In this excellent paper, Walter Block helps me understand the position of Lew Rockwell on immigration that he terms “paleo-libertarian” or “postponement libertarian.”

He goes through the basic moral argument that immigration is not an invasion of private property. His reasoning in this part of the paper is orthodox libertarian and unimpeachable. I think, however, that the disagreement between him and the paleos concerns not the theory of immigration as such but the wisdom of permitting mass migrations from the world’s hellholes into any nation that, though less unfortunate, is still sick with statism. A slow and random trickle of immigrants to and fro as between the states of the American union or between nations under global laissez-faire capitalism would not generate any contention between the two libertarian camps.

The evidence that Walter realizes that is that he considers and attempts to refute a number of objections to free immigration, in particular that it will 1) reduce the real wages of the workers already in residence; 2) increase crime; 3) promote welfarism; 4) assault the institutions which make a free society possible in the first place by voting poorly.

There is also 5), that unrestricted immigration is equivalent to allowing the invasion of a foreign army. However, I think that it is reducible to a combination of 2) and 4). For how would a libertarian near-anarchist society distinguish between an invasion of an army and an arrival of numerous immigrants in a short amount of time? Well, the army would probably be “organized” as an enterprise association and have a unifying purpose. It may have ridiculously powerful weaponry. So, let’s suppose that a Ruritarian army has landed in New York and its troops are marching on the streets of Manhattan, interfering with traffic. What next? Will the soldiers be quartered in people’s houses? Will the general send agents to every business to register it for tax purposes? Will he demand that the NYC leaders accept him as king? As we can see, a foreign invasion produces both direct violations of the natives’ property rights and a vicious change in the political regime, say, from capitalism to feudalism. Therefore, there is no need to consider 5) separately.

Walter rejects each of these concerns as forceful enough to impinge on immigration theory. Again, however, submarginal changes in degree, as they accumulate, end up becoming marginal changes in kind. A few immigrants, even if they arrive with no money or capital in tow, will not reduce the real wages noticeably. But tens of millions of immigrants would. A few immigrants would not “make use of public transportation, public roads, public utilities, public schools, and so on” (a quote from the Walter’s next paper, to be considered later) so as to put the natives under a heavy burden for which they did not prepare; tens of millions of immigrants certainly would.

As a result, the paleos come to have at their disposal a final argument, namely that 6) “legally unrestricted immigration is indeed the libertarian position, the only possible libertarian position, but it should not be implemented until the every other plank in this program is first put into effect.” Walter calls this

a very powerful objection… For suppose unlimited immigration is made the order of the day while minimum wages, unions, welfare, and a law code soft on criminals are still in place in the host country. Then… the host nation would be subjected to increased crime, welfarism, and unemployment. An open-door policy would imply not economic freedom, but forced integration with all the dregs of the world with enough money to reach our shores.

There is also the vicious anti-free association climate of opinion and legal regime in the US presently to be considered.

Walter’s main counter-argument is to consider the postponement position akin to Alan’s Greenspan’s “high philosophical” support for laissez faire. Rothbards reads Greenspan as holding that the conjunction of libertarian policies {A, B, C, D, …} is very good, but A or B or C in isolation is undesirable. But since the overall libertarian vision cannot be realized without individual reforms which may come step by step rather than all at once, Greenspan ends up a defender of status quo. Thus, we have the following reductio:

Public schooling is a disaster. [Abolish it, say the libertarians] …

But those who would be true to the paleo-libertarian position on immigration cannot avail themselves of this conclusion. Instead, they would have to ask: what would education be like in the free society? They would then have to endeavor to treat public schools as much like that as possible.

But if there is one thing that is clear, it is that in the free society the educational industry, like all others, would allow competition. How, then, to apply this principle? Simple. Embrace educational vouchers.

Similarly, must the welfare state be made “more efficient” via a negative income tax?

And of course, Lew Rockwell has been a bitter opponent of all such vouchers and welfare schemes. Is there a contradiction?

Well, abolishing public schooling seems to have none of the drawbacks, as in 1) through 5), that burden free immigration. The latter is uniquely suited to objection 6), unlike government education and welfare. Hence, the analogy fails.

I’ll discuss “second-best” solutions in more detail in a later post.

A final point. In response to objection 4), Walter brings about numerous immigrants that were a boon to America, particularly the libertarian economists and philosophers like Mises, Hayek, Kirzner, Hoppe himself, Yuri Maltsev, and many others. “A closed-door policy in the past might well have made it impossible for these people to contribute to our society.” But of course, those who argue against 100% open borders are not by that very fact arguing in favor of 100% closed borders. It is possible to conceive of borders as filters, letting the good guys through and keeping the bad guys out.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *