Immigration is controversial among libertarians for valid reasons. Many libertarians reduce their political opinions down to property rights and non-aggression. For immigration, however, it is difficult to see how appealing to property rights can address the question since it entails the movement of people over public property.
There is another common sentiment that is shared by many libertarians: freedom from the government. And this is for good reason. By its nature, the State is very difficult or impossible to withdraw from. More than any other organization, this makes the State uniquely poised to abuse its authority and ultimately oppress the people under its control. There are also important economic reasons to start with an anti-State bias. I could list many, but perhaps most important is the absence of a price structure which communicates knowledge, and rewards value-creators with profit and value-destroyers with a loss. This is a crucial reason why the market is able to allocate resources efficiently, and the State is not.
Closed Borders and Open Borders
Closed borders and open border are very broad terms, but I do think they have some use. By “closed borders” I mean a government policy which is highly restrictive of potential migrants. This come could in many forms, but it would include requiring an extensive process for legal entry, barring all or most entry, limiting immigration according to some number, a high price for entry, or some mix of those. “Open borders” refers to a policy which allows all or most migrants entry and has low or non-existent mandated processes. The severity to which the above is enforced is relevant as well.
I am going to assume for this paper that property rights and something like a non-aggression principle cannot fully advise libertarians as to what their position on immigration policy should be. I would like to mention, however, that a closed-border policy would go against the wishes of many natives who wish to do business or otherwise personally associate with foreigners. What I will assume is that, as libertarians, we should approach any issue with a healthy skepticism of advocating more government intervention in people’s lives. This should place libertarians in the open-borders camp unless there are other factors which are overwhelming.
Before addressing the potential downsides of an open borders policy, the tremendous economic benefits from allowing immigration should be noted. Firstly, there is general agreement among economists that immigration has a positive effect on the host country’s economy. For example, a survey of 27 top economists (they had been either president of the American Economic Association or members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors) found that every single one thought 20th-century immigration has been favorable toward the U.S. economy. The overall economic benefit isn’t really the center of the immigration debate. Even leading intellectuals of the anti-immigration side such as economist George Borjas, have estimated immigration contributes tens of billions of dollars annually to the U.S. economy.
As a demonstration of just how large the potential economic gains from immigration are, a world of entirely open borders has been estimated to increase world GDP by 50-150%! In a 2016 report, the International Monetary Fund concluded for advanced countries “that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of migrants in the adult population can raise GDP per capita by up to 2 percent in the longer run.”
Some libertarians are concerned about immigrants voting. If migrant support for anti-liberty policies was overwhelming relative to natives, this would be a valid concern. When we focus in on particular issues, however, there is not a large difference. When asked about federal income taxes by the General Social Survey, for instance, immigrants answered that they were “too high” at a similar rate as natives. The difference between a first generation immigrant and a 4th generation native was a few percentage points, but it is statistically insignificant. The same was true for questions about government spending on welfare and assistance to the poor. Notably, on questions where there are small differences, they vanish with each subsequent generation.
Immigrants tend to be less interested in politics than natives anyway. For example, among Hispanic immigrants (who constitute half of all immigrants) only 25% are even registered to vote. And 60% identify as politically independent, which is 10% higher than the general population. This suggests a general apathy toward the political process.
There is no reason to sound the alarm. If there is some grand scheme to import immigrants in an attempt to increase support for more taxes and welfare, it is a poor plan given the facts.
Another common concern among libertarians is that increased immigration will cause growth in the welfare state. Interestingly, there is actually research that suggests the opposite. In a review of 16 studies, Steffen Mau of the University of Bremen found “…welfare spending rates in countries with higher immigration grow significantly smaller than in countries limiting immigration.” Similarly, in Globalization and Egalitarian Redistribution, the authors stated: “…the typical industrial society might spend 16 or 17% more than it now does on social services had it kept its foreign-born percentage where it was in 1970.” The basic theory is natives generally feel less comfortable with welfare payments going to people from other countries, and so support for the welfare state tends to decline as immigration increases.
More importantly, if (as I have defended) our default is to prefer less government intervention in people’s lives, then the strategy should not be to limit immigration but to limit welfare. We would not say for example that “since healthcare is paid for by taxpayers, we must ban tobacco and alcohol”. No! We recognize that one bad effect of government-provided healthcare is that it may be abused. That is why we would support its abolition, just as we support the abolition of welfare. If we were to respond to every intervention by advocating more intervention, the end result would be full blown state control of every aspect of our lives.
One last major concern about immigrants is that they represent a danger to society. Tracking violent crime rates for immigrants, whether legal or illegal, is complex. Most of the work, however, points to immigrants having similar or lower crime rates than native-born. It appears quite possible that as immigration increases, crime rates go down.
An exception is a study done by economist John Lott on incarceration rates in Arizona. He concluded illegal immigrants have significantly higher violent crime rates than natives. A serious issue with this study has since been pointed out, however. While Lott was under the impression the data accurately distinguished between illegal immigrants and other inmates, it does not. And that has been confirmed by the Arizona Department of Corrections.
I contend that even if immigrants were prone to violence at somewhat higher levels relative to natives, interfering with the free association of millions of people and preventing large gains in economic growth because of what a small minority may do, would hardly be worth it.
I have addressed 3 common concerns about an open-borders policy. In every case, I do not believe they come close to justifying overriding the (reasonable) libertarian instinct of preferring less government intervention or outweighing the economic benefits. The practical and pragmatic libertarian position on immigration should be decidedly open-borders.