There Are No Libertarian Objections to Open Borders
Some people claim to uphold libertarian principles but reject open borders. I’m going to explain why this isn’t a consistent position.
To begin, try to imagine a self-professed libertarian who asserts that the state should prohibit people from congregating at their church on Easter. It’s obvious that this claim isn’t consistent with libertarian principles—the prohibition would violate private property rights and freedom of association. And if you reject either of those rights, you’re not a libertarian because they’re definitional features of libertarianism.
Similarly, prohibiting someone from immigrating to the United States (for instance) violates private property rights and freedom of association. An American’s freedom to hire an immigrant to work in the business she owns is protected by her private property rights as well as her freedom to associate with the immigrant and the immigrant’s freedom to associate with her. The same goes for decisions to reside or congregate with people from other countries.
While I don’t have the space to go into much detail, I’ll run down my replies to the most common arguments against open borders that I’ve heard from libertarians. All of these arguments share a core problem: not only do they undermine freedom of immigration, they undermine many other libertarian freedoms as well.
The most popular objection alleges that “we can’t have open borders and a welfare state.” (This position is sometimes affiliated with Milton Friedman, but his view was actually more nuanced than it seems.) Even if we set aside the finding that estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration “are clustered around zero,” this argument is easy enough to refute. Libertarians advocate for legalizing heroin with a welfare state in place. They don’t defend state restrictions on reproductive rights even when the children will attend public schools. In short, if we took the “welfare state objection” seriously, it wouldn’t stop at the freedom to immigrate.
I’ll also note that libertarians who press the welfare state objection should, at the very least, accept open borders paired with the keyhole solution of restricting eligibility for welfare benefits. If you think no one is entitled to these benefits, then it’s hard to see why you’d have a problem with a policy doesn’t provide these benefits in full.
The second objection claims that taxpayers have the right to determine how public infrastructure is used and thus the right to restrict immigrants’ access if they choose. But this argument also proves too much. Do taxpayers have the right to prohibit people from driving on public roads if they have copies of Anarchy, State, and Utopia in the car? Surely not.
The third objection is that more immigration will lessen the likelihood of achieving libertarian policy goals. But the empirical evidence rebuts the claim that more immigration produces less economic freedom. Moreover, even if things were otherwise, this would remain an unconvincing argument for immigration restriction. Consider that libertarians wouldn’t call for the state to ban the sale of books by Tucker Carlson or to break up the Democratic Socialists of America even if this could make libertarian outcomes more likely. Why not? Because these policies would violate private property rights and freedom of association—just like immigration restrictions.