Immigration Roundtable: Murray Rothbard

[Editor’s note: our immigration roundtable is a series of articles presenting the views of prominent Austrian and libertarian thinkers. By necessity each article provides only a basic overview of those views, with links to original sources.]

Our goal is to present each thinker’s views on immigration by excerpting his or her writings on the subject.

The first article in this series addressed the views of Ludwig von Mises. This article discusses the views of Murray N. Rothbard.

Rothbard, despite having written millions of words on economics, philosophy, ethics, history, politics, and culture, wrote relatively little directly addressing immigration per se.

His 1962 economic treatise Man, Economy, and Statespecifically the Power and Market chapters he intended to publish with the original work, deals at length with various government interventions. In chapter 3 of Power and Market Rothbard discusses “triangular interventions,” defined as government interference with actions between two or more private actors — i.e., the state compels or prohibits certain transactions between private parties. 

Section 3, subsection E of that chapter deals with immigration restrictions, and represents Rothbard’s longest and most specific writing on the topic. Rothbard, much like Mises, state interference with immigration in the context of supply and demand for labor, and the effects restrictionism had on wages and prices:

Laborers may also ask for geographical grants of oligopoly in the form of immigration restrictions. In the free market the inexorable trend is to equalize wage rates for the same value-productive work all over the earth. This trend is dependent on two modes of adjustment: businesses flocking from high-wage to low-wage areas, and workers flowing from low-wage to high-wage areas. Immigration restrictions are an attempt to gain restrictionist wage rates for the inhabitants of an area. They constitute a restriction rather than monopoly because (a) in the labor force, each worker owns himself, and therefore the restrictionists have no control over the whole of the supply of labor; and (b) the supply of labor is large in relation to the possible variability in the hours of an individual worker, i.e., a worker cannot, like a monopolist, take advantage of the restriction by increasing his output to take up the slack, and hence obtaining a higher price is not determined by the elasticity of the demand curve. A higher price is obtained in any case by the restriction of the supply of labor. There is a connexity throughout the entire labor market; labor markets are linked with each other in different occupations, and the general wage rate (in contrast to the rate in specific industries) is determined by the total supply of all labor, as compared with the various demand curves for different types of labor in different industries. A reduced total supply of labor in an area will thus tend to shift all the various supply curves for individual labor factors to the left, thus increasing wage rates all around.

Immigration restrictions, therefore, may earn restrictionist wage rates for all people in the restricted area, although clearly the greatest relative gainers will be those who would have directly competed in the labor market with the potential immigrants. They gain at the expense of the excluded people, who are forced to accept lower-paying jobs at home. (emphasis in original)

For Rothbard, immigration restrictions represented pure protectionism — favoring domestic workers over foreign in what ought to be an international division of labor, while creating inefficiencies and harming consumers in the process:

Immigration barriers confer gains at the expense of foreign workers. Few residents of the area trouble themselves about that. They raise other problems, however. The process of equalizing wage rates, though hobbled, will continue in the form of an export of capital investment to foreign, low-wage countries. Insistence on high wage rates at home creates more and more incentive for domestic capitalists to invest abroad. In the end, the equalization process will be effected anyway, except that the location of resources will be completely distorted. To o many workers and too much capital will be stationed abroad, and too little at home, in relation to the satisfaction of the world’s consumers. Secondly, the domestic citizens may very well lose more from immigration barriers as consumers than they gain as workers. For immigration barriers (a) impose shackles on the international division of labor, the most efficient location of production and population, etc., and (b) the population in the home country may well be below the “optimum” population for the home area. An inflow of population might well stimulate greater mass production and specialization and thereby raise the real income per capita. In the long run, of course, the equalization would still take place, but perhaps at a higher level, especially if the poorer countries were “overpopulated” in comparison with their optimum. In other words, the high-wage country may have a population below the optimum real income per head, and the low-wage country may have excessive population over the optimum. In that case, both countries would enjoy increased real wage rates from the migration, although the low-wage country would gain more. (italics original).

