The Analogy Is Not The Reality

Opponents of immigration often compare nations to households. Under this analogy, citizens are members of the household, while an illegal immigrant is “like a roommate who doesn’t pay the rent.” We wouldn’t allow someone to barge into our household and use all of our private property, so why would anyone allow an immigrant to barge into a country and attempt to find a job?

Weaknesses of this analogy aside, it rests on a view of property rights that is perhaps best outlined here by blogger Simon Grey. In summary, the argument goes:

1. Under most reasonable people’s understanding of property rights, a single owner of private property is entitled to keep anyone of his or her property for any reason whatsoever.

2. A group of private property owners on adjacent properties may fence their properties together and do likewise.

3. Such a group of property owners can further outsource the management of property linkages, such as common roads, sidewalks, etc. to a third-party (e.g. a homeowners’ association) if they so choose.

4. The above is similar enough to a state that appeals to property rights are consistent with this analogy.

I find this argument unpersuasive, for following reasons: First, under this argument, natives also have a right to transact with immigrants, thus the concept provides no special reason to oppose immigration. Second, because this argument makes certain assumptions about governance of the commons, it ceases to be an argument about property rights and reduces to a declaration about moral governance (an argument which can be disputed on a purely moral basis independent of property rights). Finally, advocating for open borders is in no shape or form a violation of anyone’s property rights.

– Ryan Long over at “Open Borders: The Case”

Mr. Long,

An excellent post — I’m pleased to see you tackle the best arguments of your opponents rather than the typical straw-men and silliness I often read from immigration “reform” advocates. That said, I don’t think you are effective for a couple of reasons:

1) I think the property rights ‘analogy’, used by Simon Grey and others is really more of an argument about what to do with the commons — I think it can simply be useful to think about the nation-state as a large family or household whose family members are looking out for one another but don’t always have the same interests or goals. That’s why it can be helpful, at times, to talk to hard-core libertarians about the property rights of groups (i.e. groups of families that band together for the common good — a nation-state!)

2) So we are really arguing about the “governance of the commons” or as you put it later in your piece:

In truth, public land, public offices, and public resources are merely stewarded by the state. We call it “public property” only because it is not owned by private individuals. It is tempting for libertarian minds to reason that this is unfair or inappropriate – perhaps such reasoning even has a sound basis – but so long as property is owned and operated by the state, it is subject only to the will of the state.

Therefore, if the state decides to take an anti-immigration policy stance, the borders will be closed. If the state chooses to open the borders to the many benefits of free human migration, the borders will be open.

This gets us down to brass tacks and I think, if I read you correctly, suggests that what we are really arguing over is not the moral right of the state to close the borders (I guess it depends on how serious you are about defending the part about “such reasoning even has a sound basis”), which you agree it does, but whether or not it serves the public good for the state to restrict immigration in the way folks like me, Steve Sailer, Joe Arpaio, etc. would prefer.

3) The only issue I have remaining with your post is the idea that “Even if immigration restrictionists are within their rights to close the borders, that still does not address the fact that the arguments for opening the borders are an appeal to change minds, and are therefore no threat to anyone’s property rights whatsoever.” The problem, of course, is that restrictionists can and do argue that certain kinds of large-scale immigration will indeed threaten certain individuals property rights (including their right to life via increased risk of crime — Ron Unz’s convoluted arguments to the contrary!) This idea is obviously debatable, but you seem to acknowledge the potential for conflict exists when you say earlier that “Of course, opponents of immigration can always invoke the principle of collective property rights to argue against open borders, but such claims run contrary to the spirit in which property rights were invoked in the first place.” But if I believe that the commons will be harmed and/or even individuals will be harmed via large-scale immigration (i.e. there may be short-term economic benefits to immigration but there will be long-term harms to the public fisc, to community cohesiveness, to crime, etc.) then one could argue eventually individual property rights will be harmed. These harms will even eventually impact GDP — as one of my friends and co-bloggers puts it:

Crime, for example, is pretty inefficient for a community. The community has to expend resources to hunt down the criminals. Property and persons are damaged. Nobody who wants a healthy economy wants more crime.

The same is true of corruption and the absence of security of contract. If we import Mexican-style corruption and insecurity to the United States, we degrade the economy of the United States.

We can put the matter starkly if a tad over-simplistically if we tell the libertarians that there is a reason why Mexico is Mexico and the U.S. is the U.S., and that there is a reason why people prefer to be here rather than there. In the long run (and maybe in the not-so-long run as well) the more we make the U.S. or regions of the U.S. more like Mexico, the less economic efficiency and health we will have in the U.S. That predicted increase in GDP itself can’t go on forever in states that descend further into anarchy, crime, and corruption.

It isn’t only public finances that will suffer in such a scenario but, of course, private finances as well.

So while I don’t think this is actually a good answer to immigration restrictionists; I do think you helped clarify some of the issues involved, helped us reach some common ground and I give you credit for arguing in good faith. Keep up the good work.

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