The Immigration Question

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Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.
~ Jack Paar

There are a number of watershed issues that help to define the meaning of liberty. How one responds to the practice of warfare is one such question. Individuals may disagree as to whether engaging in political action is a justifiable way of reducing or eliminating state power, yet, each may still be regarded as an advocate of liberty. War, however, constitutes a threshold, the crossing of which places a defender of such practices beyond even the most generous definition of libertarian. If "liberty" means anything, it consists of an unqualified respect for individual claims to immunity from coercion. The war system insists upon a mass dismissal of such claims, characterizing their adherents as "traitors" to the alleged "greater good" of the state.

There is another issue which, while not as fundamental to the life-and-death implications of warfare, nonetheless goes to the essence of the meaning of individual liberty: the freedom of people to move from one location on the planet to another without getting the permission of the state. This is the question that underlies current discussions on the so-called "immigration problem."

My criticism of all state action stems from my belief in the importance of property ownership. Liberty has meaning only insofar as it is the worldly expression of individual claims to self-ownership. To be an owner is to insist upon the authority to exercise control over some portion of the world, including one’s self. It is the idea and practice of such individually-directed decision-making that makes every state the unavoidable enemy of liberty. Take away the existential basis for such a claim, and each of us gets reduced to nothing more than a resource for others to exploit for their purposes. As I tell my students on the first day of my property classes, if you claim self-ownership, why do you allow others to exercise control over you? And if you do not assert self-ownership, what objections can you raise to others’ exercise of such coercive power?

The immigration debate is implicitly — and almost never explicitly — grounded in the property principle. The rationale for the government being able to exclude foreigners from entering the country is that such persons are "trespassing" upon some presumed property interests of "America." Clever speakers will often try to analogize people coming into America without the permission of the government, to someone camping out on your front lawn without your consent. The problem with this analogy is that it assumes too much, namely, that the state enjoys the same property rights within the territorial boundaries it has established, as do individuals regarding their claims to their lands. But what is the basis for either set of claims? Can the state be an "owner" of anything in the same way that an individual can?

John Locke, Thomas Hodgskin, and a few others did a good job developing abstract principles of liberty as extensions of the underlying premise of self-ownership. To such minds, the state was no more than an agent, assigned by its creators the task of collectively protecting individual interests. Unfortunately, they failed to see the self-contradictory idea that political systems could be created by free individuals as a way of protecting their life, liberty, and property interests. They ought to have understood conceptually, if not historically, that the first things governments do is tax and control your property, regulate your actions, and even take your life via warfare. Empirically, the fallacy of these illusions has been demonstrated from at least the mid-19th century into the present. How a system — theoretically designed as the agent of owners to protect their property interests — could, itself, become an owner of the interests it was designed to defend, is a contradiction most of our contemporaries steadfastly refuse to examine.

As with government control generally, the power of the state to prevent or regulate immigration is grounded in the doctrine of collectivism. When governments build walls or fences around politically-defined boundaries, they are doing what all other property owners do: staking out their claims to everything contained within. It’s just an extension of the earlier ritual of explorers planting flags on the shores of newly-discovered lands and claiming them for one monarch or another. From China’s "great wall," to Hadrian’s wall, to the Berlin wall, to current efforts to install a fence across the Mexican-American border, governments have built barriers that restrain both their own people and those seeking entry. The principle that allows this to occur is that the state enjoys some collective ownership interest that differs from — and is in conflict with — individual property claims. The state, through no other principle than the coercive force that defines it, is able to transform itself from an agency of protection into a principal interest to be protected!

What legitimizes this? If I were to start a business, does that enterprise acquire an independent claim to self-ownership, wholly apart from my interests or desires? Should a corporation, as a fictional "person," enjoy rights contrary to those of the stockholders who own this entity? Would any judge who recognized these organizations having "rights" that transcended the wills of their owners, be able to avoid the hours of psychiatric couch-time upon which rational minds might insist?

The question that must be addressed — in this issue as in all others — is this: do the rights to own and control property inhere in individuals or in the collective powers of the state? If such authority resides in the state — as government immigration practices presume — then what was the objection so many of us had to the erstwhile Soviet Union or the continuing People’s Republic of China? Did the Cold War amount to nothing more than a competition among various collective systems, including the United States? The intellectual ancestry of the now-ruling class of Neocon Commissars — operating under such collectivist labels as Homeland Security — suggests that this is so. Having long embraced collectivist thinking, most Americans find it easy to accept their status as "assets" or "resources" to be directed by the forces they delude themselves to believe they control!

The pursuit of self-interest is an attribute that characterizes all living beings, including humans. One expression of this pursuit has been that our ancestors, as well as ourselves, have been in constant migration. Wherever mankind originated — Africa seems to contain the earliest evidence for this — we have moved throughout the globe. From Africa, into the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North and South America, we continue to wander, seeking the pursuit of our interests in one locale or another. Those who sit here, in America, and chirp at those who want to emigrate from Central America into the United States, forget that they enjoy their present benefits only because their ancestors moved from other parts of the globe here.

There is a wonderful line in A Tale of Two Cities. Whether it originated in Dickens’ text or in the movie script I do not recall. In the early days of the French Revolution, a family is trying to enter Paris, only to be stopped at the city gate by a sentry who tells them: "you are foreigners." The husband/father replies: "you arrived yesterday, we arrived today."

We may one day discover that we have a genetic disposition for both intellectual (i.e., learning) and geographic movement; needs that include, but also transcend, materialistic motivations. When asked what they most like to do, most people respond with "travel" as among their highest choices. Those who admit to never having been outside the county in which they were born tend to be regarded by others as freakish souls; devoid of the broader perspectives that derive from travel.

In his Nobel Prize lecture, the poet Seamus Heaney observed that we humans "are hunters and gatherers of values," a process that implicates movement. At the same time, the inviolability of individual property boundaries is essential to each of us as we pursue the personal sense of meaning in our lives. At this point, we experience what, superficially, appears as a paradox: does individual liberty entail mutual conflict — and, thus, social disorder — as we each pursue our interests? Not if private property principles are observed. For within such apparent contradictions is a deeper, harmonizing truth: what we have in common with one another is a need to protect our individual liberty.

It is within my authority, as a property owner, to prevent another from moving onto my land without my consent. If, however, I try to extend such authority to prevent others from moving into territory that is not mine, I overstep my boundaries and no longer behave as an owner. I then become a trespasser of the self-ownership claims of others. So, too, with the state, when it acts to prevent others from entering the country. Or does the state have an ownership interest in the entire country? If so, how was this interest acquired, and how far do the state’s boundary claims extend?

Collectivism is rarely presented as an entire package, but is smuggled into our thinking in subtle ways. Ideas such as the "common good," the "general welfare," and "homeland security," are but a few of such means. Separated from our shared interests in defining our personal sense of "good," and acting to promote our "welfare" by enjoying the "security" that comes from respecting the life and property boundaries of one another, such phrases amount to empty abstractions that cloud ambitions of state power. So, too, is the campaign against immigrants grounded in a presumed state-ownership that defines all collectivist systems.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival.

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