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In 2018, Congress failed to override president Trump’s veto to establish a national emergency in order to build his border wall. Libertarians and classical liberals seem split on the issue of border security. The Libertarian Party does not support classifying undocumented immigrants as criminals, but this steers many away from the party. Some fully support the wall and claim that if we did not have a welfare state, then open borders may be possible, but in the meantime, we need strong borders. Others are more pessimistic and claim that some cultures are inherently incompatible with American values, even if we did not have a welfare state. Perhaps we should look to one of the most influential classical liberal thinkers, Ludwig Von Mises, for guidance on this question.

Of course, there is disagreement as to what immigration policies Mises would implement. Joe Salerno addresses Mises’ views in a well written analysis, and Lew Rockwell draws policy conclusions based on Salerno’s analysis. Rockwell claims “The open-borderites cannot claim Mises as one of their own.” Are Rockwell and Salerno correct?

Mises on the parallel between tariffs and immigration

Ludwig Von Mises discusses his philosophy at length in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition. He looks at immigration as an economic and social phenomena. Some argue that freedom of movement across national lines leads to economic struggles such as lower wages, a drain on resources, etc. Mises has a simple answer for these arguments.

It is entirely fair to point out that Mises was writing this before the modern welfare state. The welfare system is a common reason libertarians and conservatives oppose open borders. Would Mises adjust his position today?

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Mises wrote The Freedom to Move: An International Problem. During this time, Keynesian economic theories reigned supreme and justified some of the earliest welfare policies. Mises continued his fight for open immigration in spite of the implementation of the New Deal programs in the United States and similar programs across the world. In this piece, he calls on all nations to break down their travel barriers to avoid social violence. Mises viewed open borders as both a moral imperative and a pragmatic policy proposal.

Things become more complicated when we start talking about the social parts of this issue. Many point out the apparent negative effects of open borders that Mises foresaw, “In the absence of any migration barriers whatsoever, vast hordes of immigrants from the comparatively overpopulated areas of Europe would, it is maintained, inundate Australia and America. They would come in such great numbers that it would no longer be possible to count on their assimilation”. Mises explains that this is a danger because, “To be a member of a national minority always means that one is a second-class citizen.” Mises says that those who do not speak the native language will be left out of the political process. Thus, the majority can inflict their will upon the minority. Many conclude that Mises would support tight immigration restriction for this reason, but is this right?

Liberty as a means for assimilation

In Liberalism, Mises does not directly state what immigration policies should be implemented in the face of these social problems, but he does lay out his general philosophy for us:

In other words, what brought about peace and tranquility in the modern nations was not legislation, but the adoption of liberal ideals. He demonstrates this again in his argument against the “fire and sword” of colonialism.

He points out some social problems open borders might reap, yes, but he also lays out the catastrophic consequences of keeping them closed.

For these reasons it is highly doubtful Mises would ever support immigration restrictions. Mises seeked furthering the well-being of all in the world, what he called “the cosmopolate.” This included a free economy, a limited government, the right to self-determination, and the freedom of movement. The classical liberal recognizes the inability of the state to maintain peace. So we must ask ourselves whether we should pursue the peaceful way of the cosmopolate or the “fire and sword.”

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.

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