Response to A. M. Fantini

The Freeman hosted a debate on immigration a few days ago (I’m not sure when exactly it was posted) between myself and A.M. Fantini, editor-in-chief of The European Conservative and secretary general of the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria. My arguments won’t be news to readers of this site, though this may be the most novel paragraph:

Open borders would undermine the legitimacy of the welfare state by taking away the border as blindfold. Such policies would make it obvious that the welfare state does nothing to help the world’s poorest, so why have it at all? Indeed, since open borders are far superior to foreign aid or the welfare state as means of helping the desperately poor, advocating open borders is by far the best way to seize the moral high ground against statists. And open borders would allow people to vote with their feet against predatory governments.

Let me focus instead on the arguments made by my interlocutor, Mr. Fantini. He starts by saying he sympathizes with many pro-open borders arguments and would “almost” like to advocate open borders…

But I can’t—not because I am heartless, but because of the fundamental importance I give to the classical liberal order and its prerequisites.

Fantini mentions that immigrants need to be denied access to “tax-funded goodies,” else “free migration only ends up growing the welfare state”– I more or less agree with him there– but his main argument is that “political communities have thrived so long as a majority of their members accepted certain principles—and the shared values that uphold them,” and “supporters of open borders fail to recognize the dangers of welcoming immigrants who are hostile to classical liberal principles and values.” Then he offers evidence:

The riots in Stockholm last month illustrate just such dangers. While some pointed to ethnic, racial, or religious reasons for the violence (others blamed bad schools, over-regulated labor markets, and the welfare state), few addressed the reality that most immigrants are simply not ready—or willing—to live and work in Swedish society. There is virtually no pressure nor incentive for immigrants to embrace Swedish values.

Over the past few years, there have been similar riots in other European capitals, with immigrants railing against their adopted countries. During September’s London riots, rioters cried out, “some of [you] were calling for freedom of speech and democracy—but isn’t it time we made an uprising?”

Such statements are reflective of a wider attitude among immigrant youths across Europe. In Austria, France, Denmark, Holland, and Germany, they blame society for their isolation, marginalization, and poverty. Never mind the civics courses, free language classes, welfare benefits, and subsidized housing; at their cores, these immigrant groups reject liberal democratic values.

How should libertarians respond if immigrants are aggressively opposed to their values? Should libertarians allow immigrants to move into a community even if they seek to undermine such values and formal institutions? Should the libertarian then become a refugee himself?

In Principles of a Free Society, I actually carved out of my pro-open borders position a possibly expansive exception for Muslim immigration, inasmuch as Muslims are arguably committed to a rights-violating ideology and therefore do not qualify as peaceful immigrants. Vipul challenged me on this point, and we debate whether the principles of freedom of speech and religion should extent to non-discrimination in immigration decisions on the basis of speech and religion. So I’m somewhat sympathetic to Fantini’s concerns.

That said, there’s something odd about a European libertarian complaining that immigrants “are agressively opposed to their values.” Isn’t the native European population aggressively opposed to libertarian values? Fantini complains that there is no pressure for immigrants to embrace Swedish values. Objection 1: If that’s the problem, the most direct solution is to create pressures for immigrants to embrace Swedish values, not to exclude them by force. But, Objection 2: Should libertarians really want immigrants to embrace Swedish values, that is, to embrace the values of a quite humane but also quite socialistic society? Fantini complains that immigrants are alienated despite “the civics courses, free language classes, welfare benefits, and subsidized housing,” but all those taxpayer-provided handouts are contrary to libertarian principles and teach immigrants anti-libertarian lessons.

If immigrants “seek to undermine… values and formal institutions,” I would ask two further questions. 1) Are the values and institutions they seek to undermine good or bad? 2) If they are good, are the immigrants likely to succeed in undermining them?

