Immigration And Property Rights

Opponents of immigration often compare nations to households. Under this analogy, citizens are members of the household, while an illegal immigrant is “like a roommate who doesn’t pay the rent.” We wouldn’t allow someone to barge into our household and use all of our private property, so why would anyone allow an immigrant to barge into a country and attempt to find a job?

Weaknesses of this analogy aside, it rests on a view of property rights that is perhaps best outlined here by blogger Simon Grey. In summary, the argument goes:

  1. Under most reasonable people’s understanding of property rights, a single owner of private property is entitled to keep anyone of his or her property for any reason whatsoever.

  1. A group of private property owners on adjacent properties may fence their properties together and do likewise.

  1. Such a group of property owners can further outsource the management of property linkages, such as common roads, sidewalks, etc. to a third-party (e.g. a homeowners’ association) if they so choose.

  1. The above is similar enough to a state that appeals to property rights are consistent with this analogy.

I find this argument unpersuasive, for following reasons: First, under this argument, natives also have a right to transact with immigrants, thus the concept provides no special reason to oppose immigration. Second, because this argument makes certain assumptions about governance of the commons, it ceases to be an argument about property rights and reduces to a declaration about moral governance (an argument which can be disputed on a purely moral basis independent of property rights). Finally, advocating for open borders is in no shape or form a violation of anyone’s property rights.

Some Problems With Collective Property

Property transactions involve property’s being either bought-and-sold or rented. Unless an immigrant intends to sleep on the streets, someone within the country has voluntarily elected to either sell or rent property to the newcomer. And while it’s always true that one might run away from his or her debts, the fact remains that any immigrant is always a party to some kind of business transaction in being here. Unless those business transactions occur exclusively among fellow-immigrants (a totally unreasonable assumption), immigrants are trading with domestic natives who wish to trade with them, too. Thus, this is exactly the opposite of “a roommate who doesn’t pay his rent.”

Almost paradoxically, the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual utilizes just this rationale in its argument against open borders. The argument is that, because every free market transaction is a de facto “restriction” on absolutely uninhibited use of another person’s property rights, the open borders concept is logically impossible. Clever logic like this is classic Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but it nonetheless misses the mark.

Giving things away for free is hardly what we have in mind when we argue for free markets. Similarly, opening borders to free human migration means allowing people to travel so that they can solicit the kind of free trade to which Hoppe refers. Knocking on doors, renting apartments, and answering wanted ads are not the kinds of activities we typically call property rights violations, and this is all we really have in mind when we talk about open borders. The anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is neither an argument against this kind of activity nor a particularly strong justification for the restriction of it.

Suppose I live in a private, gated community with Steve Sailer, Joe Arpaio, and Mike Huckabee. Further suppose that John Lee wishes to live in our community. If John wants to purchase or rent land from Sailer, Arpaio, Huckabee, or the homeowners’ association in which theirs is the majority opinion, they would be within their rights to decide that they don’t want John in their community, and refuse to sell or rent to him. But what if I choose to rent my property to John? Aren’t I within my own property rights to enter into a leasing agreement with John?

Opponents of immigration may counter that my participation in the homeowners’ association bars me from doing so. If true, what’s to stop me from ending my contract with the homeowners’ association and renting to John, anyway?

Only by asserting that the homeowners’ association’s collective control over my personal property – i.e. by asserting that collective property rights trump individual property rights – can we conclude that I cannot rent to John. Of course, opponents of immigration can always invoke the principle of collective property rights to argue against open borders, but such claims run contrary to the spirit in which property rights were invoked in the first place.

After all, I doubt that what conservative opponents of immigration have in mind is the supremacy of collective use of property over individual property rights. If they did, a significant shift in public opinion would invalidate their argument. Indeed, a significant shift in public opinion might even invalidate their individual claim to property.

Claiming The Commons

A second problem with the property rights argument against immigration is that it assumes that only immigration’s opponents own the commons. Embedded in an appeal to property rights to close the border is the assumption that the border itself and the state mechanisms deployed to enforce it work only for those who oppose immigration, and not for those of us who do not.

In truth, public land, public offices, and public resources are merely stewarded by the state. We call it “public property” only because it is not owned by private individuals. It is tempting for libertarian minds to reason that this is unfair or inappropriate – perhaps such reasoning even has a sound basis – but so long as property is owned and operated by the state, it is subject only to the will of the state.

Therefore, if the state decides to take an anti-immigration policy stance, the borders will be closed. If the state chooses to open the borders to the many benefits of free human migration, the borders will be open.

Vipul Naik previously summarized how the state might choose to govern its decisions here:

  • Radical agnosticism: The nation-state’s government can admit or deny non-citizens in a completely arbitrary fashion, without having to justify itself to either citizens or non-citizens. In this view, whatever the government decrees is the right thing.

  • Agnostic democratic fundamentalism: Non-citizens should be allowed or denied entry based on whether the majority of citizens would consent to their entry. […]

  • Citizenism via democratic fundamentalism: Here, elected representatives need to make decisions based on what the majority wants. But in addition, individual citizens, whether as voters or political lobbyists or elected representatives, need to make and justify their political decisions using citizenist premises.

