The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production… All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.
Ludwig von Mises
Libertarianism alone among political philosophies holds that private property is inviolable; this commitment to private property is what makes it distinctive, not to mention attractive. The non aggression principle, the sine qua non of libertarianism, is itself defined in terms of property, for we must know who owns what in order to know if an act is aggressive. For Murray Rothbard all rights are property rights. For Jan Narveson libertarianism is property rights. In short, libertarians take “finders keepers” seriously.
We can rightly say – although this might seem a rather confrontational way of putting it – that to oppose libertarianism is to oppose private property, and vice versa. For this reason it is a mistake to say libertarians oppose borders per se. In fact, just the opposite is true. The borders of my body, the borders of my home, the borders of my possessions generally, these are what give reality to ‘mine and thine’. These borders are of paramount importance; they are absolutely necessary for the existence of private property. And it is our attachment to these genuine borders that determines our position on immigration, as it does any other issue.
What aggressive act does a person commit when they migrate? Crossing national borders? But these are merely lines on maps. National borders are not physical things; they are, in the strictest sense of the word, imaginary. It is somewhat doubtful that imaginary objects can be owned, let alone damaged. What about purchasing accommodation then? Is this an infringement of property or an act of trespass? Clearly not, as the owner is happy to make a deal with the immigrant, who is happy to deal with the owner. What about taking work? Again, clearly this is not a problem as the employer is happy to employ the immigrant, who is happy to work for the employer. And the same is true for each and every purchase an immigrant makes in their new country: the vendor is happy to sell his wares to the immigrant, who is happy to buy from the vendor.
So, everyone is happy. Or – to be frank – everyone who counts is happy (ie property owners and those whom they voluntarily trade with). The only people who are unhappy are those who would rather I didn’t sell my house to an immigrant; or who would rather I didn’t offer employment in my business to an immigrant; or who would rather I didn’t sell my wares to an immigrant. Those who, moreover, would prefer it if the State forcibly prevented me from doing any of these things. Which, ironically, would be an actual infringement of private property.
In nuce, the answer to the immigration issue that respects property is that genuine borders should be enforced, imaginary borders should not be. (It should be noted that this does not imply support for measures to encourage immigration; multiculturalism; subsidies, or any other type of State action.)
Now there’s a popular, if, to put it mildly, confused, conservative objection to letting people use their own property as they see fit, along the lines of “you can’t have open borders and a welfare state”. Of course this could very well be true. But the libertarian position is to reject both the welfare state and national borders. Hence, the answer is simple: abolish the welfare state. The typical rejoinder, “That’s impractical, that’s unrealistic” falls flat as libertarians are not responsible for making laws. Let politicians worry about practicalities. And as for the fear that politicians are about to start taking policy advice from libertarians – that’s about as unrealistic as it gets.
An objection to a liberal immigration position based on so-called “public property” is that, as immigrants make use of this and/or other aspects of the existing welfare state, private property arguments don’t tell the whole story. This is not a terribly hard objection to answer if we keep in mind one thing. Say, for example, a public swimming pool is built or public sector workers get a raise or whatever. Although it is common practice to say this is a “cost to the taxpayer”, the fact is that that money could not have been spent if the State did not first take it from taxpayers. It is of vital importance to realise that the only thing that is a “cost to the taxpayer” is the State. This doesn’t suddenly become untrue simply because the subject is immigration.
There is also the “democratic mandate” objection. The idea is that if a majority want a limit to immigration, then “we” should limit immigration. This is a very odd one coming, as it so often does, from people who are, ordinarily at least, free marketeers. We might even call it shocking, as it is an explicitly anti-private property argument. What other word is there when those who kick up the biggest fuss when it’s said,eg, that since the majority wants to put limits on how much individuals can eat or drink or where they can smoke, etc, “something must be done”, turn into rabid collectivists whenever immigration comes up?
And that, ultimately, is what the immigration issue comes down to: private property or state socialism.