In Europe, immigrants are far from the only threat to democracy and free speech. A Swedish pastor was jailed for anti-gay remarks. Until recentlyMein Kampf couldn’t be sold in German bookstores. In Norway, Christian missionaries have been arrested for spreading the Gospel. Last year, a German court banned male circumcision, which of course is an absolutely fundamental violation of the religious freedom of Jews and Muslims. Meanwhile, the project of European unification has been progressively alienating power from national governments to a European Union regime with weak mechanisms of democratic accountability, in spite of repeated setbacks at the ballot box. I worry a bit that illiberal Europeans and illiberal Muslim immigrants will somehow collaborate in establishing a regime where an anti-Christian and socialistic bureaucracy concedes, first bits of turf, later vital principles, to rising Islamofascism. But the biggest problem for European libertarians is Europeans, not immigrants.

In a way, Fantini’s remarks were actually rather off-topic, since the topic was whether the US should open its immigration, and the problems Fantini cites in the European case hardly exist in America. In America, Muslim immigrants are patriotic.

I kind of like Fantini’s policy advice, precisely because I don’t think it would be effective. He suggests:

When considering immigration controls, it’s important to be guided by classical liberal principles—and avoid increasing federal involvement. There are alternatives to spending $4.5 billion on extended border fencing and “continuous surveillance” as proposed in current legislation.

For example, apply the principle of subsidiarity. In practice, this means addressing the issue in the most decentralized (local) way possible. As Hoppe has argued, this can be far more effective in controlling immigration than depending on the state, while also reinvigorating the “intermediate social institutions and hierarchies” in society—thus ensuring the survival of classical liberal principles.

I’ve responded to Hans-Herman Hoppe’s arguments before. It’s hard to understand what Fantini is envisioning here. The reason people want to control migration at the border, e.g., with expensive fencing and surveillance, is that once they’re in, immigrants automatically enjoy much of the freedom of movement that citizens enjoy. We don’t check the IDs of people who are walking around the streets, or riding public transportation, or as passengers in private cars. We sometimes check the IDs of drivers, and you need an ID to get on a plane, but still, localities just don’t really have the procedures to control migration. Should we establish them? Should towns, neighborhoods, state governments, or whatever be empowered to curtail people’s property rights by controlling whom owners can rent or sell real estate to? The notion reminds me of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. That said, if there were a proposal to introduce state migration control while abolishing federal migration control, I’d support it as a lesser evil. Some states would liberalize, and state migration controls would be easier to evade. But it seems like a strange cause for a libertarian to support. I do favor gated communities. That is, I think it’s basically okay– though some questions remain to be asked on a case-by-case basis– to establish small territorially exclusive communities through private, consensual arrangements.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “Response to A. M. Fantini”

  1. Fantini’s arguments don’t make much sense to me, so I have no comment about them.

    I’m puzzled by one statement of his opponent (the writer of this blog entry, Nathan Smith):
    “Open borders would undermine the legitimacy of the welfare state by taking away the border as blindfold. Such policies would make it obvious that the welfare state does nothing to help the world’s poorest, so why have it at all?”

    That statement makes it sound like the writer thinks the welfare state is useless because it does nothing to help the world’s poorest. Is helping the world’s poorest the only acceptable goal for our government’s welfare system? Is he saying that we should dismantle the welfare system if it is not directed at the world’s poorest? Why should the needs of the world’s poorest be allowed to crowd out all other needs?

    This requires some explanation.

  2. It must be very satisfying to post a rebuttal to a position with which you disagree with without informing your opponent — on your blog — and with your own (presumably loyal) readers as an audience! I congratulate you, Mr. Smith, for this intrepid action. I’ll try to respond to your post above soon — in an effort to maintain and continue the spirit of FEE’s Arena, which was to explore the intricacies of an argument that has no easy solution — only factions which are uneasily swayed.

    1. I didn’t know you’d be interested, that’s why I didnt bother to inform you. I suppose I should have. Certainly, we would love to hear from you and continue the debate! The FEE forum was welcome, but of course space was limited there.

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