A libertarian theory of free inmigration




The problems posed by the free emigration and immigration of human beings often leads to situations of confusion among liberty theorists and freedom lovers. Firstly, libertarian doctrine traditionally declared itself, with no qualifications or reservations, in favour of the principle of complete freedom of emigration and immigration. This position is based on the recognition of political frontiers as a flagrant act of interventionism and institutional coercion on the part of the state, which often tends to hinder or even prevent the free movement of human beings. Moreover, many border controls and immigration laws emerge as a result of the political action of privileged interest groups which, like the trade unions, aim to restrict the labour supply in order to artificially raise wages. To the extent that these interventionist rules on emigration or immigration hinder or prevent the voluntary agreements reached between the parties (natives and foreigners), there is no doubt that they violate the basic principles which should govern any libertarian society. Furthermore, these interventionist immigration policies particularly affect nationals of foreign countries, since the principle of free movement of people within each state has, in general, been accepted.

However, although it seems paradoxical, the subversive action of the state does not only manifest itself by hindering the free movement of people but is also simultaneously intended to force the integration of certain groups of people against the wishes of the natives of a determined state or region. This coercive action on the part of the state appears both intranationally and internationally. Thus, within each nation, measures for the coercive integration of certain minorities and groups are often imposed by force, such as antidiscrimination laws, affirmative action legislation or the busing laws in the United States. At international level, many states, either legally or de facto, open up their frontiers to foreigners indiscriminately and allow them to use the public goods (roads, streets, squares, parks, beaches, healthcare services, educational services, etc.) of the country in question as free riders, generating significant external costs for the natives, who are thus obliged to accept the forced integration of the foreigners against their wishes or under conditions that they do not desire (1).

In the light of their apparently contradictory nature, the foregoing problems show the great importance of isolating their real origin and piecing together a libertarian theory of immigration that clarifies the principles that should govern the processes of immigration and emigration in a free society.
The pure theory of personal movements in a libertarian environment
Like Murray N. Rothbard, we shall begin our analysis assuming the pure anarchocapitalist model, i.e. the model in which “no land areas, no square footage in the world, shall remain ‘public’; every square foot of land area, be they streets, squares, or neighbourhoods, is privatized”.(2) It is obvious that none of the problems relating to emigration which we have diagnozed in the preceding paragraph can arise here. The conditions, volume and duration of personal trips may be those accepted or decided by the parties involved. Thus, even mass movements of labour are conceivable if the relevant employers are willing to give work to the emigrants, provide them with the possibility of finding accommodation, arrange and even pay for their journey, etc. In short, the possible contracts between the parties involved will be very varied and will admit all the richness that the circumstances and special characteristics of each case allow.

Obviously, under these conditions, migratory flows, far from being harmful to economic and social development, are highly favourable and drive civilization forward. The argument that the abundance of new labour is harmful to the working classes is untenable: human beings are not a uniform production factor and do not behave in exclusively biological terms in relation to scarce resources, as is the case with rats and other animals, whose population increases always tend to diminish the volume of resources available for each individual. On the contrary, human beings are endowed with and use an innate creative entrepreneurial capacity and, therefore, an increase in the number of people allows, in a dynamic environment, an exponential growth (without limits) in the continual discovery and exploitation of new opportunities in order to advance the standard of living in all its aspects.

Given the human mind’s limited capacity to assimilate information or knowledge, together with the ever increasing volume of information used in the social process driven by the force of entrepreneurship, it is clear that the advance of civilization requires a continual extension and deepening of the division of labour or, if you prefer, of knowledge. This idea simply means that any development process implies, from a vertical standpoint, an increasingly deep, specialized and detailed knowledge, which, in order to extend horizontally, requires an increasing volume of human beings, i.e. a constant population growth. Worldwide, this population growth takes place gradually in the long term by the birth of more human beings than those that die. But in the short and medium terms, the only rapid and effective response to the continual adjustments required by economic and social changes is through emigration and immigration flows. These flows permit a quick deepening in the division of labour (i.e. having or finding out an increasing amount of knowledge about specific areas), thus overcoming the obstacle implied by the limited capacity of assimilation of each individual human mind by rapidly increasing the number of people involved in social processes. (3) As Hayek rightly says, “we have become civilised by the increase of our numbers just as civilisation made that increase possible: we can be few and savage, or many and civilised”(4). The development of cities as centres of economic wealth and emporia of civilization is a clear illustration of the knowledge expansion process made possible by immigration which we have just explained. The continuous depopulation of country areas and the mass movement of workers towards urban centres, far from impoverishing them, promotes their development and wealth in a self-accumulating process that has become one of the most characteristic manifestations of human development since the Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, emigration and immigration flows, in the libertarian environment we are considering, tend to multiply the variety and diversity of the possible solutions to the different problems that emerge. All this favours cultural selection and economic and social development, since all movements take place as a result of voluntary agreements and, whenever circumstances change or the people involved do not consider them appropriate, those concerned have the chance to emigrate or move to other enterprises in different geographical locations.(5)

