Against the presumption of open borders. Border policy agnosticism.

Libertarians cannot assume that a state-controlled open border policy is automatically a more libertarian option than the state restrictively policing the border. This second article on the subject draws on conversations that happened since I published the first, and includes insights that I believe make the case easier to communicate.

The thief and the farm

Here’s a thought experiment described by Chase Rachels. It helps establish a couple of principles that are useful for thinking about state-imposed border policy. More on that later.

Imagine that a thief steals a large amount of money from persons A, B, and C. Imagine that he uses the money to have a farm built, and imagine that the farm is the only valuable thing that the thief has to his name. For whatever reason, the theft isn’t corrected, the thief isn’t brought to justice, his victims don’t get their money back.

Which policy sees more justice done?

Consider two different approaches that the thief could take to the management of the farm and notice which approach you think delivers a greater degree of justice.

  1. Against the unanimous wishes of the victims, the thief allows all-comers to use the farm as they wish, turning it into an effective commons.
  2. In accordance with the unanimous wishes of the victims, the thief allows only the three victims to freely use the farm. He excludes anyone else from using it, using force if necessary to do so.

I believe the policy of exclusion is clearly better, no matter how many people the thief ends up forcefully excluding. I hope you agree.

Implications

Assuming you agree, this view has implications that are relevant to thinking about border policy controlled by a state:

  1. A resource created or improved using stolen funds, at least under some circumstances, should be considered the property of the victims of the theft. To see this is true consider the following: If a resource created this way should always be considered unowned there could be no justification for preferring the thief to violently exclude an arbitrarily large number of people from its use; These exclusions would be new rights violations, and at some point these new violations, taken together, must be more severe than the injustice suffered by the original victims of theft.
  2. Partial restitution doesn’t need to be made in the form of money to be effective. It can also be made by implementing use rules for the resource that the victims like more, instead of rules they like less.

The borders controlled by the state

Libertarians agree that the state violates the rights of many people on an ongoing basis through taxation, war, prosecution of victimless crimes and other predations.

These violations entitle the victims of the state to restitution from that state.

What about restitution in the form of fiat currency?

Critics of the first article often proposed that restitution could be made in the form of a transfer of fiat currency.

But since the desirability of fiat currency is contingent on the state violate the rights of taxpayers in the future by demanding taxes denominated in the local units – it’s unlikely that people would choose to hold and accept it otherwise – awards in the form of fiat currency are not suitable as restitution.

Developed public property is owned by victims

The most appropriate asset the state controls that can be used for restitution is developed public land.

The state can provide some restitution to a victim by permitting them to use public property. But in many cases this compensation doesn’t seem likely to cover the whole of the debt. Here’s another hypothetical that I hope helps to support that intuition:

If I used the threat of violence to get you to work for me every Thursday, and used your forced labour to build a tree house, I don’t believe my debt to you would be absolved by permitting you to merely use the tree house afterwards. At minimum, Justice demands that you become the owner of the tree house – so that I have no further say in how it gets used – at least if we assume my other assets combined don’t represent equivalent market value.

So to me it seems plausible that those with the best ownership claim to developed private property are the people who make up the state’s victim population.

Exclusion via border control doesn’t necessarily violate rights

This ownership claim is significant in this context because if the victim population own public property, it cannot be assumed a priori that any non-victim’s rights are being violated if the local state denies them entry to it; there’s no automatic right to access another person’s property.

Simultaneous gains and losses in justice

By admitting immigrants from group X (in other words, by allowing them to use developed public property) the state diminishes the restitution it is providing to every member of its victim population who prefers that members of group X be excluded from developed public property.

But by excluding members of group X the state diminishes the restitution it is providing to every member of its victim population who would like members of group X to have access to developed public property.

By adopting an active border policy the state may require a greater degree of tax funding – which inherently entails rights violations. This is a consideration that counts in favor of open borders, but is not dispositive.

Border agnosticism

Bearing the above considerations in mind, while the state controls borders, is isn’t feasible to determine which policy – open vs restrictive – constitutes a greater degree of justice delivered, or a lesser degree of rights violated, in any particular case.

The best we can do at the moment is guess. So the proper libertarian position is to admit as much, and reject open borders as an a priori conclusion.

Further reading

Tomasz Kaye : Against the presumption of open borders. The libertarian argument from imperfect restitution.

Stephan Kinsella : A Simple Libertarian Argument Against Unrestricted Immigration and Open Borders

Chase Rachels : The libertarian case AGAINST open borders.