Economics, Libertarianism

Why Not Close Even More Borders?

The main arguments for closed borders are:

  1. Immigrants will cause crime
  2. Immigrants will lower domestic wages
  3. Immigrants are less cultured or educated; or will sully our culture.
  4. Immigrants are poor and will exhaust our welfare services.
  5. Our rights of association allow us to exclude immigrants.

For the sake of argument, suppose 1-5 are correct. (They’re not.) If these are reasons to close borders between nations, why aren’t they also reasons to close borders between provinces and states inside nations, or between towns and cities, or between neighborhoods?

Consider the existential threat my neighbors and I face. Over 60% of the people 25 or older in Fairfax County, VA, have a bachelors’ degree or higher, and another 20% have either some college or an associates degree. The overwhelming majority of them have professional white collar jobs. The median household income is around $105,000. In my CDP inside Fairfax County, the median household income is $135,000. The unemployment rate is about 3.8%. We have something like .88 violent crimes per thousand residents per year. Our best public schools are the best in country, and our worst public schools are still far better than the average. Our park system–which includes water parks–is excellent. Most births are to married couples, and, compared to the rest of the USA, hardly any teens get pregnant.

Our way of life is continuously threatened by our open borders. Consider: right now, the uneducated, unemployed, barely English-speaking, poor-as-dirt residents of Buffalo County, South Dakota, or Harlan County, Kentucky, are free to move here at will. The average household in Mantua, VA, is six times richer than the average household in Harlan, Kentucky. I won’t recite all the stats here, but we’re talking about uneducated people, who commit far more crime, who have less culture, who don’t fit in with us, and who, if they moved here, would exhaust our welfare services, and destroy our schools. I want my kids going to school with doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, not with meth-addicted bumpkins or alcoholic Native-Americans.

So, if 1-5 are reasons why the USA can and should close its borders to Haiti, why are they not also reasons why Fairfax County, VA, can and should close its borders to everyone else, except maybe Loudon County, VA?

UPDATE: Of course, we’ll want to allow immigrants from Harlan, provided they can prove they’re high-skilled, have jobs, etc.


  • SamChevre

    I will argue that Fairfax is now effectively closed to people from Harlan, Kentucky who aren’t either already wealthy or high-skilled with high-paying jobs. They can’t afford a legal place to live, and can’t easily commute there from somewhere where they can afford one.

    • Jameson Graber

      But “effectively closed” is very different from legally closed. Suppose someone from Kentucky *is* high-skilled, and wants to move to a place where his skills will be put to better use. As it is, he just has to find the right job, and he’s free to move. If Fairfax Co had closed borders, then even if he found his niche, he couldn’t go there, except illegally. So the world would be deprived of the higher productivity he could have had.

      I think there’s a lesson to be taken from this not-so-hypothetical situation.

    • Theresa Klein

      Exactly. High housing prices keeps the riff-raff out.

      • Jason Brennan


        I wonder if this applies to borders between…


        • M Lister

          Not “housing prices”, exactly (though you could making housing part of the deal) but you can buy a greencard if you have enough money- an investment of $1,000,000, or just $500,000 in certain areas, will get you a greencard. Many other countries have similar rules- some with lower, some with higher prices. There are good economic reasons to think we’ve put the price too high, probably by quite a bit, but many people seem to want to keep it high, for all sorts of (usually bad) reasons.

        • Theresa Klein

          I guess my point is that immigration law is not the only mechanism that people have to restrict other people’s liberty. Building and zoning restrictions are also useful.

          There’s covert racism in immigration law, and there’s covert racism in county planning boards. And they are all artificially restrictive of liberty.

      • SamChevre

        And note well–those high housing prices are the product of stricter-than-usual enforcement of stricter-than-usual rules: no renting to more than 1 person per bedroom, no living in too-small houses, your lawn had better be green and mowed and not have anything in it other than tasteful lawn decorations.

        It’s more freedom for most people to say “limit immigration” than to enforce Fairfax-strict zoning Fairfax-strictly everywhere in the country.

        • Theresa Klein

          It’s even more freedom to NOT enforce Fairfax-strict zoneing laws in Fairfax, and not limit immigration either.

          • SamChevre

            I agree; I’m generally for freer immigration.

            I just don’t think that everyone is free to move to “Mantua” is a helpful analogy; there’s a large and effective barrier to moving to Mantua, maintained by force.

            The whole argument is classic limousine-liberalism (unfortunately pervasive on this blog); “I can buy my way out of any social disfunction my policies cause, so why are you objecting that you have a right to free association even when you can’t afford to pay extra for it?”

    • Daniel McNally

      I agree with Jameson and would also like to note that Fairfax is a fairly big place and not all of it has very high housing costs. This is not San Fran or Manhattan by a long shot. There are (at least relatively) lower income areas and lower class populations – they’re still probably a good bit better off than most of Harlan County, KY though. My point is that people can and do move to this area including a noteworthy number of first and second generation immigrants.

  • Jameson Graber

    Nice, pithy argument. I like it.

    • Sean II

      J.G., I appeal to you as fair and honorable referee. I know we don’t share conclusions in this matter, but I’m hoping you can set that aside long enough to evaluate an argument.

      Jason’s attempting to show the hypocrisy of open border opponents by pointing out an inconsistency, namely…that they don’t favor closure of inter-state, inter-county borders, etc. Okay, fine.

      Like all argument from hypocrisy, however, this one comes with the risk of cutting back against its master.

      Hence my counter: Jason is not wrong to point out that international borders are essentially similar to intra-national borders. The problem is, once you see that, the hypocrisy turns out to be his, not mine. Why? Because like most of us upper-middle class white people, he lives behind a series of intra-national borders which, it turns out, are kept up by a variety of coercive, statist measures.