Lastly, we should note the fact that, in a libertarian environment in which all resources and goods which are today considered “public” have been privatized, neither of the two negative effects we identify above in relation to the cases of forced integration sponsored by many governments at present takes place. Antidiscrimination laws, affirmative action laws or simply the flood of emigrants in the streets or elsewhere would be reduced to a minimum. Movements would always be made using private means of transport, meeting the contractual conditions fixed by their owners and paying the corresponding market price. Different agencies would specialize in organizing the itineraries and guaranteeing a priori the necessary freedom of access to each means of transport. Likewise, in their own interests, the respective owners would take care that the travellers used the relevant means of transport appropriately and would ensure that their clients passed through them without becoming unwanted permanent guests. This would continue, with a variety and wealth of social arrangements and juridical and economic institutions that we cannot even imagine today, since the market and entrenpreneurial creativity are not allowed to act in relation to the goods which are, today, considered public.

We may, therefore, drawn the conclusion that emigration and immigration per se, subject to the general principles of law in an environment where all resources are private, not only do not pose any forced integration or external cost problem but, on the contrary, become very important driving forces of economic and social development and of the wealth and variety of culture and civilization.(6)
Problems posed by coercive state intervention
Our analysis allows us to isolate or identify the real origin of the problems diagnozed at the beginning of this article in relation to emigration and immigration. All of them originate from coercive state intervention at different levels which, firstly, is intended to raise barriers and frontiers to hinder or prevent, to a greater or lesser extent, movements which have been voluntarily agreed and accepted by the parties. Secondly, simultaneously, the states insist on imposing different measures of forced integration, either explicitly (through the so-called antidiscrimination and affirmative action laws, etc.) or indirectly, by declaring important territorial areas (streets, squares, parks, beaches, etc.) to be public and, therefore, freely accessible. As it does not adequately define the relevant property rights of “foreigners” and “natives”, state intervention is the cause of all the problems and conflicts that arise today in relation to emigration and immigration.

The subversive action of the state in this field appears at two levels. First, at intranational level, i.e. within the borders of each nation-state. Here, the typical problems of forced integration and negative externalities which inevitably arise whenever privatization of the resources considered “public” -and, therefore, freely accessible to everybody- is prevented emerge in their most virulent form. In the second place, state interventionism also appears internationally, i.e. among different states and nations, by the regulation of the migratory flows through the borders. The way in which this occurs is dual and contradictory. On the one hand, difficulties are placed on movements which are voluntarily desired by the parties (natives of a country and foreigners). On the other, mass international movements are artificially promoted by the subsidies and advantages which the Welfare State provides through its redistribution policies. Thus, today, there is often the paradox that those who wish to scrupulously abide by the law find that their movements and emigration processes are impossible, even if they are voluntarily accepted and desired by all the parties involved. And, at the same time, the existence of public goods and the free availability of the benefits arising from the Welfare State attract, like a magnet, a continuous immigration flow, mostly illegal, which generates significant conflicts and external costs. All of this also encourages xenophobia and promotes subsequent interventionist measures which aggravate the problems even more and the citizens are unable to diagnoze the true origin of the problem. Thus, an environment of great confusion and disconcertion is gradually generated and the citizens easily become the victims of demagogy and end up supporting measures which, in addition to being contradictory, are both inefficient and harmful.

Finally, we should not forget that, at least with regard to mass emigration and immigration flows, present problems are usually more serious at international level than intranationally. Within each nation-state a greater economic, social and cultural homogenization usually takes place in the course of its historical evolution, which tends to decrease the relative incentives for mass movements. On the contrary, internationally, disparities in income are much greater and the enormous development of communications and means of transport (in terms of quantity, quality and cost reduction) means that it is much easier and cheaper to travel between different states: today, in only a few hours, one can fly from New Delhi to the United States or from Latin America to Spain and, in the case of emigration from North Africa to Europe or from Mexico to the United States, the costs involved are even lower.

