I began “Liberty: Why Right > Left” with a disclaimer: “The support of mainstream conservatives for authoritarian policies is a real and pressing problem.”
In his recent column on immigration, Alex provided an example of just such a policy.
Republicans and conservatives tend to favor solving the border security issues before the topic of the legal status of illegal immigrants in the United States even can be discussed. They are also generally against any mass amnesty (automatic citizenship) of illegal immigrants.
Alex went on to suggest that it would be prudent for libertarians to affirm national border enforcement. I’d like to quickly respond in the negative.
When I argue that it’s far easier to bring the average Republican to libertarianism than the average Democrat, I mean by “libertarianism” the full arsenal of libertarian positions – not libertarianism minus immigration.
This is an essential difference between libertarian strategies for outreach to the right and to the left. The latter tends to entirely disappear fundamental issues like gun control from its advocacy. On immigration, right-libertarians need not do the same.
Hoppe: Not So Pragmatic
In his column, Alex discusses the costs of illegal immigration to public services, alluding to the argument that open immigration is incompatible with the welfare state. Libertarians are likely familiar with this position thanks to Austrian economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
The problem with making advocacy in one area conditional on success in another is that the entire libertarian repertoire can quickly cancel itself out. Ann Coulter, for example – during her infamous Sossel appearance – suggested that libertarians should forestall the decriminalization of drugs until the welfare state has been abolished (lest taxpayers be made to finance drug abuse).
By this logic, however, libertarians in 1933 ought to have opposed the repeal of alcohol prohibition. That would make the liberty movement less libertarian than FDR.
Certainly, some libertarians loudly oppose drug laws but never dare criticize the welfare state; against these people, Coulter’s concern is a fair point. Yet if libertarians who are outspoken on both issues ought to abandon one, the whole prescriptive worldview collapses into incoherence.
It’s easy to see how libertarians who followed Coulter’s thinking might find themselves ironically defending big government in most areas – as, tellingly, Coulter herself does.
Localism is Better
When Ronald Reagan called libertarianism “the very heart and soul of conservatism”, he pointed to a shared desire for “less centralized authority”.
When authority is not centralized, of course, communities have the right to manage their own internal affairs. Said Russell Kirk:
Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily… But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger.
Apply this conservative principle to immigration, and you’ve answered all of Alex’s concerns. If a locality wishes to welcome all newcomers on the one hand and liberally provide welfare on the other, let them – but also, let them shoulder the costs, rather than displacing them onto people not represented in the decision.
Over time, the market of competing solutions would pressure local governments to neither provide universal cradle-to-grave services nor exclude immigrants for ridiculous reasons (like because they’re Hispanic).
On both immigration and welfare, then, libertarians ought to simultaneously advocate decentralizing decision-making to local governments. This strategy would appeal to a conservative tradition while allowing Hoppe’s problem to solve itself.
If my suggestion sounds too dogmatic, note that a former Speaker of the House has proposed much the same thing.
[He] is for the idea of a local community review board, where citizens can decide whether or not their neighbors who have come here illegally should find a path to legality.
To Alex and the many libertarians who share his sentiments, I’d suggest that we should all be at least as libertarian as Newt Gingrich.
Great article, Ian. Here is Jacob Hornberger on Hoppe’s closed border argument:
I think a better solution is proposed by Bryan Caplan – let immigrants in and don’t give them welfare or make them pay slightly higher taxes.
Also, a good website for any libertarian interested on immigration is:
It goes through all the objections raised against open borders.
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