      So the argument strikes back: the question now is his to answer “Why do you oppose on a national level what you practice on a neighborhood level?”

      Tell me at least that you see the point – even if you don’t like it, or where it leads. He’s never gonna respond, so I’m just dying to get a reply from someone else on his side of the issue. What do you say?

      • Jameson Graber

        I see the point you’re making, I just don’t find it convincing. First, there is no reason why Brennan wouldn’t be willing to bite the bullet you’re firing at him. If you accuse him of being inconsistent because he supports coercive measures to keep neighborhoods distinct, he can just say, “Well, no, I don’t.”

        Second, I think you’re really underestimating the difference between two things, here. Zoning ordinances limit liberty, are only rarely justified, and are surely overused. But they are nothing like immigration restriction. If you ride into Fairfax County, VA coming from Kentucky, you’re not going to be stopped at the border and asked to show ID. You’re not going to be charged thousands of dollars just to get a document proving you have the right to enter. You’re not going to be chased down and forced to leave Virginia if ever your visa should expire. You’re not going to be separated from your family over a documentation procedure.

        And on the other end, think of the difference in difficulty of enforcement. If people manage to sneak past the border undetected, or if they manage to outstay their visas, or whatever, that means the state has to search for a needle in a haystack to figure out where these people even are, and then they have to figure out what to do with them. Zoning ordinances, by comparison, are actually pretty clear and easy to enforce (though again, I’m not saying they’re justified). If you compare honestly, really enforcing immigration restrictions seems like the behavior of an obsessive government, hell bent on knowing where everyone is at all times. Is that anything like what you want government to look like?

        • Sean II

          Well, thanks at least for that. Though by the way…

          1) Brennan is not biting his bullets fair and square. As of this moment, he’s still clinging to the rather embarrassing story that his bubble has no borders because it’s just made out of market forces (i.e. housing prices).

          2) I think you’re underestimating the degree of coercion used to keep those suburban bubbles the way they are.

          Wanna see it more clearly? You know those nice parks where UMC families walk their strollers and set up picnics? Well, when a couple young black guys show up anywhere near there, they get stopped by the police, asked for ID, searched in their person and car, etc. If they’re foolish enough to have a joint or a beer on hand, they get arrested for that, hauled into jail with a fine and court costs they can’t afford to pay, etc.

          It’s not as bad as what happens at the border, but it’s ugly as hell, and coercive in the extreme.

          • Jameson Graber

            It’s interesting that you, Sean, of all people, are insisting that high a level of racial discrimination is the central cause of housing segregation.

            Why the focus on race? Are you really going to contest that market forces are the main reason why white lowskilled bumpkins from Kentucky don’t end up living in Fairfax Co?

            If there’s any hypocrisy here, it’s on your end. You’re doing the exact same trick that people on the left often pull. You’re trying to show that the way things *really* work isn’t based on market forces, but on some pernicious evil that we middle class white people secretly depend on. Then you use that to justify something even more coercive. And I just don’t find that credible.

          • Sean II

            1) “Are you really going to contest that market forces are the main reason why white lowskilled bumpkins from Kentucky don’t end up living in Fairfax Co?”

            Yes. I do contest that. How can you not? In addition to the very good reasons I’ve already supplied, here’s a new one. In the U.S., racial and social enclaves tend to be built around public school districts. It’s one of the biggest factors behind our suburban-urban split, and it has naught to do with free markets.

            2) “If there’s any hypocrisy here, it’s on your end…”

            No, I’m very consistent. I’m willing to discuss some limits to international immigration, and I’m willing to discuss the various coercive limits which have been built up against intra-national migration. Where’s the contradiction?

          • Sean II

            “It’s interesting that you, Sean, of all people, are insisting that high a level of racial discrimination is the central cause of housing segregation. Why the focus on race?”

            Easy. In the U.S., especially in cities which grew large before 1940, white flight is one of the key factors that give the cities their shape.

            The bedroom community Brennan describes is a classic product of this. Not sure how one could discuss such a thing without taking account of race.

  • Jason, I totally agree with you, but I want to point out the fact that many critics of open borders (along the lines of the blogger “Sonic Charmer” / “The Crimson Reach” indignantly criticize folks like you and Bryan Caplan because they feel that open borders is a costless strategy for you. In other words, they feel that you can advocate for open borders because you are totally insulated from their negative consequences, while they, on the other hand, must “put up” with the results of 1-5 because they live in the communities in which immigrants will choose to relocate.

    I believe Steve Sailer originated this argument, but I cannot be sure.

    So perhaps someone should address that issue full on. If I were struggling to feed myself and my family, I might choose to immigrate to the high-income communities like yours, but I don’t think desperate immigrants actually think this way. I think they choose communities based on (1) the existence of a culturally similar diaspora, or (2) proximity to an actual border.

    Just putting it out there. This is what they say, this is what they think. They will probably write dozens of blog posts about this tomorrow., after having read yours.

    • AP²

      How could they immigrate to an high-income community? Housing prices are usually high as well.

      Poor immigrants move to communities where they can afford to live, even if that means very long commuting times to work in high-income areas.

      • Yes, point taken. That is another aspect of the argument.

      • Theresa Klein

        Which incidentally is often a hidden motivating factor behind driving up housing prices. People figure that if it costs too much for poor people to afford a home they can prevent slums from developing near them. (Neglecting the fact that people would be less poor if their homes were cheaper – there’s a hidden assumption that some people carry and spread povery with them like a disease).

      • K.P.

        Multiple families to a home. Of course, zoning ordinances in Fairfax make that illegal.

  • Sean II

    Um, Jason…the community you describe in Fairfax effectively IS closed off to people who aren’t like you. You DO send your kids to attend school with the children of doctors and lawyers. You DO have various mechanisms, including a police department that uses racial/social profiling, to screen for people who seem not to belong.

