Now, imagine this: the president of the United States, a country once a beacon of liberty to the world, has urged governments to institute emigration controls. That’s right, just like the old East Germany. In making these statements, he undermines a fundamental right of every person anywhere in the world: the freedom to leave.
Let’s look at what Bush said in his press conference the other day:
Q: If there are foreign terrorists involved [in Iraqi bombings], why aren’t Syria and Iran being held accountable?
BUSH: Yes, well, we’re working closely with those countries to let them know that we expect them to enforce borders, prevent people from coming across borders if, in fact, we catch them doing that.
Let’s leave aside that there is no evidence that foreigners have been making trouble in Iraq. Bush’s own military brass has contradicted his assessment. In any case, there is no reason to presume this, since no people wants to be conquered and occupied, let alone by the ethnically and religiously alien.
For that matter, Bush might reflect on the fact that the US has the vast majority of foreign fighters in Iraq. If a real Iraqi government ever did start kicking out immigrants, US troops would be the first to go.
As I say, let’s leave all that aside. Let’s instead talk about emigration, which means leaving a country, as in leaving Syria or Iran to enter Iraq. Bush has publicly urged the governments of Iran and Syria to prevent their own citizens from leaving the country.
Because nothing can be taken for granted in the age of the total state, let’s look at what border control is supposed to mean. It has generally been assumed in the history of nations, drawing from the precedent of the old European city states, that nations have the legal right to bar or limit immigration. But it was one of the many crimes of the French Revolution that the government tried to control the right to exit.
However, the old liberals successfully worked against the last remnants of restrictions on the freedom to walk. They knew that freedom to emigrate provides an important check on power. If taxes get too high and economic prospects too low, a country begins to experience “brain drain” and thereby has the incentive to make the country at least attractive enough so that its own citizens do not want to flee. Even to this day, the freedom of people to leave restrains power all over the world.
Even after the last vestiges of emigration controls had been abolished (before being reinstituted by communists in the 20th century), governments retained the power to keep people out. You can look at this as an analogy to the general right of exclusion that property owners enjoy, or you can see it as an extension of the right of a nation to defend itself.
Libertarians have disagreements on the immigration question, but, regardless, there can be no disagreement on this: nations may not prevent people from leaving. Those that attempt to do so as a matter of policy have traditionally and rightly been regarded as despotic. Civilized nations can control who comes in; but only tyrannies control who goes out.
Hence, if the US wants less Mexican immigration, it is not up to the Mexican government to crack skulls to prevent people from leaving. It is up to the US to prevent entry. So too with regard to every country in the world. It is not up to Syria or Russia or any other state to prevent exit. It is up to countries, should the countries desire controls on entry (and every state has some controls), to institute them.
Such is civilization as we know it. But of course some states violate the rules. The problem of emigration controls became important in the Cold War, and the lack of human rights in the old Soviet Union was defined by the issue. It was a huge step for freedom when the Soviets loosened up on the right to leave.
Since then, discussion of the issue has dropped out of the policy debate. Nonetheless, the issue is still alive, since there will always be governments that want to keep their citizens caged in. The first step is to penalize departure by preventing people from taking their property out of the country. Another step is to permit one person to leave, but prevent families from going along. The final step is the most grim: when governments prevent any citizens from leaving through the threat of personal violence. We are talking totalitarianism. Emigration controls always end in shooting people.
Is this what Bush urged? It would seem so. Is this US policy or did Bush just misspeak? It doesn’t matter. It is a public statement that pretty much unleashes Iran and Syria to do whatever is necessary to prevent their citizens from fleeing into Iraq, or to any other country, since they could use it as a stepping stone to Baghdad. Were Iraq truly liberated, a model for the region, wouldn’t it make sense that people would want to move there? Not, apparently, if Bush has his way. He claims to be creating a free country while urging neighboring governments to prevent their citizens from moving there.
That Bush could make such a statement, which, to my knowledge, has not been noticed or commented upon by anyone, indicates the degree of policy insanity that afflicts the current regime. There are no controls on people and their rights that this administration is not willing to countenance.
The administration finds nothing wrong with invading a country and overthrowing its government, though it lacked anything resembling a solid rationale, and thinks nothing of instituting martial law and shooting people at any sign of dissent. It is heading a regime in Iraq that lacks anything like written law or independent courts. And it calls this freedom.
Thus it was Bush’s first instinct, after making up this business about foreigners causing trouble in Iraq, to tell neighboring states to forcibly keep their citizens from leaving their countries. This was an off-hand comment, not even worthy of further clarification much less repudiation, yet it’s the kind of comment and policy that can mean a huge setback for liberty itself.
What’s more, this is an issue that is of increasing relevance to the United States. As places like China, Latin America, and Eastern Europe become increasingly attractive, the US is going to face more and more pressure to hold onto its best and brightest. Already, the US is one of the few countries in the world that presumes the right to tax its citizens no matter where they live.
In any case, Bush has gone on record in favor of violating the freedom of exit — an ominous sign in the history of nations, not only because he said it, but also because no one seems to have noticed or cares to decry it. What we have in the White House right now is the living face of arbitrary power.