This page outlines a case for open borders based on libertarian perspectives, but it should be read with two important caveats. First, the libertarian principles invoked in these arguments have appeal to many non-libertarians, and therefore this case can be convincing to many non-libertarians. Second, a number of self-identified libertarians reject the libertarian case for open borders. For more, see the moral counter-case page. For the views of prominent libertarians on immigration, see our page libertarians’ views of immigration.
As with all our top-level pages, please treat this page only as a starting point in exploring the ethics of the open borders question. To dig deeper, follow and read the links.
What is libertarianism, and what does it have to do with migration policy?
Libertarianism is a moral and political philosophy that argues in favor of a strong presumption of letting people engage freely in mutually consensual activity and on minimizing coercion in society. In the modern political context, libertarians generally focus on government-enforced and government-facilitated coercion.
Meme depicting the idea of libertarianism. Source What Libertarianism isn’t… by Eric Peters Autos
Libertarianism, as a whole political philosophy, is not very popular. However, basic libertarian ideas are reflected in many people’s moral intuitions (see, for instance, the forced organ donation hypothetical). The idea that people should be free to do what they want unless there is strong evidence that their actions harm others is generally accepted, though non-libertarians set different bars regarding the degree of harm or the strength of evidence needed. Thus, people with partial libertarian sympathies should still find the libertarian case for open borders at least somewhat convincing, though they may rely more on an evaluation of the empirical conseqeunces before coming to a conclusion.
Check out What is Libertarianism? on the libertarianism.org website, or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on libertarianism.
Right to migrate
The right to migrate can be considered a corollary of the libertarian view that people should be free to do what they please (individually or collectively) unless it violates the rights of others. Migration is just one of many things that people should be free to do.
A more moderate version: restrictions of the right to migrate are only moral if there is clear evidence of very bad consequences. We might call this moderate version a presumptive right to migrate.
Obligations to strangers
Libertarians’ view of obligations to strangers has two core premises. First, one does not have positive obligations to strangers beyond respecting their rights. In other words, it is not my duty to help feed, clothe, and pay a stranger. On the other hand, we do have strong obligations to not infringe on people’s freedom unless there are strong reasons to do so.
Applying the same logic to the government of a nation-state or region, the said government owes no obligations to potential immigrants. But it does not have the authority to arbitrarily restrict their entry. Thus, even if the harms to immigrant-receiving countries are serious, they do not overcome the presumption in favor of the right to migrate.
A more moderate relaxation of this view might concede the existence of some positive obligations, including obligations to citizens, residents, potential immigrants, and others, but still argue that these obligations do not override the moral obligation to not interfere with people’s free movement.
Self-ownership versus state ownership
The self-ownership versus state ownership argument, while again of a distinctively libertarian flavor, has been employed by many non-libertarians. The argument is generally deployed to counter concerns about harms to immigrant-sending countries (such as brain drain and delay of political reform). The argument is that even if these harms are serious, they do not override the presumption in favor of the right to migrate. This is because people own themselves (the self-ownership principle) and are not owned by the state where they were born.
Hypotheticals to illuminate the libertarian case
- Starving Marvin, your daughter, and bread, a bunch of hypotheticals by Michael Huemer.
- Coming back from Haiti, facing ICE, a hypothetical by Bryan Caplan
See more hypotheticals here.
Libertarian views and concerns related to immigration
While libertarian theory per se does not offer strong grounds to oppose open borders, libertarians have endorsed a number of arguments against open borders, including the following:
- Some types of harms to immigrant-receiving countries, specifically political externalities and the welfare state/fiscal burden objection. A number of libertarians have cited Milton Friedman on the incompatibility between open borders and the welfare state.
- Some versions of the collective property rights argument, specifically the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual.
See also our page on libertarians’ views of immigration.
Blog posts and articles
- Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian by John Lee, Open Borders: The Case, June 18, 2014. Outlines the libertarian case for open borders and responds to common objections to the libertarian case.
- Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1 by Vipul Naik, Open Borders: The Case, September 20, 2012, gives some evidence that libertarians don’t take open borders as seriously as they should.
- Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 2 by Vipul Naik, Open Borders: The Case, October 25, 2012, argues that libertarians should take open borders more seriously.