A (Probably Vain) Plea For Tolerance on the Borders Issue
In my six years as a libertarian, I have never seen the movement so divided on any issue. The rise of Trump, The Wall, the alt-right, Brexit and other nationalist movements has brought the topic of immigration front and centre. It has caused a rift in the libertarian scene as much as it has in mainstream culture.
There has never been a libertarian consensus on the question of immigration and borders, but never has the question brought so much contention between people who are supposed to be on the same side.
On the one hand, you have the pro-state-borders libertarians that feel that immigration restrictions are moral, and also necessary to have any chance of establishing a libertarian order in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them are so sure in fact, that they believe that the open borders position is tantamount to global communism.
On the other hand, you have the open borders libertarians that see all immigration restrictions as violations of the NAP and therefore incompatible with libertarianism. At best, they support this position with reason plus empirical evidence of the utilitarian benefits of immigration. At worst, their arguments devolve into spitting SJW-like temper tantrums, complete with baseless accusations of racism.
There are reputable and respected libertarians on both sides of the debate, but among their fans there is almost war. Just jump on Twitter whenever the issue is in the news and you’ll see for yourself.
It used to be on the same level as the disagreement between libertarians on abortion: yes, it is an important issue, and those on both sides feel strongly, but the disagreement was never cause for fundamental separation.
With the abortion question, it isn’t clear cut whether aborting a foetus was a violation of the non-aggression principle. On the face of it, it seems counterintuitive for a philosophy that advocates freedom over one’s body to argue that terminating a pregnancy is impermissible; but then if a foetus really is a human being, it has rights, and an abortion means killing a human being. The nature of the issue doesn’t lend itself to an easy answer.
I’m not claiming that there isn’t an answer to be found, only that the answer requires methodical deliberation. It’s not obvious, as in, right in front of our face, what the right libertarian response is.
As a counter example, you can see immediately that a mindless massacre of non-aggressive people is un-libertarian; you don’t need to go back and study Locke to figure that one out.
The abortion issue is way more complicated; that’s why it has never caused a definite split within the liberty movement. It seems that most libertarians are willing to agree to disagree on this, put it aside for later, and make a compromise. Even strong libertarian and robust Christian Ron Paul recognised that there was never going to be a consensus on this in our lifetimes, and was willing to make it a matter of states rights. He let his personal feelings on the matter come second.
Notice what has not happened with abortion: the liberty movement has not split between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. The pro-lifers have not denounced the pro-choicers as degenerates and put them up as evidence of leftist infiltration of libertarianism. The pro-choicers have not dismissed pro-lifers as sexist zealots that want to re-institute Victorian patriarchal theocracy. In other words, on this issue, libertarians have acted like adults and accepted that it’s pragmatic to put more complicated issues aside for a greater cause.
It doesn’t imply moral subjectivism or not taking the issues seriously. It just means maintaining peace within the group.
So libertarians can be tolerant of reasonable disagreement. Yet in 2017, over immigration and border controls, this is not the case.
If you’re in favour of immigration restrictions, you’ll be lambasted by the other side, accused of xenophobia, nativism and even racism. If you’re against immigration restrictions, you’ll be labelled a cuck, a secret self-hating socialist that’s merely displaying virtue-signalling out-group preference. The vitriol from both sides is stunning – I have never seen it so vicious.
Guys, this is not an issue we ought to be cutting each other’s heads off over. It is just a complicated issue as abortion – there is no simple argument we can make that proves one side is more libertarian than another.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not as tolerant on other issues when it comes to charges of sectarianism. I am quite happy to denounce ‘libertarians’ for supporting plainly un-libertarian policies. Any libertarian that supports the draft, for instance, is highly questionable and I’ll be among the twitterazi rebuking him. It’s pretty simple: the draft is involuntary servitude of a non-aggressive person. It’s not libertarian, period.
Immigration is not as simple.
Let’s Get a Hold of Things
The first thing to point out before we get into the nitty gritty, is that for both sides of the debate, at least as far as anarchists are concerned, the end game is the same: a society where all property is private, and property owners have the right over their property’s borders. The property owner would be the sole decision-maker when it comes to who is allowed on their property. If they wanted to let everyone in or no-one in, that is their prerogative as a free human being.
That part’s easy. It’s something we all share in common – let’s celebrate that!
What is not so easy is deciding how this can be applied in today’s society, where the majority of land that the national border sits on is owned by the state. The question for the libertarian in a statist world is: given that the state does control the borders right now, what ought to be its immigration policy?
Let’s look at how a typical debate might play out between the two sides concerning this question:
The free immigration crowd say that immigration restrictions represent an inherent violation of the right of freedom of movement . The state has to use aggressive force to deport illegal immigrants – it seems prima facie that this is un-libertarian.
