Open Borders, Again

I have written two previous posts on libertarianism and immigration, here and here, and devoted a section in Chapter 10 of my Libertarian Philosophy in the Real World to this subject. So, naturally, I was intrigued when Christopher Freiman and Javier Hidalgo offered a five-part blog series on this question at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site. The first four parts argued that a commitment to open borders is an integral part of classical liberalism; the final post purported to answer objections to this view. For convenience, I reproduce it below.

We claim that immigration restrictions and liberalism are incompatible. One response to our argument is that states have stronger obligations to their citizens than they have to foreigners. For example, a public official in the U.S. government could argue: “It’s true that immigration restrictions limit the freedom of foreigners. But the U.S. government isn’t obligated to protect the liberties of foreigners. It is only obligated to protect the liberties of our citizens. Thus, immigration restrictions don’t interfere with liberties that we are obligated to protect.”

This argument is wrong. For one thing, it is false that immigration restrictions only interfere with the liberty of foreigners. In practice, immigration restrictions interfere with the freedom of citizens too. States fine and arrest citizens for hiring unauthorized migrants, imprison citizens for participating in “fake” marriages with foreigners (in contrast, the only reason that citizens get married is surely pure romantic love), and forbid citizens from renting to unauthorized migrants. So, even if we only care about the freedom of citizens, there is still a strong objection to immigration restrictions.

Anyway, we deny that governments lack strong obligations to foreigners. Immigration restrictions are coercive. We have weighty obligations to refrain from coercing other people, including foreigners.

Here is a case to illustrate. Imagine that Sally and Robin are walking down a neighborhood street. One resident of this neighborhood, George, threatens to assault and kidnap Sally and Robin if they don’t immediately turn back. Now, imagine that Robin is a U.S. citizen, while Sally is Canadian. Does George have a weaker obligation to avoid coercing Sally in comparison with Robin? After all, George and Robin are compatriots, while Sally is a foreigner. Yet it seems equally wrong for George to coerce Sally and Robin. This same argument applies to government officials. Suppose that George is a police officer. We again think it is still just as wrong for George to threaten Sally as it is for him to coerce Robin, even though George is an official in the U.S. government.

Maybe you think that the U.S. government is justified in coercively restricting would-be immigrants in order to fulfill its positive obligations to its citizens. Take a standard worry: by driving up the supply of labor, immigrants will decrease the wages of some American workers. So, the argument goes, the state ought to forcibly prevent immigrants from entering the U.S. labor market to ensure that American wages don’t drop.

In reply, consider a case adapted from one of Michael Huemer’s. Suppose your daughter is one of two finalists for a job. You know that the other finalist is willing to work for less than your daughter. On the day of the other finalist’s interview, you decide to physically prevent him from getting to the interview to ensure that your daughter gets the job at a sufficiently high salary. Clearly, your use of coercion against your daughter’s competitor is not justified even though you have special obligations to look out for our daughter’s welfare. Similarly, a state’s use of coercion against would-be immigrants is not justified even if states have special obligations to their own citizens. The general point is that the state’s negative duty to not coerce foreigners typically outweighs its positive duty to benefit citizens.

Other examples abound. Suppose that a TSA agent at LaGuardia airport notices that there is only one Cinnabon left and that a Greek tourist is ahead of a native New Yorker in the line. So the TSA agent forcibly prevents the Greek tourist from buying the Cinnabon in order to save it for the hungry American. Or, suppose the TSA agent forcibly prevents the Greek tourist from taking the last spot in the airport chapel in order to keep it open for the same native New Yorker. In both cases, the agent is doing something wrong.

So, it is false that governments have relatively weak obligations to respect the liberty of foreigners and, even if they did, this wouldn’t vindicate immigration restrictions. This is more evidence that liberalism and immigration restrictions are inconsistent.

Of course, I took this as a challenge to the position taken in my posts and book, and so I was eager to argue it out with these authors. Hence, the following comment:

Prof. Freiman:
Forgive my plain speaking, but this post fails to seriously engage with the arguments raised by Danny, myself, and others. I say this because you ignore the obvious fact that rights sometimes conflict, as in the trolley problem, Joel Feinberg’s “Hiker” case, and a million other real world examples. This permits you to avoid addressing the central question I and others have posed. What if, contrary I’m sure to your hopes, open borders made it, for example, substantially more dangerous for US citizens to mock Islam, to walk down major urban centers dressed as Orthodox Jews, or for gays to express affection in public? What then?

