Immigration, Trespassing, and Socialism
By Bryan Caplan
To trespass is to enter a piece of land without the owner’s consent. What should we infer, then, when people argue that illegal immigrants are guilty of trespassing?
At first glance, the trespassing shoe doesn’t fit. The typical illegal immigrant:
1. Occupies his place of residence with his landlord’s consent.
2. Occupies his place of work with his employer’s consent.
3. Occupies each place he shops with the merchant’s consent.
Indeed, it is precisely because of these facts that the law actively punishes employers for hiring illegal immigrants. The government doesn’t merely alert employers to the fact that an employer is an illegal immigrant, then allow the employer to take whatever action he deems appropriate. Instead, the government makes it illegal for an employer to knowingly invite an illegal immigrant to come work for him.
At least this is how things appear on the surface. How then could illegal immigration constitute trespassing, surface facts notwithstanding?
There’s really only one way: If the government – and not landlords, employers, and merchants – is the true owner of the nation’s homes, businesses, and stores. If the government is the legitimate owner of all the property in the nation, then and only then do you become a trespasser simply by entering any piece of property in the nation without the government’s consent.
The name for the view that government (or “the people” if you prefer) rightfully owns everything, of course, is socialism. The socialist needn’t believe that everything government does is right. He does however need to believe that government has a right to do anything to everything – and everyone – under its rule. (Why everyone, and not just everything? Because by remaining on the government’s land, you’re consenting to its rules. Love it or leave it).
Socialism is a internally consistent doctrine. You can’t sway the true believer with moral counter-examples. No matter what godawful thing the government does, the socialist can say:
1. The government has a right to use the nation’s resources however it wishes.
2. When in doubt, see #1.
A few decades ago, the world was full of people who found socialism morally plausible – or even true. In those days, the claim that “Unless socialism is true, illegal immigrants aren’t trespassing,” would have little force. It might even become an argument for socialism.
In our post-Soviet age, fortunately, socialism has become extremely morally implausible to almost everyone. “Unless socialism is true, illegal immigrants aren’t trespassing,” should be an awkward dilemma for even the harshest critics of immigration. So I have to ask them: Would you rather embrace socialism – or abandon one of your most rhetorically powerful arguments against immigration?