    The only problem I have with your analogy is that I wish I’d thought of it first. It serves my argument, not yours.

    Thanks for the gimme – now, every time open borders comes up, I’ll be sure to call out the hypocrisy of bubble-dwelling suburbanites who preach unlimited immigration even as they do whatever it takes to put distance between themselves and an underclass they could only love from afar.

    • Jason Brennan

      So, Sean II, to be clear, you’re view is that market forces, such as high prices, keep by America’s poor out of America’s affluent areas, but these forces do not keep the world’s poor out of affluent America, even though the gap in cost of living is higher in the latter case than the former?

      • Sean II

        You’re not relying on market forces. Actually, what you’re doing is free-riding on other people’s use of force.

        The Fairfax County PD is not a market force. If someone tried to buy a piece of land near you and build a skating rink marketed toward black teenagers in neighboring D.C., they’d be stopped cold…by some very non-market zoning and permit harassment.

        Now, I’m sure you’d blog about how you’re against that sort of thing, but I’m equally sure you wouldn’t pick up and move.

        • Jason Brennan

          Sean, I’ll just throw you a tip here. To argue with me on this, you’d need to invoke something that explains why cross-national immigration would be dangerous while cross-county or cross-state would not be.

          Everything you’ve said so far applies just as much to both cases.

          • Sean II

            Oh, but I’ve done better than that. I’m telling you – and you agree with me in action and lifestyle, if not in words – that BOTH cross-national and cross-county or cross-state immigration can be (and demonstrably has been) dangerous.

            That’s why you live where you do. That’s why people like us always live in such places…you know, after we get married and decide it would be lunacy to house a family in that urban loft we once so boldly rented.

      • Undeserving uppermiddle class?

        Those uber rich counties around *Washington DC* have political power, the massive privilege and parasitism that comes along with it, to thank more than markets, right? The credentialism via advanced degrees is a gatekeeper that evolved from the political situation as well….

    • adrianratnapala

      Sean, if we get the Anarchy that you seem to want. Doesn’t that mean we will effectively get the kind of open borders that the BHLs want as well?

      • Sean II

        Sure, if we get anywhere close to the anarchy I seem to want, we’ll end up with no national borders…but we’ll have other kinds of borders aplenty.

        • adrianratnapala

          Yes, but that’s why I qualified it with “the kind of open borders that the BHLs want”. Presumably most of them believe in territorial property rights. Assuming there are safe methods of transport, people will be able to live wherever they can convince a property owner to rent, sell or host. It’s not a bad vision of the world.

          • Sean II

            Property rights are extremely fragile. If you have them in a place where few people believe in property rights, they tend not to last very long.

          • jdkolassa

            This is one reason why I do not believe in anarchism as a practical manner.

            I’m not sure how you can be an anarcho-capitalist and hold this view.

          • Sean II

            Can’t speak for anyone else, but this anarcho-capitalist takes it for granted that such a society would only emerge where people broadly share its premises.

            You know that story we all learn about how the Constitution was designed to protect freedom even against the wishes of people who don’t want to be free?

            As far as I know, there is no an-cap version of that.

          • jdkolassa

            Okay, so basically what you’re saying is that Ideal Act Theory leads to anarcho-capitalism. Which basically means it will never, ever happen.


          • Sean II

            Yes, give in to your anger. Let the hate flow through you. The more you struggle against anarchism, the more surely it becomes your destiny. Yes, gooood….

        • One question (I swear, I won’t argue, I’m just curious):

          As far as I can tell, there’s nothing stopping you from creating any of these “other kinds of borders,” are there? I mean, there might be zoning laws etc. that may impede your ability to do this efficiently, but surely nothing stopping you from erecting a gated community of some kind in which to live.

          So then, it’s not really the statists’ fault that these non-national borders don’t exist. It’s the fault of the people who wish to live in such communities. And many such communities do already exist, so it’s almost just a Sean problem, where “Sean” is “anyone who feels the same way about borders as Sean.”

          In other words, why not just build the community borders you want and advocate for open national borders?

          • Sean II

            “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing stopping you from creating any of these “other kinds of borders,” are there?”

            Yes…despite Bubblevilles like Jason’s, there are various laws that make it difficult to do such things OPENLY and HONESTLY.

            First, the state will just find ways to stop you if it finds out your trying to compete with it by setting up an ex-territorial enclave. The fact that the state controls so much land makes it easy for them to do.

            Second, if you try to do things openly, you’ll run afoul of laws (or even just punishingly enforced norms) against race discrimination.

            Which is one of the points I’ve been making all along: our culture at presents deals with group differences by militantly insisting they don’t exist. Let in a bunch of people from different groups…the result may not be pretty.

          • Are you saying that you want to live in a community that excludes people based on race? No wonder you think open borders is a bad idea.

          • Sean II

            I’m controlling my temper here, so please control your impulse to grandstand.

            As you know, lots of policies have disparate impacts. An income threshold will, for example, reliably produce a disparate impact against blacks.

            Disparate impact is not the same as discriminatory intent, but one can get in big trouble with either.

            That’s what I’m talking about.

          • I’m not grandstanding, I’m just trying to understand. You mentioned racial discrimination, not me. So I had to ask the question to know what you were saying. I think what you’re saying is that you might consider using income as an exclusion criteria, and the state would prevent you for racial reasons. No judgement, just telling you what I understand from reading your comment.

            I agree that people who want to live in an income-homogeneous community have much to dislike about open borders, and capitalism more generally.

          • Sean II

            In that case, let me clarify. Yes, obviously, a libertarian society would not stop people from segregating by race or any other marker they like.

            I don’t think that racial segregation is desirable, but neither would I use force to prevent it. Not even when it’s clearly intentional.

            The absurd thing is: we already have it now! Even with a 50 year campaign against racial segregation, we still have it. We just have it behind a thick screen of socially desirable bullshit, in which everyone claims not to want it.