Your “George” example does not help at all, because the rights in question are plainly compossible. “George” can and should respect both Sally’s and Robin’s rights, because upholding one person’s does not violate the other’s. On the other hand, I argued in the last thread[1] that nations have a stringent obligation to protect the natural rights of their citizens, and no one contested my reasoning. At least in principle, this duty can conflict with foreigners’ right to migrate.

Moreover, your example does not show that states have strong obligations to the relevant set of foreigners, because Sally and Robin are both within our borders and thus entitled to equal protection under our law. If a tourist is murdered or assaulted here, we rightly try to solve the case. But, if Sally was an African-American civil rights activist murdered (by the local authorities) in the Jim Crow South and Robin a Shia rights-activist murdered in Saudi Arabia, our federal government would be obligated to solve the former but not the latter. Since the question is whether would-be migrants (i.e. those not within our borders) are entitled to move here, my example is the applicable one. So, the unfortunate citizens of Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and N. Korea have exactly the same natural rights as US citizens, but our state is only duty bound to vindicate the rights of its citizens, and if this requires something less than open borders, so be it.

Huemer’s case of the job finalists doesn’t do it either, because your daughter does not have a right to this job. Therefore, preventing the foreigner from getting to the interview is an unwarranted interference, because it does not protect her rights. Much closer to the mark would be a case where your daughter was on her way to participate in a well-publicized “Draw Muhammad” contest, and the foreigner had expressed his intent to kill anyone who dared.

Yes, restrictions on migration may also impact our citizens, but as I previously argued, this fact does not eliminate the need to address the problem of negative externalities. If I happen to own 10,000 acres of land in a rural area with an aquifer that is stretched thin, I do not necessarily have the right to invite 100,000 foreigners to live with me if this causes the existing population to either die of thirst or flee their homes. Similarly, I don’t have the right to invite 100,000 residents from North Waziristan to live in this same locale if they will summarily murder anyone who they deem to have insulted Muhammad.

I realize I am using extreme examples, but I am simply attempting to get you to admit that the right to migrate is bounded by the rights of US citizens. Then, we can argue about the facts.

ETA: Honestly, I don’t hunt for these horror stories:…

“Amjad Sabri belonged to the renowned Sabri family, members of the Chishti Sufi order and the most famous Qawwali group in the country. They had performed internationally and were known for their renditions of mystical Islamic poetry. Qawwali is a form of passionate, devotional Sufi music, specifically from South Asia….

A faction of the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, citing the type of music Sabri performs as “blasphemous.”….

Qawwali has flourished in the shrines of Sufi saints that are dotted across Pakistan. But the mystical, moderate form of Sufi Islam practiced there has become a target of militants in recent years.”

Perhaps, just perhaps, open borders should apply to Sufis, but not to those who hate them.

I received no response, so three days later I tried again:

Prof. Freiman:
Since you seem not to be responding to comments on this thread, here’s another one you can ignore. You say, The general point is that the state’s negative duty to not coerce foreigners typically outweighs its positive duty to benefit citizens. But, this is wrong.

The state has no general duty not to coerce foreigners (or citizens). Its only obligation is not to violate their rights; sometimes coercion or force is not just permissible, but laudable. Your only argument to the effect that excluding certain groups of would-be immigrants violates their rights seems to be that this harms them. But, here again, many harms are not morally objectionable. When I am hired for the job you really want and need, I have harmed you, but not violated your rights.

You cannot deny that it is at least possible that open borders may seriously degrade the negative rights of US citizens. Thus, to justify open borders on an unconditional basis, you are in need of an argument that the purported right of migrants to seek economic opportunity here outweighs the rights of Americans to unfettered free expression and association. As already shown, the mere fact that exclusion may harm certain categories of foreigners doesn’t do it, particularly when the government is under a preexisting duty to its own citizens.

Nor does the fact that it would be wrong to prohibit US citizens from traveling to NY from CA under similar circumstances, because you are not entitled to assume that the US has the same obligations to foreigners as it does to citizens. As argued in my earlier comment, this is clearly false. The US government has, for example, a stringent obligation to protect those living within its borders from foreign military aggression, but no obligation to protect any other nation, unless we have agreed to do so (by treaty for example).

