The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
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    Libertarians and Immigration

    A question that's been eating at me for a while:

    Why do libertarians object to illegal immigrants?

    Perhaps there are libertarians who do not, who extend their principles to encompass newcomers and their liberty to live and work where they please, without government interference. But my experience of libertarian pundits and of my own libertarian friends is that generally, they do not. The most anti-big-government libertarian of my friends also takes it as a given that illegal immigrants are a social ill.

    Now, maybe some of these folks (my personal friend excepted, naturally) are merely using "libertarianism" as cover for another set of policy objectives. In that case, the explanation is that they're not sincerely libertarians. But what am I not grasping about the sincere ones?

    If governments have no right to interfere in private economic activity and the pursuit of happiness, why can a government restrict the flow of labor from one place to another by erecting a border or, more intrusively still, by regulating how many immigrants are allowed to find jobs here. Immigration quotas don't seem to make any libertarian sense at all. And if not for the quotas, no one would be illegal. The "law" being broken is the law that government bureaucrats get to decided who can come in and who can't, while the government gets to set arbitrary numbers of immigrants from each group. ("Sorry, we've had all the Norwegians we can take for the year. Try us again in January.") The immigrants are only "illegal" because the very government authority that libertarians purport to despise labels those people as illegal.

    Why shouldn't someone be able to get a job where there are jobs to be had? Why should someone be prevented from taking a job because too many other people from country X or Y have entered the country? (Talk about your identity politics....) Why shouldn't farmers be allowed to hire the people who want the harvest jobs? And why shouldn't an internet startup be free to hire a bunch of hotshots from IIT?

    Seriously, I'd love any thoughts on this.


    Looking for coherence in the modern American "libertarian" position might be a fool's errand.

    Maybe. But I want to say that I gave it the old college try.

    I can tell you why this is confusing to you: It's because you're absolutely right.

    It is inconsistent to allow government restrictions on some people, as long as it's not yourself. This is not libertarian at all. It is rather utilitarian, maybe opportunistic.

    These guys take on whatever philosophy fits their personal preference, seems to cater to their own wishes and needs the best. But they reserve the right to reject "granting" these same rights and liberties to everyone else, or to certain other groups. It's not libertarian principle that guides these people. It is their personal forthcoming which guides them exlcusively, using libertarian slogans as their vehicles, but pulling the "Stop here" chord when the bus goes too far into the direction of other people.

    Libertarianism is utterly incompatible with nationalism. Country borders are nothing but arbitrary lines on a paper map, drawn by strategists generations ago, which are completely unrelated to us specifically or the rights of the individual in general.

    There is nothing libertarian about "Give me liberty! ...I said me, damnit - not them!"

    Here is a litmus test for you: Ask them how they justify, rationally and logically, their fundamental libertarian views.

    If their answer comes down to "It is so because I want it", you can comfortably dismiss their rhetoric as baseless.  If they tell you they base their libertarianism on say property rights, and/or natural rights, they may be onto something. Whenever someone denies that certain liberties and rights are inherent in all human beings by virtue of their birth, they cannot be libertarians. Yet it is their right to call themselves whatever gets them laid on parties, if they wish so. Libertarians won't take up arms against them, as long as they keep their dirty mitts to themselves and don't keep others from do a little more thinking than they did.

    Most "real" libertarians (i.e., excluding some found on the intertubes), will admit that there are limits to the ideal of no government intrusion (AKA anarchy). They'll usually make an exception for cases where it's "clear" (to who?) that government is the best solution, such as in the case of national defense (never mind that the Constitution did not call for a standing military). I've heard reasons for these, and they usually strike me as sincere compromises. (I.e., they're compromising their libertarian idealism for some safety pragmatism.) They'll usually also make exceptions for road systems, although that seems even more arbitrary to me.

    As for why immigration also falls into this category, I suppose it might be similar to the logic behind national defense. After all, they're a threat to our way of life, right? (Especially the Canucks. Ugh.)

    I'm guessing. I encourage you to ask your friend and get back to us. Attempt to be as non-acusatory as possible. Perhaps you can frame the question as you wanting to understand and sincerely being unable to, as you have here. I'm interested in what s/he would say.

    One of the difficulties here is defining "libertarian", if even just for the purposes of discussion.  Who are the libertarians?  What are their values?  Who, if anyone, speaks for them?

    This is a question much more easily answered when we ask it about the two dominant political parties.  In these cases, party members are easily identified, platforms clearly espoused and leadership (usually) likewise designated.

    The same can't really be said for the contemporary American libertarian.  It's a label that many people self-apply, but these same people frequently espouse rather disparate viewpoints.  One might be an economic libertarian, which may mean anything from a strict adherence the Austrian school to simply having a general preference for market-based economics.  One might be a social libertarian or civil libertarian and seemingly have any number of views on issues like gun control, abortion, gay rights, drug law, etc.

    There are survivalist libertarians and religious libertarians.  Sometimes these are the same people.