            Look at the original post. Brennan’s a smart guy, but it didn’t even occur to him that he’s already living in a racially and culturally segregated enclave with a border protected by hired guns.

          • adrianratnapala

            I don’t think the exclusionist planing laws etc. really hide racial segregation, or at least not racial discrimination. Decades ago, white home owners would have objected to upper-middle class black folks moving in, now they will welcome them.

          • I don’t think that racial segregation is desirable, but neither would I use force to prevent it. Not even when it’s clearly intentional.

            If you don’t think any of this segregation stuff is desirable, then what is your opposition to open borders? That was the meat of the question I asked up above.

            It sounds like you understand that if you want to close yourself off in an enclave, you know how to do it without getting the state involved. It also sounds like you don’t necessarily want to close yourself off in an enclave.

            So… why aren’t you in favor of open borders again?

          • I don’t think that racial segregation is desirable, but neither would I use force to prevent it. Not even when it’s clearly intentional.

            If you don’t think any of this segregation stuff is desirable, then what is your opposition to open borders? That was the meat of the question I asked up above.

            It sounds like you understand that if you want to close yourself off in an enclave, you know how to do it without getting the state involved. It also sounds like you don’t necessarily want to close yourself off in an enclave.

            So… why aren’t you in favor of open borders again?

          • Sean II

            “If you don’t think any of this segregation stuff is desirable, then what is your opposition to open borders?So… why aren’t you in favor of open borders again?”

            Because “not desirable” isn’t the same thing as “intolerable under any circumstances.”

            Segregation isn’t pretty, but some things are even worse.

            For example, the demographic extinction of liberalism is far worse than certain forms of segregation…not least of all because, once liberalism itself is gone, the very idea that segregation is bad goes with it.

          • adrianratnapala

            But if we take freedom of association (and indeed property rights) very, very seriously, then surely that means the freedom for rednecks to erect a New South Africa ‘burbclave a’la _Snow Crash_. Not just this mealy-mouthed disparate impact stuff.

          • Sean II

            Actually, you’re right. It’s not just about disparate impact. If people want to form self-consciously segregated enclaves around race, religion, Nolan chart placement, whatever…of course that should fall within their right of association.

            So really, the hypocrisy here is: some people already have that right, along with the added privilege of being dishonest about a) wanting it and b) the methods used to protect it.

            When such people call for open borders, they’re really saying something more like: “Resolved: Haitians should be allowed to move closer to the native poor people who, let’s not kid ourselves, aren’t allowed anywhere near me!”.

    • j_m_h

      Since I live in Fairfax county I have to say that there are plenty of low-income people living here. It’s just here are also plenty of very well to do people that makes the income and net worth stats so good.

      • Sean II

        And these diverse people, do they live together in cute little eclectic neighborhoods, where trailers and McMansions stand shoulder to shoulder with low-rise projects…or is there (I know this is crazy talk and all)…is there maybe some distance between them?

        • j_m_h

          Once could argue then that the elite don’t live next to the other elite as the distances between the borders of lower income ares in Fairfax county and those of the higer income ares can be less than the distance been houses in the most affluent homes.
          Yes, at the end of the day your argument holds: we all exclude and implement immigration controls — we just call them fenses and locked doors 😉
          For some reason, however, I just don’t see that as the same issue at some national level.

          • murali284

            But the national border is not your private property to close or fence off. Even if it was your property, I think it is at least arguable that you are obligated to provide some sort of easement and not impede the freedom of other people to associate if they so will.

          • j_m_h

            Clearly the boarder has to be property, not my personal property but the collective (jointly?) owned property of the USA. The establishment of various fences is via the agreed upon decision-making process (nondecision-making these days?) in place. If there is no concept of ownership underlying political boundaries then all immigration law is invalid I would think. It would be the same as the USA government, or me personally, declaring that no one from Perth is allowed to enter Moscow.

            The idea that some easement, or right to cross exists, is interesting but I suspect is not found in the nature of the existing nation state.

          • murali284

            If public property were in fact jointly owned by all citizens either through the government or otherwise and further, majorities of citizens could on public property rightfully do what people can citizens could ordinarily do on their own private property, a lot of things we as liberals or libertarians criticise the state for (discrimination etc) would be permissible.

          • j_m_h

            Well then it’s not joint ownership as one would have of a house or lot. It remains owned in some sense of that word or the whole concept of borders, border control and immigration policy in a geographic sense becomes meaningless to discuss — as suggested by my comments about my being able to control people from Australia going to Russia.

            The simple fact is that international law recognizes that national borders are controlled by the national government. While that might be something one wants to debate from a standpoint of legitimacy or what the details mean relative to what we think when talking about individual ownership of land or other property it is a fact of the world we live in.

          • murali284

            international law also gives various countries latitude to enact unjust policies within their own country and to even restrict trade with other countries in various ways. It does not follow that such policies are just.
            Nothing I’ve said necessarily means that we shouldn’t secure our borders, only that the argument which makes an analogy with private property does not work

          • j_m_h

            Well, if the analogies with private property don’t work then you’re refuting your easement idea. I don’t think you can have your cake and eat it too.

          • murali284

            I see territorial control by the state as flowing from a responsibility to protect those citizens in that geographic area. (states however, do not have such a responsibility to people in other areas) Stringent immigration restrictions actually harm the interests of residents (in various ways.) and are therefore unjustified.

        • Gordon

          Of course there is some distance between them. Land that is worth, e.g., $1,000 an acre, is not typically found adjacent to land worth, e.g., $10,000 an acre – whether the land is governed by zoning regulation or land covenants.

        • murali284

          Since I live in a mansion which also happens to be in a neighbourhood which is adjacent to various blocks of public housing (the residents of which sometimes park outside my house in order to save on parking) am I allowed to ask for open borders?

