Immigration is a pressing issue nowadays, especially in Europe and the United States. Regarding immigration, the standard position of economists in the tradition of the Austrian School, and other classical liberals and libertarians in general, is to favor unrestricted immigration. Ludwig von Mises, a key intellectual figure of the Austrian tradition, defended an ‘open borders’ policy and thought of it as the struggle of our time: “When liberalism arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, it had to struggle for freedom of emigration. Today the struggle is over freedom of immigration,” he wrote. For Mises, “the closed-door policy is one of the root causes of our wars.”

Yet within the tradition of the Austrian School, we find no monolithic support for unrestricted immigration. It was, in fact, a staunch Misesian who first made the case against unrestricted immigration: Murray Rothbard. Rothbard briefly wrote about this subject, explaining why he had changed his mind about immigration. Nevertheless, his work is seminal. The thesis he advanced in his 1994 article, “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State” (1994), created a blueprint for the developments carried out by his disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

It is because of Hoppe that the internal debate in the Austrian School exists. Since the 1990s, Hoppe has provocatively suggested that free immigration and free trade do not presuppose each other. Moreover, Hoppe believes that free immigration acts against free trade. Therefore, if we want free trade, then we must restrict immigration. Hoppe arrives at these conclusions by taking anarcho-capitalism as the starting point of analysis. But we begin with Rothbard’s analysis first.

Rothbard’s change of heart

Rothbard has written: “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.” He then identified two problems regarding open or free immigration: the growing amount of welfare subsidies that immigrants receive and the tremendous threat to culture that massive immigration poses.

Rothbard feared a scenario similar to the one described in Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, in which the entire population of India migrates to France and totally destroys the French economy and culture.

This made him change the lenses through which he viewed the issue. How would immigration look in an anarcho-capitalist situation? That is, what would happen if all square footage were to be fully privatized and there is absolutely no public property left? “On rethinking immigration on the basis of the anarcho-capitalist model,” Rothbard wrote, “it became clear to me that a totally privatized country would not have ‘open borders’ at all.”

In a fully privatized territory, immigration would not be possible unless the potential immigrant were in possession of an invitation and a real estate rental (or purchase) contract. In this way, the preferences of the community would be respected and true diversity would reign. Ethnic and economic homogeneity or heterogeneity would be decided not by a central authority but by different groups of individuals according to their own wishes and exercise of their freedom of association. Therefore, each and every group would have the opportunity to live according to its values and standards.

By contrast, when immigration is treated as a ‘national problem’ handled by central authorities, the wishes of individuals are violated and, in fact, the state ends up imposing open borders over part of the population.

According to Rothbard, “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.” Thus, unlike now, states should start following a model of total privatization.

Keeping your distance

Rothbard’s work with regards to immigration is indeed seminal. The scheme he presents in “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State” would later be brilliantly developed further by his friend and disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe. What Rothbard had only drafted, Hoppe developed and expanded with great lucidity and originality.

This originality can be seen in Hoppe’s approach to the issue of immigration. He is ready to accept that from a strictly economic point of view, the case for unrestricted immigration is irrefutable. He also concedes that the existence of large welfare state systems in any given society does not necessarily constitute an argument against immigration. In fact, the possibility that some immigrants could become ‘welfare bums’ and put an extra burden on taxpayers should not be taken as a reason to limit immigration but rather as a powerful reason to abolish the welfare state, which should be destroyed in its entirety.

Nevertheless, this classic argument in favor of free immigration suffers from two shortcomings. In the first place, according to Austrian subjectivism we cannot reduce wealth to just material wealth. If so, from a rise in living standards alone one cannot deduce that immigration is ‘good’. The second shortcoming is related to the implicit assumption that a country is an owner-less territory and that immigrants enter a virgin frontier.

Like Rothbard, Hoppe assumes an anarcho-capitalist situation. Under this scenario, in which all property is privately owned, there is no such thing as free immigration. Admission to the different territorial units would be according to what owners allow. These possible restrictions — even if they are taken to the degree of extreme segregation — do not mean a simultaneous limit to free trade. No economic protectionism derives from owners exercising their property rights. One can trade perfectly from a distance — or, in the words of Hoppe: “It is precisely the absolute voluntariness of human association and separation — the absence of any form of forced integration — that makes peaceful relationships — free trade — between culturally, racially, ethnically, or religiously distinct people possible.”

