Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Lew Rockwell is Wrong

TL;DR: ‘Open Border’ Libertarianism > ‘Forced Immigration’ Libertarianism and I show why Lew Rockwell’s arguments yesterday (and Hoppe's before that) are inadequate.

Now I’m going to do what most bloggers would advise against; move away from the core topic of your blog (Econ, Student Life), and be overtly political. Risks heard: this is too important.
The otherwise brilliant Lew Rockwell published this article on immigration yesterday (from a Mises Circle speech last weekend) in light of the terrorist attacks around the world and the renewed discussion about migration and Islam that naturally came with it.
I also spend the last few days with frustrating debates in the Australian Libertarian Society facebook group, where libertarianism seems to be a justification and irrational cop-out for anti-islam views. Clearly unsatisfactory. Especially for me, coming to libertarianism and liberty from a conviction that migration is vital, it’s the best measure for countering poverty that we have (see problems with Aid and foreign policy) and that there’s something deeply immoral in states preventing the movement of human beings.
Last caveat: I adore such persons as Lew Rockwell and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but I take their position in these matters to be an indication that none of us are perfect and even these giants make serious intellectual blunders from time to time, this being one of them.
The Open Border vs Forced Immigration debate is one of the most exiting disputes in a movement that otherwise is pretty much united in their reasons and conclusions about the economy, the State and liberty. The Open Border camp says “States have no business preventing people’s movement across artificial lines in the sand”, and their Forced Immigration opponents says “Migration is only legitimate with consent of property-owner, which the State does not have, and so immigration is violently forced upon a population that did not want it”. See for instance Block or Boudreaux.

Two problems with Rockwell's argument: Pretense of Knowledge & Misguided Conclusions

Pretense of Knowledge: 
Rockwell, Hoppe and other proponents of the Forced Immigration view base their conclusions on comparisons to hypothetical scenarios of a free society in which the state is abolished and all property is privately held. Rockwell says:

"The result is artificial demographic shifts that would not occur in a free market. Property owners are forced to associate and do business with individuals they might otherwise avoid. [...] These migrations, in short, are not market outcomes. They would not occur on a free market."

The argument relies on presuming that, in a stateless society, people will act and believe in a particular way. This is not legitimate. There are of course a couple of things we can say about such a hypothetical society, such as law of demand probably still holds and we’d be likely to see more technological and economic progress. But the valuation of whether to deal with foreigners and the propensity to invite migrants is clearly not within those bounds; having some special insight into what the values and preferences of the people living in such societies are, amounts to neglecting the Hayekian insights of spontaneous order and critique of planning. We cannot know a priori how people would value those aspects of life in a stateless society. Maybe they’d favour a complete stop on all migration? Maybe they’d be even more generous than current governments. We don’t know. Considering the compassion and hospitality Germans and Scandinavians in particular have shown over the last months, it's fair to say that a decent number of people would favour a lot of immigration to their properties. 
Misguided Conclusions:
The kinds of examples Rockwell (and Hoppe) cites are how hospitals and schools as public properties today (and restaurants, hotels and landlords via anti-discrimination laws) are not allowed to deny the influx of migrants and so overrides the preference of actual would-be property-owners. Rockwell quotes Hoppe:

By admitting someone onto its territory, the state also permits this person to proceed on public roads and lands to every domestic resident’s doorsteps, to make use of all public facilities and services (such as hospitals and schools), and to access every commercial establishment, employment, and residential housing, protected by a multitude of nondiscrimination laws.

These are all legitimate arguments against the State’s regulations/laws and public ownership of resources. Not against immigration as a phenomenon. In the absence of such state-infringing laws, immigration would not carry the alleged harms Rockwell argues that it currently has. The argument is hence a confusion of blame; immigration is not an assault on private property, state laws are. The conclusion “Migration should be restricted” does not follow from the above reasoning; rather “State influence over people’s lives should be restricted” does.

Moreover, Rockwell drawing on Hoppe points to the externalisation of costs that occur when schools, hospitals and landlords can't deny immigrants access. I accept that this occurs under current policies, but that reinforces my point that the issue is state-involvement not immigration, as well as strengthening my first point above; maybe the unwillingness of private actors to serve, deal with or accommodate migrants stems from a rational business fear (see regime uncertainty) as to what special regulation or taxation will follow in his industry as a result of taking on these immigrants. So an additional risk premium would be called for, that would be absent in a free society and so costs would not be externalised.  

The core problem is that the state makes decisions it is not in a legitimate position to make (i.e. overruling private property rights). The problem is not immigrants.

To state this more clearly; not only is Hoppe's Forced Immigration argument seems accurate from a private-property-rights perspective - but so is its direct corollary. If the State is overriding private property rights by admitting immigrants into a country where even a single individual objects to it, then the State is also overriding private property rights by rejecting immigrants into a country where even a single individual invites them. So Hoppe’s argument is not a rejection of immigration per se on libertarian grounds – its moving the question to the empirical issue if the values of the society is more or less sympathetic towards immigration relative to the State’s current policies. That’s how we could conclude the stance of public policy - not by reference to property rights.

Moreover, Hoppe’s argument relies on a very doubtful premise, where he implicitly assumes that every citizen of a country has an equal claim to the public resources in question (parks, schools, land etc). In Democracy - The God that Failed he discusses different kinds of solutions for how such assets could practically be privatised when abolishing the state becomes reality. My interpretation is that he favours an approach that tries to find the rightful owners of the property by returning expropriated property – and honour the State’s liabilities (pension promises, debt etc) as much as possible, via sale of all tangible assets to raise the funds necessary.

The vital component to the Forced Immigration argument is however that each citizen has an equal say over the public properties in society; if (s)he had not, (s)he could not object to its usage in particular ways, such as for immigrants to use. I see no reason here for Hoppe to move away from the reasonable interpretation of how to deal with public property pointed out above, only to advance an anti-immigration standpoint. Public property should, from the individual's perspective, rightfully be viewed as the property of some other economic agent, since the sale/return of "state-ownership" over that resource when abolishing the state will place it in someone else's hand.
When returning this premise to the more reasonable interpretation that citizens don't have equal claims to all public properties, the Forced Immigration argument falls. Whether or not State policies are too generous or too restrictive is an empirical issue which we cannot know from theory alone.  
It is evident that Rockwell's argument is actually against the State and restrictions on owners for how to use their property – not immigration as such. Realizing that immigrationis the best tool we have for reducing global poverty (the achievement of which of course is a subjective, normative goal) and that the Open Border approach is more compatible with libertarianism than the Hoppean Forced Immigration, it’s advisable for a whole bunch of libertarians to reconsider their positions.


  1. Rockwell is clearly a racist. Why else would he write that shit in the Ron Paul newsletters? F that guy.

    1. Probably not racist, but slightly-more-negative-towards-certain-groups-than-rationally-warranted perhaps. What does he say in the Ron Paul newsletters?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.