          • Sean II

            No, and you should probably sue your realtor. Sounds like he just throws the word “mansion” around with no compunction!

          • murali284

            For a house in land scarce Singapore, I’m sure it counts as one, though calling it a massively huge detached double story house wouldn’t be wrong either. Besides, you haven’t seen where I live, so you don’t know how big my place is or for that matter how much it sells for on the market nor do you know how close the public housing is.

          • Sean II

            Singapore? For god’s sake man you should have said that before!

            “Public housing” doesn’t mean the same thing in Singapore as it does elsewhere. Not even close.

            So really it’s not your realtor who should be upbraided for playing cute with words…it’s you.

  • adrianratnapala

    The built in assumption here is that nationality doesn’t matter. But it does matter. I know that’s a bald, unsupported statement, but so is it’s denial.

    Through various complicated processes (resulting in various complicated grey areas) human beings have been divided into large groups usually called nations, and usually controlling particular territories. Or more accurately, these complicated processes have _united_ most human beings into nations, when their ancestors were only in bands or tribes or whatever.

    People in these nations have positive rights against each other that nobody else has. That’s why I can walk into Australia whenever I please, but I live in Europe only as a guest. It’s also also why, as a potential voter, I am one of the many rulers of Australia but not of any other country.

    Is it arbitrary that Australia counts as a nation while Sydney and NSW, the British Empire and the planet Earth don’t? Yep. Might that change in the future? Yep. History is not just complicated, but also contingent and somewhat it’s also very arbitrary, but its results are still real.

    • Jason Brennan

      If I can drum up enough Fairfax Countianism, can I close off the borders?

      • adrianratnapala


        • SwakDays

          Assuming we are talking about legal borders here, no obviously not. The Constitution requires the internal United States to be an open border free-trade zone.

          • adrianratnapala

            Quite right, I rather like constitutions, and keeping the U.S. one in tact would be a good reason not break any counties off. But in order to turn Jason’s comment into an even vaguely fair response to mine, we need to read an awful lot into “If I can drum up enough Fairfax Countianism,”.

            In this future, the United States has, through a long train of usurpations, evinced a design to reduce the Farfxians under an absolute Despotism. Then it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

            Or at least thats how the Farfxians describe it. The bottom line is that that in this fairy tale, those guys have somehow bonded together until they feel themselves to be a nation over and above the US. Stuff like that won’t strike out of the blue, when when it does happen, the opinions of mankind might well look kindly upon the causes which impel them to the separation. And even if not, then mankind aught give at least a decent regard to the opinions of the Farfxians, as it does now to the Palestinians.

            But outside the fairy tale, I am more interested in the rights of nations that actually exist. Including the United States.

          • SwakDays

            Well, I think you are assuming the premise being questioned here. What, beyond historical accident, justifies a closed border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico but an open border between El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico? As a matter of first principles, does that distinction make sense? Why is the right of the US to exclude more justified than the right of Fairfax County? Of course one can say that the US is a sovereign and Fairfax County is not, but letting legal abstractions dictate policy rather than actual economic realities seems silly.

            On a side note, us Yanks had a rather ugly debate in the 19th century regarding the question of whether internal political subdivisions of the US have a right to secede when they decide they are being unfairly treated by the federal government. The outcome of that fracas tends to cast significant doubt on the claimed right of secession, at least in this context.

          • Libertymike

            In other words, the Yanks’ great mass murderer, has the final word on secession? Might makes right?
            The Declaration of Independence, after all, is, if nothing else, a declaration of secession.

          • SwakDays

            I don’t think I said that it was the “final word,” nor implied whether I approved of the outcome or not. I simply noted in passing that there is a rather prominent historical precedent which might have some relevance regarding the particular hypothetical proposed by adrainratnapala.

          • adrianratnapala

            Doesn’t all that just help my case that, as things stand for now and the foreseeable future, the US is a real nation while its constituent parts are not? Even if that only came about by historical accidents?

            If states are counties are going to secede, then a lot of heavy historical s**t is going to have to happen. That’s possible – as in my hypothetical – but it is not likely in this era. Which is why, in the world that currently exists, the US controls immigration, and not the constituent parts of the US.

          • adrianratnapala

            Historical accident, or rather the nationalities formed out of those accidents are exactly the point. And thats what justify the premise that nations exist. You really need to read my first comment in this thread.

          • SwakDays

            Yeah, no one is denying that nation states really do exist or that they really do have the power and legal authority to exclude non-citizens. The question raised is whether this arrangement produces the best outcome (however that is defined). Perhaps I misread you, but your argument appears to be that nations should have closed borders because they do have closed borders.
            As I understand it, libertarians believe open borders improve economic and social conditions for both immigrants and natives and such an arrangement is a superior system to closed borders for this reason. If you want to defeat such an argument, you need to show that open borders would not have the salutary effects libertarians believe they would or that they would have other negative implications that libertarians had not previously accounted for. Simply restating the well known fact that nations have the right to exclude non-citizens doesn’t really get us very far.

      • lol @ “Countianism.”

        • adrianratnapala

          It’s a good word. The Flemish, for example, have been good and Countian for about seven centuries now. Or perhaps, it’s not the best word. The Count tended to be a French stooge. The merchant-burghers were the ones who did all independence warring.

  • M Lister

    4 is actually a pretty complicated case. Several proponents of open borders, like Chandran Kukathas, in part support them because they think it will make the welfare state, in anything like its current form, impossible. (Kukathas is at least fairly open about this. That is, at least, honest.) The most extensive research on the subject (done by the National Research Council) found that immigrants with less than a high-school education would be expected to be net consumers of public benefits (take in more than they contributed), even when you figured in the contributions of their children in the next generation. (The children were typically assumed to become educated at normal rates.) It seems safe to assume that, in countries with more generous welfare systems than the US (that is, most Western countries) this would be even more the case. Whether this would “exhaust our welfare services” would depend on lots of other factors, including the mix of immigrants, growth rates in the future, willingness to pay on the part of those made better off, and so on. What’s clear, though, is that it can’t be determined a priori, or without making controversial assumptions that opponents ought not be willing to grant, that 4 is false. (Howard Chang, a lawyer/economist at Penn Law, has many good papers discussing these issues.)

