The Open Borders Theory: Libertarian Perspectives on Open Borders

Abstract

This paper provides a comprehensive examination of the open borders theory within the libertarian tradition, focusing on the contrasting perspectives of the Cato Institute and the Mises Institute. It delves into the debate between the Cato Institute’s advocacy for an unrestricted movement based on consequentialist libertarianism and the Mises Institute’s more cautious approach that prioritizes deontological principles, particularly private property rights and the non-aggression principle. A key aspect of the paper is the exploration of the ethical and political challenges posed by irregular migration and its implications for national sovereignty, border control, and economic welfare. The research begins with a thorough exploration of the open borders theory and the complexities of irregular migration, analyzing the multifaceted ethical considerations surrounding border control and national sovereignty. This examination aims to unpack the intricate dynamics between libertarian philosophical doctrines and the practicalities of contemporary global migration, ultimately contributing valuable insights into the ongoing discourse on immigration policy and international relations.

Keywords: Libertarianism, Open Borders, Irregular Migration, Property Rights, Immigration

Introduction

Open borders theory refers to a political system in which there are no restrictions on the movement of people or goods between countries. In an ideal world with open borders, individuals can travel, live, and work in any country of their choice without the need for immigration controls such as visas or passports.

The essential concept of open borders theory—that is, the right to free movement—inevitably leads to irregular migration, which causes political and ethical concerns. Since irregular migration refers to the movement of individuals across borders without proper authorization or documentation, it has become a significant global issue. The ethical dimension revolves around the rights migrants, while the political dimension involves considerations of national sovereignty, border control, and economic welfare. 

One of the most heated debates about open borders theory has been going on in the libertarian tradition. Since libertarians have an opposition to state intervention, they would generally be expected to favor open borders. However, there is a division within the libertarian tradition regarding open borders theory, and it can be most efficiently observed at two influential institutions in the libertarian sphere: the Cato Institute and the Mises Institute. While the Cato Institute is generally in favor of open borders, the Mises Institute takes a more nuanced approach. 

In addition to offering a comparative study of the two most significant libertarian traditions, this paper seeks to clarify the ethical and political implications of the libertarian viewpoints on open borders theory.

Open Borders and Irregular Migration

Open borders have been a long debate since the advent of nation-states and the establishment of immigration policies. The idea of open borders advocates for the unrestricted movement of people across national boundaries, rejecting the proposal of strict immigration controls. Nevertheless, this idea has faced criticism and concerns, particularly regarding irregular migration. In an open borders framework, it is crucial to understand the notion of “irregular migration.” This concept refers to individuals who enter a country without the appropriate authorization, which may involve bypassing border controls or using forged documents. It also includes those who initially enter a country legally but subsequently violate their authorized status by overstaying their visas or work permits, engaging in fake marriages, pretending to be students, or falsely claiming self-employment. (Koser, 2007; 55) Since open borders eliminate many legal barriers to cross-border movement, these individuals may view open borders as a chance to escape economic hardship, political instability, or persecution in their home countries. Additionally, the prospect of accessing better healthcare, education, or social welfare systems may further motivate them to migrate to countries with open borders. However, despite the growing number of migrants, an increasing trend is observed where people prefer irregular migration instead of legal channels, partly due to heightened restrictions on legal movements in destination countries.  As a result, more people than ever before want to move, but there are proportionately fewer legal opportunities for them to do so. (Koser, 2007; 54)

The conventional view on immigration holds that nations have significant control over their borders, including the authority to govern immigration based on their domestic interests.  (Wilcox, 2009; 814) Control over borders is inherently tied to national sovereignty. Nations assert their authority to regulate entry, exit, and stay within their territories. However, in today’s globalized world, this has led to debates and challenges surrounding the balance between national sovereignty and the rights of individuals to seek better opportunities elsewhere.  

One of the most famous philosophical justifications for state power over immigration was made by communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer, who expresses his opinion by emphasizing culture and national identity. To begin, he presents his argument by delving into the concept of membership. In Walzer’s view, membership is considered a social good, and its value is determined by the collective efforts, work, and conversations of the existing members. (Walzer, 1983; 37) Therefore, current members have the authority to choose new members based on their collective understanding of what membership entails in their community. Within this standpoint, Walzer argues that, similar to how individuals have control over their property, nations, as territorial states, have the right to control the movement of members and nonmembers within their borders. In short, he directly associates the self-determination concept of private property with government.

