A Libertarian Case Against Open Borders

Stephen Cox, editor of Liberty, sets out a very good one, with which I’m mostly inclined to agree. Particularly this point:

Poor people, and ethnically self-identified recent immigrants vote overwhelmingly for modern-liberal candidates, and modern-liberal candidates, once elected, take as the whole duty of life the effort to raise taxes and expand government programs and entitlements. They seek to bless their constituency with affirmative action programs, ethnic quotas, foreign-language maintenance programs, socialist and race-conscious school curricula, and every other modern-liberal institution that has any potential for transforming the United States into the Canadian or Mexican version of a progressive country. The expectation of political support explains why modern-liberal politicians are such vigorous proponents of immigration, why they are, even now, trying to enlist illegal immigrants in the electoral process (see “The Election of 666,” Reflections, August 2006 – a commentary that prompted a nice little flurry of hate mail). The same goes for labor unions. They used to be the biggest opponents of immigration. No more. Now most of them are endorsing every open-borders proposal that comes along. Why? Because they too have identified their natural constituency: unskilled, politically unsophisticated workers, just waiting to be organized in support of higher minimum wage laws, universal social welfare, and whatever other political demands the unions want to make.

Is it possible that politicians and labor leaders know a few things that libertarian theorists don’t? Is it possible that they have correctly identified the current immigration from third-world countries as the ultimate weapon in the attack on limited government?

To a considerable extent, as much of Cox’s evidence elsewhere in his piece suggests, poor immigrants are a constituency for greater government services whether or not they can vote. They can still exert statist political pressures in a number of ways, relatively weak though they may be. Probably the most serious source of such pressure is the opportunity poor immigrants give liberal (and all too many conservative) do-gooders to show their generosity and compassion by taxing the rest of us. Even if immigrants don’t clamor for social services, their mere existence is enough to provoke bleeding hearts into demanding that government provide for them.

Plainly enough, the potential harm poor immigrants can do to our liberties is mightily exacerbated if they get the vote. But illegal immigrants aren’t queuing up for naturalization and citizenship, right? Perhaps not; but any children of theirs born here are automatically American citizens, thanks to the prevailing jus soli interpretation of the 14th Amendment. If I could have just one immigration reform, this would be it: I’d restict citizenship to the children of citizens and to naturalized immigrants.

It’s true, of course, that by no means do all poor immigrants who get the franchise use it to vote for greater government. Can you exclude the libertarian few in order to keep out the socialist many? Absolutely. To do otherwise would be to sacrifice liberty to democracy. Some libertarians will object here that, hey, maybe tomorrow the odds will change and poor immigrants will be more likely to support less government. My reply is: the probabilities matter. Until we have good reason to believe that such a change has come about, we shouldn’t be gambling on enfranchising hundreds of thousands of unskilled, low-wage workers.

A more challenging objection might be to ask whether the outcome Cox outlines is really so bad relative to the alternative: higher taxes and greater support for affirmative action are certainly bad things, but they have to be weighed against the militarism and corporate cronyism that the other major party supports. (Though in fact both parties are in favor of militarism, affirmative action, and corporate cronyism, and whatever advantage Republicans appear to accrue from being for nominally lower taxes they lose by supporting deficit spending, which has to be paid by taxes or devaluation of the currency sooner or later.)


4 thoughts on “A Libertarian Case Against Open Borders

  1. Tim September 15, 2006 / 4:25 am


    We have a parallel situation here in Australia but there are some local political differences that may be relevant, even in understanding the US situation. The ‘liberal’ end of the political spectrum here (the term liberal is used here differently) are the strongest on multiculturalism, for a mix of the opportunistic pro-big government reasons you mention, and, perhaps more so, a kind of self imposed isolation / alienation from mainstream anglo-celtic Australian culture.

    This causes them, for example, to be the most vocal champions of Australian Aboriginal causes, even if Australian aborigines are more often than not less keen on those causes than are the left / liberals. This championing however does not go so far as to actually listen to or represent Aboriginal people on ‘non-liberal’ issues that have a strong hold in the aboriginal population, namely, private firearm ownership, christianity and opposition to liberalisation of laws on euthanasia. And of course, aboriginal opposition to further immigration.

    The left / liberal enthusiasm for culturally diverse immigration causes real ideological self contradictions on the far left, namely the greens. Australia has small but strategically influential green parties. These parties place the ‘ecological crisis’ at the centre of their platform and the logical derivative of their programs is, or should be, strong opposition to immigration. But logic isn’t politic.