Again, no response.[2]  Now, my comments directly challenge the authors by highlighting the possibility of conflicts between the rights of citizens and immigrants, refuting Freiman/Hidalgo’s contention that states don’t have a paramount obligation to vindicate the rights of their citizens, and demolishing their analogies by showing that they ignore what appear to be quite important distinctions between these cases and the moral principles that bear on the immigration question.

If I am way off the mark here, it would have been easy for the authors to refute me. They didn’t even try, so I am going to stick to my guns until somebody gives me a good reason not to.


[1] “Let me state my own form of Danny’s argument for you to consider in your next post. Country A declares a monopoly of force within its jurisdiction (borders) and taxes those who reside there on a non-consensual basis. Country B does the same within its territory. The monopoly of force and taxation imposed by A infringes the rights of its citizens, but not those of B. B’s identical actions infringe the rights of its citizens, but not A’s. The only way that these infringements do not result in outright violations of rights is if, in exchange, these states deliver certain goods to their citizens. Most minimal state libertarians think this means protection against foreign aggression, safeguarding the natural rights of their citizens domestically, and little else. If the elected leaders of A conclude, on an objectively reasonable basis, that open borders with B will materially degrade the rule of law at home, they are obliged to limit it.”

[2] I did have the dubious pleasure of a “rebuttal” from a brain-dead troll who styles himself “King Goat”:  “…you are making the same argument in form of nearly every proponent of restricting a liberty. Those who want to restrict ‘hate speech’ say ‘it’s possible hate speech will seriously degrade the negative rights of other citizens, therefore the latter outweigh the right of haters to speak.’” This poor soul can’t seem, despite my examples, to wrap his head around the idea that a conflict of rights claims between two US citizens regarding hate speech might be subject to different moral considerations than a conflict over immigration between the US government, as a fiduciary for its citizens, and a Pakistani residing in N. Waziristan. There’s a very good reason that Freiman/Hidalgo didn’t raise that argument in reply to my objections.

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9 Responses to Open Borders, Again

  1. avraham says:

    Great essay. But I need more time to go over it in detail.

  2. avraham says:

    It looks to me to be solid reasoning. It is shocking to me the positions of Huemer and Bryan Caplan whom I consider to be top notch thinkers in their fields. Something strange is happening to libertarian. It is losing common sense.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Agreed. I think that what has happened is this. It is not very sexy for philosophers to say, “Subject to these reasonable assumptions, we should have open or much more open borders.” This proposition then turns on empirical issues, where philosophers have no special expertise. So, they try to ignore the empirical questions in favor of principled arguments. But, as I hope to have shown, these attempts fail.

      • avraham says:

        I think your arguments are amazing. I did not think anyone could outdo Huemer in clarity but I guess I was wrong.

        I should mention Blanchard also was aware of this tendency among philosophers to not worry about the human consequences of their doctrines .

        • Mark Friedman says:

          Thanks. Huemer is a far more accomplished philosopher than I can ever aspire to be. But, while it takes a tremendous intellect to build an intricate conceptual structure, if it turns out to be just a house of cards, not much talent is required to knock it down.

  3. avraham says:

    Here is the quote [] An acute young writer will propose an ethical theory from which, for example, it follows that the claim of democracy to superiority over nazism has no objective ground whatever, and being acute, he must have seen this; but it is apparently of small interest and receives no mention. It seems to be a matter of pride to leave all such things to others and to keep strictly to one’s analysis, like a scientist perfecting his formula for botulinus toxin. That the sole practical importance of this toxin is its capacity to destroy one hundred eighty million lives per ounce is a consideration which after all is irrelevant to chemical theory. To anyone who works in this spirit, arguments from practical consequences cannot be expected to carry much force.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Nice. Thanks for sharing this. The consequences for human beings if applied must constrain any plausible ethical theory, but Marxists and others never got this memo.

  4. avraham says:

    This was not the first time I noticed something in the logic of Huemer that is a bit off the mark. I saw this also in his treatment of quantum mechanic and relativity. As Sandra Lehmann once told me “There is something about philosophy that takes away common sense.” {Or people that get into it too much seem to lose common sense.] In any case, there were other reasons I prefer the Kant Fries school.

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