Renowned for his advocacy of a liberal-egalitarian approach in the open borders theory debates, Joseph Carens diverges from Walzer’s conventional argument. Carens contends that states should have limited authority to regulate immigration. Furthermore, he claims that allowing immigrants to perceive their freedom of movement is the consistent application of liberal principles. (Carens, 1987; 265) Thus, by opposing the idea that political communities should control their borders, he asserts that demonstrating a nation as private property may undermine the essential values of property rights. (Carens, 1987; 252) Carens also criticizes Walzer’s analogy by emphasizing the difference between the private and public spheres. While self-determination may be acceptable for private communities like clubs, it cannot be justified in public communities like states. (Carens, 1987; 267)

The debate between immigration policies and property rights highlights the complexities of pursuing freedom of movement. Thinkers Walzer and Carens offer diverse perspectives on this evolving issue. As we delve into the multifaceted dynamics of this discourse, the libertarian perspective introduces an additional layer to the analysis. In addition to private property rights, it underscores limited government and a free-market approach, enriching the ongoing dialogue on the open borders theory.

Ethics of Libertarianism

Libertarianism is a political and ethical philosophy that emphasizes individual liberty, the free market, and private ownership. Advocates condemn the state’s actions, arguing that it has oppressed individuals’ rights. They advocate for voluntary interactions and free markets with low or no taxation, contending that the state should not interfere with the economy. Libertarians are anti-collectivists who defend the idea that individuals should have the right to make their own choices without state interference, promoting personal autonomy and prosperity. Although the opinions of libertarians are similar in political areas, such as limiting state power, the different interpretations of the ethical dimensions cause friction in libertarian traditions. Hence, the libertarian framework is mainly divided into two forms: deontological (natural-rights) and consequential libertarianism.

Deontological libertarianism is rooted in the idea that individuals have natural rights that should not be violated, regardless of the potential consequences. Natural rights are explained through the principles of natural law. It is a fundamentally robust concept that holds the existing state of affairs accountable by subjecting it to rigorous scrutiny in the light of reason. (Rothbard, 1982; 65) By applying the doctrines of natural law, deontological libertarians emphasize self-ownership, which means all individuals have ownership rights over themselves. They also claim that individuals have the moral right to acquire property, and any violation of these rights is seen as an infringement on their freedom. Known as a moral foundation for respecting natural rights, the non-aggression principle (NAP) prohibits the initiation of force or coercion against others. (Hoppe, 2010; 160) While evaluating the open borders problem, deontological libertarians typically refer to property rights and their ethical justification through the NAP.

On the other hand, consequential libertarianism embraces a utilitarian approach, not a philosophical one. Although consequential libertarians are also proponents of private property rights and free markets, they mainly focus on the outcomes and consequences of policies and actions. (Miron, 2010; 38) Thus, they believe that the open borders problem should be evaluated based on its potential economic and social impacts. While consequentialist libertarians may justify aggression for its potential consequences, in contrast, deontological libertarians have a radical opposition to aggression on all counts. This fact demonstrates the primary difference between deontological and consequentialist libertarianism.

The Libertarian Divide on the Open Borders Theory

Divergent perspectives on libertarianism give rise to disagreements on free borders. The libertarian position on open borders is distinguished between two important institutions: the Cato Institute and the Mises Institute. These institutions, grounded in libertarian principles, offer distinct viewpoints on the concept of the open borders theory and its alignment with libertarian ideals.

The Cato Institute

Founded in 1977, the Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. It is dedicated to promoting libertarian ideas, free-market economics, and civil liberties. The institute conducts research and advocacy on a range of policy issues. Overall, the Cato Institute’s standpoint on libertarianism is consequential. In the context of the open borders theory, their view translates into the belief that individuals should have the freedom to move across borders to seek better opportunities without unreasonable government restrictions. Consequently, the Cato Institute supports policies that advocate for open borders and the removal of barriers to immigration. 

Bryan Caplan, who is an economist and professor, is a prominent advocate for open borders. In his article “A Radical Case for Open Borders,” he argues that for moral theories like libertarianism that prioritize individual rights, the open borders recommendation is explicit. (Caplan, 2015; 195) Caplan asserts that open borders not only align with libertarian principles but also have numerous economic benefits. In his utilitarian approach, he highlights how immigration can lead to increased innovation, productivity, and economic growth by allowing individuals to freely pursue their talents and skills in a more conducive environment. Furthermore, he claims that open borders can also help alleviate poverty and improve the overall standard of living for both immigrants and native citizens.

A distinguished law professor in the libertarian sphere, Ilya Somin, has also written about the libertarian perspective on the value of free borders. His work often touches on the impact of immigration restrictions on individual freedom. Somin argues that a strong connection exists between political freedom and the idea of “foot voting.” That is, the ability of individuals to express their political preferences by choosing the government policies under which they want to live through geographic mobility. (Somin, 2021; 20) From a libertarian standpoint, the emphasis on “foot voting” resonates with the principle of individual freedom and the right to choose one’s preferred market place and civil society. He defends that individuals should have the autonomy to select a political environment that aligns with their values and geographic mobility. (Somin, 2021; 54) Overall, Somins’s ideas underscore the importance of individual choice and the role of foot voting as a means of realizing and expanding political freedom within a framework of limited government influence.

