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Libertarians, Open Borders, and the Welfare State

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Nobel Prize winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman once suggested that libertarians could rightfully oppose the concept of open borders as long as the United States had a welfare state. Friedman’s point was that with open borders and a welfare state, the United States would attract foreign citizens who would come here in order to get on welfare. The result would be an increase in taxes that Americans would have to pay to fund the increased number of dole recipients. The prospect of higher taxes, Friedman implied, justified libertarians’ opposing open borders as long as America maintained a welfare state.

Friedman was wrong.

As a libertarian, Friedman would surely have acknowledged that freedom to move, freedom to travel, freedom of contract, freedom of association, and freedom to labor are fundamental, inherent, natural, God-given rights, ones with which no government can legitimately interfere. Such rights don’t turn on the nationality or citizenship of people. They adhere in all men and women.

The concept of unalienable rights was one of the points that Thomas Jefferson emphasized in the Declaration of Independence. He also emphasized that to secure such rights, people institute governments.

As a libertarian, I of course oppose the welfare state. It is fundamentally wrong and immoral to use force, either individually or through government, to take money from people to whom it belongs in order to give it to people it doesn’t belong. I stand for the immediate (i.e., non-gradualist) repeal of all welfare-state programs simply because there is no justification for continuing an action that is morally wrong.

But am I going to call for a governmental infringement on the exercise of fundamental rights simply because open borders is going to result in my payment of higher taxes owing to the welfare state? Perish the thought! Given a choice between calling for infringing fundamental rights and paying higher taxes, I’ll choose the higher taxes. How could I in good conscience support the infringement on people’s inherent, God-given rights simply to save myself from paying higher taxes?

Suppose Virginia has higher welfare benefits than Maryland, which is motivating Marylanders to move to Virginia. Congress approves a constitutional amendment enabling Virginia to impose immigration controls on the people of Maryland. Should I, as a libertarian, support such an amendment?

No! Simply because the open border between Virginia and Maryland, along with Virginia’s generous welfare state, is costing me more money in taxes is no justification for my supporting the violation of the rights of Marylanders to move to Virginia, especially since a portion of them would be moving here to work (and, in the process, paying taxes).

Moreover, open borders might well be the key that finally brings about the dismantling (i.e., the repeal) of the welfare state, something that all libertarians would welcome.

How so?

If large numbers of foreigners were coming to the United States to get on welfare, as Friedman suggests they would, what better way to shock Americans into finally giving up this immoral and wrongful way of life? After all, how many Americans would be willing to continue paying higher taxes to fund foreigners? The libertarian position calling for the repeal and dismantling of the welfare state would likely have many more supporters.

As libertarians, we should never permit statists to maneuver us into joining them in the violation of fundamental rights. If we do that, then how are we any better than the statists, who are so willing to sacrifice rights for the sake of expediency? When people complain that open borders and the welfare state are costing them more money in taxes, our response is simple: “Then join up with us libertarians to dismantle, not reform, the welfare state.”

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Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.