The Volokh Conspiracy

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The libertarian case for open borders


If you're a libertarian, you should endorse open borders. Here's why.

Libertarians prize individual liberty. According to libertarians, we have rights to associate with others as we see fit and engage in economic transactions with them. These rights are constraints on state action. Libertarians think it is unjust for states to infringe on individual rights even in order to bring about socially beneficial outcomes. States certainly can't violate our rights to protect some of us from economic competition or shield our cultures from change.

These commitments should lead libertarians to oppose immigration restrictions. When states restrict immigration, they stop you from associating with foreigners and engaging in many mutually beneficial economic exchanges with them. Want to hire an unauthorized immigrant? That's illegal. Suppose you have an uncle who wants to immigrate to your country, and you want to sponsor him. The odds are that your uncle won't be able to immigrate.

From a libertarian perspective, it's hard to justify this interference with the rights and liberties of individuals. And libertarianism is a cosmopolitan doctrine. It says that foreigners have rights too. Immigration restrictions seem to abridge the individual rights of both citizens and foreigners.

Some libertarians reject rights-talk. They use more utilitarian reasoning to evaluate public policy. And these libertarians also have a good reason to oppose at least actual immigration restrictions. The same arguments that justify free trade apply to immigration. More immigration increases the division of labor and immigrants help generate more wealth. If you factor in the benefits of more open borders to foreigners, it is hard to think of a public policy that has a bigger payoff than more immigration. When economists crunch the numbers, they conclude that the benefits of open borders are in the trillions of dollars.

Even libertarians though can acknowledge that sometimes we should restrict individual liberty. For example, most libertarians would deny that you have a right to own, say, a tank or nuclear warhead. Maybe there are good reasons for immigration restrictions that libertarians should recognize too. But what are these reasons?

Libertarians are okay with some kinds of exclusion. Take private property. If a homeless person wants to sleep in your house, you are within your rights to exclude him. Maybe we should understand a state's right to exclude in similar terms. Perhaps a state's territory is the collective property of its citizens and this is reason that states can exclude foreigners. Does this idea make sense?

No. At least, not from a libertarian point of view. It is false that the government or citizens collectively own all of the territory of the United States. Instead, individuals own a large chunk of it. Suppose you wanted to invite some foreigners to cross the border and live in your house. The government will likely say no. That looks like a violation of individual property rights. So, if individuals have rights to private property, then we should reject the view that the United States is the collective property of its government or citizens.

Maybe you're concerned that immigration will change the national culture in bad ways. Immigrants bring new and occasionally upsetting cultural norms and customs with them. But you lack a right to freeze cultural change. Here's something else that can cause cultural change: freedom of speech. People use their rights to freedom of speech to persuade people to adopt new cultural norms. Sometime they succeed and these new norms can be startling and upsetting. Nonetheless, libertarians would firmly reject attempts to restrict freedom of speech to avert cultural change. The same point applies to immigration. Sure, immigration brings about cultural change. Deal with it.

A more sophisticated version of this worry goes like this. Libertarians care deeply about maintaining good institutions, like the secure protection of property rights, relatively decent political institutions that constrain the power of political leaders, and so on. Immigration might damage these institutions. Maybe immigrants will vote for bad political leaders, consume too much in welfare benefits, or screw things up for the rest of us somehow.

This is a reasonable concern. But we must avoid availability bias. Don't immediately think of that terrible story you heard in the local news about some bad hombre messing things up for citizens. Instead, we need to study the impact of immigration on institutions in a systematic and rigorous way.

And, so far, the empirical evidence doesn't bear this worry out. Economists who have studied this issue find that immigration doesn't seem to reduce the quality of institutions (in fact, one study found that immigration is associated with slight improvements in economic freedom). Maybe future research will find something dramatically different. Yet we can't violate people's rights on the basis of speculation and the worry that immigration will significantly damage our institutions remains mostly speculation at the moment. As an aside, I'm more worried about my fellow citizens destroying valuable institutions-not immigrants!

Suppose that you agree with libertarians that open immigration would be a good thing. Notice though that almost everyone disagrees with an ideal of free movement. Open borders are unrealistic, to put it mildly. So why bother fantasizing about open borders? Well, for one thing, marginal improvements are still possible. Maybe we won't have open borders any time soon, but it doesn't seem so impossible for the USA to admit as many immigrants as Australia as a proportion of our population. And the European Union's Schengen Area and South America's Mercosur Residence Agreement suggest that states can make meaningful moves towards more open borders.

But let's suppose that expanding immigration really is politically infeasible. Here's where another key libertarian commitment comes in.

Libertarians are skeptical about state authority. Many libertarians deny that we have duties to obey the law just because it's the law. Libertarians say that, if it is wrong for you or I to coerce other people, then it is wrong for the state to do this too, and other people are under no duty to assist states by obeying their commands. When states restrict immigration, they don't merely stop people at the border. States also force private citizens to refrain from hiring, transporting, and renting to unauthorized immigrants. States conscript private citizens in violating the rights of foreigners.

Here's where libertarians have some practical advice to give: break the law. Ignore immigration laws that try to get you to help the government to achieve its unjust ends. In this way, libertarians' critique of immigration restrictions matters practically. While open borders may be infeasible, there is something that you as an individual can do: refuse to be complicit in the injustice of immigration restrictions.

Javier S. Hidalgo is an assistant professor in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Javier received a PhD in political philosophy from Princeton University. His research currently focuses on the ethics and political philosophy of immigration.