Open Borders and the Real World

Jacob Hornberger has written a column on open borders. He doesn’t mention my name, but it is pretty clear to whom he is writing.  I won’t go through Hornberger’s post line by line; instead, I will focus on his challenge.  Forgive the lengthy quote, but the full challenge must be presented:

Consider the following hypothetical. Ever since I presented it many years ago, there has not been one single libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders who has ever been able to refute the principles set forth in the hypothetical. Unless and until any libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders successfully refutes the principles set forth in this hypothetical, the government-controlled borders paradigm will continue to stand as fatally flawed.

Two brothers own adjoining ranches in New Mexico, one on the Mexican side of the border and one on the U.S. side. There is no fence dividing the ranches. There is only an imaginary line known as the U.S.-Mexico border, which also demarks the property line between the two ranches. There is a U.S. highway that runs east-west and abuts the northern border of the U.S. brother’s property. The highway is located 10 miles from the border.

One day, the American brother invites the Mexican brother to come to his home for dinner. The Mexican brother accepts.

Under libertarian principles, do they have the right to do that? Of course they do. Their actions are entirely peaceful. They’re not burglarizing, stealing, murdering, or otherwise violating the libertarian non-aggression principle.

Is the Mexican brother guilty of trespass? Of course not. Trespass is when a person goes onto another person’s property without the owner’s consent and permission. The Mexican brother is going to where he has been invited.

The principles (including the principles that are implied) can’t be refuted because the principles are a pure libertarian theory (absent the coincident state border between their properties, as there is no way to derive state borders from libertarian theory).  If all we need to do is agree on the theory, we can stop here.

However, Hornberger offered a hypothesis; let’s test it in the real world to see if it is true. I will break down Hornberger’s hypothetical into its main – and relevant to libertarian theory – components:

  1. The implied first step is that the government has no say about who crosses political borders.
  2. Pete invites his brother Miguel to his property.
  3. Pete places a condition on this invitation – it is an invitation for dinner.
  4. Miguel accepts the invitation.
  5. Pete finalizes the agreement by allowing Miguel into his home and serving him dinner.
  6. The implied last step is that Miguel will not be a burden to any of Pete’s neighbors.

In other words, individuals voluntarily make and accept invitations; they may also set conditions on the invitation.   How can any libertarian disagree with this?  I don’t.

Now, how does that hypothetical construct work in today’s world of state borders?  The German government has, at least for a time last year, removed almost all conditions for transiting borders – step one from above.  This is why I keep pointing to it for libertarian open-borders advocates to deal with.  (By the way, Jacob, none has).

So, let’s go to the German real as opposed to Hornberger’s hypothetical.  The government removed all restrictions (I know, not all and not permanently, but as close as we have seen in this world in some time).  But where is the voluntary invitation?  Where is the conditionality?  What is libertarian about no one having to offer an invitation but the visitors / immigrants come anyway?  In other words: where is Hornberger’s complete hypothetical – six steps?

Now, you might say “bionic, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” or some such ancient Chinese saying.  “The government has fully opened the borders; let’s give the government time to make it a fully voluntary system.” And I would agree in theory (while I was belly-laughing at the thought in reality) unless one concludes the remaining steps have little chance to be implemented in any case and no chance to be implemented if the first step is taken without the rest.  Let me explain….

Let’s take the implied last step, as it is easiest to examine: Miguel will not be a burden to any of Pete’s neighbors.  But is this how it is working out in Germany?  No matter what Hornberger says about immigration and the government enforced social programs being two different issues, it is not working this way in Germany; the violation of this last step has followed the first step just as sure as night follows day.

“Bionic, those programs already exist – complain about them separately.”  Well, if two wrongs make a right, OK (or to turn Block’s famous example on its head – maybe I will ask the slave master to whip me even more because I haven’t been whipped enough).

But consider: it isn’t just the expansion of current welfare programs; it is even worse, as the government introduces new welfare programs specifically for the immigrants – such as language skills, job training skills, etc., as they are doing in GermanyPrograms with their own bureaucracy; programs that will develop their own entrenched interests; programs that would not even exist were it not for the “open borders” implied step one.

In addition to opening the border, did the German government also say “each German resident is only obliged to support individuals he personally invited; each German resident can decide if they want to house or assist the immigrants in some manner; each village or community can decide if they want to offer community centers for residence, training programs for language and job skills; each resident can decide if he wants to pay the cost to support these new arrivals.”?

These are Hornberger’s conditions for open borders; without these conditions in place, what kind of “open borders” exactly is Hornberger calling for?  Did the German government allow Friedrich and Abdul to jointly agree to the same conditions, while not burdening Hans with the cost?

No.  A central government (Germany) and an even more centralized government (the EU) are cramming things down the throat of the much more decentralized governments (towns, communities, etc.) and down the throats of individuals.  Open borders without steps two through six do not mean no government involvement – it just means different government involvement.  It doesn’t facilitate local or individual decision making but expands centralized control.