Consequentialist libertarian Jeffrey Miron challenges the prevalent belief in the effectiveness of immigration restrictions, presenting a libertarian perspective that rejects common arguments favoring such restrictions. 

He critiques four main rationales: concerns about cultural dilution, potential strain on social welfare programs, harm to sending countries due to high-skilled labor migration, and the perceived negative impact on the income of native, low-skilled workers. Miron argues that immigration can enhance cultural richness and economic prosperity, and cultural assimilation occurs naturally unless government policies segregate immigrants. He suggests moderate welfare systems rather than restricting immigration. About the high-skilled labor migration issue, Miron believes the risk of brain drain from poor countries is outweighed by the positive impacts of migration on sending nations, such as education incentives and remittances. He relentlessly advocates for open borders, fostering competition, innovation, and cultural diversity, benefiting both migrants and receiving countries. Miron acknowledges concerns about the gradual transition to increased immigration but underscores the overall benefits. He concludes that open borders offer the best immigration policy, as attempts to restrict immigration come with their drawbacks, such as border control costs, a violent black market, and corruption incentives. In the consequential libertarian view, expanding immigration aligns with principles of individual freedom, voluntary exchanges, and the potential for global economic improvement, particularly benefiting impoverished populations. (Miron, 2010)

The Mises Institute

The Mises Institute, located in Auburn, Alabama, was founded in 1982 and named after Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. It serves as a hub for research and education in the Austrian School of Economics. The Institute embraces deontological and anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which represent an explicit rejection of government and therefore aggression. In general, libertarian doctrine traditionally declares itself in favor of the principle of complete freedom of immigration. (Soto, 1998; 187) However, the radical stance of the Mises Institute distinguishes it in a political and philosophical realm; the leading philosophers of the Institute offer unconventional arguments on open borders theory by emphasizing the principles of private property rights.

Murray Rothbard, an Austrian School economist, puts forth a libertarian perspective on open borders and challenges the conventional idea—such as Walzer’s—that the borders of nation-states are inherently just and inviolable, similar to the rights of private property. Rothbard contends that treating a nation-state’s territorial integrity with the same sanctity as an individual’s bodily person or private property is absurd. He suggests that, unlike personal property, the boundaries of nation-states are not inherently just, and assuming their righteousness without question is a flaw in the analysis. (Rothbard, 1994; 3) Nonetheless, he also claims that under the anarcho-capitalist model, a privatized area would not have “open borders” due to every piece of land would be owned by an individual, group, or corporation. In such a scenario, immigrants could only enter if they were invited to rent or purchase property. Thus, a totally privatized country would be as “closed” as its inhabitants and property owners desire. (Rothbard, 1994; 7)

Rothbard sets a goal for libertarians in order to achieve a truly free society, where individuals have complete control over their own property and are not subject to any form of government interference or coercion: the transformation of coercive nation-states into genuine nations or entities formed by consent. He proposes a transformation involving total privatization of land areas, eliminating “public” land, to address nationality issues and promote diversity based on community preferences. (Rothbard, 1994; 5) Regarding the matter of open borders, Rothbard raises concerns about the welfare state subsidizing immigrants and cultural boundaries being overwhelmed. He suggests that under total privatization, conflicts, including immigration-related ones, would be resolved through private ownership. Communities, corporations, or contractual entities would establish their own rules and preferences for residents, fostering genuine diversity based on voluntary association.

Similar to Rothbard’s views, anarcho-capitalist philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s ideas on open borders and immigration are rooted in emphasizing the centrality of private property rights and individual freedom. Hoppe strongly critiques the notion of open borders being imposed by a central authority, fearing that it could result in forced integration against the preferences of property owners. According to Hoppe, a society that upholds the value of property rights should prioritize voluntary integration and association, allowing property owners to make decisions based on their own choices. In his envisioned society, structured around the NAP, decision-making is decentralized. Hoppe contends that local communities, including individuals, homeowner associations, or other groups, would have the authority to determine who is allowed to enter and reside in their respective territories.  (Hoppe, 2007; 139)

Hoppe also famed himself for his harsh criticisms of democracy. He denounces democracy for its potential to infringe on individual rights, especially the rights of property owners. In a democratic system, decisions are often made collectively through majority rule, which could lead to policies that violate the wishes of property owners regarding their land and resources. (Hoppe, 2007; 114) For this reason, Hoppe is concerned that open borders, if enforced through democratic processes, might allow the majority to impose its preferences on property owners who may wish to control immigration onto their land. (Hoppe, 2007; 144)