The restricted immigration crowd respond that we don’t have the right to freedom of movement, per se, especially when it comes to traversing private property. Property owners have the right to stop people entering their property for any reason. In this case, deportation would not represent aggression but defensive force against trespassers.
“But the land in-between the border and private property is state-owned, effectively public land.”
“True, but since the state’s dominion over that land is enabled and funded by taxation (theft), its true owners are the citizens of that country. Therefore, the citizens have a right to decide what happens on that that land, including who can enter it.”
“In that case, there is nothing inherently un-libertarian about implementing TSA and drug checkpoints, building giant military bases, installing CCTV cameras on this land. After all, there’s nothing un-libertarian about property owners doing such things on their property.”
“Right, but we as a people can oppose those measures. We support immigration restrictions for pragmatic reasons, i.e. to make sure hoards of people don’t come in just to jump on welfare and vote Democrat. In normal circumstances, mass immigration may be beneficial, but not when we have such a massive welfare state.”
“Why are you so precious over the welfare state? An increase of the population of that magnitude would put such a pressure on the welfare state that it would have to collapse.”
“In the meantime we have to put up with higher taxes and inflation to pay for it? No thanks. Plus, I forgot to mention that in Europe, immigrants are being violent to peaceful citizens. There’s an inherent dichotomy in culture there we have to be aware of.”
“The culprit here is not the majority of immigrants but the state bombing the middle-east to oblivion, displacing natives and creating resentment towards the west, making them violent towards us. We need to oppose that too.”
“Interventionist foreign policy is not going away any time soon. Whereas, we actually do have a chance of limiting immigration right now, stemming the flow and decreasing the chances our children will be bombed and/or raped by Islamic extremists.”
I’ll stop it there for now, but I could go on forever. Hopefully I presented both sides’ arguments fairly. (I do lean to one side more than the other, let me know in the comments if you can guess which side. No cheating if you’ve already discussed this topic with me).
I hope you can see from this little dramatisation that no matter what side you agree with, it’s not simply a matter of constructing a three-proposition syllogism and deducting the answer in seconds. There are many more considerations than most issues.
Notice that the debate switched focus from the NAP to pragmatic strategies for creating a libertarian society. The libertarian answer isn’t staring us in the face, so the debate moves to a question over strategy.
A Tragedy Even More Upsetting Than Romeo and Juliet
For me, the disagreement derives from the tragedy of the commons. In this case, it really is a tragedy, because the point of property rights to begin with is to avoid conflicts like these. The problem with having land owned in common is that first, it is impossible to delineate an equal right to the property amongst millions of people, and second, the rules established on such property are going to be opposed by at least some of its supposed ‘owners’, which brings into question whether it’s their property at all.
Hans Herman Hoppe’s argument goes that it is indeed a tragedy that the land is owned in common, but given that the state does nominally ‘own’ the property, it should act as if it was a private property owner and be rationally discriminate with immigrants. Anything else would amount to forced integration.
Yet, we have to remember that we can’t know what private property owners would do in any given situation. We can rationally conceive of a property owner that is completely indiscriminate with who he lets on to his property – just a complete big-tenter that allows, for better or worse, anyone who wants to to make themselves at home. The only way to make a definite decision on this, considering the vast differences in opinion across the nation, would be to (trigger warning) have a vote on it. But democracy is ‘The God That Failed’ …
We seem to be getting nowhere.
I’m sure the undecided are finding this all very frustrating. Tell me about it.
Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t an answer to be found somewhere in this mess. Only, we need to recognise that it is a mess, and we can get no closer to the answer if we succumb to belligerence and sectarianism over the issue.
Our disagreements are not over a fundamental issue of libertarianism. We all agree that the ideal society is that which is stateless, or has a very minimal state, where the only borders are private property borders. The problem is with how to implement freedom in a system that is inherently unfree. We all have different values, and it may be a case of our different values coming to the fore.
The tragedy of the commons makes enemies out of men. Where property owners can fulfil their preferences and values in peaceful co-existence, the theory of the commons necessitates a one-size-fits all policy in which at least one person is going to be left disappointed. This means that mere disagreements evolve into conflicts.
I know this is going to sound like I’m arguing that we all need to hold hands and dance in a circle in an orchard, but humour me.
Let’s realise who our real enemy is here: the state. The state created this quagmire, and all moral blame is on it. Let’s rise above it.
And let’s be humble. Let us remember that we are still a small movement with comparatively little policy influence. We are not going to see our kind of society in the near future, we know that, but neither are we going to have a state that will do exactly what we want it to do. It never works out like that.
Considering all that, the complicated nature of the immigration issue, the ineffectiveness of in-fighting, we might be better off attending End the Fed rallies, and laughing at the “muh roads” people together, like we used to. I miss those days.
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