Who benefits by this?  We know the answer.  Most libertarians claim to be against this answer while singing songs towards its aggrandizement.

The government will never offer an out clause to Hans on the “open borders” issue because it would then open the question of property owners having the right to discriminate against anyone – no matter the country of origin.  And after the flood of immigrants take advantage of this unconditional open door, the government will have less reason to offer steps two through six when the people – previous residents and immigrants alike – call on the government to “do something about” whatever…just as we are witnessing in Germany.

This is why Hornberger’s hypothetical doesn’t work in the real world of state borders – his example doesn’t work because the government will not allow discrimination by a property owner; the government will not allow an individual to “opt out” of the support program – they are instead forced to “opt in.”  His example doesn’t work because even if (and also because) the government removes all immigration restrictions, the people – residents and immigrants alike – will demand “more” from the government, not less.  Again, see Germany – open borders without Hornberger’s libertarian conditions resulting in calls for “more” from the government.

Not only is “more” demanded from the government, but the freedoms previously in place are removed.  Consider the great risks now presented to the Schengen agreement – thirty years old and formalized into a treaty in 1999.  No border checkpoints at all for travelers between member countries.  If this disappears (several countries have already implemented internal EU border controls), it is because Germany took only the first step – the step libertarian advocates for open borders insist can stand alone: Merkel said all are welcome.

Imagine: Germany and the EU open its external borders to non-Europeans while Germany and several other countries introduce new controls on the internal European borders for Europeans!  It would be hilariously funny if it wasn’t true.

And this is why no advocate for open borders takes up my challenge.  Libertarian open borders practice only works consistently with the libertarian theory in this world if Hornberger’s entire example is implemented, and not just the implied first step.  An agreement between Pete and Pedro is required; an agreement that imposes no unwanted burden on anyone else.

Otherwise, it is just one more example of government social engineering and forced integration.  In other words, just another government program meant to ensure that people clamor for more government.

Does this mean that I advocate government involvement in deciding who crosses borders?  Not at all.  But I do advocate that without the legal ability for individuals to enforce the above six conditions, open borders libertarians are merely calling for bigger government. 

I am not a “libertarian advocate of government-controlled borders.”  From a strictly libertarian perspective, I do nothing more than present the case: there can be no such thing as libertarian open borders in this world where state borders exist.

From the time I began writing on this topic, I will say my position has evolved – by degrees, but not in direction.  Through examining Hornberger’s hypothetical case I will say the same.  I thank him for helping me to further clarify my thoughts: that the government eases or eliminates all restrictions on immigration does not complete the libertarian circle – it does nothing to address the remaining and necessary points of Hornberger’s hypothesis.

Private property owners have no legal means to defend their property if only the first step is taken.  Further, they will have even fewer means as society demands more government action as a result.  I don’t have to rely on hypotheticals to make my point – we are living through a real-world example of step one being implemented without steps two through six.

Hornberger offers: Pete voluntarily made the offer.  Miguel accepted the offer.  Pete guaranteed that Miguel would not be a burden to his neighbors.  This is very libertarian, but it isn’t part of the deal when all the government does is open its borders. Until the additional steps are part of the deal, there is no such thing as libertarian open borders in a world of state borders, and certainly not one that conforms to Hornberger’s example.


What do libertarians do until then?  I don’t know – perhaps an advocate of open borders can offer a suggestion; if they prefer even more government interventions they can keep advocating for fully open borders – without any of the subsequent conditions in Hornberger’s hypothetical.  I am not the one advocating for open borders; it isn’t my problem to solve.

Advocates who say “let’s just open the borders and deal with a completely voluntary system later” are no better than most economists and all politicians: they fail to comprehend (or willingly close their eyes to or secretly hope for) the second and third order effects in the process that have been unleashed – call it the seen and the unseen.

Unless they address the entire equation – and not just regarding the government easing of restrictions – they are advocating for NAP violations and more government programs. Don’t believe me?  See Germany.  This is where “open borders” without the subsequent libertarian conditions will lead.  This is what the libertarian open borders crowd does not face.

Without this, where will libertarianism be?  It is a long fall from the top of the ivory tower for those who only focus on theory without considering application and consequences in the real world.

A long fall.  That’s where libertarianism will be; splattered at the bottom.

Finally, I went the entire post without mentioning culture – I had no need, although there were several opportunities.  But it is something libertarians might want to consider about the world populated by humans (tough for many libertarians, I have come to realize). Let’s just say cultural change driven by voluntary means is a great experience – it is also unavoidable in human experience, thankfully.

Cultural change driven by governmental eliminating immigration requirements without also including Hornberger’s conditions above is only an open door to societal breakdown and therefore more calls for government intervention (do you think this might be the plan? Less common culture = more government? Very Gramscarian of you).

This reality can be ignored in an ivory tower, but it will not disappear.  In Germany and throughout Europe they are already paying for it.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.