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Abandon Hoppe, All Ye Who Enter Here
February 7, 2004 — 4:40 am

[This also appeared in edited form as a reflection on page 12 of the April 2004 issue of Liberty magazine, titled “By invitation only.”]

Austrian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s case for government immigration controls (presented, among other places, in a Journal of Libertarian Studies article) is often cited by anti-immigration libertarians. I first read Hoppe’s case against immigration (a version of it, anyway) in mid-2000, after hearing about it at a Cato forum on Ludwig von Mises that I had attended. In the Q&A, after Israel Kirzner and Don Boudreaux had both spoken, a Towson student directed a question toward Kirzner and received a brief but pointed reply:

The Mises Institute, and especially Lew Rockwell, have taken a very strong anti-immigration stance, and it’s my personal opinion that that’s not in the tradition of Mises, and it’s not in the tradition of economic liberalism, and I was just wondering what Professor Kirzner thought about that — if that’s, uh . . . in the tradition of Mises’s work, and his thought.

I would tend to agree with you that it is not in the, in the tradition of Mises’s thought.

I would like to have heard a more detailed response from Kirzner; he doesn’t appear to have written about immigration much, if at all. An analysis of Hoppe’s argument from another Austrian perspective would be valuable, particularly since Hoppe’s position appears to be associated with the institution bearing Mises’s name. If Kirzner says this is not in keeping with Mises’s thought, I’d like to know why he thinks so. Perhaps he kept it brief so as not to rock the Rockwell boat — the Mises Institute appears to like Kirzner, and there’s no point making enemies arguing over a tangential issue, particularly if you find the subject tedious.

But I’ll at least make an attempt here to summarize Hoppe’s argument and point out where I think it goes wrong. Hoppe roots his argument on how we might expect property rights to function in a voluntary society, so it’s a particularly important argument to understand if, like me, you’re a booster for increased immigration rather than an opponent.

  • Hoppe first argues against open immigration in our current welfare state for the same reason you’d expect: if the destitute hordes from other lands have carte blanche access to the United States, and our goverment-mandated generosity, there would be no end to the drain on our economy. Which is true enough.

  • But he also attacks the idea, held by many libertarians, that while we may not have the political power to ditch the welfare state before we ease restrictions on immigration, we should at least work toward opening our borders while simultaneously attempting to block newcomers from latching on to our own public teat. Hoppe cedes that while following both facets of such a policy would (somewhat) relax the U.S.’s immigration demand, this demand would (of course) not vanish. Therefore, the government needs to maintain some type of immigration policy.

  • He then segues into the notion that this immigration policy should be rooted in the idea of “invitation” — that people should only come to the U.S. if they are invited to come here. And he paints this as analogous to free trade. The voluntary nature of trade means that goods and services cannot justly be inflicted on us without our permission; we agree to receive them by voluntarily engaging in commercial transactions.

  • Hoppe points to an anarcho-capitalist system as one in which this “invitation” clause would naturally and completely apply. Here, a society consisting of networks of privately-owned land and utilities, there is no such designation as “public” land or property. Therefore, there can be no “free” immigration — only an invitation to enter a specific parcel, or network, of property. And Hoppe points out that even though we don’t live in an anarcho-capitalist society, libertarians should support a government that preserves as many of the features of such a society as possible — which would include restricting immigration to an invitation-only system.

  • But the nature of central planning, with its tendency for general, one-size-fits-all policies, means our current federal government would be unable to deal with the raft of private requests for exceptions to a general immigration policy. So if we want to preserve an anarcho-capitalist society’s sense of restricted entry to private property, we should impose strict limits on the number and quality of immigrants we allow into the U.S.

I don’t have a problem per se with Hoppe’s idea of an invitation-based system of immigration. But the gaping hole in his argument for how this idea should apply in our current society is that the poor and the destitute of the world would be invited all the time to our anarcho-capitalist America, if for no other reason than to be used and housed as supplies of cheap domestic labor. And an extensive network of private utilities and property would develop to enable a steady influx of foreigners. So if we want to preserve the type of immigration scenario that would likely develop under anarcho-capitalism, we would do exactly what most “open borders” libertarians advocate — ease immigration restrictions as much as possible, and reduce the size and scope of the welfare state to discourage free riders. Those who came to the United States under such conditions (including a relative absence of welfare, minimum wage and coercively-imposed barriers to employment or housing rental) would almost universally find places to live and places to work. And a ready availability of places in our society for immigrants would indicate that there are people who would have been willing to “invite” these people in an anarcho-capitalist society. In practice in a federally-controlled society, this type of acceptance could be seen functionally as a form of invitation after-the-fact.

In an anarcho-capitalist world, without government-mandated labor restrictions, almost anybody would be able to find an invitation to U.S. work of some kind, for some minimal level of remuneration. Only a tiny minority would fail to find at least subsistence-level employment. If, as Hoppe suggests, our current government should preserve the features of anarcho-capitalism that most people would want to preserve after transitioning into a society with an imposed government, then our immigration policy should be as lax as possible. The minority of immigrants unable to find work or housing in our federal society would be in that situation almost exclusively because of restrictive government labor regulations — because there would be no shortage of commercial “invitations” for low-wage workers, given a free market.

Although I think Hoppe’s argument fails, his idea of a libertarian justification for immigration restrictions at least keeps good company: Murray Rothbard, Ralph Raico and John Hospers have all been critics of standard “open borders” libertarian arguments, and I have tremendous respect for these guys, even when I don’t always agree with them.

But it really seems to me that most of the libertarian cases for immigration restriction that I’ve read fall into a couple of categories:

  1. They yield to political expediency (i.e., immigrants are a drain on our current public welfare system).

    This is actually an approach that many Rockwellians condemn in “beltway libertarians” when it comes to other issues — surrending principle to the realm of the politically practical. I don’t think there is anything wrong with an incremental, pragmatic approach toward advancing liberty per se, it just seems entirely backwards to me to respond to one violation of libertarian principle (the existence and abuse of the welfare state) by enacting still more violations of libertarian principle (government instituting blanket policy that forbids entry even to many immigrants who are wanted and invited, whether personally or commercially).

  2. They’re rooted in attempts to intellectually justify personal inclinations after the fact.

    But this type of ex post facto justification isn’t an entirely bad thing, either. Morality is often instinctual, and there’s nothing wrong with subjecting your inclinations to rigorous intellectual scrutiny (as long as the scrutiny is actually rigorous). But I don’t find immigration in general, or most immigrants in particular, at all distasteful — so I have no such personal inclinations to attempt to justify.

When push comes to shove, I’m with Julian Simon: current welfare state or no, immigrants are by and large a net benefit to our society. Simon preferred an empirical approach to determining whether immigration is good or bad. And he made a definitive (though, admittedly, now dated) empirical case for immigration in his excellent book The Economic Consequences of Immigration into the United States. He demonstrates that immigrants tend to use public services and welfare at a lower rate than natives — and anyone who’s spent 10 minutes reading Bastiat can predict that immigrants spur economic growth for everyone, rather than causing unemployment and loss for natives. Simon’s conclusion:

In short, the negative consequences of any level of immigration which is politically imaginable at present are at most speculative, rather than documented. Therefore, a policy which is both prudent and also consistent with the observations would be to increase immigration quotas in a series of increments of significant size — perhaps half a percent, or one percent, of total population at each step — to check on any unexpected negative consequences, and to determine whether demand for admission even exceeds the supply of places.

— Eric D. DixonComments (0)

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Eric D. Dixon

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