Libertarian Lessons: Immigration

Scott McPherson – September 10, 2018

Individuals are autonomous beings with rights that must be respected – by other individuals, and by government – regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, creed, or place of origin. We are each “endowed by our Creator” with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For libertarians, immigration is thereby considered a net good. “Let us exalt, not stifle, man’s mobility!” declared Leonard Read, recognizing the importance of free movement in a person’s quest to better his life – even if that means leaving his country of birth.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – our Constitution’s philosophical antecedent – the issue of immigration was addressed even before that of “taxation without representation.” “He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States,” Jefferson wrote of King George III, “refusing to pass [laws] to encourage…. Migrations hither.” English kings had long feared anything rivaling their power, and large numbers of people immigrating to the American colonies threatened to raise up a population dwarfing that of the mother country. The Founding Fathers were pro-immigration.

However imperfectly, the Framers of the Constitution in 1789 would help create the most immigrant-friendly nation in the world. Restrictions on immigration were exceptional, and from the end of the Mexican War in 1848 all the way up to the 1920s there was no attempt to curtail movement across the southern border; military patrols sought rampaging Indians, not “illegals.” Those entering via Eastern ports only had to demonstrate that they weren’t suffering from some serious communicable disease, such as tuberculosis. The United States became a “beacon of freedom” in no small measure due to the ease with which people from elsewhere could come and make a life here.

Like London and Amsterdam in preceding centuries, American cities in the 19th and 20th centuries teemed with foreign peoples and their odd habits, engaging in commerce and adding to the stock of manpower and wealth. Not since the Roman Empire has so large an area existed over which people could freely move about, no documents or official authorization required. With the exception of slaves, anyone could buy property, start a business, or seek employment. Immigration hawks argue that immigrant labor hurts the economy – forgetting that poor immigrants flooded here virtually unchecked for eight decades, a period which corresponded with the tripling of the average American’s purchasing power. Free movement within and into the country helped make everyone better off.

Immigrants arriving in the U.S. once found a society unburdened by a welfare state, global military empire, confiscatory taxation, minimum-wage laws, gun control, or occupational licensing. The freedom these and other early Americans experienced was unparalleled in the history of the world, and it’s no surprise that the U.S. became the richest and the most dynamic country ever known.

If the country today fails in many respects to reflect the freedom found in this earlier period, it is not immigrants who deserve scorn, but instead the paternalism and statism embraced by generations that have abandoned liberty. Let us again exalt the values and principles that truly made America great – including the free movement of people across borders. Let tyrannies and status-driven societies rot on their vine. Ours is still a new land, with the promise of freedom for those in pursuit of happiness.

This article was originally published at Scott McPherson is a policy adviser at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and author of Freedom and Security: The Second Amendment and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.  


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