Must Libertarians Believe in Open Borders?

A European’s Perspective
By Sean Gabb

Editor’s Note: The following piece was written by Sean Gabb in 2015 and originally published on his website, The article has been republished here with the author’s explicit permission.

As I write, there are several thousand non-European refugees outside Calais, all trying to enter the United Kingdom. Because they are disrupting travel across the Channel in the main holiday season, the British media has no choice but to report on their presence, and to keep reporting. Their presence is followed by the British public in part because of the disruption, but mainly, I think, because of what they visibly represent.

Britain, together with every country like Britain, is faced with an inward movement of peoples no smaller in extent than the mass-emigrations from Europe that settled North America and Australasia, and perhaps as great in its effects as the incursions from across the Rhine and Danube that transformed the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. We face a mass-immigration from the Third World that may eventually double or treble our populations, and that will, by inevitable force of numbers, make us minorities in what we have so far considered to be our homelands.

What have we, as libertarians, to say about this?

The mainstream response, I suggest, has been unsatisfactory. For the libertarian mainstream, the only legitimate use of force is to protect individual rights. Since movement across a border is not in itself a violation of individual rights, closing the borders is, by definition, an illegitimate use of force. Therefore, the libertarian mainstream is formally opposed to immigration control.

Of course, libertarians are not blind. They are usually aware of the crime and welfare dependency, and of the demands for accommodation to the ways of the newcomers – demands increasingly backed by threats of terrorism, or by actual terrorism. They are also sometimes aware of how the arrival of the newcomers has been used as an excuse by our ruling classes to abolish freedom of speech and association, and to create a multicultural police state, and to reverse the gradual equalisation of classes that has taken place since about 1850. Many are quietly troubled by the demographic projections.

Photo by HENRIQUE VICENTE (Wikimedia Commons) Hans-Hermann Hoppe has been one of the most controversial voices in libertarian and populist circles, especially in regards to issues surrounding immigration.

Their response, though, has been to look more at treating symptoms than at addressing the cause. They call for a smaller welfare state, to discourage the more undesirable sort of newcomers. They call for an end to the censorship and coerced association laws. Or they turn for comfort to a partial reading of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and insist that neither mass-immigration not its effects would exist in a free world.

But none of this will do. State welfare will not be abolished in the short term. Even if it were, coming here to beg in the streets would be a better option for many immigrants than staying put. It is difficult to argue for freedom of speech, when it will only provoke rioting and the sort of targeted murders we saw in Paris earlier this year. And, whatever solutions might have emerged in a free world – however the problem might not have emerged in a free world – we live in a world of overextended states. These have crowded out alternative institutions, and these institutions are a work of many decades or even centuries.

We Are Where We Are.

Either mass-immigration must be stopped with the means currently at hand, or it will not be stopped. This means passports and visas, and agencies empowered to seek out and return those who slip through the first line of immigration control. Where the refugees in Calais are concerned, it means deporting them to the last non-European country they left, and making sure that no more of them are allowed to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

This is, I hasten to add, only part of the solution. Our governments must also stop turning much of the Third World into slagheaps soaked in human blood. They must stop veering between support of local tyrants and their more recent insistence on forms of government inappropriate to actual conditions. They must, so far as possible, leave other peoples to work out their own destinies in their own ways. This will, I have no doubt, reduce the outward push behind the migrants. Even so, we must secure our own borders.


Now, for many of those libertarians who accept the existence of a problem, this solution is itself a problem. An ideology that cannot be followed in extreme cases must be a false ideology. If the non-aggression principle is not to be consistently applied, is it worth applying at all?

I appreciate the difficulty. At the same time, it is a manufactured difficulty. It would not have been recognised as a difficulty by most of our intellectual ancestors. If many libertarians, when they think about mass-immigration, are now beginning to look like scared ostriches, or the more double-joined Indian fakirs, this is not because of any defect in the libertarian fundamentals. It is because, over the past few decades, libertarianism has been reinterpreted in ways that part company with reality. To be specific, the non-aggression principle has been raised from something to be desired within circumstantial constraints to an abstract and absolute imperative. If the only legitimate use of force is to protect individual rights, all other uses of force are illegitimate, and must be rejected out of hand by libertarians.

Let us consider how distant this imperative is from reality.

First, look at the nature of the imperative. It is not something written into the basic laws of the universe. There is a line of verbal trickery, culminating perhaps in Ayn Rand, that tries to establish individual rights with the same firmness as we recognise the nature of a circle, or are able to know the melting point of lead. But, unless you want to claim that God wants us to be free – a claim attended by difficulties still unsettled after several thousand years – your assertion of rights is no more than a request for other people to leave you alone. If your request is rejected in whatever degree, you must either put up with being less free than you would like, or choose between defensive force and escape.

PHOTO BY BWAG@GMX.NET (Wikimedia Commons). Thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East wait to board a train in Germany. (Wikimedia Commons).

