Interview: Professor Walter Block on Open Borders

In this interview Professor Walter Block presents a libertarian perspective on Open Borders.

Professor Block is an American Austrian School economist and libertarian theorist. He received a Ph. D. in economics from Columbia University and teaches economy at Loyola University New Orleans. He had been a close friend of the late libertarian icon Murray Rothbard. Walter is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He is author of the article A Libertarian Case for Free Immigration (https://mises.org/library/libertarian-case-free-immigration).

Interview by Dominik Ešegović, via Skype on September 2nd 2015.

DE: In his 1993 essay Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State Murray Rothbard states that: 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.” What’s your take on that?

Prof. Block: Well, Murray had two views on open borders and in my writings I call him “Rothbard I” and “Rothbard II”. Initially, in his earlier writings, Murray was very clearly saying that open borders are part of libertarian system. In his later remarks, he agreed more with Hans Hoppe1 against me, namely that open borders are not compatible with the free enterprise system. I guess we have to take his second view more seriously.

DE: Let’s switch to Professor Hoppe. In his book Democracy. The God that failed he states that in a private law society there cannot be free immigration because private land owners can exclude anyone from their property. What’s your take on this?
 

Prof. Block: Hans is brilliant even when I think he’s wrong. What he says is that there are three things that engage in international mobility: one is goods, the other is investment, and the third is people. And regarding the first two, there are always two people who agree. If you export something from Germany to me we both have to agree. In the second case of investment: If you invest in my city or I lend you money – we both have to agree. And then Hans says: “but the third thing is very different”. In the third case : if I immigrate to Germany I don’t have anyone agreeing to that, I just sort of go there. And Hans says the first two are legitimate because the market consists of interactions between consenting adults. But in the third thing there aren’t any two consenting adults it is just the immigrant who shows up in his passown cognizance and says “here I am” and he gets no permission from anyone. Hans is saying that immigration isn’t really part of the free market system, rather it’s trespass. Because if I showed up in your house without your permission – that would be trespass. And Hans is saying that this roughly applies to countries as well. However, I disagree. In the US there’s plenty of land that is unowned. It is claimed by the government but according to libertarianism, the only way you can legitimately own land is by homesteading. And yet there are vast areas in the US mainly in Alaska and in the Rocky Mountains etc. that have never been touched by human hands or feet. Suppose some immigrant just showed up there without any permission, and he just started farming there and bring some seeds say, in a helicopter. They are coming in and dropping in the middle of Nebraska for instance and start homesteading. I ask: “What libertarian law have they violated?” I can’t think of any. It’s true, the US government claims these lands but I can’t believe that Murray and Hans would say that these are legitimate claims. I say they’re not. The government never homesteaded any of this. So, suppose you come from Germany or from Mars, and you have a helicopter or a rocket ship and you’re dropping off into the middle of Alaska and you start homesteading. What libertarian law did you violate? You didn’t violate any libertarian law! So, I have now given one case where open borders are legitimate and it’s not trespass, it’s only trespass if somebody else owns that land. 

DE: Professor Hoppe states that: “State borders (and passports), are an ‘unnatural’ (coercive) institution. … inlanders cannot exclude the government … from their own property and are subject to what one might call ‘forced integration’ by government agents.“ Might restricted migration be the case for legitimate government?

Prof. Block: Well, I just don’t see how someone can restrict himself from coming in and homesteading somewhere it’s empty and never been touched by human hands or feet. If Hans does say that national borders are improper in a free society, well, that even strengthens my case because the Martian or German come and start homesteading untouched virgin land. They are the proper owners of it. Libertarianism says that the only thing you can’t do is to initiate force against other people or their legitimately owned property – and you’re doing that here. However, there is another area where it’s much more contentious. In my city there is “Audubon Park”. It’s a big park in New Orleans. Many people have been using that park. Let’s stipulate that every square inch has been homesteaded by somebody – right now the city government owns it? Suppose somebody just set up a tent in the middle of this park. Hans would say “well, the government really should act as an agent of all the tax payers who are forced to pay for the creation of Audubon Park.” And here it’s much more contentious. I would say “Somebody should homestead Audubon Park and privatize it because right now it's an anathema to libertarianism, it's a public park and public means socialist so it's a socialist park.” Maybe Bernie Sanders would like it but libertarians don't like this idea of a public park. And if this guy from Mars or Germany sets up a little tent in the middle of Audubon Park, as a libertarian I would applaud him. Hans would say “well, the government is really the agent for all the people and we all own it and not this newcomer from Mars or wherever.” I think there is something to be said for this argument but the point is that if you ask the next hundred people who walk by Audubon Park “do you think this park should be privatized?” Unless you get a libertarian you are going to get 99 to 1 who say “What? Are you crazy? It's a public park it’s open to everybody, yak, yak, yak...” And they would support the government in keeping it public. So, as a libertarian I say “you know, the public be damned” (laughs). I don't care what most people think. I'm after what's righteous and after applying libertarian principles. A libertarian principle is that it should be private and if someone is starting to privatize it – I applaud him. I would do it myself except I'm afraid to get arrested.