    • adrianratnapala

      I don’t get any of this. Why do you assume that letting people enter is the same as letting people take welfare?

      In the long term, sure, kids born in the country ought to have citizenship. But if the children of hard working (they have to be, since they can’t get welfare!) immigrants end up being welfare consumers on average, then you need to stop worrying about your immigration system and start worrying about your economic rules and the education system.

      • M Lister

        Why do you assume that letting people enter is the same as letting people take welfare?

        Only because pretty much every country that has allowed long-term residents has done that, at least after some time, and because pretty much everyone who has thought seriously about the subject that thought that having a long-term second-class population in a society is unacceptable, so long-term residents either need to be given access to membership (and so, benefits, whatever they are) or not be allowed. Now, you can reject that, but it’s not a very popular view, and one that’s likely to be hard to make work in practice. The more common move, the one Kukathas makes, is to assume that this will mean the end of the welfare state for everyone. But, if you want to assume that you’ll have an explicit two-tiered system of membership, where immigrants can’t get citizenship (that seems to be what you’re suggesting), that’s certainly conceivable, but just not, I think, very attractive.

        More importantly, I was only giving a description of what would be expected to happen under a system like the one we have now. That’s because it’s only under that assumption, at the weakest, that Jason’s 4 above is interesting. If you way “open borders won’t destroy the welfare state, because we will have an explicitly two-tiered system of membership, in perpetuity, for immigrants”, you will have moved the goal posts in such a way that it won’t be a very interesting or surprising claim.

  • j_m_h

    I think that’s an apple-oranges comparison. You’re talking about policies that related to other countries outside the political juristiction of the polity USA — and we have a constitutional constraint on the barriers internally. You might be asking why we constituted the polity as we did — outsiders can be barred while insiders cannot — but I think the answer obvious: Us versus Them.
    From a practical point this does occur at some level — look at zoning laws that prevent building multifamily strucutres and require minimum lots sizes of 3 to 5 acres close to urban centers. Adding a last thought: Gated Communities.

  • Jeremy McLellan

    I’m helping a friend of mine do research on the history of the Disabilities Board of Charleston County so I’m looking through all of our archives for non-confidential documents he can use. My favorite stories are from the early 90s when a bunch of middle-class white people and homeowner’s associations tried to prevent people with mental disabilities from moving into their neighborhoods. (Before anyone Hoppes in to out-liberty my story, I should point out that it was not restrictive covenants but SC state law that had previously dictated where group homes could be located.) In one neighborhood, residents stalked the black caregiver and yelled racial slurs at her and our clients. They camped out across the street with video cameras 24/7. High school principals sent letters warning us of moving near “the children.” What’s interesting to me is that a lot of the conservative politicians in Charleston (many of whom I despise) went to bat for us back then, but nearly all of them use the exact same rhetoric about immigrants today. If anything, immigration laws are more unjust since they prevent people from even entering the area to work. The unwashed masses of Prince Edward County may not be able to live in Fairfax, but Jason is certainly allowed to hire them to clean his house, mow his lawn, and babysit his kids.

    • adrianratnapala

      Why do you despise those particular conservative politicians?

      • Jeremy McLellan

        Oh various reasons. Racist, tough on crime, pushing arrests for minor offenses, restrictive zoning laws and ordinances, opposition to anything related to gay rights, etc.

  • K.P.

    It looks like you made an argument for secession or at least more regional autonomy. Yes, why not indeed, power to the neighborhoods and all that.

    • adrianratnapala

      He is talking specifically about the right to keep people out. In principle this could be some crack-addled, science-fiction dystopia where the government controls what kind of light bulb you use, but allows you to uncool people from moving into your neighbourhood.

      • K.P.

        So… a slightly better version than the current set up?

        • adrianratnapala

          Nah, I like uncool people. That’s why I make obsessive blog comments on the interweb.

          • K.P.

            Well sure, I like them too… over the internet. Not in my back yard though.

  • Daniel McNally

    Good article, I’ve made similar arguments re: free trade.

    In reality, Fairfax and similarly wealthy surrounding counties have fairly large immigrant populations, mostly Hispanic and Asian. I would argue that Fairfax is prosperous and culturally rich at least in part thanks to, rather than in spite of, these immigrants. And even many of the native-born and/or white families and young professionals that live in the area moved here from out of state.

    If Fairfax had hypothetically decided, 50 years ago lets say, to build a wall around their borders and turned away new residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would be a vastly less wealthy and vibrant area than it is today.

    • Theresa Klein

      True, but they live three families to a house.

      • Libertymike

        Hispanic, in and of itself, is not a race descriptor. Ergo, you could not be racist about the situation – unless the peeps you describe are all white 🙂

    • serf dumb

      Fairfax is wealthy, like several other area counties, due to its proximity to the Washington DC spigot. The anchor economy in Fairfax is heavily dependent on government and government contracts. In effect, it is walled-off from unprivileged humanity. Modern walls, political in nature, are not Medieval physical structures…

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    I have a better idea, instead of the all or nothing false dichotomey you fanatcs offer, we could just have a lot of legal immigration and process people so that we know who is comming in our country.

    • Sean II

      L.K.N. – has it occurred to you that all this fanaticism – coming as it does from otherwise consequence-sensitive people – grows from the simple fact that open borders are politically impossible, so it costs nothing to signal one’s super-awesome moral virtue by supporting them?