Solution of the problems posed today by emigration and immigration flows
The ideal solution to all these problems would come from the total privatization of the resources which are today considered public and the disappearance of state intervention at all levels in the emigration and immigration areas. In other words, since the problems we have just identified originate from the harmful effects of coercive state intervention, rather than from emigration or immigration per se, the pure anarchocapitalist system would eliminate the greater part of them.

However, as long as nation-states continue to exist, we must find and propose “procedural” solutions that allow the problems to be solved in the long term. In this respect, several libertarian theorists have recently been developing a model of secession and decentralization which, since it tends to dismember the present heavily centralized nation-states into increasingly smaller political units, favours a decrease in state interventionism. This result arises from competition between different states (increasingly smaller and less centralized) to attract citizens and investments (or avoid the flight thereof). This dynamically obliges them to adopt increasingly libertarian and less interventionist measures. In this process of competition between increasingly smaller and more decentralized states, emigration and immigration flows play an essential role, since these movements constitute what is almost “voting with the feet”, revealing which states are most interventionist and obliging them to dismantle and deregulate, whenever possible, a large part of the coercive, tax and interventionist apparatus of the current governments. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe rightly says, “a world consisting of tens of thousands of distinct countries, regions and cantons, and of hundreds of thousands of independent free cities such as the present-day ‘oddities’ of Monaco, Andorra, San Marino, Liechtenstein, Hong Kong and Singapore, with the resulting greatly increase opportunities for economically motivated migration, would be one of small liberal governments economically integrated through free trade and an international commodity money such as gold. It would be a world of unprecedented economic growth and unheard prosperity”.(7)

However, the identification of both ideal and “procedural” solutions to the problems posed by emigration and immigration does not relieve us of the obligation to study the type of principles to which migratory flows should be subject under present circumstances, where heavily interventionist nation-states exist. These principles should be compatible with libertarian ideals and, at the same time, take into account the great restrictions, difficulties and contradictions which are caused at present by the existence of nation-states, together with the serious effects of injustice and inefficiency arising from their intervention. In the following section, we analyze what we believe these principles should be.

Principles on which present emigration-immigration processes should be based
For several reasons, it is indispensable to establish a series of principles compatible with libertarian ideas that should govern present-day emigration and immigration processes. Firstly, because, even if the process of state dismemberment proposed by Murray N. Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe and others were to commence, it would not always guarantee that the state measures established in relation to emigration by each decentralized government were correct from a libertarian point of view. As Hoppe himself acknowledges, “secession solves this problem by letting smaller territories each have their own admission standards and determine independently with whom they will associate on their own territory and with whom they prefer to cooperate from a distance”(8). However, it is very possible that these standards or regulations are also very interventionist and prevent free movements agreed voluntarily between natives and foreigners, thus generating results which radically violate libertarian principles. Furthermore, as long as states continue to exist (however small they may be) and, within them, “public” streets, roads and land over which the property rights are not adequately defined or defended, there may continue to be forced integration or mass occupation phenomena which, as in the case of the fabelas in Brazil, generate significant external costs and seriously violate the property rights of the natives. Furthermore, it is necessary to propose solutions which, although they lead in the right direction and are not incompatible with libertarian principles, are “operative” inasmuch as they provide a response to the most pressing problems posed today (for example, in relation to emigration across the border between Mexico and the United States, or between North Africa and Europe). In short, a series of rules should be designed to prevent immigration from being used for coercive and interventionist ends which conflict with free interaction between nations and individuals.

The first of these principles is that people who immigrate must do so at their own risk. This means that immigration must not be subsidised by the Welfare State, i.e. by benefits provided by the government and financed through taxes. These benefits are not only the traditional benefits of the Welfare State (education, healthcare, social security, etc.), but also arise from the possibility of freely using publicly owned goods. If emigrants acquire the right to receive the benefits of the Welfare State, such benefits, which are, in the final analysis, compulsory transfers of income from one set of social groups to another, will become a magnet able to artificially attract many groups of emigrants. Emphasis should be placed on the fact that it is sufficient for some (although not all) groups of emigrants, when making their decisions, to take into account the social benefits they expect to receive in the country to which they are bound for all the negative effects we mention above to take place. Our argument is, therefore, perfectly compatible with the thesis put forward by some authors according to whom emigration flows overall do not harm the Welfare State, since the emigrants make a volume of contributions to the system which is very much higher than the total value of the benefits they receive (above all in the first few years of their stay in the recipient country). What we are saying is that it is sufficient for certain groups -even if they are a minority- to consider themselves to be subsidized for a perverse effect of artificial encouragement of immigration to take place, to the detriment of the citizens of the recipient country. In addition, although it is true that, in general, for a certain number of years, emigrants are net contributors to the public social security system, i.e. they lose out on their coerced participation therein, this, rather than an argument in favour of complete freedom of emigration towards the Welfare States, is an argument in favour of eliminating the exploitation to which emigrants are submitted at present and allow them, through a contracting-out system, to contract the relevant private healthcare and pension systems with private companies on their own behalf.