If this is so, free trade and restricted immigration — that is, the possibility of excluding immigrants because of property rights — constitute a virtuous circle in which they reinforce each other and are a force for peace. Thus, not only do free trade and restricted immigration not contradict each other, but free trade requires restricted immigration to be sustainable and peaceful.

However, we do not live in an anarcho-capitalist context. Instead of the micromanagement of migration community by community, what we have is macro-migration where a single central and centralizing state government is the ultimate sovereign. Under these conditions, and depending on government policies, we can either have forced exclusion or forced integration. We suffer the former when a resident invites a person and makes all the preparations for his or her arrival to his or her property but the government prevents this person from entering the state territory. We suffer the latter when the government admits a person who has not received any invitation from a resident.

The state is at both ends of this problem. According to Hoppe, massive migration movements follow a clear pattern. Immigrants move from countries that exploit their citizens more to those that exploit their citizens less. The recipient states, in turn, impose upon their native citizens forced integration via the complete nationalization of road and means of transportation and a variety of laws that minimizes private property right to exclude.

Hoppe warns that currently the United States, Australia, and Western Europe, far from having free immigration, are actually experiencing a process of continuous forced integration. Advocates of free immigration are in fact pandering invasion or forced integration to be imposed on resident-owners.

Free trade requires an agreement of two parties; therefore, it is mutually beneficial. Hoppe believes that immigration should follow the same logic. He writes:

Trivial as this distinction may appear, it has momentous consequences, for free in conjunction with trade means trade by invitation of private households and firms only; and restricted trade does not mean protection of households and firms from uninvited goods or services, but invasion and abrogation of the right of private households and firms to extend or deny invitations to their own property.

In contrast, free in conjunction with immigration does not mean immigration by invitation of individual households and firms, but unwanted invasion or forced integration; and restricted immigration actually means, or at least can mean, the protection of private households and firms from unwanted invasion and forced integration. Hence, in advocating free trade and restricted immigration, one follows the same principle: of requiring an invitation for people as for goods and services.

If immigration as currently understood causes forced integration, what can we do? Hoppe makes an explicit public policy proposal: A popular government should try to preserve the anarcho-capitalist feature of no forced integration.

To protect its citizens from invasion and forced integration, a government has two sets of measures at hand. As a preventive measure, the government, as trustee of the people, must at all possible points of access for non-residents — such as airports, ports, etc. — check that they are in possession of a valid invitation by a domestic property owner. Such valid invitations should consist of contracts between one or more domestic resident and the arriving person. To be valid, this invitation may or may not involve employment but must involve housing.

The government should also implement corrective measures to curb the effects of forced integration. The easiest way to do this — which, by the way, could also have a major positive impact on the economy — is reducing the amount of property in the hands of the state. This process of the privatization of property should be accompanied by the return of the right of admission to private owners.

Finally, the fundamental criteria for acquiring citizenship ought to be the ownership of real and residential property.

Culture matters

Hoppe’s challenge for the Austrian school in particular and free market advocates in general is outstanding. Not only is restricted immigration acceptable for Hoppe in libertarian terms but also, according to him, it is the only policy coherent with free trade.

Hoppe also raises the issue of culture. He explicitly expresses his concerns about how viable multicultural societies are. This issue of culture is not new to the Austrian tradition. However, Hoppe perhaps opens the door for a new approach closely related to the ‘culturalist’ one formulated by Samuel Huntington.

Western societies are presently dealing with immigration and integration problems. They face a dilemma: the positive economic consequences of immigration versus some disturbing social outcomes. The latter are becoming very visible in contemporary Europe. Perhaps it is the editor of this publication himself who has best summarized it:

One can point to the advantages of having immigrant workers and trot out data showing the benefits of the ‘brain gain’ from open immigration. But, in the end, if an immigrant arrives who eschews assimilation, derides local customs, rejects cultural norms and mores, and believes in ideas and values that are directly opposed to classical liberalism (the experience of contemporary Europe), then even the staunchest advocate of open borders should think twice. Without respect for institutions, the intricate web of rights and obligations and responsibilities on which a common political project depends will not long remain intact.