I was reading a Forbes article last year, and one line really struck me: “More people have died trying to cross over from Mexico in the past decade than were killed on Sept. 11.” As someone who has known both a victim of 9/11 and a few illegal immigrants, this really made me rethink my view on immigration. I realized that my view on how to handle the border with Mexico was inconsistent with my belief in the free market and the non-aggression principle. I viewed the flow of illegals (which is what I called them at that time; now I believe that ‘undocumented’ is a better word) into this country as something to be stopped or prevented. I would now like to make a libertarian case for open borders. The United States, or any other country for that matter, should not restrict immigration because opening borders would be beneficial to the economy, and be consistent with the American ideals of liberty and freedom.
Immigrants should be let in because it would be a profitable, free-market solution for both us and the immigrants. Some conservatives would be among the first to object to protectionism in trade. Blocking goods from other nations or imposing tariffs, they will say, interferes with the free market in two negative ways. First, a tariff of $500 on a foreign good just taxes the consumer that $500, as Henry Hazlitt explains splendidly in Economics in One Lesson (skip to Chapter 11 or watch this video). It shifts the cost from the producer, who through government has put in place laws protecting their special interests, to the consumer. Second, it interferes with price signals. One major benefit of capitalism that even socialists will admit is that competition drives down cost and up quality. To outcompete one’s competitors, the obvious solution is to make better quality goods, or to lower the price. Protectionism makes both options, especially the second option, the one to lower the prices, more difficult, and this both makes it costlier for the consumer, and does not give incentive for the American companies to innovate. Protectionism is nothing other than a limiting to whom you can trade with, and the whole point of capitalism is that you trade with whoever has the lowest prices and best products. I wrote more about the detriments of protectionism in this earlier post. So if the free flow of goods and services across borders is viewed by conservatives as favorable, why then do they disagree with the logically following conclusion that the free flow of providers of services across borders is also beneficial?
The fact is that immigration and open borders are economically desirable. The common conservative response is that “they’re stealing the jobs of hard-working Americans.” But the one who should decide who gets the job is the employer, so that job was not stolen by the immigrant, rather, the foreigner offered better prices or better quality work than the American would. As economist Bryan Caplan notes, “immigration restrictions are akin to forcibly preventing a potential competitor from appearing at a job interview in order to increase one’s chances of getting a job.” To this, our conservative may say something along the lines of, “Well, they are working for lower wages than Americans would work for.” What this overlooks is that a) this will incentivize Americans to work more productively, to innovate more and raise capital accumulation, as to raise their wages, and b) that even if the employer does hire the immigrant for lower wages, the money that the employer saves is reinvested in different sections of the economy. One only needs to apply the broken window fallacy’s premise from Frédéric Bastiat’s famous essay, “What is Seen, and What is Unseen” to this situation to see how breaking the window that is immigrant labor negatively affects the American economy. I’m sure most of you reading this are libertarian, and are familiar with this logical fallacy, but for those who are not I will provide the parable here, paraphrased, of course:
A baker is in his bakery when a rock comes flying through is window. Everyone gathers around. At first they feel bad for him, but then they think, “Well, if this never happened, what would become of the glazier. Destruction is a blessing. The baker will pay $250 to the glazier, who will then buy from the the tailor, for example, and then the tailor from the shoemaker, and so on, and it will help the whole economy.” They, however, fail to see that if you follow this premise to its logical conclusion, it would be profitable to destroy everything one could get one’s hands on. They fail to see that had the window not been destroyed, the baker would have used that $250 dollars for something else. He would have bought from the tailor, who then would have bought from the shoemaker, and so on, helping the whole economy. What they fail to see is that with the window broken, the economy is now one window’s worth worse off. Hence the title, “What is Seen, and What is Unseen.” The people believe destruction is a blessing because they can see the benefits of that, but cannot see the disadvantages, nor can they see the even greater benefits of the absence of the destruction.