Therefore, the first rule to which emigration and immigration flows should be subject is that emigrants should not have a right to any of the benefits of the recipient Welfare State. This will prevent certain groups from obtaining subsidies for their movements. In cases where it is considered that the contributions made by the emigrants will be higher than the benefits they receive, they should, for their own good, in order to avoid their being exploited by the system, at most be obliged to maintain a certain level of cover, although this should always be contracted under their own responsibility through private institutions and systems. Thus, two objectives which are very positive from a libertarian point of view would be attained: firstly, the subsidizing and artificial promotion of immigration through coercive redistribution policies would be avoided and, secondly, it would contribute to a quicker dismantling of public social security systems based on the financial “pay as you go” system, thus also encouraging the development of private systems based on saving and the capitalization which emigrants would acquire as new clients.(9)

The second principle that I think should inspire current migratory processes is that all immigrants must be able to demonstrate that they have independent means to live on, will not be a burden to charity or to the Welfare State and, in general, will support themselves. In other words, the emigrants or immigrants must be able to demonstrate that they accede to the social group which receives them in order to contribute their labour, technical or entrepreneurial capacity. There are several solutions for putting this principle into practice, although none of them is perfect. Perhaps the most appropriate is for each immigrant to have, at all times, a native who guarantees his economic resources, by giving him a job or employment contract, by acting as the depository of a certain volume of money or investments or because it is a private institution that is responsible for caring for him. Logically, market flexibility requires that, during certain reasonable time periods, foreign workers should have the chance of seeking a new job before they are repatriated to their own country if they are dismissed or leave their employment voluntarily. Although this would require the employers to notify the state control body of the rescission of the relevant contracts, it would, from an administrative point of view, be no more cumbersome or costly than the immigration procedures which currently exist in almost all countries, including my own.

The third essential principle to which I think all migratory processes should be subject is that, under no circumstance, should the political vote be granted to immigrants quickly, since this could create the danger of political exploitation by the different groups of immigrants involved in the corresponding emigration flows. Those who emigrate must be aware of what they are doing in moving to a new country and cultural environment where they will presumably improve their living conditions, but this should not give them the right to use the mechanism of political coercion (represented by the democratic vote) to sponsor policies of income redistribution or to intervene in or modify the spontaneous processes of the national markets which they enter. It is true that, as the process of dismemberment into increasingly smaller states progresses, the right to vote and political elections will gradually lose importance and will, in practice, be replaced by “voting with the feet”, in other words, by the migratory flows from the areas which are considered less favourable to those considered more favourable. But it is no less true that, until this process of decentralization culminates, the automatic granting of political rights to emigrants may become a real time bomb that will be used by circumstantial majorities to destroy the market, culture and language of each different country. I therefore propose that, only after a long time period, when it is considered in practice that the emigrants have fully absorbed the cultural principles of the society which received them, may the granting of full citizenship, including the relevant political voting rights, be considered. Neither do I feel the principle established in the European Union whereby foreigners from other countries may vote in the elections of the municipality where they reside to be fully acceptable. This rule may completely distort the atmosphere and culture of many municipalities where there is a majority of foreign residents, for example, in Spain (where there are senior citizens from the United Kingdom, Germany, etc.). In my opinion, only when such residents have been living in the new country for a minimum number of years and have acquired property rights in the municipality in question (homes or other real estate) would it be justified to grant them the right to vote.