      Indeed, open borders are probably one of the last libertarian policies we’ll ever see implemented, so why not indulge a bit of cheap talk on the subject?

      • Libertymike

        I trust, given your reference to “consequence-sensitive people”, that you are not lumping in Rothbardian hooligans with the likes of Jason and BHL types with your post.

        • Sean II

          Well, it seems “we’re all Rothbardian hooligans now”, if only for this issue.

    • Sean II

      I like your plea for sanity even more after dinner than I did before. So let me do my part to support it:

      If people were calling for something like “modify the H1-B program to include automatic citizenship and expand it to the tune of 2,000,000 more new arrivals a year”…then I’d be like “Cool. I’m with you. Let’s try it! We’ll have tons of fresh evidence to discuss before taking the next step.”

      But’s that never what I’m hearing. What I’m hearing is “Open borders NO MATTER WHAT!”, occasionally mixed in with the always constructive “Fuck you, you’re not a libertarian if you disagree even just a little.”

      • eccdogg


        To me the negative consequences are at least plausible if perhaps unlikely and we have very little data on what open borders would look like. Lets allow more immigration, if it goes well allow some more and so on. If the consequences are not bad then we can eventually get to open borders.

        As usual Huemer nails it. From his essay on the right to immigrate.

        “In my view, Barry’s speculations about the effects of open immigration are overly alarmist. For my part, however, I can offer little more than alternative speculation. No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open. Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society. If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement. As I have suggested above, it is not plausible that the rights of potential immigrants are outweighed by such relatively small considerations as modest economic disadvantages to American workers, or the aversion of some Americans to cultural change; it is, however, plausible that the rights of potential immigrants are outweighed by the need to preserve American society from the sort of devastation envisioned by Barry.

        Therefore, I grant that it may be wise to move only gradually towards open borders. The United States might, for example, increase immigration by one million persons per year, and continue increasing the immigration rate until either everyone who wishes to immigrate is accommodated, or we start to observe serious harmful consequences. My hope and belief would be that the former would happen first. But in case the latter occurred, we could freeze or lower immigration levels at that time.”


    Hmmm, I thought libertarians supported the right of secession by political sub-units of a larger polity (not of course if they are trying to take their slaves with them, or other property they don’t justly own). If there is a right of secession, why isn’t there a less drastic right of closed borders? At the extreme, just to illustrate the point, if a substantial portion of the citizens of state A suddenly became a bunch of zombie killers, why wouldn’t state B have a moral right to close its borders?

    One reason to reject an internal right to close-off borders is other people’s legitimate expectations. Many citizens have made residential purchases, employment decisions, and other choices based on the assumption of free movement within the country. If a city, suburb, or state suddenly closes its borders, it harms those people who can longer get to their job, easily visit grandma, get to their favorite national park, and so on. This logic does not apply to foreigners, however, so the argument breaks down here as well.

  • Are you calling orderly immigration closed borders? If not, who is calling for totally closed borders?

    • adrianratnapala

      Yes that is what they are calling “closed borders”. The debate here is not about immigration, but whether libertarians are allowed to be anything other than fanatical.

  • Jameson Graber

    What I don’t understand about half the commenters here is why they somehow feel persecuted for being against open borders. Yours is the standard position. Both major American political parties have agreed since the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s that immigration needs to be limited. If really smart, highly published libertarians are trying to convince you to support open borders, it is not an act of bullying. It might be pretty radical, but if you’re a libertarian, you’re already pretty radical. This is not a blog where pragmatic politicians come to hash out a party platform, it’s a place where matters of principle are discussed.

    • No kidding. That’s why I get the impression that the passion with which they respond to open borders arguments belies something a tad less rational.

    • What mystifies me is why these really smart, highly published libertarians don’t condition open borders on limited government, free market and no welfare state. I don’t feel persecuted — I feel I’m not at a libertarian site. Why they promote open borders regardless of our statist system of government is beyond my lowly published, libertarian understanding. We’re slowly developing a majority rule, democratic system with the Democratic Party fighting viciously to control the majority through interventionist benefits that create dependence. This is a recipe for disaster, if you love liberty and individual rights.

      • Do they really have to condition their support of X on ratification of Y and Z? I think free speech is pretty well useless without free association, but do I have to make an argument for the latter in order to argue in favor of the former?

        • only if you want to make a nuanced comprehensive argument that’s unquestionably libertarian

          • Or, they could set up a blog in which all their views are collected and categorized by subject matter and author, so that each individual blog post sits in the same context as all their other blog posts.

            Wouldn’t that help solve this problem?

          • That’s cute, but the problem is that they don’t condition open borders on no welfare, anti-interventionism, etc. — as a matter of fact, they use their valuable time arguing that immigrants don’t come here to use welfare and would benefit the economy and so forth. They say this knowing that we have a statist system and a slowly imploding economy. US companies are profitable but CapEx is down — we have no real wealth creation, just crony/power relationships among an elite that hurt the middle class and poor. Adding open borders to this statist nightmare is suicide, so the conditions to open border are vital to the argument and have to be incorporated to make sense of the argument, especially from a libertarian point of view. But if you want to be cute and deny that the highly published smart people are off base, then go ahead.

          • You gotta be kidding. I don’t agree with everything that gets written on this website, but to pretend that Brennan’s position on open borders doesn’t sit within the context of marked opposition to all the other things you mention simply because he doesn’t go out of his way to link to everything else he’s written on those subjects is, well, weird.

            Oh, oops. He actually does link to all his other anti-statist views every time he writes a new BHL article. Here’s the link:


          • Good lord, I don’t have time to read everything he’s written but I’m glad to hear he agrees that we can’t have open borders until we do away with welfare state, limit government and allow a free market– maybe you can direct me to the link where he agrees with these conditions.

