Does Being a Libertarian Entail a Necessary Commitment to Open Borders?
ABSTRACT: In this paper I investigate whether Wellman’s freedom of association argument provides libertarians with a compelling argument against open borders. In the first section I set out Wellman’s argument, highlighting its appeal to libertarians. In the second section I address some objections to his argument, and in the third section I discuss some specifically libertarian objections. I conclude that the freedom of association argument is a strong argument against open borders and that thus libertarians are not necessarily committed to unrestricted immigration.
Charles Protheroe ([email protected]) was most recently head of philosophy at St. James Senior Boys’ School in London, U.K.
Immigration is a confusing subject for libertarians. Libertarians would seem to be natural advocates of open borders: not only are they suspicious of the power of the state, but to promote closed borders would be to restrict the liberty of both immigrants and those in the country who wish to interact with them. But libertarianism is a doctrine which aims always to defend individual rights, so to conclude that open borders are the only tenable position is to oversimplify and miss a lot of nuance. But can one be a libertarian and also be against open borders?
To test this, I will take an argument against open borders (namely Christopher Wellman’s freedom of association argument) and assess whether it is compatible with libertarianism, and, further, whether it is potentially compelling to libertarians. For the sake of simplicity, I shall restrict my focus to immigrants without any special claim to membership who are moving to a country indefinitely—thus excluding refugees, holiday makers, students, those on business trips, temporary residents, and the like. I will also exclude the more morally dubious area of immigration to bring families together, as this is a subject worthy of debate beyond the scope of this paper. This will focus discussion upon the majority of immigrants, rather than outliers and special cases.
My argument can be summarized as follows:
(1) If Wellman’s freedom of association argument is compatible with libertarianism, then libertarians are not necessarily committed to open borders.
(2) Wellman’s freedom of association argument is compatible with libertarianism.
(3) Therefore, libertarians are not necessarily committed to open borders.
In part one, I will show that Christopher Wellman’s freedom of association argument is a sound argument against open borders. I will start by explaining why libertarianism seems to have a prima facie commitment to open borders, and why it appears that core libertarian principles lead to a belief in open borders. I will then set out Wellman’s argument, showing that his assumptions and foundations are very appealing to libertarians and that in fact his commitment to self-determination is a central aspect of libertarianism. Along the way, it becomes necessary to have a definition of “rights,” and I shall use Nozick’s, not only to use a “libertarian” definition, but also because doing so further emphasizes how Wellman’s argument has an appealingly libertarian flavor. By the end of the first part I hope to have demonstrated the compatibility of the freedom of association argument with libertarianism even if Wellman’s conclusion is not very libertarian.
It seems that libertarians accept Wellman’s premises, but not his conclusion. There are only three ways to solve this dilemma. The first way is to show that there is some mistake or flaw in Wellman’s reasoning which leads him to draw the wrong conclusion. To this end, in part two I shall address two key internal criticisms of his argument, the first concerning immigrants’ association with the state and the second concerning immigrants and the harm principle. I conclude that neither of these claims—while undoubtedly powerful—refutes Wellman’s conclusion, thus leaving it sound.
The second way to solve the dilemma is to concede that Wellman’s argument is sound but deny that it is compatible with libertarianism. I will set out several strong libertarian objections to Wellman’s conclusion. Firstly, that in the resulting conflict between individual and state rights, libertarians should always side with the individual, so the state cannot force an immigration policy on its citizens. Secondly, that there should be no borders at all, let alone ones with restrictive entrance criteria. Finally, libertarians could point to the “utopian” libertarian society and argue that immigration policy should align with that. I believe that all three of these charges can be met and adequately responded to so that the fears of the libertarian are assuaged, and that the state can be shown to have a right to exclude.
This leads to the conclusion that the third solution to the dilemma is the correct one: that, although it may not seem so initially, Wellman’s argument is compatible with libertarianism, so libertarians are not necessarily committed to open borders.
Libertarianism and Open Borders
Very few libertarians are in favor of immigration controls, because libertarianism seems to go hand in hand with open borders. People, like goods and money, should be able to cross national boundaries as freely as possible. Certainly, the state should not stop immigration, just as it should not impose tariffs on imported goods. But even at this early stage the analogy fails. Goods are never imported without somebody wanting to buy or receive them. This is obviously not the case for immigrants.