Second, there is no reason to believe that most people want to be free in the sense demanded by libertarians. This is not to deny the value of freedom. When those who want to be free are enslaved, everyone else may suffer. But most people, in all times and places, have been content to be free only in the sense allowed to teenage children, or to the citizens of an authoritarian police state. They want to be free to choose what colour shoes to wear, or whether to lie in on a Sunday morning. Beyond that, they are willing to leave all the other choices to custom or the direction of those set over them. Wherever this has not been the case, freedom has generally been granted unrequested from above, or it has been demanded as one item in a package of more highly-valued goods.

Third, what most people do want is an identity beyond themselves. This may be provided by a religion. Most often, it is provided by a sense of shared nationality. People join together with those who share their blood, their language, their basic assumptions and habits of thought. They research and celebrate their history. They take consolation for their own death as individuals in the belief that their nation will continue indefinitely into the future.

As with the Non-Aggression Principle,

nationhood is not an abstract imperative. It is, however, an immensely powerful desire, shown in all times and places of which we have knowledge. People will kill for their nation. They will die for it. When committed for the sake of their nation, they will condone what would otherwise be thought the most shocking crimes. They regard their own lives and property as leasehold interests in a freehold held by the nation as a whole. However they began, and whatever else they do, states are regarded as legitimate so far as they perform their duties as agent of the national freeholder.

You may insist: “I am not part of any collective. I have no group interests. I am a sovereign individual.” In a country like England, you will not be killed for saying this, or shunned by your neighbours. But your wishes will be ignored. You will be punished if you are caught breaking the laws of your country, or if you refuse too openly to pay your taxes. Again, there is no abstract right or wrong in this. It is just what happens, and what most people want to happen.

If, on the other hand, there are enough people in a nation who share your belief – or if the authorities choose with sufficient firmness to outlaw national feeling – the natural consequence is that your nation will lose out to other nations that remain more cohesive.

This Brings me to Immigration.

The scale of what we presently face seems likely to turn majorities into minorities. I repeat that this is neither good nor bad in the abstract. But there are plain dangers in belonging to a separate and visible nationality that lacks its own territory and machinery of state. Though often tolerated, minorities are not always tolerated. They are under permanent threat of a range of harms bounded by forced assimilation and murder.

q1The Israelis know this very well. Where non-Jews are concerned, they operate one of the most restrictive immigration policies in the world. They flatly refuse any “right of return” to the descendants of the Arabs they once expelled, and they are surrounding their country with steel fences. Israel is their Jewish State, and they will do whatever it takes to keep it so. The white Rhodesians and white South Africans have discovered the same truth. It was a truth discovered by all the peoples displaced by European settlers – why else did the Maoris and Red Indians fight such hopeless wars of resistance, once the immigrant ships began arriving in earnest? Though it cannot be forthrightly discussed, given our multicultural police state, it is a truth known well enough in Britain and every country like Britain.

What all this means for libertarians is that we have, for the past few decades, been trying to explain and influence the world with the equivalent of a non-Euclidean geometry. Not surprisingly, our movement has got nowhere. Not surprisingly, many of us are now scratching our heads and asking how, if we have been reasoning correctly from our premises, what we conclude about mass-immigration is so at variance with what we and most other people really believe.

PHOTO BY ELEKES ANDOR (Wikimedia Commons). Refugees sit, lie, and wait in a Budapest railway station, waiting to move further into the continent.

The Answer, I Suggest,

is to bring libertarianism back to the realities of human nature. Lack of belief in wide-open borders should cease to be regarded as at best a derogation from the orthodox view. Instead, we should accept that we are members of a nation, and that our nation is precious to us – so precious that we want it to be free. There are sound utilitarian arguments for freedom of speech and association, for due process of law, for minimal taxes and regulation, and for a non-interventionist foreign policy. Though they do not exist in the abstract, rights do exist in a nation state, where they can be seen as nodes in the permanent circuitry of power.


Whether directly or by secondary benefit, free people are happier than unfree people. This is to be welcomed. And a free nation, there can be no reasonable doubt, is richer and more powerful than less free nations, and is better able to defend its territory and its way of life.

Considered in this light, libertarianism is not a prescription for letting be done to ourselves what we did to the Maoris. It is instead part of a strategy for group survival and advancement.

PHOTO BY BEN WHITE (Wikimedia Commons). Refugees from Syria and Iraq get off a boat in Greece.

None of this means asserting that we are morally or genetically better than other nations. We do not need to hate other nations, or to wish them ill. We may find it useful, now and again, to learn from them, or to encourage them to learn from us. If the most vocal opponents of mass-immigration at present are authoritarians, this is entirely an accident of fashion. There is no necessary connection between wanting our own country for ourselves and wanting a despotic government. Just as authoritarians and libertarians both wear trousers, or drink coffee, there is no reason why they should not both believe in their nation – though they might have radically different ideas of how and to what extent it should be governed.

That we belong to a nation, and that we want our nation to be free, is a better start to a conversation with non-libertarians than the usual output of the libertarian movement. It is also a better start to a conversation with ourselves.

Sean Gabb is the author of more than twenty books and over a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals around the world.

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