Rothbard also attacks the cranky but faddish 1960s concerns about world overpopulation, but he does so applying economics:

It is fashionable to speak of the “overpopulation” of some countries, such as China and India, and to assert that the Malthusian terrors of population pressing on the food supply are coming true in these areas. This is fallacious thinking, derived from focusing on “countries” instead of the world market as a whole. It is fallacious to say that there is overpopulation in some parts of the market and not in others. The theory of “over-” or “under-population (in relation to an arbitrary maximum of real income per person) applies properly to the market as a whole. If parts of the market are “under-” and parts “over” populated, the problem stems, not from human reproduction or human industry, but from artificial governmental barriers to migration. India is “overpopulated” only because its citizens will not move abroad or because other governments will not admit them. If the former, then, the Indians are making a voluntary choice: to accept lower money wages in return for the great psychic gain of living in India. Wages are equalized internationally only if we incorporate such psychic factors into the wage rate. Moreover, if other governments forbid their entry, the problem is not absolute “overpopulation,” but coercive barriers thrown up against personal migration.

The advocate of immigration laws who fears a reduction in his standard of living is actually misdirecting his fire. Implicitly, he believes that his geographic area now exceeds its optimum population point. What he really fears, therefore, is not so much immigration as any population growth. To be consistent, therefore, he would have to advocate compulsory birth control, to slow down the rate of population growth desired by individual parents.

It’s interesting to note that Rothbard sticks strictly to economics throughout this five page subsection. Rothbard wanted Man, Economy, and State to serve as an overarching Austro-Misesian treatise that would stand the test of time. Thus he avoids the kind of political polemics frequently delivered later in his career, and offers no examination of vested interests or cronyism behind immigration policy. But his full-fledged political anarchism, already developed when writing the book, placed him squarely in the “no borders” camp.

In the 1970s and 1980s Rothbard dived into libertarian ethics with gusto, producing For a New Liberty and The Ethics of Liberty. The former contains scant reference to the immigration issue, either in the context of labor policy, foreign policy, or personal liberty. The latter, however, briefly addresses the issue over two short pages in the context of property rights:

In the libertarian society, however, where the streets would all be privately owned, the entire con­flict could be resolved without violating anyone’s property rights: for then the owners of the streets would have the right to decide who shall have access to those streets, and they could then keep out “undesirables” if they so wished.
Of course, those street-owners who decided to keep out “undesirables” would have to pay the price-both the actual costs of policing as well as the loss of business to the merchants on their street and the diminished flow of visitors to their homes. Undoubtedly, in the free society there would result a diverse pattern of access, with some streets (and therefore neighborhoods) open to all, and others with varying degrees of restricted access. 

He we see a shift: his analysis of immigration moves away from the supply and demand for labor discussed in Man, Economy, and State  toward questions of private property and freedom of association:

Similarly, the private ownership of all streets would resolve the prob­lem of the “human right” to freedom of immigration. There is no question about the fact that current immigration barriers restrict not so much a “human right” to immigrate, but the right of property owners to rent or sell property to immigrants. There can be no human right to immigrate, for on whose property does someone else have the right to trample? In short, if “Primus” wishes to migrate now from some other country to the United States, we cannot say that he has the absolute right to immigrate to this land area; for what of those property owners who don’t want him on their property? On the other hand, there may be, and undoubtedly are, other property owners who would jump at the chance to rent or sell property to Primus, and the current laws now invade their property rights by preventing them from doing so.
The libertarian society would resolve the entire “immigration question” within the matrix of absolute property rights. For people only have the right to move to those properties and lands where the owners desire to rent or sell to them. In the free society, they would, in first instance, have the right to travel only on those streets whose owners agree to have them there, and then to rent or buy housing from willing owners. Again, just as in the case of daily movement on streets, a diverse and varying pattern of access of migration would undoubtedly arise.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rothbard developed a more populist political outlook that caused critics to claim he had made an “about-face on immigration.” Still, in a 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report article laying out a strategy for effective “rightwing populism,” restricting immigration doesn’t make it into Rothbard’s list of tactics for dismantling state power and rule by elites. Nor does immigration play much role at all in Rothbard’s articles during his “paleo” period, so-called because he called for a return to pre-Cold War noninterventionism on the Right.

Yet in this period he became more vocal about political self-determination, the distinctions between nation and state, the practical and strategic case for supporting secession movements, and especially about the relationship between various groups and the state (in contrast to a rigid either/or analysis of single individual vs. leviathan state).