The core tenets of libertarianism indicate a commitment to open borders. Robert Nozick is considered by many to be the father of right libertarianism, and in his influential book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) he explains the foundations of the ideology. A brief look at them furthers the argument that libertarianism should be committed to open borders.
Self-ownership is perhaps the fundamental element of libertarianism. Nozick views the individual as a self-aware, rational agent, able to form a plan for life, and it is for this reason that he calls humans “self-owners.” That people are self-owners also precludes their treatment as objects or instruments. This is essentially the definition of self-ownership: that it is wrong to subject an individual to nonconsensual and unprovoked manipulation, enslavement, or killing.
If people are self-owners, then it follows that they must have certain rights. More specifically, the single right of self-ownership generates many other rights, not least of which are property rights. If one owns oneself, then one owns one’s labor, and if one owns one’s labor, then one owns the fruit of that labor. Owning something amounts to possessing a bundle of rights in that thing: the rights to possess it, dispose of it, and determine what to do with it. The property rights I have in my laptop mean that I can use it whenever I want, can sell it if I wish, and can use it however I please (so long as I do not violate anyone else’s rights with it). One also has property rights in one’s home (if one owns it), and it is this that allows one to invite people onto one’s property, while anyone who enters uninvited is trespassing and liable to be punished accordingly.
Neither self-ownership nor property rights give any indication that immigration restrictions would be justified. In fact, they seem to point the other way. If I own my property, then I can invite whomever I want onto it, be they compatriots or foreigners. It seems that any attempt to limit immigration would be to limit property rights. A look at the basics of libertarianism therefore seems to lead to a commitment to open borders.
Wellman’s Argument from Freedom of Association
But the basics of libertarianism are just that: the basics. Any conclusion drawn from such a cursory and simplistic overview is bound to be premature. To really test whether libertarianism is necessarily committed to open borders, one must apply it to an argument against open borders. Wellman’s argument from freedom of association is an obvious choice. It is perhaps the most liberal argument against open borders, and one which is (until its conclusion) very complimentary to and compatible with libertarian principles.
Self-determination is a key component of libertarianism, and it seems to go hand in hand with self-ownership. When one is murdered, self-ownership is denied. Self-ownership means a right to life, insofar as our existence shouldn’t depend on anyone else. I cannot call myself truly self-owning if I owe my continued survival to the mercy of someone else who chooses to not kill me. But beyond this self-ownership means being free to live your life as you see fit. You own yourself, so can do as you please (while respecting other people’s rights). This is self-determination.
Because of the deep connection between self-ownership and self-determination, Wellman’s argument begins with appealing foundations for libertarians. He starts with an assumption of the importance of self-determination. It seems impossible to live one’s life as one wishes without having self-determination. In fact, it is impossible to be free without being self-determining, without “being the author of one’s own life” (Wellman 2011, 30). If I choose your career, home, pets, and pastimes for you, then I am restricting your freedom and determining the course of your life. You must be free to choose your own path and determine the course of your own life—otherwise, quite simply, you are not free. Individual liberty, which is at the heart of libertarianism, necessitates self-determination. Because libertarians firmly believe that individuals have their own lives to lead, it is impossible for them to deny that individuals must be self-determining. In every aspect that one is not self-determining, one is no longer free. Self-determination is, indeed, an incredibly appealing foundation for libertarians, and one which resonates at the heart of the ideology.
Wellman goes on to explain that self-determination in turn necessitates freedom of association. If you are to determine your own life, then you must be able to choose with whom you associate. To show that “freedom of association is a crucial element of self-determination,” Wellman (2011, 30) asks us to consider a society in which this freedom is denied us:
Suppose, for instance, that a governmental agency were empowered to decide not only who would marry and who would remain single, but who would get married to whom, whether or not various couples would get divorced (and after what duration of marriage), and which children would be assigned to be raised by whom. Thus, this agency might tell Jennifer that she is to remain unmarried and raise five children who will be assigned to her; it may tell Jill and Jack that they are to be married for the duration of their lives but may not raise any children (any children borne by Jill would be reassigned to others of the government’s choosing); and it might tell John and Joe that they are to be married for twelve years before divorcing and remaining single and childless for the remainder of their lives.1
It might well be that the government prescriptions lead to the maximally efficient, happy, and prosperous lives for these characters. On the other hand, it is eminently possible that they would not: our personal preferences, likes, and dislikes are our own, and to be free we must be able to act on them. So, whether happy or not, “the lives of the citizens in this society would not be self-determined,” because they would not be free to associate as they please. Wellman has, of course, chosen the most extreme and personal form of association in marriage, but would it be acceptable for the government to choose your friends or pets? It seems that the same problems would arise, and that once again one would not be self-determining.
