Collective property rights

See also anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, citizen preference for reduced immigration, citizenism, territorialism, and nation as family

“Collective property rights” is a shorthand used here for the idea that the territory of a nation-state, and in particular the parts of that territory that are not private property, are owned “collectively” by the people with the government acting as their agent.

Individuals who have property rights over a piece of land can choose to allow or forbid other specific individuals from entering that land without needing to provide any justification.

Proponents of collective property rights argue that, for similar reasons, the government of the nation-state, acting as a legitimate agent of the collective, can choose to allow or forbid specific foreigners from entering that land without needing to provide any justification.

The “collective property rights” argument thus attempts to counter the libertarian case for open borders. Even if this is correct, it does not counter the utilitarian or egalitarian case for open borders. Thus, even somebody who believes in collective property rights may believe that open borders are the right thing from a utilitarian or egalitarian perspective.

However, such a person may still concede that, even if open borders are desirable in some times and places, there is no moral authority to force them upon an unwilling populace.

A more complex variation on this argument is the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual.

Donald Boudreaux attempts to refute assertions of collective property rights in an article titled The Nation as a House:

The analogy of a home to a nation is more misleading than helpful. Unlike a home, a nation—at least each nation whose citizens are free—is not a private domain; it does not belong to anyone in the way that a house belongs to its owner. Also unlike in a home, living space within a free country is allocated by market transactions rather than by the conscious, nonmarket decisions of the residents of a house. A person who enters a country and purchases a place to live displaces no one in the way that an intruder into a home would displace a resident from his bed and favorite chair. In addition, of course, every intruder into a home likely intends to inflict some harm on the household’s residents. In contrast, the vast majority of persons who enter a country intend no harm to anyone.

Moreover, in a home each and every space is private; no place in a home is open to the public. A nonresident of a home can enter only if he first secures from a resident an invitation—an invitation that is nontransferable, of limited duration, and that specifies (if only implicitly) the time and conditions of the nonresident’s visit. Not so in a nation. Each nation is full of places that generally are open to the public. Roads, boulevards, sidewalks, parks, town squares, city centers, and airports are by their nature open to people without invitation.

And more: while in a home each resident personally knows (and frequently loves) each of the other residents, in a nation the citizens overwhelmingly remain strangers to one another. The percentage of America’s 300-plus million citizens whom I know is infinitesimal; I’ve not even laid eyes on the vast majority of them. The same is true for every other American, including the president of the United States.

Analogizing a nation to a home creates the myth that citizens of a nation can, and do, trust each other in ways that members of the same household typically trust each other. But, of course, when I lock my home at night I do so to guard against violence and theft that might otherwise be inflicted on my family by other Americans. If every foreigner were immediately and forever expelled from the United States today, I—like all Americans—would be not one whit less vigilant in locking my home.

The fact is that the relationships each of us has with our fellow citizens overwhelmingly are of the arm’s-length, impersonal variety. They are market relationships, governed chiefly by self-interest on both sides of each exchange. They are not the sorts of personal relationships that guide decisions made within households. They are, indeed, precisely the sorts of relationships that each of us has with strangers from foreign countries.

In a blog post titled The Immigrant in My Basement, Bryan Caplan takes a similar stance:

[I]f a low-skilled foreigner offers me a suitable rent for my basement, and I accept his offer, U.S. law still refuses to let my willing tenant move in.
Now you might say that I’m just being difficult. Of course immigrants aren’t going to move into people’s basements without their consent; the point is that Americans shouldn’t have to live in the same country with people they don’t like.

If that’s your point, though, I’m just going to be more difficult. It’s reasonable to insist that people get your permission to come to your home. It’s absurd to insist that people get your permission to live in your neighbor’s house* – much less than people get your permission to live in a hundred-mile radius of you. That’s on par with the schoolyard bully’s grievance that “You’re breathing my air.” We should see it for what it is – a flimsy pretext for naked aggression.

A related rebuttal is offered by Nathan Smith. Smith’s “theory of the streets” is described in detail on the right to migrate page, but here’s a relevant excerpt from that page:

Smith also develops a theory of ownership of roads and other public resources, which is key to rebutting claims of collective property rights. His argument is that people in one region can choose to build, or close down, roads by collective decision making at the regional level, without consulting others. Outsiders may have no say in whether roads are built, or how they are arranged. However, once the roads are built and operational, they do have non-exclusive transit rights in those roads, and they cannot be arbitrarily forbidden from using those roads. Put another way, outsiders have the “liberty” to use the roads.

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan