Pessimistic optimistic pessimistic optimist

In the short term, things look bad. Debt is exploding and politicians seem unwilling to curb wasteful spending. The most popular presidential candidates are running campaigns based on pure demagoguery, with little to no evidence that they understand basic laws of economics or principles of liberty.

In the medium term, things are actually all right. Living standards are rising across the world. Despite complaints of political paralysis and economic stagnation, scientific and technological progress seems to be continuing apace.

In the long term, on the other hand, we have the prognoses of environmental disaster due to global warming and rising population. Government-led efforts to deal with these problems at the international level are failing miserably.

In the very long term, however, these projections lose their force when we remember the past achievements of human ingenuity in the face of similar obstacles. I have confidence that we will figure out how to deal with all these issues eventually, though I believe that such solutions will come from the private sector, which is where the vast bulk of real progress takes place.

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On the practicalities of rolling back government: the case of immigration

Between the libertarian utopia of complete privatization and the current reality, wherein so much of the country is government-owned or controlled, how do we draw a path from our current place to our ultimate destination? Let’s consider immigration policy, first of all.

The libertarian dream is for government not to be involved in border control. This is not to say that there would be no border control; rather, the control would be in private hands. The US would not control who came over the border from Mexico, for example; on the contrary, private landowners situated along the border would each make his own decision on who to admit and who to exclude. So the only foreigners who would enter the country would be those granted employment or tenancy by a private citizen, i.e. only those foreigners that the domestic market and civil society already have room for.

There are various theoretical objections to this policy on the part of nationalists and conservatives, which are generally grounded in some ideal ethnic and demographic balance that they believe is necessary for a healthy society, or else in economic arguments, such as the need to protect domestic wages. Ultimately, however, they all rest on the assumption that the national government should be responsible for regulating national demographics or the national economy, which to me smacks too much of central planning. If we trust government, rather than private citizens, on the matter of who the individual may employ or lease property to, why should we not trust government over private citizens in other matters? The nationalist conservative line of thought leads inevitably to entertaining collective solutions to every other social problem, which libertarians should reject on principle, or at the very least treat with extreme skepticism.

On the other hand, there is the practical problem of how private citizens canĀ defend their property rights. For example, in most communities, a visible police presence is considered an acceptable deterrence to threats against person and property; the individual citizen is not expected to take complete responsibility for his own protection. The same should hold for the national borders: some control over who enters is needed to spare private citizens the enormous burden of protecting their own property against all the foreigners who might wish to gain entry.

Short of private landowners each acquiring the necessary force to repel intruders, the government is still needed to control immigration. At the same time, government should not be used to suppress any real economic demand for immigrant workers, nor, on humanitarian grounds, should government be used to keep out foreign refugees who would be otherwise be able to avail themselves of native charity.

My solution, therefore, is not to have open borders, but to use government border agents to check whether non-citizens wishing to enter the country have a guarantee of employment, tenancy or charitable assistance in this country. This would avoid the phenomenon of massive groups of unemployed immigrants that cannot be controlled and that might infringe on private property rights. You would not be allowed in the country if you would simply end up begging on the street or on state welfare (which also wouldn’t exist in a libertarian paradise, but that’s another matter). This would also mean, of course, that you couldn’t enter the country and then find a job or an apartment only after entering; you would need both in hand before entering.

Yet while the government should regulate immigration to this extent, I am wary of letting it manage the economics of migration by e.g. imposing quotas. A country can’t tolerate an infinite number of immigrants who have no secure employment or residence, but it may well need some, and it’s hard to see how the government, rather than the market, can know the precise number of economic migrants that the domestic economy needs. And attempts to suppress immigration in order to boost domestic wages strikes me as about as sensible as suppressing imported goods to boost domestic production. In both cases, one sector of the economy is favored at the expense of the rest, and in every case where the government favors one sector, the net cost to the economy is greater than the net benefit. Why should immigration be different?

Lastly, I would also return powers to the states and local authorities. If a state offers welfare benefits, for example, I don’t see why it should be compelled to offer them to non-citizens, though I also don’t see why they should be forbidden from doing so by the federal government. The path to a libertarian society, including libertarian immigration policy, should start with a decentralization of society and government policy. Admittance to the union would require proof of residence and employment or financial support on the part of a private individual or organization or a state or local government, if they are prepared to shoulder the burden of supporting an immigrant. But states and local government would retain powers to exclude non-citizens for any other reason they saw fit. This is particularly important for immigrants who might lose their employment or residence after being admitted and who might then become vagrants and public nuisances. It should be permissible as well for local authorities to report vagrant aliens to federal authorities, who would be able to check the employment or residential status of the alien and deport as necessary.