Having established freedom of association as a necessary factor in self-determination, Wellman (2011, 31) makes the crucial point that freedom of association is meaningless without including the freedom to not associate, or disassociate:
One is fully self-determining only if one may choose whether or not to marry a second party who would have one as a partner, whether or not to raise children with this partner, and whether to stay married to this partner. And crucially, one must not only be permitted to join with a willing partner, a potential partner must not be allowed to associate with you unless you too are willing. In other words, one must have the discretion to reject the proposal of any given suitor and even to remain single indefinitely if one so chooses.
Just as one does not have free speech if one is only allowed to toe the party line, neither does one have freedom of association if one must accept all offers that come one’s way. When Jack proposes to Jill, Jill must be able to reject his advances if she so wishes—it is neither right nor fair for her to have to accept his offer against her wishes. Thus, a necessary part of freedom of association is the ability to reject a potential association, or, in other words, the right to exclude. This is intuitively appealing: after all, if we don’t like someone, we shouldn’t have to be friends with them, and if we did have to, then it would be hard to see how we are free to choose our associations. The libertarian appeal is equally clear. Just as freedom of speech is vacuous if it does not include the freedom for you to say things which I dislike, so too must the freedom to associate as we please include the possibility of your excluding me from associating with you.
The right to exclude brings with it the thorny topic of rights. Although Wellman has written extensively about rights, I believe that Nozick’s definition is equally compatible, and more insightful. Nozick’s definition of rights is a key component of libertarianism, and by borrowing his definition, we can illuminate further the links between freedom of association and libertarianism.
Nozick (1974, 92) defines rights quite simply and succinctly as “permissions to do something and obligations on others not to interfere.” The first part of this is the simpler: if you have a right to do x, you obviously have permission to do x. The second part—others’ obligation not to interfere—requires surprisingly more explanation. Nozick introduces moral side constraints as a particular property of rights. Side constraints entail a negative view of rights: you have a right to something insofar as your right to it is not infringed. “They specify types of conduct that may not be done to individuals rather than types of conduct that must be done for people” (Mack 2015). In other words, they do not tell us what the right holder is permitted to do so much as what we are not permitted to do to the right holder. This is because for each right you enjoy there is a corresponding moral constraint upon everyone else to not violate it. X’s right to life entails the corresponding moral constraint on everyone else to not murder X. And this right is unconditional: Matthew is forbidden from murdering Luke, even if, by some strange turn of events, Matthew murdering Luke is the only way to prevent John killing the England football team. It is simply the case that murder is always morally wrong. To act morally, we must not violate any constraints.
The alternative to moral side constraints is a consequentialist system which attempts to maximize overall rights. This may seem intuitively preferable: after all, if something is valuable, shouldn’t we act to promote as much of it as possible? If you have a right to free speech, it is not the case that you have the right only insofar as you say controversial things—it seems that you possess it even if you never use it. Nor does it seem to be that you have more free speech if you are outlandish but less if you’re not. In short, your right to free speech isn’t something that you possess. Rather, your right to free speech entails an obligation on everyone else to let you say whatever you want. Rights are, in this sense, inherently negative: a right to do x means that everyone else is obligated to allow you to.
The way rights work means that the only way to maximize overall rights is to minimize the total number of rights violations. But this would “require us to violate someone’s rights when doing so minimizes the total (weighted) amount of the violation of rights in the society” (Nozick 1974, 28). For example, imagine that you are the mayor of a town in which someone has been wrongly killed by the police. Now a mob is rampaging through the streets, demanding that Policeman Pat be punished, even though you know he is innocent. This mob is violating the rights of many townsfolk, so it would be justifiable to punish Pat, because violating his rights would stop the mob and minimize overall rights violations. But this seems wr
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