Walter Block is an anarcho-capitalist and a senior fellow at the Mises Institute. In his article “A Response to the Libertarian Critics of Open-Borders Libertarianism,” he criticizes libertarians who advocate open borders. Within this “open-borders libertarianism” sphere, he also references the Cato Institute, particularly Bryan Caplan’s writings in his work. (Block, 2016; 145)

Block acknowledges the views of Rothbard. He claims that, unlike trade and investment, which require the mutual consent of both parties, the idea of open borders is inconsistent with libertarianism. (Block, 2016; 144) Nevertheless, he adds that immigration is not a necessary violation of private property rights. He presents a scenario where an immigrant homesteads on an unowned piece of land. In this case, the immigrant is not violating any libertarian law because he is using unclaimed land, a concept consistent with private property rights and the NAP. In addition, if the statists try to remove the immigrant from the land, that would be a violation of the NAP. (Block, 2016; 150) Block also criticizes the inconsistent position of non-open border libertarians. He points out that, since unrestricted movement between countries is a violation of the NAP, the same logic should hold for domestic movement within states. Block emphasizes a reductio ad absurdum argument, asserting that if non-open border libertarians are consistent in their beliefs, they should advocate for restrictions on domestic movement as well. (Block, 2016; 152)

Conclusion

In examining the libertarian perspectives on open borders, we are drawn into a nuanced and multifaceted debate that touches upon fundamental aspects of political and ethical philosophy. This discourse is characterized by its depth and complexity, reflecting the diverse strands within libertarian thought.

The Cato Institute’s advocacy for open borders is grounded in a consequentialist interpretation of libertarianism, emphasizing the economic and social benefits that arise from unrestricted human mobility. This viewpoint underscores a broader vision of libertarian principles, advocating for a world where individual freedom and opportunity are not hindered by national boundaries. In contrast, the Mises Institute, influenced by thinkers such as Rothbard and Hoppe, presents a more strict stance on the issue of open borders. Their approach is heavily grounded in the sanctity of private property rights and the non-aggression principle, which leads them to argue that open borders can potentially infringe upon these principles. They contend that unrestricted immigration may lead to an increased burden on public resources and welfare systems, potentially violating the rights of property owners who would be forced to bear the costs. Additionally, they argue that the potential for cultural clashes and conflicts may arise from unrestricted immigration, posing a threat to social cohesion and stability within a society. Unrestricted immigration could increase public resource burdens, violate property owners’ rights, and potentially cause cultural clashes, threatening social cohesion and stability. On the other hand, Block’s analysis calls for a consistent application of libertarian principles, advocating for a nuanced understanding of immigration that respects both individual liberty and property rights.

This scholarly exploration of the open borders theory within libertarianism is not merely an academic exercise. It reflects a vibrant and ongoing engagement with crucial questions about freedom, state sovereignty, and the rights of individuals in an increasingly globalized world. As this debate continues to evolve, it is poised to significantly influence the discourse on immigration policy and international relations, embodying the continual pursuit of aligning libertarian philosophy with the realities of a complex and interconnected global landscape.

Zeynep Naz Terzi
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References

Block, W. (2016). A Response to the Libertarian Critics of Open-Borders Libertarianism. Lincoln Memorial University Law Review, 4(1), 143-165. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.lmunet.edu/lmulrev/vol4/iss1/6/

Caplan, B. (2015). A Radical Case for Open Borders. The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy (pp. 181-206). Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/book/10676/chapter-abstract/158726606?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false

Carens, J. (1987). Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders. The Review of Politics, 49(2), 251-273. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1407506

Hoppe, H.-H. (2007). Democracy: The God That Failed. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Hoppe, H.-H. (2010). A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism. Massachusetts, US: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Kianpour, C. (2019). Breaking Boundaries: An Investigation of Libertarian Open Borders. The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 23, 23-39. Retrieved from https://jls.mises.org/article/11106-breaking-boundaries-an-investigation-of-libertarian-open-borders/stats/all/pageviews

Koser, K. (2007) “International Migration: A Very Short Introduction.” New York: Oxford University Press.

Miron, J. (2010). Libertarianism: A to Z. New York: Basic Books.

Miron, J. (2010). Should the U.S. Restrict Immigration? Retrieved January 01, 2024, from https://www.cato.org/blog/should-us-restrict-immigration

Rothbard, M. (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.

Rothbard, M. (1994). Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 11(1), 1-10. Retrieved from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9781315129068-4/nations-consent-decomposing-nation-state-murray-rothbard

Somin, I. (2021). Free to Move Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Soto, J. (1998). A Libertarian Theory of Free Immigration. Journal of Libertarian Studies, 13(2), 187-197. Retrieved from https://philpapers.org/rec/DESALT

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.

Wilcox, S. (2009). The Open Borders Debate on Immigration. Philosophy Compass, 4(5), 813-821. Retrieved from https://compass.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1747-9991.2009.00230.x

 

 

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