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The immigration debate is misleading, Steve Davies argues

Summary:
The Economist has published a Special Report on immigration (significantly entitled “The magic of migration”), by Robert Guest, whose arguments will sound familiar to readers of Bryan’s and particularly of his excellent comic book essay, Open Borders. Such views are nicely complemented by a recent column by Steve Davies for AIER. Davies’ article is of particular relevance for libertarians, among whom “there is an increasingly bitter division between those who support much easier migration or even completely open borders and others who either support existing border controls or think they should be tightened”. For Davies, the current debate (including among people who otherwise share a preference for limited government, individual liberty, etc.) is largely

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The Economist has published a Special Report on immigration (significantly entitled “The magic of migration”), by Robert Guest, whose arguments will sound familiar to readers of Bryan’s and particularly of his excellent comic book essay, Open Borders.

Such views are nicely complemented by a recent column by Steve Davies for AIER. Davies’ article is of particular relevance for libertarians, among whom “there is an increasingly bitter division between those who support much easier migration or even completely open borders and others who either support existing border controls or think they should be tightened”.

For Davies, the current debate (including among people who otherwise share a preference for limited government, individual liberty, etc.) is largely misleading because,

The assumption is that political borders are somehow natural and that therefore there is a difference in kind between movement by people that takes place within a political border and movement that goes across such a border.

This is not so. In terms of type or class of action, there is no difference between the two. In other words, there is no difference in kind between moving within a political community and moving from one political community to another. There is a legal and administrative difference, but that comes from treating the two as different when in fact they are not. What this means is that we should not talk about immigration (or emigration for that matter): we should talk about migration. That is what we are talking about here: people moving and changing their locale.

Note that libertarians who favor restrictions to migration tend to offer exactly the reverse intellectual argument: that is, they conflate political borders with the boundaries of private properties, thereby thinking that political community keeps people out in the same way you or me abstain from inviting people we dislike from dining with us at our homes.

The main point of Davies’s political analysis is that immigration controls stem from the same logic of controlling people within a given territory – and require the same policy tools.

If migration is the same kind of thing regardless of whether it goes over a border, then certain things follow. Logically, if you support governments controlling movement across the borders, then you should support their having the power to control movement and residence within borders. Historically in fact this was normal, and governments did have that power (even if they found it hard to exercise it).

The egalitarian philosopher Brian Barry took this view, arguing both that the two kinds of movement were the same and that governments should have the power to tell people where to live. (The government might decide to allow free movement within the borders, but this would be a matter of policy not a recognition of a right.)

In other words, control of migration over borders is one aspect of a wider sovereign power to control and regulate movement and abode. The right of individuals to move within a state, if it is one that overrides and excludes any political power to control movement and residence, should also extend to a right to move across political borders — as long as you think that right is a natural one in some sense and not granted by a political community.

While the argument is a sophisticated one, and perhaps hard to digest for most people, it actually informs my only hope for more relaxed immigration policy in the future. It is difficult to imagine people swallowing the economic argument for migration, or feeling more open and enjoying a wider sense of brotherhood with people they see as dramatically different from their kind. It is easier to picture them becoming less and less tolerant with restrictions applying to their own life (limiting their freedom of movement, checking on their employees or house aids) for the sake of controlling migrants.

Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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