    Some ‘right wing’ immigration restrictionists groups have jumped on this ‘sustainability’ issue with the result that the greens have largely ditched any and all serious opposition to immigration due to their allegiance to ‘multiculturalism’. In effect for them the symbolic support of multiculturalism is more important than the ecological crisis they keep warning us about. Presumably they don’t really believe there is an ecological crisis or they would prefer that we all go to hell in an cosmopolitan hand cart than have a few middle class whities sidestep armageddon.

    So it would seem to me that all told the liberal allegiance to mulitculturalism is more ideological than opportunistic.

    There is another possible antipodean lesson for Americans here too. The contrast between the policies and rhetoric of the former federal Labor government of Paul Keating and the current federal Liberal (ie conservative) government of John Howard.

    The Keating government played the multiculturalist rights rhetoric to the hilt, yet in practice the conservatives have actually driven the actual numbers of immigrants much higher. Howard has made much song and dance about illegal immigration, including the virtual internment of ‘illegal boat people’ (illegal immigrant runs organised by Indonesian and Malaysian based ‘snakeheads’ i.e. people smugglers) yet under his administration legal immigration has reached all time levels.

    The former Keating government’s rhetoric created a backlash among mainly blue collar and provincial voters that dissident anti-immigration parties (namely Pauline Hanson’s ‘One Nation’ party were able to capitalise on. Howard in effect captured this voting bloc [up to 10% of the electorate] by his showmanship on illegal immigration. It reminds me of the old ‘pea and thimble’ trick. Anti-immigration voters were brought off with symbolic anti-‘illegal’ campaigns whilst the legal immigration scheme is expanded.

    My guess is that Australian Labor could never get away with a major expansion of immigration, despite their championing of multiculturalist ideology, due to their dependence on the labour unions as an integral part of their party machine. The Business Council of Australia is generally a firm advocate of high immigration levels where the unions are more restrained here. This Labor / conservative split on immigration and multiculturalism is not just a recent invention from the Keating / Howard era. If you go back to the early 1970s, it was the Whitlam ‘Labor’ government that originally formulated ‘multiculturalism’ and which formally buried the old immigration restrictionist ‘White Australia’ policy. Yet in practice it was the conservative governments immediately prior to Whitlam that effectively ended the WAP (if not ‘formally’) and it was the conservative government immediately after Whitlam that was the real implementer of multiculturalism and diverse intakes. Under Whitlam, despite the rhetoric, if anything immigration reduced.

    Not being an American I can only guess at possible ‘lessons’ this has for the US but it would seem to me that they can be summarised thus. The rhetoric of muliticulturalism is of almost religious importance to the left. They are less concerned with actual immigrant body count than political correctness. Where left wing parties have a tie in to the labour unions there is a brake on immigration liberalisation, regardless of the rhetoric. Mainstream conservative parties and peak business organisations and lobbies are more interested in increasing the actual numbers of immigrants than are either Labor parties or liberal multiculturalists. A significant section of the voting public is willing to change their vote in order to gain immigration restrictions. This section is probably larger than the pro-multiculturalist vote, which in any case is already locked up by the left leaning parties. (In the Australian case, the current federal Labor leadership has been unwilling to mount any serious opposition to Howard’s anti- illegal immigration measures, despite the gnashing of teeth from their left wing.) Mainstream conservative politicians may opportunistically exploit the anti-immigration vote (pretty well no one else can) but they are unlikely to use that to implement restrictive immigration policies and thus alienate their business allies. Their most likely response is some anti-illegal showmanship with little impact on long term demographic trends.

    I suspect any push for immigration restriction that does not activate labour union involvement is probably doomed to failure. The current weakness of the organised labor in the US, and increasingly so (but from the base of a higher union participation rate) in Australia, may in part be a reason why Open Door people have such a strong political hand.

  2. Rob November 15, 2010 / 1:55 pm

    So let me see if I have your argument right? We should be against open borders because altruistic liberal politicians would expand our welfare system and tax us to oblivion. You are so right the fall of the USSR caused a mass shift in population from numerous countries to Western Europe. Their welfare systems exploded and hence the nightmare they have today. Is this Jose’s from Mexico’s fault or Stan from Warsaw’s fault. Or just maybe we have a bunch of idiots running our governments and a corrupt institution we call central banking making this all possible. I just can’t see how giving me access to cheaper and new labor or giving Stan and Jose more liberty and freedom is ever negative. The monster in this lake is not the tourists its the leviathan we call government.

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