Finally, in the fourth and last place, the most important principle that should always govern emigration and immigration flows is that all emigrants should at all times observe the material law, particularly the criminal law, of the social group that receives them. Specifically, they should scrupulously respect all the property rights established in the society. Any violation of these rights should be punished, not only by the penalties fixed in the criminal code, but also with the expulsion (definitive in most cases) of the emigrant in question. Thus the phenomena of mass occupation (as is the case we have already mentioned of the fabelas in Brazil, which have generally been built on land belonging to other people) would be avoided. We have already seen how the most visible problems posed by emigration arise from the fact that there is no clear definition or defence of the property rights of the natives, meaning that the emigrants who arrive often generate significant overall external costs for the native citizens, which leads to the emergence of serious outbreaks of xenophobia and violence that have a high social cost and tend to produce juridical and political results where the price is often paid by the innocent. These conflicts would be minimized precisely to the extent that the definition and defence of property rights became increasingly effective and was extended to include resources (streets, squares, beaches and land) which are at present considered to be publicly owned and, therefore, freely accessible to everybody. As is logical, until this privatization can take place, the use of this kind of public goods must be regulated in order to avoid the mass occupation problems we have mentioned.(10)


The measures mentioned will not eliminate all the problems posed by migratory flows at present. They will, however, tend to diminish them and lead in the direction that should be defended by all freedom lovers. In any event, the final solution of the problems will not take place until the present-day states are dismembered into increasingly smaller political units and all their publicly owned goods become fully privatized.


Jesús Huerta de Soto
Professor of Political Economy
King Juan Carlos University of Madrid, Spain

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(1) Murray N. Rothbard himself became aware of the problem posed by forced immigration at international level as follows: “I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encourage to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these people”. Murray N. Rothbard “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-state”, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 11, No. 1, Fall 1994, p. 7.

(2) Murray N. Rothbard “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-state”, op. cit., p. 6.

(3) This process is explained in detail in Jesús Huerta Soto, Socialismo, cálculo económico y función empresarial, Unión Editorial, Madrid 1992, pp. 80-83.

(4) F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1988, p. 133.

(5) It should be recognized, however, that the technological revolution in the computer communications field (Internet, etc.) means that geographical movements are becoming increasingly unnecessary in order to achieve the ends pursued by human action. A good summary of other advantages of emigration and immigration, which acknowledges the importance of the entrepreneurial capacity of emigrants but which, in my opinion, is too much rooted in neoclassical economic analysis, may be found in Julian L. Simon, Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment and Immigration, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, United States and London 1996, pps. 263-303.

(6) We can imagine, however, many of the entrepreneurial solutions that would emerge spontaneously by simply observing, as a point of comparison, how the great problems that were initially posed by the huge flows of tourists that are today so common all over the world were solved. The development of means of transport and airlines, the hotel, tourist and leisure industries, the proliferation of travel agencies and all kinds of intermediaries that organize and guarantee the trips from start to finish, etc. are all institutions which, in a much broader field (any movement on private transport) would emerge in an anarchocapitalist state. We should remember that the volume of movements for tourist or business reasons is enormous. Thus, for example, my own country, Spain, receives more than 40 million tourists each year, i.e. more than the number of inhabitants of the country.

(7) Hans-Hermann Hoppe “Small is Beautiful and Efficient: The Case for Secession” Telos, No. 107, Spring 1996, p. 101. On the same issue, Murray Rothbard’s article quoted in the preceding notes should also be consulted, together with Jesús Huerta de Soto “A Theory of Liberal Nationalism”, Il Politico, year LX, No. 4, pp. 583-598.

(8) Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “Small is Beautiful and Efficient: The Case for Secession”, op. cit, p. 101.

(9) It is paradoxical to note how Julian Simon, in his enthusiasm to justify free emigration and highlight its positive effects, is willing for significant economic damage to be inflicted on emigrants, not only in cases where the value of their contributions to the public social security system is much higher than the benefits they receive, but also when he defends an auction system to the right to be an immigrant which, in his own words, “will transfer a considerable part of the “profit” from the pocket of the immigrants to the pockets of the natives”. Julian L. Simon, Population Matters, op. cit., p. 293.

(10) The above principles should be applied today to both intranational and international emigration. Although it is true that, within the borders of the present-day nation-states, the greater cultural and economic uniformity means that, in general, the problems are not so serious, many external cost problems (for example, problems of beggars and tramps) would be solved by consistently applying the mentioned principles. It is, however, in relation to international emigration that the need to apply these principles is most urgent. In any event, other measures that have sometimes been proposed -even by supposedly libertarian theorists-, such as immigration quotas or auction systems for the right to be an immigrant, should be ruled out, since they conflict with libertarian ideals.