Are immigration restrictionists pirates?

Restrictionists frequently criticise unauthorised immigration by insisting on respect for the rule of the law. Dodging questions about the justness or reasonableness of immigration law, they continue to insist the law must be respected, independent of any concerns one might have about ethics or practicality. I wonder, then, if these same people have never illegally downloaded anything in their lives.

The parallels between intellectual property theft and immigration are rather interesting. As currently structured, both intellectual property and immigration laws are:

  • Difficult to enforce
  • Rarely consistently enforced except in extremely totalitarian states
  • When enforced, enforced quite arbitrarily
  • Considered unreasonable and/or unethical by many
  • Routinely disregarded by many, both in the developed and developing worlds

All the arguments for rounding up all “illegal immigrants” in the world and deporting them, as well as “tightening” border controls, are equally applicable to intellectual property laws. Governments should more seriously pursue those who illegally download MP3s, books, games, and software. They should take strong punitive action to ensure previous offenders don’t enjoy the fruit of their offenses, and strong preventive action to ensure nobody can offend these laws again. Consider the enforcement parallels:

  • Deport them all
    • Wipe all their hard drives
  • Build a wall
    • Shut down every filesharing website, including YouTube, Facebook, Google, etc.

You may think I’m kidding, but these enforcement parallels exist: when my alma mater finds a student has been using their wireless internet to illegally download or share files, they make them bring in their computer for a scan to ensure all offending material has been deleted. Automated copyright enforcement schemes even took out NASA’s live video feed, when a false positive led YouTube to declare NASA’s live video had violated the copyright of Scripps Local News.

My personal views of intellectual property law are irrelevant to the parallels I’ve drawn here (though if you’re curious, it’s somewhat close to my view of immigration law: quite clearly inadequate and unjust, but some restrictions will remain administratively necessary for the foreseeable future). Whether you support or oppose the current intellectual property legal regime, the parallels are clear to see. What I want to know is, have restrictionists never downloaded something illegally? Never watched a video on YouTube that wasn’t the uploader’s to upload? Never viewed a webcomic or read a PDF that wasn’t the sharer’s to share?

If restrictionists take their own arguments about the rule of law seriously, they should scrupulously avoid benefiting from the flagrant violations of the law entailed by what we consider day-to-day usage of the internet. It doesn’t matter how unreasonable or unenforceable the law is — the law is the law. Sure, piracy isn’t physically stealing from anyone — and neither is crossing an imaginary line some people drew on a map, for that matter. Besides, it’s not like you’re giving up the job that can pull you out of poverty, or giving up all hope of living with your family — all you’re giving up are movies, TV shows, books, and music which you can and should be paying for already. If restrictionists defending the “rule of law” want to be taken seriously, they can start by showing us the way forward in respecting the world’s copyright laws.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


8 thoughts on “Are immigration restrictionists pirates?”

  1. I like this, I’ll probably add a link to this from the analogies section soon. There is one related point I would make, namely, that if you think that a law has partial but not full legitimacy, that would condemn violations of the law in situations where the law is easy to comply with, but not violations where the law is very hard to comply with. Obviously, this statement does not apply to clear moral wrongs, but it does apply to laws that are largely designed for convenience and coordination benefits.

    Consider, in the case of copyright infringement, two cases:

    (1) I choose to download a song from a filesharing service, although it is available for 99 cents on Amazon and iTunes and I can listen to it for free on Spotify (with ads). In this case, my unwillingness to comply with copyright law for a very small pecuniary benefit indicates a disrespect for the law. Those who concede at least some legitimacy to copyright law would take issue with this action. (What the penalty should be is a difficult question for such people).

    (2) I need an out-of-print book that’s not available through any online seller or in my nearby bookstore. A friend has a copy, and lends it to me temporarily. I photocopy the book. In this case, even people who think of copyright as legitimate for utilitarian reasons might pause a bit in calling my action wrong from the copyright law perspective.

    As I understand, the majority of copyright infringement today falls in category (1). On the other hand, the majority of “illegal immigration” is clearly analogous to category (2) — legal channels are expensive and the probability of getting in through a legal channel is low. Thus, it is quite plausible that illegal immigrants probably have more respect for immigration law than illegal downloaders have for copyright law.

    This does raise an interesting question: in a world where immigration were much freer, but with a modest immigration tariff, would we be justified in being more critical of illegal immigrants for their disrespect for the rule of law? If you concede at least some legitimacy to border control, the answer would probably be yes, just as the “I-just-don’t-feel-like-paying-for-it-and-I-hate-online-streaming-because-I-have-to-listen-to-ads” illegal downloader is less of a sympathetic character than the “I-couldn’t-get-this-book-anywhere-so-I-photocopied-it” illegal photocopier.

  2. The title of this made it sound a lot more exciting than it was… I was hoping for some sort of metaphor of countries as ships or something…

    1. I think part of John’s point was that calling illegal immigrants “aliens” is just as misleading and unnecessarily grandiose as calling copyright infringers “pirates” is. Though that’s just guesswork on my part.

      1. Yeah the title makes sense but the post isn’t as exciting as the title …I’m obviously just childish but the word pirate made me hope for a story of plunder on the high seas

      2. Actually that wordplay wasn’t 100% intentional on my part! It was the spirit I was aiming for, but I wasn’t consciously comparing the description of copyright infringers as “pirates” to the description of unauthorised immigrants as “illegals” or “aliens”. I have a bigger problem with epithets like “illegal” than I do with “alien” anyway, especially since in legal jargon, almost all foreigners, “illegal” or not, are “aliens”.

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