Open Borders? Maybe Not. Immigration According to the Austrian School (Part III)

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Walter Block

“Almost 70% of American voters under the age of 30 voted for Obama. Why isn’t anyone calling for the deportation of America’s youth, or limits on fertility to raise our average age?”
Bryan Caplan (2009)

Walter Block’s case for free immigration (1998, 2011a, 2011b) can be divided in, at least, two sections. One consists in his own position about immigration. The other has to do with the lengthy academic debate held by Walter Block on one side and Hans-Hermann Hoppe –and Stephan Kinsella to certain extent– on the other.

Block builds his case for free immigration relying on Murray Rothbard non-aggression axiom and criticizing objection to open borders. According to Rothbard:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.
If no man may aggress against another, if, in short, everyone has the absolute right to be “free” from aggression, then this at once implies that the libertarian stands foursquare for what are generally known as “civil liberties”: the freedom to speak, publish, assemble, and to engage in… “victimless crimes” (Rothbard 1978:23).

Block believes that immigration is a case of victimless crime and that migration barriers, like tariffs and customs, are a violation of laissez faire capitalism (1998). His approach is radical and leaves no space for compromises or partial solutions. Immigration is either the peaceful movement of individuals from one country to another one or a sort of invasion and trespassing of private property that must be utterly limited. Thus, “the legality of migration is an all-or-none matter: either migration is per se legitimate, in which case it would be improper to interfere with it in any way, or it is per se invasive, in which case it should be prohibited, totally and comprehensively, just as in the case of murder and rape” (Block 1998:170).

What are national boundaries? For Block these constitute no more than arbitrary lines drawn on a map. Therefore, international immigration –far from being an act of invasive nature– consists only in peacefully moving to a foreign country. Block considers internal and international migration an identical phenomenon. “If it is non-invasive for Jones to change his locale from one place in Misesania to another in that country, then it cannot be invasive for him to move from Rothbardania to Misesania. Alternatively, if migration across international borders is somehow illegitimate, this should apply to the domestic variety as well” (Block 1998:173).

Does this imply some sort of absolute right of freedom of movement? It does not according to our author. To be a legitimate action, the immigrant must either move to a private piece of land where she is accepted or she should settle in owned lands. Block rightfully mentions the extremely rare case that in a country there is no owned land and all owners refuse to invite immigrants. Not even in such a case, immigration laws should be necessary. It will be enough with owners exercising their rights to avoid trespassing.

We can now review some of the objections to free immigration Block analyses and his replies to them.

Mises’ unique statement against free immigration was in 1944, during the Second World War and it logically refers to the possibility that open borders may allow an enemy invasion.

Under present conditions, the adoption of a policy of outright laissez faire and laissez passer on the part of the civilized nations of the West would be equivalent to an unconditional surrender to the totalitarian nations. Take, for instance, the case of migration barriers. Unrestrictedly opening the doors of the Americas, of Australia, and of Western Europe to immigrants would today be equivalent to opening the doors to the vanguards of the armies of Germany, Italy, and Japan (Mises 1944:10).

Unrestricted immigration is no synonym of extreme pacifism or surrender to foreign aggression. The point here is that there is an immense difference between peaceful settlers and an invading army.

Another typical objection suggests that immigration will create or exacerbate unemployment. “This objection illustrates nothing so much as economic illiteracy”, believes Block (1998: 176).

What about wages going down because of the immigrants? Our author concedes that some workers could lose out. Nevertheless, following Hoppe (1993), Block shows that individuals are only entitled to the physical aspects on their property but not to the value of it. For value is determined in the market process.

Will unrestricted immigration increase crime? Block does not deny the fact that open borders may facilitate the access of criminals to the opened country. But, he thinks that this is rather a criticism towards the criminal justice system than to open borders. Drug prohibition is responsible for the incarceration of many people who committed, according to Block, a “victimless crime”. Together with its open borders, a libertarian society would a “serious” criminal system. “A libertarian society, moreover, would get tougher on genuine criminals. There would be no more cozy jails with color TVs, air conditioning, or recreation rooms. If indentured servitude for convicts were brought back, prisons could be run by private enterprise. Instead of draining taxpayers of vast amounts of money to house inmates, they could turn a profit” (Block 1998:18).

Could free immigration promote welfarism? Block’s answer is twofold. On the one hand, though it would optimal to end welfare for all, it could at least be completely limited to immigrants. Thus, the power of attraction that the welfare subsidies exercise would be eliminated.

But also Block considers that this line of thinking may open Pandora’s box. Such preventive logic could be applied in other realms. So, as immigrants are stopped because of a possible future danger they might pose to the welfare state, why not also stop people from having babies? These are also candidates to become welfare recipients.

Of great interest is our author’s discussion of the thesis that free immigration should not be implemented as long as the rest of the libertarian program was implemented. Block’s fundamental criticism to this position is that it hopes to get the results of a free market society under interventionsim. Block cleverly calls this approach “postponement libertarianism” and exemplifies this attitude with, for instance, Milton Friedman’s voucher educational system.

The final objection Block tries to rebut is the one that indicates that massive immigration can turn into a threat to the very free system that makes it possible. Historically, Block brings into our attention that several great figures of the history of the freedom movement arrived to the US from abroad.

There have been immigrants in our history who have improved our freedom immeasurably. The names Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, William Hutt, Ludwig Lachmann, Hans Hoppe, Yuri Maltsev, Kurt Leube, James Ahiakpor, George Ayittey, Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, Sam Konkin, Harry Watson, David Henderson, and Ayn Rand leap immediately to mind in this context. A closed-door policy in the past might well have made it impossible for these people to contribute to our society. And this is to say nothing of all the children and grandchildren of immigrants who have made significant contributions. How could it be otherwise, given that virtually all of us are “the children and grandchildren of immigrants”? (Block 1998:183)

Block also adds that the most direct way foreigners would have to disrepute the institutions of liberty would be through voting. But, the real problem lies here not in how immigrants would vote but in voting itself. A truly free society would not permit the confiscation of property through voting or any other method. Therefore, this problem would dissolve.


Block, W.
(1998) “A libertarian case for free immigration” in Journal of Libertarian Studies (Volume 13), on line publication:

(2008) Defending the undefendable, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn

(2011) “Hoppe, Kinsella and Rothbard II on immigration: a critique” in Journal of Libertarian Studies (Volume 22), on line publication:

(2011) “Rejoinder to Hoppe on immigration” in Journal of Libertarian Studies (Volume 22), on line publication:

Caplan, B.
(2009) “The case against libertarian Hispanophobia” in Econlog, on line publication:

(2012) “Why should we restrict immigration?” in cato Journal (Volume 32 №1), on line publication:

Hoppe, H-H
(1993) The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Mises Institute, Auburn, 2006

Mises, L. von
(1944) Omnipotent government, Liberty Fund & The Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, 2010

Rothbard, M.
(1973) For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Mises Institute, Auburn, 2006

Originally Published at Values 4 Europe

* Federico N. Fernández is President of Fundación Internacional Bases (Rosario, Argentina) and a Senior Fellow with the Austrian Economics Center (Vienna, Austria). He is also the president of the Organizing Committee of the International Conference “The Austrian School of Economics in the 21st Century,” which has taken place every two years since 2006 in Rosario (Argentina).



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