Three Ways to Boost Liberty in the World

[The following considerations are related to my previous posts: “Also: Free Migration” and more broadly “Libertarianism and Representative Democracy.”]

Defending liberty in the world is important, but so is also advancing liberty. There are two types of arguments for this:

It is a worthy goal in and of itself. I hope this goes without saying. Everybody can be free and that is good, and that’s why it should be so.

However, advancing liberty in the world is not only an end, but also a means:

It is also good for defending liberty. The more people can live in liberty, the stronger we are. It may make the difference between a world where liberty is on the way out and one where it is on a roll. Even if you cannot make progress now, it is a deterrent if we are strong.

Advancing liberty has an ultimate goal: Regime change worldwide to make liberty reign supreme. History has been rocky, but on the whole liberty has advanced. It is inherently stronger. Sure, some worry about endangered species of autoritarians and see a moral equivalence. Isn’t it unfair if only one model prevails? Simple answer: “No.” But we can build a zoo for those who love to live under authoritian regimes and watch them oppress each other, but not those who want to be free.

So how can liberty in the world advance? And how has it advanced in the past?

I would say there are three ways, two of which are obvious, and one that most appear to miss.

(1) Liberty can advance when societies throw off the yoke of serfdom. It can work gradually or it can be all at once: evolutionary or revolutionary. That was how liberty could get going in the world. You have to start somewhere and someone has to do it. But still it can be difficult.

Evolutionary change needs also some cooperation on the part of the old order, the idea that more liberty is better, whether in an instrumental sense or because of enlightened insight. Revolutionary change presupposes that things first have to come to a head. That is not an auspicious situation and may mean that things can go wrong. The French Revolution is an example of how something that was initially good could get seriously off track later on.

(2) Liberty can also advance because a society is liberated from without, maybe with assistance from within. Unlike a change that comes from a society itself, which to a certain extent ensures that it is on board with the change, a liberation from the outside may lack such support. That can lead to situations where change is fragile afterwards. But then this is no reason to exclude this possibility. It may not work as well, it may fail more often, but it can also succeed.

Take World War II. Germany overran the continent and ushered a dark age in. Liberty was first lost in Germany itself, then also elsewhere. And fighting this down meant a huge gain for liberty. Unfortunately, Eastern Europe fell to Communism, and it took decades before the Evil Empire collapsed of its own accord. But for those countries in Western European countries that had only surrendered to force, it was easy to return to their former life.

Arguably, liberty was at first forced on Germany because a large part of the population did not get the point. It took some time, and to a certain extent new generations, but it has worked out quite well. It would have been better in many ways if Germans had thrown off the yoke themselves, so this is perhaps second best, but it was still VERY good.

(3) The third possibility how liberty can advance in the world is almost always overlooked. It is by no means unimportant. Historically it perhaps played a role at least on a par with the other two possibilities. Liberty can make also progress not because the regimes change that are inimical to it, but because people are able to live free elsewhere. They may not even be particularly liberty-loving when they arrive because they are looking for prosperity that is linked to liberty, but they and their descendants assimilate to the existing culture.

The GDR had about 18.4 million inhabitants in 1950, the Federal Republic of Germany 49.8 million. That is a ratio of 1 to 2.7, and the GDR had about 27% of the total population. Some three million, however, escaped the oppression in the GDR before the Wall was built in 1961. You have to keep in mind here that those were mostly younger people as is usually the case for migrants. This means that there was an additional “momentum effect” because migrants take their unborn children and grandchildren with them. This can lead to a boost by a factor of two or more over time.

Hence the GDR lost population of upward from six million people, and the Federal Republic of Germany gained as many who could now be free. It shifted the balance by more than 12 million people in favor of the West. That’s like having an additional country like Belgium on the side of the free world.

The effect on the population of the GDR was not as massive as it may appear because of a “baby boom” after World War II that went on almost in parallel in the West and in the East until the 1970s. Still, the GDR had only a population of 16.7 million inhabitants at the time of their last census in 1981, or a loss since 1950 of about 10%.

The Federal Republic of Germany could attract further people from other countries. It had about 61 million inhabitants in the 1980s, a gain of 22% since 1950. Hence the ratio had shifted from 1 to 2.7 to 1 to 3.7. The share of the total population living in the East fell from 27% to about 21.5%. Had the Federal Republic of Germany not been so dumb regarding immigration from the mid-1970s on, its relative strength would have been even greater.

Or take the US. In 1790, it had a population of 3.9 million, in 1800 of 5.2 million. Since there was rather little immigration during that decade and there would have been some population momentum from previous immigration anyway, it effectively had perhaps something like 5 million inhabitants at the start.

Now, a population that goes from preindustrial conditions to conditions in modern industrial societies, demographic transition and all, experiences a boost by a factor of maybe 12, with roughly a range from 10 to 15. That is quite regular across societies. Hence, without any further immigration, the US would have 60 million, or between 50 million and 75 million inhabitants now. Sometimes the factor can be as high as 20. But that would only lead to a population of 100 million.

Instead, the US has a population of 325 million, or safely more than 200 million on top of what it would have without any immigration since the founding of the Republic, perhaps even 250 million. Without immigration, you would have to add these people in to the populations of other countries, mostly in Europe. Since Europe is now also free, the effect for liberty in the world is to a certain extent a wash.

However, that was not always true. In 1940, the US had a population of 130 million inhabitants. If there had been no immigration since the founding of the Republic, its whole population would have been much lower, probably well below 50 million. A large share of Americans were of German descent, and most German immigrants had come after the founding of the Republic. Germany had a population of 65 million in 1933. But you would have to add in quite a few of the missing Americans, perhaps as many as 25 million or more.

So the relative sizes would not have been 65 versus 130 million during World War II, but 90 million to 50 million, roughly not twice as many Americans than Germans, but half as many. And those would have been different people. While there was perhaps a suspicion that Americans of German descent were unreliable, they turned out to be patriotic Americans. Instead most of them would have been Nazis in the counterfactual.

There would have been a relative divergence of perhaps even more than 50 million in favor of the Axis powers: twice the number you shift because the US would have had them less, and Germany more. That’s like a major power entering the war on the side of the Axis powers. I don’t know how that would have worked out, but perhaps quite differently than it did. And as a German I must say: I am glad it was not so.

To sum my point up: If you want to advance liberty in the world and make it as strong as possible to defend it, you must root for as much immigration to the free world as is feasible. We have already missed a golden opportunity over the past decades that could have meant hundreds of millions who could live free and work on our side. It is hard to see how you could liberate so many people in other ways. And that would have been with rather modest immigration, just more than with the restrictive policies that have been in place.

I would even grant that more immigration could have led to some problems. But make no bones about it: There is also a huge downside here of not allowing more immigration, which can turn out to be fatal for the free world, while other problems are fleeting and comparably modest.

People who can’t stop talking about “defending the West” and at the same time want to restrict or even eliminate immigration to the free world have not thought this through. They are the people who are not only callous towards the many millions who could live free, but also reckless about our future. They have no right to their smugness and “can smear it in their hair” as one would say in German (sie können es sich in die Haare schmieren).

No, the only consistent position here is: If you want to advance and defend liberty in the world, you must be for as much immigration as is feasible. Simple.