A free-market approach to immigration

The Brexit and Trump votes have changed politics as we knew it on both sides of the Atlantic, with populist movements setting an agenda which is in opposition to much of what has been taken as gospel for decades. While the background for this global political revolution is both complex and diverse, one theme seems to permeate the electorates which finally broke with the political elites’ vision of how modern social democratic states function: anti-globalisation. The new agenda is anti-free trade and anti-immigration. For many, this is what globalisation represents; the two themes go hand in hand and are being blamed for destroying the livelihoods of ordinary workers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Opponents of free trade are worried about domestic jobs. As we write this Donald Trump is actively threatening US companies against moving jobs abroad with the promise of a 35% tariff on goods they subsequently wish to import back to the US. The theory is that US workers can’t possibly compete with those in low-wage countries like Mexico, so the government must intervene and prevent goods from such countries from freely entering the domestic market. This would indeed protect workers in specific sectors of the domestic economy, but unfortunately there is no free lunch here. The price of goods from protected sectors would be higher than under free trade, and consumers and other businesses would be made to pay. History is full of examples of the many unintended, but sometimes slightly opaque, consequences of imposition of trade barriers.

So the case for free trade is straightforward: it makes economic sense. But what about immigration? If you are for free trade, should you not automatically be in favour of the other side of the globalist coin, free immigration? Is the anti-globalisation movement not making the same mistake on immigration as they are on trade? After all, if there are advantages to goods and services flowing freely across borders, it would seem logical that the same should be the case for people. But there is an important difference between trade and immigration. Trade only happens between two willing parties; it takes a seller in one country and a buyer in another to facilitate the movement of goods and services across a border. People are different, however, in that they can unilaterally decide to move. Free trade means trade by invitation. Free immigration does not.

This is where private property comes in. Because it is the very existence of public land which makes free immigration possible as a policy in the first place, insofar as no-one can freely enter private land without the owner’s prior permission. Indeed, if the government was to prevent entry by a person whom a domestic resident wants to admit onto his property, then the authorities are engaging in forced exclusion; that is, they are actively preventing immigration which adds positively to the welfare of the land owner. In contrast, the government engages in forced integration when they admit a person whom the owner does not want onto his property.

When inviting people onto our land we consider more than economic benefits, because we must associate with the immigrants we admit. The cost/benefit analysis is less obvious than for trade, and we may choose to forgo strict economic advantages in favour of avoiding having to share our land with just anyone. Conversely, we may choose to admit a refugee for humanitarian reasons without any intention of seeking financial gain. Free immigration as well as no immigration both violate people’s right to associate, professionally and personally, with whom they choose.

What you could call “Restricted Immigration” – that is, immigration by invitation only – presents a solution. Brexit opponents are currently lobbying the UK government to ensure Britain maintains free movement of people from the EU, but their needs would be sufficiently served with a permission to invite workers onto their own land, without those immigrants automatically being allowed to roam freely within the UK as a whole (and be given access to UK tax-funded benefits, a whole new can of worms). Admittedly, with the vast majority of land being accessible to the public, matters are much more complicated. Who gets to choose if an immigrant should be permitted entry or not? Public ownership of land presents more stark choices, with Restricted Immigration being difficult to practically manage. But even in today’s imperfect world, it provides a constructive way of thinking about how to find common ground between proponents and opponents of free immigration.


The authors are in debt to the work of Hans-Hermann Hoppe.


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