If one applies this to the effect of the restriction of immigrants on the economy, one will come to the same result:
Smith hires Julio, who produces $50 an hour. But along comes Senator ‘Murica McFreedom!!1!11!! who passes a law which deports Julio, since he did not wait the 131 years that some Mexicans must wait for citizenship before crossing the border for a job. Smith must now hire John, who only produces $30 an hour (if John had been more productive than Julio, he would have been hired before the law went into effect). An American might say that this is good. An American has a job and will produce $30 an hour, which will be used to buy from the American tailor, who will buy from the American shoemaker. What these Americans, just like the ones who gathered around the bakery, fail to understand is that the same effect would have manifested, but to a greater extent, with Julio being employed. They fail to see that America is now $20 an hour worse off. And this is not just me making some guess as to what might happen with open borders; this has already happened. The recent arrival of many new “foreign workers between 1990 and 2004 has raised native-born Americans’ wages by 2%” according to research by Gianmarco Ottaviano of Bologna University and Giovanni Peri of University of California, Davis. And Texas, whose economy during this recession is doing better perhaps than any other state, also enjoys the second highest undocumented immigrant population of any state. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that freeing up the economy by opening borders would be a fantastic choice. It would double, that’s right, double, the world GDP. And for those that still don’t want immigrants, then open borders advocates have some (counterintuitively) good news. It betters both the receiving and the sending countries. Remember that the Mexican Government, too, wants tax money. In a kind of international, somewhat-capitalistic way, the loss of workers would incentivize the Mexican government to better their country, as to keep people at home and draw back the Mexican-Americans. I think I’ve illustrated pretty well how open immigration would be favorable. But that’s just gravy. The real reason to free us from the rule of these arbitrary lines on a map is the moral reason.
The American Dream: the long-held traditional ethos that through hard work, no matter the color of skin, nationality, sex, creed, etc., one can become prosperous and live a happy, peaceful life. Why then, do we deny this dream to our friends to the south? They may be born in Mexico, but to risk one’s life to earn an honest day’s work in a foreign land, in my opinion, makes one an honorary ‘Murican. People should be free to immigrate/emigrate between not just the U.S. and Mexico, but every nation, because no one, whether a politician or just your average criminal, has any right to restrict or infringe upon one’s life, liberty, property, or pursuit of happiness.
To prove this I must first digress to the subject of property (in a moral sense, not a legal one). In principle, there are only two ways to acquire property. The first is purchasing previously owned property in voluntary exchange. The second is to homestead, improve, or develop upon unowned property. Although the papers all say that the Federal Government of the U.S. owns thousands upon thousands of acres of forests and fields, it does not, in a moral or philosophical sense, own anything at all. “The government spends millions on improving the nation and providing helpful services,” one might retort. But those millions (or billions or trillions) of dollars are property too. Did the government acquire them through voluntary exchange? I don’t think so.
So getting back to the original topic, the government has no right to restrict movement between countries because a government does not own the land it occupies, and must initiate force in order to keep one in or outside of its borders. All a border is, anarcho-capitalist philosopher Stefan Molyneux declares, is “where one violent, homicidal, psychopathic warlord ran up against another violent, homicidal, psychopathic warlord.” While this is taken to an extreme in a way (not that that’s a bad thing) it shows that the lines on a map are completely arbitrary. The fundamental cornerstone of philosophy of liberty is the non-aggression principle: the axiom that it is immoral to initiate an act of force or fraud against someone else. Nothing about crossing an imaginary line to work for a more prosperous life pursuing your dream violates this at all. To put this kind of thing in the same category as theft, rape, and murder is appalling. On the contrary, the act of shooting those who cross these lines is in direct conflict with the NAP. The fact that people support these kinds of measures show how detached people are from the results of government actions. Your average American would never kill someone based on the knowledge that this person is not authorized to be here, and yet somehow it makes it okay that we elect government officials to do these heinous crimes for us. Before I sign off I want to offer one (admittedly cliché hypothetical). Imagine you live in the southern part of Texas. Due to some serious governmental screw-ups in the State Department, Mexico now hates us and begins an invasion. You were born and raised in America, and yet now the lines shifted somewhat north and suddenly your cut off. To not be able to go to the newly-defined America and trade and work in their economy, you would object, would be unfair. How then, is this any different if the borders are pre-defined?
In conclusion, of all the things government should not have power over, immigration is one of them. The reason the basic human right of movement between different different places must not be restricted is that it would interfere with both the economic perks and with liberty, among other basic American values. And if I have not convinced all of you conservatives and small-government types (I’m looking at you, Friedmanites and Tea Partiers!) and you want more evidence that it’s beneficial: Paul Krugman is against it! No one should be able to tell you where you can and cannot go. And if you really believe illegal immigration is wrong, then go back to Europe, because we weren’t always here.