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The Open Borders Fantasy

Like other social groups, nation-states are not obligated to accept anyone who wishes to join them.

Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. –Augustine, On Christian Doctrine

In The Atlantic, George Mason University economist Alexander Tabarrok has penned a highly tendentious case for doing away with all national borders. He attempts to cast everyone who doubts the wisdom of his radical proposal as a moral reprobate, unworthy of membership in any moral community, be it Christian, egalitarian, utilitarian, or other. But in doing so, he undermines his very own position as a libertarian, who is as such in favor of private property.

He begins by complaining that “Barbed-wire, concrete walls, and gun-toting guards confine people to the nation-state of their birth.” However, Tabarrok here conflates two very different phenomena: The first is being trapped inside some social group. That, I agree, is unjust and ought to be deplored: if someone wants to leave, say, North Korea, or the George Mason University economics faculty, they ought to be able to do so!

But that is quite different from the claim that everyone who has a right to leave a social group also has the right to join any other group they want. The fact that Tabarrok should not be imprisoned in the GMU economics department does not imply that he is free to join the MIT economics department if he leaves GMU. Nor does MIT turning Tabarrok down imply that he is “confined” inside the GMU econ department: he might work for a bank, or another university, or even retire gracefully, and, with alcoholic breath, hoe his cabbages. (The late George Mason economist James Buchanan once contemplated this option after surveying the state of the economics profession.) So why should the freedom to leave North Korea imply that, say, Mongolia has to welcome the emigrant in?

Tabarrok goes on to point out that “Variations in wealth and income created by these differences [in national circumstances] are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry.”

OK, so governments should not do these things. And the implication of this for immigration policy is…? precisely nothing. Some families suppress their kids’ entrepreneurial drive, promote religious intolerance, discriminate against some of their children based on gender, and promote other forms of bigotry. Does Tabarrok therefore admit that he is wronging the children of these families by not allowing them to join his own household? If not, then on what basis does he accuse nations that exercise similar discretion over who they allow to join their polity of this iniquity?

Tabarrok continues:

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse…

Hmm, but what about the advocates of private property, who might, say, quash one’s dreams of using part of Ted Turner’s two-million acres of ranch and forest land, or of enjoying Bill Gates’s fabulous $147 million house? Libertarians such as Tabarrok are perfectly OK with “state-sanctioned violence” quashing those dreams! Should these dreams seem frivolous, consider that literally hundreds of homeless people could live comfortably inside Gates’s 66,000-square-foot house, and many more might be able to make a living from Turner’s ranch lands. And if Tabarrok respond that these would not be “peaceful, voluntary trades,” it is sufficient to note that none of these homeless people voluntarily agreed to Turner’s ownership of two million acres of land, or to Gates occupying the equivalent of a couple of hundred studio apartments. These arrangements were imposed upon them, willy nilly, by men with guns and barbed wire.

Tabbarok reaches a crescendo of moral indignation with a sweeping condemnation of anyone who believes a nation might have the right to decide who can join it:

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of ‘the Other,’ but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

The amount of balderdash in this single paragraph is impressive. First of all, it sets up a false dichotomy between adherents to “standard moral frameworks”—all of whom apparently believe in wiping out all national borders—and “nationalists,” seemingly the only possible category of people who would resist Tabarrok’s call for doing away with the nation-state, and who feel foreigners “inherently possess less moral worth” than do non-foreigners.

And Tabarrok does not specify exactly how a nation exercising its sovereignty by controlling who can join it equates to regarding “people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights.” Every human group, if it is to survive, exercises control over who can and can’t join that group. If I announce tomorrow that I am now a tenured economics professor at GMU, presumably he will side with the rest of the faculty and tell me that I must apply for such a position, and only if the existing faculty agrees to hire me can I occupy it. Does this mean that Tabarrok thinks I am less entitled to exercise my rights than are existing GMU faculty members? By his own logic, it does!

And what about his plea for doing away with the luck factor of having “been born in the right place at the right time”? I do not know if Tabarrok has children, but if he does, I assume he has been saving for their college education. But there are millions upon millions of children in the world whose parents have not been so fortunate as to have a well-paid position at a (government-funded) American university, and thus have not been able to set aside any savings for their children’s university educations at all. Is Tabarrok willing to follow up on this principle, and allow all of those children to access the savings he has set aside for his own offspring? After all, why should the fact that Tabarrok’s kids happen to have been born “in the right place at the right time” give them privileged access to his college savings accounts?

Finally, he declares that “Freedom of movement is a basic human right.”

Grandiose declarations of rights generally sound noble, but the devil is in the details, details which Tabarrok completely fails to provide. Does he really mean that everyone should be free to wander about and settle down wherever they please? If my hippie commune and I want to set up tent in Tabarrok’s backyard, will he freely acknowledge that we are just exercising our “basic human right” to freedom of movement?

Given that Tabarrok is a libertarian, and thus an advocate of a very strong view of property rights, it seems unlikely that he really believes in “freedom of movement”: for most of the world’s population, private property is surely a much greater barrier to their freedom of movement than are national borders. (Note: I am not, therefore, against private property. In the right dosage, it is a fine and useful social institution.) No, Tabarrok is all for restricting the freedom of movement when it is done in the name of private property, which he fancies, and only against it when it is done in the name of a nation-state, which, as a libertarian, he dislikes.

Of course, nation-states are not families, or economics departments, or businesses. But they are coherent social groupings. And Tabarrok has simply offered no reason why nation-states should be regarded as unlike every other social group, and be denied the ability to control who can join them.

Let me emphasize just how radical Tabarrok’s preferred immigration regime is. He is not arguing that our immigration policy should be less restrictive, an argument I might find plausible. No, he is arguing that the United States simply not have borders at all, at least when it comes to immigration. So what if 10,000 ISIS fighters wish to enter our country next week, with the intention of waging jihad on U.S. soil? Tabarrok could only reply, given his principles, that we would be treating them as of “inherently possessing less moral worth” if we don’t welcome their effort to establish an Islamic state within our borders.

Gene Callahan teaches computer science at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn and is the author of Oakeshott on Rome and America. (The author would like to thank Bob Murphy and Josiah Neeley for helpful comments on this post.)