15 July 2013

The Heart of the Immigration Debate

Open borders advocates, like Bryan Caplan, Don Boudreaux, and Ryan Long, often take the approach that one has an intrinsic right, presumably as a consequence of one’s humanity, to engage in trade and travel without restriction, insofar as others’ rights are not ignored or otherwise trampled upon.  Saying that open borders should be allowed because everyone has the right to work and live anywhere they want is an interesting position, but it’s also a position that’s somewhat lacking in nuance.

Suppose that a man owns a large chunk of land, say six hundred acres.  Suppose one day that he decides he doesn’t want people of another ethnicity to use his some of his land as a roadway to get to someone else’s property.  Is he within his rights to deny others’ passage across his land, even though doing so would be explicitly xenophobic?  As distasteful as this might be, the answer is yes.  He is with within his rights to deny passage across his property, even though it is on explicitly racist grounds.

Suppose a couple of years later, several of his neighbors, who all own conjoining properties, decide that they, too, would like to block people of differing ethnicities from crossing their properties or otherwise using their properties.  Let us also suppose that the man and his neighbors are all of the same ethnicity and thus decide to form a group that allows all members to utilize each other’s properties for travel (with reasonable but equal limits, of course) while simultaneously blocking everyone who is not a member of the group from crossing the properties at all.  Would all the members of this group be within their rights do so, even if we personally find this to be quite distasteful?  Again, the answer is yes.

Let us now suppose that even more neighbors, also of the same ethnicity as the first group, decide that they want in on the agreement.  They agree to allow their properties to be used for transportation by others in the group but not by those outside group in exchange for the right to use other members’ properties. Would they be within their rights to exclude non-members from using their properties for travel?  Again, the answer is yes, distasteful though it may be.

But let us suppose one final time that all those within the group own properties that form an enclosed circuitous border.  Let us also suppose that there are non-members of the group that own distinct properties within the enclosed circuitous border of the land owned by the excluding group (for purpose of visualization, imagine that the lands owned by the exclusionary group basically form a donut, with non-members outside the outer edge, and with non-members in the donut hole).  Let us further suppose that there are those who live on the enclosed non-group properties who wish to trade with those who live outside of the border of the group’s properties.  Because the group of property-owners has decided to deny passage to non-members, those within the borders and those outside the borders cannot engage in trade.  Has anyone’s rights been violated?

Now let us suppose that the group of exclusionary property-owners is forced to allow passage to non-members in order to facilitate trade.  Has anyone’s rights been violated?

Some, perhaps many, libertarians will argue that preventing trade is a violation of rights.  (I’m sympathetic to this view, though I have some qualifications and reservations about it.)  However, most if not all of those same libertarians will also argue that forcing someone to use their property in ways they don’t want it used is also a violation of rights.  So the real issue in this matter is which rights take precedence.

Now, the hypothetical scenarios detailed above are not perfectly synonymous to the present debate, but I believe they are similar enough to make the terms of debate a little clearer.  There are some who feel, rightly or wrongly, that as paying members of a particular organization (in this case, the United States), they should have some say on how the collective property is used.* This belief would be largely correct, and it is reasonable to say, in keeping with this principle, that if the collective owners of a given property decide that they will forbid certain people from being on their property, then they are well within their rights to do so, even if such action is distasteful.

The rub, though, is that it appears to also be a violation of rights to prevent people from engaging in exchange.  Indeed, the main libertarian critique of government regulation is that it is an infringement of personal rights.  And this critique is correct.

Thus, the real heart of the debate over open borders is mostly a question of which right takes precedence: the right to exclude people from your property or the right to engage in trade.  Of course, both rights are derived from the entire right of ownership (since you own your property, you can bar whoever you want from traversing it; since you own yourself, you can engage in contracts with whomever you please).  So really, the question is which application of the primary principle should take precedence in the event of a conflict between the two secondary applications.

I don’t really have an answer to this question.  But I think that it is foolish to act as if all those who favor closed borders are all closeted racists who will sell out property rights so as not to live near filthy foreigners is perhaps a bit uncalled for.  It is not necessarily a violation of someone’s rights to say that cannot use your property to travel to work.  It may be dickish, but it’s not necessarily a violation of rights.

* I know some libertarians, particularly anarchists, will bristle at the idea that property held by the monopolistic federal government is “collective property.”  To which I respond:  well who, then, owns the property? The most honest answer would be that the property belongs to whomever owned prior to the federal government, but only insofar as one assumes that property was taken by force.  If the property was voluntarily sold, or was previously unoccupied (in which case the first user principle would take over), then you cannot deny that government is the proper owner.  But even if you take the approach that government stole the money it used to purchase the land (i.e. collected taxes), then ownership of the property has to be collective since everyone pays taxes.  At any rate, I think it’s absurd to say that government-owned property should be considered ownerless, for reasons that should now be obvious.