DE: So what is the libertarian stance towards public property? Can it be regarded as “tax payers' property”? Can there be a legitimate agent people call “government”?

Prof. Block: Well, the phrase “legitimate agent people call government” doesn't sit nicely on anarchist lips. I'd like to hear Hans say that the government is a legitimate agency. That would go against everything he and myself stand for, namely that government it not a legitimate institution. When I said government was legitimate and it has one proper role to make sure everyone reads Man, Economy, and State (Rothbard) and Human Action (Mises), I was just kidding. But here it seems that Hans is serious that somehow government is the legitimate agency that represents all of us. But government is never going to privatize Audubon Park or any other public park or street or library or museum or all these other things that they own. “Government owns” in the sense of legally controlling all sorts of stuff and I think it's illegitimate. My view is that if it moves privatize it, if it doesn’t move privatize it, and everything either moves or doesn't move so you privatize everything.

DE: Talking about virgin territory: there is this libertarian country “Liberland” between Croatia and Serbia. Even such a libertarian state seems to be keen on introducing a restricted immigration regime that prohibits foreigners from doing whatever they want; they are issuing passports – like “rights” to their citizens. Though this might be still a fictional case for the moment, what is your take on that?

Prof. Block: I’m not sure exactly what they’re doing but I have heard of that before vaguely. The point is that if it’s truly a libertarian country, every square inch of it is owned by somebody; maybe by this guy who is president of it, I don't know, or maybe him and ten other people. In this case, it's not restriction on immigration it’s restriction on trespass. Now Hans is absolutely right and “Murray Rothbard II” is absolutely right that if all the land of Liberland, and I'm assuming that every inch of Liberland is owned by somebody, and therefore anybody who immigrates there is a trespasser. Keep him out as you would any trespasser unless it's by invitation. So, if I own one quarter of Liberland, or one-hundredth of Liberland and then I invite you to my patch of it, fine. But otherwise, you have no right to trespass in Liberland because Liberland is completely owned by individuals. And if Liberland has public property then I would say they shouldn't. If they are really Liberland they shouldn't have public property and if they have any untouched property, if there’s some virgin territory in the middle of Liberland, well, then yes, they shouldn't prohibit immigrants from coming there and settling there. I don't know enough about the specifics of Liberland to say whether they have public property or virgin territory but if they do then immigration is fine and if they don't than immigration is, as Hans would have it, trespass.

DE: Some libertarians claim that borders are a natural thing which can mean that there are barriers between two spheres of divergent interests or things like rivers, they can function as a natural barrier. What's your take on borders as an either natural or unnatural thing?

Prof. Block: Well, I'm not against borders. I have a neighbor and we have a fence between us and that's the border. Borders can be either private property or national border, and I'm against national borders. And I certainly favor private borders. With regards to rivers: my most recent book, which will be out by the end of this year hopefully, is about why we should privatize rivers, lakes, and oceans. So, somebody should own that river. The Mississippi River should be owned by somebody. The Hudson River should be owned by the Hudson River Company. And therefore it shouldn't be just seen as a border between Eastern Mississippi and Western Mississippi; it should be seen as owned by somebody: the Mississippi River Corporation. And there should be a border between what the Mississippi Corporation owns and the land on the east side and the land of the west side. And everybody should stick to that private property unless within invitation by other private property owners.

DE: Now we talked a lot about theory. Let's switch to the real world for a second. Worldwide there are about 50 million people being displaced due to violence and economic hardship. Every year thousands of people are drowning in the Mediterranean or die trying to enter the US. Is it a humanitarian commandment to open the borders as European-Students-For-Liberty author Christopher Hale points out: “avoid thousands drowning in the Mediterranean: open our borders to refugees (or better yet everyone who wants to come)”?

Prof. Block: Look, the view that Donald Trump holds is that Mexicans shouldn't come in to the US because too many of them are rapists. And people are afraid that if we had open borders we would have a billion Chinese or Indians coming into the country and they would change the country and want to make the United States like their former country, instead of appreciating the relatively greater economic freedom in the US. They will come from some socialist country and they’ll vote socialist in the US and make her socialist. So, I can see this fear of rapists, of a million Chinese – of 50 million Martians – for all I care. My answer is: “You don't want them? Privatize! And if you don't privatize, than tough on you, they're coming in or they have the right to come in because they're not violating any rights.” See, what I'm trying to do, I got these glasses here, and these are libertarian glasses. And I'm trying to look at the world from a libertarian point of view, and I'm trying to do it very rigidly. I'm asking, well, are they or are they not violating the non-aggression principle? They are if everything is privatized! If everything is private property, and if you don't want this, privatize everything and you don't have to worry about it! On the other hand, if you don't privatize, if you keep rivers and lands and parks public, well, then from the libertarian point of view, there is no right to keep them out because they are not violating libertarian law!

