After writing a long essay about how and why modern American libertarianism in the tradition of Ludwig Von Mises has free trade and free migration as a core component, many people told me that no matter what I or Mises thought, the free migration part especially was a terribly naive position for a libertarian.
Why? Because immigrants tend to vote more Democratic. This, say many trying to convince libertarians to turn on more open immigration, means they will vote for larger and more expensive government in a manner that’s supposedly dangerously distinct from the larger group of American voters.
Thus, being for more immigration, no matter what that means in literal freedom of movement and association for both citizen and non-citizen, is inherently unlibertarian because it will surely result in a less libertarian country, because, democracy.
There’s a lot wrong with this argument. Let’s start by thinking through its underlying presumption: that libertarians’ dominant priority should not be actually advocating that government behave in a manner that directly leaves people more free of active physical government interference in their motions, actions, choices, and relations. (Enforcing immigration restrictions inherently involves such interference not just for the would-be immigrant, but for the citizen who wants to buy, sell, trade or have any kind of human relationship with that immigrant).
The “libertarians have to be against immigration because democracy” argument presumes a libertarian’s prime goal must rather be crafting a democratic electorate reasonably more likely to vote for smaller government. Whatever furthers that goal, then, should be what libertarians support.
While I consider this argument ultimately absurd, I’ll grant that anyone desperate to come up with a reason to oppose immigration while still thinking of themselves as a libertarian, or make you feel that you as a libertarian can or must oppose immigration, can almost think it makes sense, if you don’t look too closely.
After all, don’t many libertarians use persuasion, education, and activism, to try to convince politicians to behave in a more libertarian manner or voters to vote for politicians who will? Isn’t libertarianism as an intellectual and activist movement in practice about forging a people who think like libertarians? In a democracy more American libertarians will eventually lead to a government that behaves in a more libertarian matter, goes that line of thinking.
This might happen through the direct action of voters, or the indirect creation of a libertarian climate of opinion that politicians will come to embody naturally or at least feel pressured to obey in order to keep their phony-baloney jobs.
Some slight air of a convincing argument can be detected here. Persuasion is indeed what most libertarian movement advocacy and education is about, persuasion toward creating a more libertarian American electorate. And an electorate with more immigrants, goes the argument, will never be that.
The above mass persuasion is not necessarily all that the libertarian movement is about, and it could be argued it’s not really what the libertarian movement in practice is even mostly about. A fair amount of libertarian advocacy is aimed at elite opinion among policymakers and professors, the people who have a more direct grip on what government does and what the educated classes think about what it should do; in the classic Hayekian mode, shaping the thoughts of the elites who shape the thoughts of the electorate writ large might be the best strategy. To the extent that is true, to that extent the “libertarians must be against immigration because democracy” argument fails even more thoroughly.
If we accept the above about the actual tactics of the American libertarian movement, then, why shouldn’t a libertarian recognize that a policy reasonably known to lead to more voters likely to vote for bigger government is an un-libertarian policy?
I’ll take as a given for now, even though it’s obviously absurd in the age of Trump and before, that “voting not for Democrats” means “voting for smaller or more libertarian government.”
But that’s just to bend over backward for the libertarians eager for a reason to be against open immigration. In fact, 95 percent or more of American voters have always in living memory voted for more expansive and expensive and destructive government, no matter what they think they intend, because that is what both parties have been giving us.
If the argument then is said to merely be about people voting for the Party (Republicans) that maybe on some metrics will make government grow less (though there is scant real evidence for that), that seems like a very small benefit for the incredible abuses of both foreigner and citizen rights that any real attempt to enforce immigration law requires.
It is easier to find such an argument convincing if you believe that no benefits that matter to either immigrants or citizens arise from more open immigration, but that requires an ugly solipsism toward other human beings trying to peacefully live that shouldn’t even require sophistic arguments to support. If you just don’t want to see strangers of a certain type in “your country,” just say so.
Underlying this argument, not always explicitly, is a belief that it should be irrelevant to an American libertarian how the American government treats non-citizens. But any human the American government acts upon, this particular libertarian advocates the government should act upon that person in a libertarian-appropriate way.
