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by Ian Tartt
Immigration is a hot topic, especially since the most recent presidential election. Some people advocate increased border control while others favor fewer restrictions. Libertarians, while generally falling into the latter category, sometimes end up in the former category. This leads to a lot of arguments over what should be done about immigration and borders. In this article, we’ll attempt to find an answer that is as compatible as possible with foundational libertarian principles.
Libertarian advocates of open borders talk about “free movement of people across imaginary lines”, the right to travel, supposed economic benefits of loose or no restrictions on immigration, and point out that a government which can prevent people from entering a country can also prevent people from leaving the country. On the other side, those advocating closed/controlled borders make points about supposed economic disadvantages of mass immigration, the possibility of terrorists or other dangerous people coming in unobstructed, the problem of while letting in a lot of people who may be indifferent to or even oppose freedom, and having open borders and a welfare state simultaneously.
Both of these positions create a general impression among libertarians that they are the only possible positions on immigration and borders, and because libertarians tend to be more skeptical than trusting of government power, this leads many to favor open borders. What’s missing from most discussions on this subject is an essential element of libertarianism: property rights. The question that should be asked before any policy prescriptions are made is in which scenarios does traveling freely over a given plot of land not violate someone’s property rights? The answer, from a consistent libertarian perspective based on property rights, is in three scenarios.
First, one has the right to travel over any plot of land that they own. Since they are the owner of the land in question, they need not ask anyone else for permission. This leads to the second scenario, in which one does not own the land in question but has permission from the owner to travel freely around it. And the third scenario in which one may travel freely over a given plot of land occurs whenever unowned land is involved. Unowned land, whether it was never owned by anybody or has been abandoned by the owner, by definition has no owner, and thus nobody is required to seek permission before moving around on it.
A potential fourth scenario involves government-owned land, but this is controversial among libertarians. Some would accept the validity of government having a claim to land ownership and would say that whatever that government wants to do with the land is acceptable. Others would reject such a claim and treat the land as if it were unowned, or still owned by the previous owner in the event that eminent domain were used to acquire it. And still others may say that while government may own land, the proper thing for it to do is allow free travel across it for everyone rather than only allowing some people to use it. A solution that may satisfy all of those perspectives will be examined later in this article.
Now that we’ve examined several scenarios in which one may travel freely over a given plot of land, what’s a scenario in which one may not? One which every homeowner should be thinking of right now is that scenario in which the land is owned and one does not have permission from the owner. No homeowner appreciates someone breaking into their house or showing up in their backyard uninvited and most take precautions to prevent either from occurring, which is well within their rights as property owners.
In the present scenario, closed border would require the state owning or controlling vast sections of land to keep people out, and open borders would require the same thing to let people in. This reveals the problem of thinking about these issues without keeping property rights in mind. The position on borders that is most consistent with property rights is private borders as that would completely remove state ownership and control of land. Land that had been taken by force from its rightful owner could be returned to the owner or the person with the best claim to the land (such as a descendant of the owner) if the original owner has either died or can’t be found, and the rest of it could be sold or opened up for homesteading; this could be done with the land along borders too.
It would then be up to the owner of any given plot of land to decide who gets to travel on it and who doesn’t. Those along the border who let people into the country would then be partly responsible for whatever good or bad things immigrants did once they arrived since they let them in. No longer would there be a one-size-fits-all government policy for people (especially libertarians) to argue over endlessly, and the government wouldn’t be able to use anybody’s land in a way they oppose.
The purpose of this article was to take a look at different immigration and border scenarios and see how they compare to the libertarian principle of property rights. It was not intended to be an exact, detailed guide on how to move from the current situation to that situation which is most compatible with property rights. Where there is disagreement on principles, further discussion is required. Once that disagreement is resolved, then it becomes possible to think of solutions. And with the way things are going, the world is in desperate need of both principles and solutions based on those principles.