Liberals abhor frontiers and feel that people should be no less free to move than goods. Yet as the pressure of the poor to move to richer lands is mounting and illegal immigration is proving politically difficult to curb, the liberal ideal must be re-assessed.

Poverty is the chief bane of the greater part of the world, especially of Africa, much of South-East and Central Asia, Central and parts of South America. A variety of local causes are blamed. A common cause, however, is government that is either downright vicious or at least incompetent to handle and employ without causing harm, the power with which it is endowed. A common remedy is on its way, operating in some areas—most spectacularly in China and India—and rising on the horizon in others. It is popularly called ‘globalisation’, and in the economist’s language it is the falling relative cost of transport, transaction and trade barriers. ‘Globalisation’ promotes the progressive equalisation of productivity-adjusted wages all over the world. If their governments are not getting worse (and some are in fact getting marginally better) it is only a matter of a few decades for the poorer two-thirds of the world to rise above absolute poverty.

The reduction of relative poverty—what sociologists call relative deprivation—looks far more difficult if not impossible. Demography will see to it that real income per head in the poor world will increase only a little faster than in the rich world where indigenous population will be stagnant or falling. At the same time television and its ilk will keep undermining social stability and will see to it that people in the poorer regions of the world should see their own standard of life more and more by the yardsticks of how the other half lives. They now seem to feel more miserable even as their physical circumstances become less appallingly bad.

The upshot is that the pressure to immigrate to the fairylands of Western Europe, the U.S. and the white ex-British dominions is rising and is destined to go on rising perhaps for several decades. Economists may be tempted to say that free trade will serve as a safety valve, for where goods and capital move freely, people need not move to make themselves better off. But as the depressing story of the Doha Round shows, trade is not getting free enough fast enough, and capital movements will never be broad and sweeping enough as long as Bolivian, Russian or Zimbabwean governments can lay their hands on it in the hallowed names of national sovereignty or social justice.

What Has Changed

Immigration, of course, is nothing new. During the great migrations after the fall of Rome, entire peoples moved from Asia to Europe, though this was not a movement into settled countries across defined frontiers. From the 8th century onwards there was a broad stream of involuntary migration from Central and East Africa, with Arab traders catching or buying from tribal chiefs black Africans to be sold into slavery. Estimates of black African slaves moved to the Middle East over the thousand years to the 17th century vary from a low of 8 million to a high of 17 million. (It is claimed that the great majority of male slaves were castrated, which would explain why there is next to no black minority population in Arab lands). After the 17th century, demand for slaves from the Caribbean, Brazil and the southern United States priced the Middle East out of the market and the slave trade passed into white hands. Until the abolition of slave trading (though not of slave owning) in 1806, 8 to 10 million more black Africans were shipped across the Atlantic.

There have since been two radical changes. Immigration ceased to be involuntary. People moved from Europe to North America and other lands with temperate climates of their own free will, attracted by economic incentives. Entry to these lands was unrestricted. The second great change, coming roughly with World War II, was when the entrance gates started to close. Immigrants were no longer admitted as a matter of course, but as a selective privilege granted sparsely. More and more immigrants turned into intruders, slipping in through porous frontiers and living and working with no legal status.

There are now an estimated 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants, mostly Hispanics, in the U.S. Europe’s illegal immigrants are ethnically far more mixed, coming as they do from black Africa and the Caribbean, Arab North Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ceylon, Indonesia, Turkey and the Balkans. An estimated 570,000 live in the United Kingdom. French guesses range between 200,000 and 400,000, though the reality is almost certainly higher. The annual influx into both countries may be about 80,000.

The economic effect of illegal immigration is on balance probably positive, though it is controversial in countries with high unemployment such as Germany, France and Italy. It can hardly be disputed, though, that without illegal immigration from Mexico, the U.S. would not have had its spectacular growth of recent years, and the notion that illegal immigrants steal the jobs of whites in Europe comes from voodoo economics. Illegal immigration hurts, not economically, but because it is resented as a loss of control by a society of whom it will admit into its midst—a loss that is easily accepted when the coloured immigrant population is yet small, but becomes fearsome when the cumulative weight of decades of uncontrolled illegal entry starts to change the ethnic and cultural profile of a country. The Netherlands is arguably the most tolerant country in Europe, but with 1,700,000 non-white inhabitants, it has recently become violently nervous about the future and slammed on immigration controls that are draconian by Dutch standards.

The European Union is budgeting to give 18 billion euros over seven years to help African economic development (a flagrant example of hope prevailing over experience for the umpteenth time), on the understanding that African governments will do their share in reducing the flow of illegal migrants. Many other initiatives are being taken to strengthen frontier controls, to restrict the legalisation of illegals and to deport some to their countries of origin as a deterrent to would-be illegals. None of these attempts seems to have much of an effect seriously to reduce the influx of unwelcome immigrants. Only quite radical measures might stem the tide, for whose severity current European opinion has, understandably enough, no stomach.

No Man’s Land or Family Home?

Classical liberals have a bad conscience about immigration controls, let alone severe ones. The liberal mind has always disliked frontiers and regards the free movement of people, no less than those of goods, as an obvious imperative of liberty. At the same time, it also considers private property as inviolable, immune to both the demands of the ‘public interest’ (as expressed in the idea of the ’eminent domain’) and of the rival claims of ‘human rights’ (satisfied by redistributing income to the poor who have these rights). Private property naturally also implies privacy and exclusivity of the home.

One strand of libertarian doctrine holds that it is precisely private property that should serve as the sole control mechanism of immigration. Immigrants should be entirely free to cross the frontier—indeed, there should be no frontier. Once in the country, they should be free to move around and settle in it as if it were no man’s land, as long as they do not trespass on any part of it that is someone’s land, someone’s house, someone’s property of any sort. They can establish themselves and find a living by contracting to work for wages and to find a roof by paying rent. In all material aspects of life, they could find what they need by agreements with owners and also by turning themselves into owners. Owners, in turn, would not object to seeing immigrants get what they had contracted for.

A very different stand can, however, be defended on no less pure liberal grounds. For it is quite consistent with the dictates of liberty and the concept of property they imply, that the country is not a no man’s land at all, but the extension of a home. Privacy and the right to exclude strangers from it is only a little less obviously an attribute of it than it is of one’s house. Its infrastructure, its amenities, its public order have been built up by generations of its inhabitants. These things have value that belongs to their builders and the builders’ heirs, and the latter are arguably at liberty to share or not to share them with immigrants who, in their countries of origin, do not have as good infrastructure, amenities and public order. Those who claim that in the name of liberty they must let any and all would-be immigrants take a share are, then, not liberals but socialists professing share-and-share alike egalitarianism on an international scale.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989) and Against Politics (London,1997). His latest book, Justice and Its Surroundings, was published by Liberty Fund in the summer of 2002.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.