  • Citizenism as a direct basis for political decision-making: Here, elected representatives directly make decisions on a citizenist basis, irrespective of what the democratic majority decrees. In the ideal world here, the ruler is a benevolent citizenist dictator.

Thus governance of the commons effectively reduces to a choice between the arbitrary decisions of our rulers, the democratic process, or Citizenism.

Nearly everyone agrees that the first choice is senseless by virtue of its being arbitrary.

Meanwhile, if proponents of the property rights argument object to democratic fundamentalism under the assumption that it violates their property rights, they must not subscribe to the principle of collective property rights discussed in the previous section. (Thus, my desire to trade with immigrants is an exercise of individual property rights equal to their desire that I not trade with immigrants.)

Finally, if proponents of the property rights argument wish to object on grounds of Citizenism, then they are not really making a property rights argument at all. Instead, they are arguing that those property rights held by immigrants and the native citizens who choose to trade with them can and should be violated if the transaction fails the Citizenist moral test.

In light of the above, it seems that property rights arguments cannot appeal to the commons at all and truly remain property rights arguments.

Ethical Shortcomings

The previous two sections discuss problems with the validity of the property rights argument, but this argument isn’t just invalid; it’s also irrelevant. Why irrelevant? Because I need not deprive you of your property rights to make the case for open borders.

Consider Simon Grey’s position:

Let us also suppose that the man and his neighbors are all of the same ethnicity and thus decide to form a group that allows all members to utilize each other’s properties for travel (with reasonable but equal limits, of course) while simultaneously blocking everyone who is not a member of the group from crossing the properties at all.  Would all the members of this group be within their rights do so, even if we personally find this to be quite distasteful?  Again, the answer is yes.

Or, alternatively, as expressed by blogger “The Crimson Reach:”

People have bad reasons for how they wish to dispose of their property, of course. We can second-guess them and complain about them. But we too might have bad reasons for doing so…. In any event, simply having a bad reason for what you want to do with your property can’t, in and of itself, add up to an argument that you shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Not without, again, demolishing the concept of property.

We see that appeals to property rights are often made with full awareness of the fact that one’s motives for closing borders might not be good at all. They might even be terrible reasons for closing the border. This is likewise acknowledged in the academic literature. For example, philosopher Christopher Heath Wellman writes:

First, let me stress that I seek to defend a deontological conclusion about how legitimate states are entitled to act, not a consequential prescription for how to maximize happiness or a practical recipe for how states might best promote their own interests. I understand that groups can have weighty reasons to limit immigration in certain circumstances, but what the best policy would be for any given state’s constituents (and/or for those foreigners affected) will presumably depend upon a variety of empirical matters, matters about which others are more knowledgeable. Thus, I doubt that any one-size-fits-all immigration policy exists, and I, qua philosopher, have no special qualification to comment on the empirical information that would be relevant to fashioning the best policy for any given state. However, if anything, I am personally inclined toward more open borders…. My aim is merely to show that whatever deontological reasons there are to respect freedom of association count in favor of allowing political communities to set their own immigration policy.

All three people I have quoted argue the case that states, like individuals, are within their rights to determine to close the borders if they so choose.

But so what? Open borders advocates don’t want to deprive anyone of their property rights. It is full cognizance of and respect for property rights that moves us to make the case for open borders through persuasive reasoning. We certainly know that you are freely entitled to oppose immigration. But we think the benefits are clear, obvious, ethical, and rational; hence, we aim to make the case for opening the border to human migration – by choice.


In light of all of the above, I can only conclude the following:

  • Every economic transaction between an immigrant and a native reflects an implicit endorsement by the native of that immigrant’s status in the country, in full consideration of that native’s property rights. Thus, property rights are as much an argument for open borders as they are against open borders.

  • Ignoring this fact amounts to a presumption that either immigration restrictionists feel they own the commons, or feel they are more entitled to public property than the rest of us. But as we have seen, this position calls into question its validity as a position based on property rights.

  • Even if immigration restrictionists are within their rights to close the borders, that still does not address the fact that the arguments for opening the borders are an appeal to change minds, and are therefore no threat to anyone’s property rights whatsoever.

On all points, I find the property rights argument against immigration unpersuasive.

Ryan is a software consultant originally from Utah. His interest in immigration is the natural result of its ubiquity in his life, but his embrace of the open borders paradigm is the result of the many conversations he has had over the years with friends about their pre-immigration lives.

See our blog post introducing Ryan, or all blog posts by Ryan.

4 thoughts on “Immigration And Property Rights”

  1. Not only do immigration opponents feel that they “own the commons” but they sincerely believe that, were it not for the state’s protection and guarantees, property rights would not be sustainable at all. This ludicrous assumption completely ignores the historical prerogative of the sovereign individual to defend his property HIMSELF.

  2. While “open borders” is still a majority opinion among libertarians, it is no longer a universally held one. I attribute this development primarily to three libertarian figures, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and Milton Friedman. Rothbard, who originally held an “open borders” position, switched his thinking during the “paleo phase” of his later years. Rothbard’s opposition was more or less rooted in a cultural argument. Hoppe’s position is rooted in a private property rights argument for restricted immigration. Friedman’s position was rooted in open immigration as an ideal not compatible with the welfare State.

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