    So, I don't really know who or what a libertarian is in America today.  There are certain identifiable groups that either use or have been associated with the label, say Rep. Ron Paul or the John Birch Society.  These people might have little in common with, say, the editors of Reason magazine.  There are Objectivists who do and do not self-apply the libertarian label.  Some who call themselves libertarian are minarchists.  Some are vehement anti-statists, making claims that any taxation whatsoever is tantamount to robbery.

    Given all of the differing opinion amongst those who self-identify as libertarian, whether it's a view on statism, economics, society or something else I haven't even discussed here, I'm never really sure what to think when I hear the term.  Sometimes I wonder if the term doesn't function better as a sort of Rorscach test as opposed to a meaningful label.

    Fair enough. And that's my complaint, I think: the highly selective appeal to principle, without any pressure for consistency.

    In the case of my friend (and of my personal hero, Megan McArdle), I think it functions as a way to call one's conservatism something more interesting. And, somewhat more vexingly, it functions as a moral rhetoric underlying conservatism. You're not simply defending the status quo; you're defending liberty. Yeah, that's the ticket! How else to get self-righteous about keeping hedge funds unregulated?

    Maybe the glaring inconsistency with immigration questions, when that inconsistency appears, is because the public debate about immigration already supplies a ready-made self-righteous position ("They're illegal! They shouldn't be here in the first place!) and so the rhetoric of Lockean liberty isn't necessary.

    Since I see the general leaning of the author and this website, I'd just like to add:

    The inconsistency in interpretation and the arbitrary self-labeling we see, may be grounds to dismiss certain people's motivation. However, beware of of stereotyping the philosophy as a whole! Libertarianism as a concept has a very straight and logically sound framework, starting from the Non-Aggression principle and basic property-rights, and ending at Austrian-type free-market economics. This philosophy in itself is not inconsistent and, if thought through to its logical conclusions, much more than "get off my lawn". That people don't follow these basic principles and stop short of making the logical connections to arrive at the same end as others, is not a failure of the philosophy, but of the people who use its name to describe themselves.

    It's like calling yourself a liberal because you like freedom of speech, religion etc, but supporting preventive wars otherwise. People have the freedom to call themselves whatever they like. If we judge the label on these grounds, instead of the person, we are doing the political discourse more harm than good.

    I acknowledge the lack of clear hierarchy and obvious proponents to talk to, which is mostly due to their inherent aversion of grasping power or the microphone, I believe. If you'd like to find out more, within the "scene" there have been a few lifting their heads over the crowd, say Murray Rothbard, Ludwig v. Mises, Lew Rockwell, Ron Paul, to name a few. I would suggest reading Rothbard first, but whatever you prefer.

    Online communities worth mentioning, that are not just gun-lovers or capped neo-cons, are hard to find. I can give you one if you're interested.

    You know, I hear you. I really do. That's why I tried to make this a question, rather than an accusation.

    My own take is that there are principled libertarians, but there are lots of other people who lean heavily on the rhetoric of libertarianism but don't feel especially constrained by it.

    I am a Libertarian and I am completely pro immigration.  In fact last week I went on a rant about this subject. On my blog.

    There is a conservative movement that is leaning libertarian lately that clings to government power and statist ideas in libertarianism.  I oppose many of these concepts, and really they are just Republicans that are seeing things clearly after 8 years of Bush I believe.

    Thanks! That's very illuminating. (Thanks also to James Harris below.)

    Between this thread and my recent cross-post at TPM, I'm getting a lot of different answers. From you and James, the answer is basically, "Real libertarians are pro-immigration."

    Some of the people at TPM are answering that there's no inconsistency at all.

    It's fascinating. And it clearly says something about the uneasy was libertarianism and conservatism coexist, overlap, and rival each other at the moment. And, of course, as DF says, about how many strands of libertarians there are.

    from the Libertarian Party Platform:


    3.4    Free Trade and Migration

    We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade.  Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries.  Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders.  However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a threat to security, health or property.




    Doctor Cleveland,

                              I was recently doing some research on constutitional laws. I breifly remember reading that we could not regulate or, charge more than a $10.oo tax on persons to enter this country. If this is so, are we not violating the constitution as well as being the cause of the problem in the first place.  I mean they're NOT HIRING THEMSELFS! 

                               Many lifes &, millions of dollars is what it costs use to patrol the boarders of a country that's paying millions of dollars every year to maintain a giant statue inviting any & all to live here & welcoming them pursue a better life.

                                They are NOT the ones that put us in a recession or, are the culprit of our unemployement rate. WE are! WE don't want to pay Americans a decent wage out of our own pocket but, we cry about the state of the economy. And, it seems to me the more citizens we have the more jobs we create & the stronger our alliance.

    "libertarians" who would restrict free travel of the individual either:

    1) haven't "got there" yet

    2) are faking it (alan greenspan)

    3) are faking it (ron paul)

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