The most often cited evidence for Rothbard’s shift on immigration is his article Nations by Consent, written in the fall of 1994 only shortly before his death. Here he begins to consider the reemergence of “nation” as opposed to “nation-state” in the wake of Soviet Union’s collapse:

Libertarians tend to focus on two important units of analysis: the individual and the state. And yet, one of the most dramatic and significant events of our time has been the reemergence — with a bang — in the last five years of a third and much neglected aspect of the real world, the “nation.” When the “nation” has been thought of at all, it usually comes attached to the state, as in the common word, “the nation-state,” but this concept takes a particular development of recent centuries and elaborates it into a universal maxim. In the last five years, however, we have seen, as a corollary of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, a vivid and startlingly swift decomposition of the centralized State or alleged nation-State into its constituent nationalities. The genuine nation, or nationality, has made a dramatic reappearance on the world stage.

Rothbard senses an opportunity to use the breakup of the USSR as a teaching moment, one that encourages further breakups of sclerotic governments laying claim to set geographic regions:

The crucial flaw is the implicit assumption of the entire analysis: that every nation-state “owns” its entire geographical area in the same just and proper way that every individual property owner owns his person and the property that he has inherited, worked for, or gained in voluntary exchange. Is  the boundary of the typical nation-state really as just or as beyond cavil as your or my house, estate, or factory!

It seems to me that not only the classical liberal or the libertarian, but anyone of good sense who thinks about this problem, must answer a resounding “No.” It is absurd to designate every nation-state, with its self-proclaimed boundary as it exists at any one time, as somehow right and sacrosanct, each with its “territorial integrity” to remain as spotless and unbreached as your or my bodily person or private property. Invariably, of course, these boundaries have been acquired by force and violence, or by interstate agreement above and beyond the heads of the inhabitants on the spot, and invariably these boundaries shift a great deal over time in ways that make proclamations of “territorial integrity” truly ludicrous.

Again, he bases his argument against large and powerful states on an aspirational society of pure private property:

I raise the pure anarcho-capitalist model in this paper, not so much to advocate the model per se as to propose it as a guide for settling vexed current disputes about nationality. The pure model, simply, is that no land areas, no square footage in the world, shall remain “public”; every square foot of land area, be they streets, squares, or neighborhoods, is privatized. Total privatization would help solve nationality problems, often in surprising ways, and I suggest that existing states, or classical liberal states, try to approach such a system even while some land areas remain in the governmental sphere. 

Finally, he extends the fully privatized real property approach to the immigration issue:

The question of open borders, or free immigration, has become an accelerating problem for classical liberals. This is first, because the welfare state increasingly subsidizes immigrants to enter and receive permanent assistance, and second, because cultural boundaries have become increasingly swamped. I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these peoples. Previously, it had been easy to dismiss as unrealistic Jean Raspail’s anti-immigration novel The Camp of the Saints, in which virtually the entire population of India decides to move, in small boats, into France, and the French, infected by liberal ideology, cannot summon the will to prevent economic and cultural national destruction. As cultural and welfare-state problems have intensified, it became impossible to dismiss Raspail’s concerns any longer.

However, on rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho-capitalist model, it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have “open borders” at all. If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no immigrant could enter there unless invited to enter and allowed to rent, or purchase, property. A totally privatized country would be as “closed” as the particular inhabitants and property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.

Under total privatization, many local conflicts and “externality” problems-not merely the immigration problem-would be neatly settled. With every locale and neighborhood owned by private firms, corporations, or contractual communities, true diversity would reign, in accordance with the preferences of each community. Some neighborhoods would be ethnically or economically diverse, while others would be ethnically or economically homogeneous. Some localities would permit pornography or prostitution or drugs or abortions, others would prohibit any or all of them. The prohibitions would not be state imposed, but would simply be requirements for residence or use of some person’s or community’s land area. While statists who have the itch to impose their values on everyone else would be disappointed, every group or interest would at least have the satisfaction of living in neighborhoods of people who share its values and preferences. While neighborhood ownership would not provide Utopia or a panacea for all conflict, it would at least provide a “second-best” solution that most people might be willing to live with.

Ultimately, Rothbard was consistent in viewing property rights as the best yet imperfect way to deal with thorny questions of nationhood, self-determination, and immigration. Ironically, both his fans and detractors alternatively claim he favored open borders or statist restrictions on immigration. In fact his thoughts on immigration evolved over the years, as one might expect from any scholar with a long career. And he always favored peaceful, private solutions to the problems created by governments in the first place.

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