DE: Okay, if we talked about Germany we could mention that some people are complaining about so many people seeking asylum. And a lot of them don't receive asylum status because many come from “secure states” and some are despised as “economic refugees”. What can a society do about this issue and about the problem of refugees? What is the libertarian approach?

Prof. Block: I think what most people resent about immigrants is they are going to come in and avail themselves of education, free public education, and free hospital care and welfare and all sorts of welfare benefits that they didn't produce and they just take from the citizenry and I think that that's the reason that Donald Trump is so popular now. I think what most people really resent, is that the foreigners come here and then they take advantage of welfare. And there a studies showing that they pay more in taxes than they are getting from welfare. These are empirical issues that don't really interest me all that much. I am more, as a libertarian, interested in what are the rights involved. And as I say, if you want to preclude people from wanting to come into your country, privatize everything and then keep them out and you're compatible with libertarianism. But if you don't privatize, if you want to be a socialist country with public property all over the place, well, then open the borders and let everyone who wants to come in.

DE: Wouldn't this mean, if we had a minimal state, a forced integration of migrants? And wouldn't this exceed the optimum size of migrants if we regarded them as a “good” for the moment?

Prof. Block: I'm not sure what the minimal government should do. I’m very clear on what a free society should do i.e. anarcho-capitalism. I suppose, if there was a minimal government, it should say that nobody, no immigrant can go to a public school or hospital for free, or get welfare or any of these public benefits. I imagine that a minarchist would say that you shouldn’t give immigrants anything. Of course, you shouldn’t give anyone anything but then you're getting into anarchism because then you don't have government. But if you have a government, you have to follow the law – the rule of law. And the rule of law says the only immigrants that can come in are people that pass muster on our immigration rules. And presumably you should kick out the eleven or thirty million immigrants in the US who hop over the turnstile, who got in without being permitted. Ron Paul, for instance, is also against open borders. I don’t know exactly what his position on this is but I imagine Ron Paul would say something like: “First of all you have to build a big wall whether it’s out of bricks or an electric wall or whatever and let no other illegal immigrants in.” I think he would say if he were consistent with his views, that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers, they violated the law. I think I would go along with Donald Trump and say “well, all those 11 or 30 million people who are now in the country, ship ‘em back to Mexico or wherever they came from, and then let them apply and get on line.” My understanding is that some 40 percent of Mexican Americans favor this. But I’m not sure about that. But that’s really irrelevant. But we can’t get to justice libertarian style from polls.

DE: Croatian libertarian blogger Luka Popov recently stated that libertarians shouldn’t advertise the legalization of marihuana or prostitution while at the same time “more essential” things like free enterprise are virtually despised and disregarded. Do you agree with this statement and could it also apply to Open Borders? First things first?

Prof. Block: I’m an Austrian economist and we believe in subjectivism. Some people say “if I were president the first thing I would do is this…”, and other people would say that. Some people say we should get rid of the FED first, others say we should bring home all the US soldiers from foreign lands, and we should go back to the founding fathers who said that we shouldn’t go abroad to slay monsters or dragons and we should just defend the US. Other people say the first thing should be education. I don’t have strong views on that. I think we libertarians should do whatever we can. A related issue is, should I put my money in education or in a think tank or in a Free State project or should I put it into a political party. I would just say “do whatever you feel comfortable with!” I don’t have any hierarchies to which is the most important thing because they are all interrelated. Certainly, legalizing drugs and legalizing prostitution would be in the mix. I don’t say that it would be the first thing that we should all favor but if you’re talking to a member of an organization for repeal of drug laws, maybe the libertarians who are trying to convert those lefties to libertarianism should say “let’s legalize marihuana because all sorts of mainly disproportionately black people are in jail for violating the drug laws.” So, I am not really sure as to what’s the highest priority. I’m with uncle Mao Zedong here who said “let a hundred flowers bloom.” Let us libertarians push on all these dimensions, let’s try to get freedom in every dimension and not worry about which comes first or second! I put my emphasis on being a professor and I’m not out on the streets protesting. I’m not running for office and you know other people are doing that. We should all do the most we can to promote liberty in whatever way that makes us happiest, I think.

DE: Professor Block, thank you so much for this interview!

1Hans Hermann Hoppe is a German Austrian economist and libertarian theorist. He is founder of the Property and Freedom Society. His most famous book is Democracy: The God that failed ( 2001) where he argues in favor of restricted immigration. 

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