That includes not tossing them bodily from their home without them having committed a crime against others’ person or property justifying that. And don’t forget, even citizens’ freedom to choose who to deal with, hire, rent to, sell to, or befriend is violated by randomly barring those born outside the U.S.
It may well be that more immigrant voters will add at the margins to an already unshakable monolith of Americans who vote badly in libertarian terms. But it seems hard to imagine that their marginal effect will change anything compared to the situation without them, at least not a change that should be of vital concern to a libertarian (as opposed to a GOP partisan). Again, you would have to place an absurdly small value on the liberty or both immigrants and non-immigrants to think that the possibility of the Republican Party losing some elections it might have won in the future justifies mass arrests and boondoggle border walls.
But the key problem with this cutesy arguments that helps people weirdly uncomfortable with non-natives living in America feel like heroes of liberty for wanting to violently disrupt peaceful person’s lives is that it proves way, way too much, and I’ve never seen anyone apply it consistently against people other than foreign-born rabble who for whatever reason are held to a more stringent standard.
Because if we held consistently to the standard that libertarians must fight to keep out or eliminate any identifiable group more likely to vote Democratic, what other groups must libertarians drive from the country, or advocate robbing of the franchise?
Let’s look at CNN exit polls for the 2016 election. In it, you will find all these groups likely to lead to a less libertarian America if you define that as “more likely to vote for Democrats.” (In this poll, 64 percent of voters not born here went for Clinton.)
• women (54 percent);
• those under 44 (53 percent);
• blacks (89 percent);
• Asians (65 percent);
• those who have done postgraduate education (58 percent);
• those who earn under $50,000 a year (53 percent);
• the unmarried (55 percent);
• the Jewish (71 percent);
• the atheist (67 percent);
A pretty large bloodbath on the path to Total Liberty seems required if in fact libertarian priority number one must be crafting a voting electorate most likely to vote not-Democrat. (For those who would fall back on: well, we can’t get rid of Americans already with citizenship rights no matter how terrible their voting proclivities are, or we can’t impose successful thought control on citizens, while that is true you also can’t actually keep people not born here from coming here in any reasonably conceivable free country lacking walls across its southern border and legal government-issued documents to work.)
Perhaps to their detriment, libertarians have mostly decided the solution to an electorate that wants more government is education and persuasion, not dividing them into identifiable groups and trying to bar those groups from a chance to vote through violent attacks on the innocent.
The most obvious counter to this crummy argument is that the vast majority of voting Americans are not in fact voting for “more liberty.” And if you, or they, believe they are in fact voting for more liberty by proxy, the fact that they are not getting liberty is a core structural problem with American democracy and ideology that smacking around immigrants is going to do very little to solve at a very large cost to liberty.
As Ron Paul reminded us during his 2012 campaign, one part of this supposedly “libertarian” policy of tough immigration restrictions is a “border wall” that means you only get out of the country according to government diktats, just like “they” only get in that way. In the communist age, we understood very well how hideous in both symbolism and practice a “border wall” was. It’s bloody disgraceful the Republican Party, of all parties, running on “anti-communist” fumes for decades, is gleefully forgetting this.
The “libertarians must be for a more libertarian electorate and thus reject immigration” argument sounds next-level sophisticated, and it allows people to sigh and square their desire to see innocent strangers harmed with some sort of self-image as an advocate and lover of liberty.
But it doesn’t hold up. The freedom to move and the freedom to do business and personal relations with anyone we want no matter where they were born is a core freedom, not one to strategically quash because of some sort of loose-jointed, multi-step, unconvincing imaginary construction by which that grotesque blow to freedom will lead to a more solid voting majority for some future Trump, which is great because at least that person won’t be a Democrat.
There are many horrible, freedom destroying things we could do to ensure a more libertarian electorate, from barring the expression of bad ideas to taking the franchise away from identifiable “wrong thinking” groups, and none of them are in any way libertarian, which is a philosophy of restricting government action, via persuasion, not via barring the non-libertarian.