fully embrace the hard-line libertarian position that “taxation is theft,” because I recognize there are two types of taxation. Fee-for-service taxation, e.g. national defense, the courts, the functioning of our branches of government, and civil services such as police, firefighting, sanitation, and, yes, public roads, are one type. We can argue about how best to fund these services and public goods, and, yes, there are non-tax ways to fund them, but they do not rise to the violative level of the other type of taxation i.e. redistributive taxation i.e. take from John to give to Joe. That is an irrefutable violation of self-ownership, and it is thus a fundamental violation of individual rights. So, immigration into welfare cannot be defended on the basis of freedom of movement, because it violates others’ freedoms, even if we grant that the government has the right to tax us in fulfilling certain roles.
Thus, the real argument we should be having about immigration is not about immigration itself, but rather about the welfare state. Unfortunately, while that argument is the one that strikes at the core of the problems purported by opponents of immigration, that core lies below the more easily pointed-at surface problems that drive the debate, i.e. economic, crime and national security concerns.
As to the former, nativists on the Right claim that immigrants steal Americans’ jobs, and that they burden our social structures. The latter is true only under the unacceptable immigrate-to-welfare category. The former rests on the farcical premise that one has a right to a job (which would violate the employer’s rights), and ignores the fact that someone who creates wealth expands the economy and thus contributes to job creation. In other words, it’s not a pie of fixed size, being competed for by a growing number of pie-eaters, but rather a pie that grows as the number of workers grows. More laborers, more entrepreneurs, more professionals, more people doing stuff that others are willing to pay for = more wealth and a healthier nation. It doesn’t matter whether they just got off a boat or are tenth generation natives.
As to the latter, progressives seem uninterested in the reality that not everyone who seeks to immigrate here is merely a good person who lost the birthplace lottery and is looking to make a better life. Fact is, there are indeed bad people out there, there is indeed a transnational threat from Islamic terrorism, and only a moron would let terrorists and murderers in while trumpeting compassion and the moral high ground. The fact that such people are not the norm, or that they may be few in number, or that they may be a tiny percentage of all prospective immigrants, does not excuse downplaying or ignoring their existence.
Some argue that the risk of letting bad guys, even if small, is greater than zero and therefore we should simply wall the nation up. Some argue that the risk associated with bad guys in is small, and besides, we’ve got home-grown terrorists, so we shouldn’t be so fussy. Neither stands up to scrutiny. Immigration is not only good for the country, it is vital if we are to survive both our crushing national debt and our too-low birth rate. It is also America’s history, heritage, and life blood, but it is not a suicide pact.
Some argue that the immigrants of today do not embrace American values, that they are more “different” than immigrants of yore, and that they are so “different” that they do not fit in. I don’t blame them for that. I trace the problem of assimilation and “compatibility” to our progressives, not to the immigrants themselves. Immigrants, individually, aren’t going to show up in a strange land and demand their new home conform to their old values without the idea being put into their heads, and it is a fact that America has become a home for people from every single walk of life, people who, even as they embraced the tenets of liberty and self-reliance that is the American Way, contributed some of themselves to what became known as the Melting Pot.
This melting pot history has, unfortunately, been replaced with multiculturalism, relativism and the notion that other cultural mores are as valid as ours even if they embrace illiberal and incompatible precepts. Liberty and a respect for individual rights certainly includes accepting that some may believe differently than we do, but should those different beliefs clash with the tenets of liberty, they must yield. We are not obligated to respect the ways of those who do not respect liberty and individual rights. In fact, we abandon our commitment to liberty if we do so. If a communist comes into your house, you aren’t required to say “you know what, your embrace of communism is just as valid as my embrace of liberty.” He’s wrong, liberty is better than communism, and you can certainly tell him “my house, my rules.”
On to matters practical. How do we address immigration, in today’s political climate, within the tenets of liberty? Charles Koch’s simple statement holds all the answers, but lets elaborate on it just a bit with a baseball interview cliche, as taught by Crash Davis to Nuke Laloosh in Bull Durham:
I’m just happy to be here, hope I can help the ball club.
That’s who should be welcomed into the nation: people who want to, by working productively and thereby creating wealth, help the nation, and who will be happy to do so.
We should, as we have been since the nation’s inception, embrace immigration, and welcome all those who want to come to America to live in liberty, self-determination and the Protestant work ethic. Yes, that means letting more people in than we have been, and, yes, it also means that we need to reform welfare and other public benefits to reduce or eliminate the incentives for freeloaders and malingerers. And, yes, it means vetting who comes through the gates. It’s stupid not to. More good people are a good thing for the country, nonsense about stealing jobs and diluting the labor pool notwithstanding. Bad people, on the other hand? What possible reason could anyone have for notvetting who crosses our borders? Remember – liberty under even a minimal government obligates the government to protect us, nationally and individually, and letting bad people in is a violation of that obligation. Yes, it’s neither easy nor foolproof to cull the bad from the good, but there is no utopia, and the benefits of immigration to liberty, national security, and economic prosperity are compelling.
Furthermore, robust immigration, along with other measures that address the supply and demand pressures that create illegal immigration such as guest worker programs, will make border control more manageable, and obviate the need for a stupid, grotesquely expensive and likely-ineffectual wall on the southern border. If we’re not busy chasing people who simply want to come here to work but can’t get in through normal portals, we can devote more resources to keeping the bad guys out.
The freedom to move about is, as other rights are, inherent and inalienable. It is limited only when it infringes on the equally-inherent and equally-inalienable rights of others, and in the context of nations, it is proper that government manage that freedom at the border in order to provide protections for the rights of a nation’s people. Thus, even open-borders advocates should accept the existence of a border, cognizance of who crosses it, and efforts to prevent those who would harm or deny others’ freedoms from entry.