          • I could do that…

            …or… you could take the time to fully understand a person’s views before criticizing them.

            I admit I’m guilty of this myself from time to time, so no hard feelings here.

          • So in other words he hasn’t set these conditions on open borders – what I wrote stands.

          • Well, what you wrote was:

            Why they promote open borders regardless of our statist system of government is beyond my lowly published, libertarian understanding.

            It’s wasn’t obvious at that point that you were going to move the goalposts all the way over to a strong contingency. You only did that when I pointed out that it is perfectly obvious that any libertarian advocating for open borders also prefers to shrink the welfare state and create good, liberty-favorable institutions.

            Put another way, if I held your particular views on immigration, I would have written, “Brennan, I agree with you in theory, but I would only support open borders if they were contingent on the eradication of the welfare state!” In fact, many other commentators said just that.

            No, you seem to feel that without reading a strong contingency, you think Brennan is a left-liberal. (!) That’s pretty absurd.

          • Yes, I believe strongly that my position on open borders is the correct libertarian position. I’m confused now though — are you saying he agrees with my conditions on open borders or not? Thanks for telling me how I should comment — it’s so helpful

          • You clearly don’t need any help commenting. I’m just trying to help you make a nuanced and comprehensive comment.

          • I wrote much more than you quoted — this is too funny

  • Rocinante2112

    First, what’s the citation on #4? Most studies I see do not include things like education in their studies of how much immigrants cost.

    Second, this strikes me as inadequate.

    “Our way of life is continuously threatened by our open borders. Consider: right now, the uneducated, unemployed, barely English-speaking, poor-as-dirt residents of Buffalo County, South Dakota, or Harlan County, Kentucky, are free to move here at will. The average household in Mantua, VA, is six times richer than the average household in Harlan, Kentucky. I won’t recite all the stats here, but we’re talking about uneducated people, who commit far more crime, who have less culture, who don’t fit in with us, and who, if they moved here, would exhaust our welfare services, and destroy our schools. I want my kids going to school with doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, not with meth-addicted bumpkins or alcoholic Native-Americans.”

    You’re conflating snobbery with anti-welfarism. There is a difference between sending your kids to school with doctors’ children rather than not wanting to spend more money in taxes for people from a different class. Third, it could be that allowing people to move into your town who are going to absorb more in welfare than they pay in taxes is undesirable, but politically impossible. It is politically possible to restrict immigrants, however. A half of a loaf is better than no loaf at all.

    It is true that immigrants provide lots of benefits, because they provide cheap labor and they enrich the culture. However, you can get these benefits while keeping immigration illegal, as long as you enforce immigration laws in a half-assed way. If you eased the path to citizenship you wouldn’t get any new benefits but you might facilitate the use of government funds.

    • Rocinante2112

      Plus, a path to citizenship means more people voting, which is a whole new can of worms relating to your other work.

  • MutantRobot

    Suppose that a huge number of immigrants from Harlan flooded Fairfax. Brennan facilely dismisses this problem by saying, basically, that if it were going to happen,
    it would be happening, and since no flood is occurring, there’s no problem. This simply ignores history.

    We have seen this happen in the US. We’ve seen it rather recently, in fact, during the 20th century process of urbanization when America changed from a mostly rural nation to a mostly urban nation. As poor people poured into the inner cities, the middle class fled. It seems the middle class did not share Brennan’s blasé attitude that uneducated, uncultured people were no threat to their way of life. They did indeed feel threatened. They didn’t erect a border because they had another option, which was to move to the newly evacuated countryside abandoned by the poor, and transform that land into suburbs.

    Imagine that thousands of citizens of Harlan did move to Fairfax within a short period of time. I am quite sure that a good number of current Fairfax residents would depart. There are many examples of this pattern across the US, so it doesn’t even need to be theoretical. We know that when a large number of poor,
    uneducated people move into a wealthy, middle class neighborhood, the middle
    class departs.

    To really use the Fairfax vs Harlan analogy, then, we have to imagine that Fairfax
    is in the same situation vis a vis the surrounding counties as a nation is vis
    a vis surrounding nations. If unlimited immigration could come from Harlan and
    the people of Fairfax could not move out of Fairfax because of the immigration
    policies of other counties, including Harlan itself, then I am quite sure the people of Fairfax would close their borders.

    In a way, this proves Brennan’s larger point. Both Fairfax and Harlan are better off because they both have mutual, open immigration. They both benefit from being part of a larger job market than either would be able to support alone. However, these open borders are only possible because both counties also belong to a larger political system, and, critically, one that protects civil and property rights.

    The population of Haiti is 10 million and the population of the US is 300 million.
    Let’s suppose that the US and Haiti decided to sign a mutual open immigration
    treaty. Since our population is much larger, this wouldn’t be so bad for us.
    Even if all 10 million Haitians decided to leave their nation and work in the
    US, they could sell their land to an equal number of Americans. I’m sure many
    developers would be happy to snap up the island properties and turn it into a
    vacation paradise.

    Unfortunately, this happy scenario wouldn’t be possible, because, upon arrival in Haiti, the Americans would find a very different system of political institutions, one
    which did not protect either civil or property rights.

    One way to allow for unlimited mutual immigration between Haiti and America,
    therefore, would be for the two nations to share the same political system. I
    don’t think most of us would enjoy being under the Haitian system (the Haitians themselves obviously don’t either—there’s a reason they trying to get here and we aren’t trying to get there), so basically, Haiti would have to agree to become a US territory, like Puerto Rico, or a full state, like California.

    In short: No immigration with representation. When I have a vote over how Haiti is run and I can immigrate to Haiti any time I please, then I will accept that an unlimited the Haitians can immigrate here as they like and vote about how the US is run. Exactly the same relationship as Fairfax and Harlan…. I think that’s a perfectly fair libertarian position.