In Defence of Open Borders (2013), by Neil Lock

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Borders? What Borders?
By Neil Lock
Posted on the LA Blog, 1st August 2013

Sean Gabb has called for (in his words) a decent libertarian essay in favour of open borders. I hope this will fit the bill. My view is certainly libertarian; for I favour not so much open borders, as no borders – at least, no political borders, and so no barriers to migration. As to decency, you the reader shall judge.

Borders in a Libertarian World

Can borders exist in a libertarian world? Most definitely, yes. Where does the justification for these borders come from? From property rights. Each individual has the right to set a border around his own property, and to admit only those he chooses to.

At first sight, it might seem that in a libertarian world there would be no general freedom of movement. Individuals might agree to the use of routes (easements) over each other’s property; but each would only allow use of his easements by those who have a contract with him. However, libertarians are practical people – aren’t we? And we don’t like to waste time or effort. So, after a while, many would not bother to check who was using their easements. As long, of course, as they kept to the route, weren’t noisy, and didn’t commit acts of violence or theft.

In this way, I think there would arise a general presumption of freedom of movement along defined routes, even across property owned by others. This freedom might, perhaps, be denied to specific individuals – for example, convicted criminals or former politicians – because of their past actions. And some might choose to guard their property jealously, not permitting anyone to cross it; though they would, of course, always be in danger of tit for tat. Others might choose the opposite tack. Perhaps, even, donating part of their property for public use, such as a park.

So in a libertarian world, land (and water, too) would, I think, become divided into two types of space. There would be private (owned) space, with borders and designated easements. And there would be public (open to all) space, made up of those easements. (There would also be, for a while at least, a third kind of space – un-owned, unclaimed space. But that, too, is open to all, so I will treat it as public space).

Furthermore, I expect there would be, ultimately, only one public space, which would be connected. That is, any point of it would be accessible from any other without leaving the public space.

Borders and Communities

This view of borders is rooted in the property rights of the smallest communal unit – the individual. But it works also for the next larger unit – the partnership or couple. And even for the third level of community, the family or household.

Moving to the fourth level, the marketplace – the people with whom individuals deal in their daily lives – a new type of space appears, between public and private. This is exemplified by a shop, or a pub. Some of the time, the space is private, and has borders. But, during opening hours, it becomes open to all who wish to do business with the proprietor. (Again, perhaps excepting certain banned individuals – common in the case of pubs).

Moving up again, the next level is the society. A society is a group of people who share common goals. A business, for example, is a society with a goal to deliver products or services – and, of course, to make a profit in doing so! A business can own physical property. But the rules on who may access a business’s property, and when, can become complicated.

More interesting in regard to borders is the kind of society whose purpose is to enable people to live together in tranquillity. The management company of a block of flats, for example. These make, often quite complicated, sets of rules, which bind every member in the interests of all members. (Rules such as, don’t take out load-bearing walls!) Such properties have two levels of borders; individual borders around individual owners’ spaces, and borders of the whole, open only to members and those they wish to invite.

Another example is the gated communities, which have become common in several countries. It’s perceived, at least, that the gates reduce unpleasantnesses of life in these communities, by excluding undesirables such as criminals. So, the gated community comes to resemble the walled city-state of old; a society for the protection of its citizens against the barbarians outside.

At this point, I ask a hypothetical question. Suppose you are a member of one of these gated communities, say in England. Now, suppose a Pakistani family buys or rents a property in that community. They have no criminal convictions. They sign that they’re willing to abide by the community’s rules. Are you – or the members as a whole – entitled to exclude them from joining your community?

I very much hope your answer is No.

Anarchist and Minarchist Views

If I were an anarchist, I would simply say that there’s no conceivable benefit to anyone from any kind of borders, beyond the borders of individuals’ or societies’ properties, the borders of gated or un-gated communities, and the easements which together define, and give borders to, the public space. And I would rest my case there.

But I’m not an anarchist. I do, it’s true, despise the political state. I despise it for (at least) its bad laws, its warmongering, its violations of human rights, its taxation, currency debasement and other economic destructiveness, its claims of moral superiority for its operatives, and its lies, spin and propaganda. I despise also the pernicious myth that a state has a personality or will, above and beyond the personalities and wills of the individuals who live in its territory.

However, I do appreciate the value, to civilized human beings, of objective justice. Therefore my minarchist philosophy allows for organizations (I call them justice providers) whose purpose is to deliver objective, individual justice to all.

To me, it’s an open question whether justice providers can be other than territorially based. If justice providers can be non-territorial (and I like to think so), then I see no case for any geographical borders beyond those I’ve previously identified. But if, on the other hand, justice providers must of necessity be territorial, then there may be – perhaps – a case, even in a libertarian world, for borders round their territories or, otherwise said, jurisdictions.

From the point of view of justice provision, a border has two benefits. First, it enables entry to be refused to those with criminal or political records. And second, it can help to clarify which justice provider has the right and responsibility to resolve a particular dispute. But from the point of view of the traveller, the border is a disbenefit, costing both money to maintain, and time at each passage.

And a justice provider must seek to provide justice to all, even to those not currently its subscribers. Thus it mustn’t permit differential treatment of individuals because they come from different jurisdictions. It can’t set a rule such as “let in a German, but not an Indian” (or vice versa). Still less can it set quotas for acceptance from different places. Entry or refusal must depend only of the individual being judged. And it would be wrong, I think, to use any other ground than criminal convictions – or the commission of political atrocities, such as waging aggressive war, violating civil liberties, or making unjust laws or burdensome taxes – to justify refusal of entry.

What of the individual who wishes not only to enter, but to remain? Why, that individual must forthwith become a subscriber to his new justice provider! (He will probably wish to cancel his subscription to the old one, too.) I’m sure justice providers will take credit cards at the borders…

Would there actually be borders in a world of justice providers? I think that to begin with, some justice providers would have borders and others wouldn’t. After they had competed for a while, one option would tend to win out; I’m not sure which.

Borders – A Brief History

So much for jurisdictional borders in a libertarian world. But what of the mishmash of red lines, the political borders which crisscross the planet today?

Recently, I articulated the following challenge. Name three countries whose borders, political status and form of government have all been unchanged for the last 200 years. If nation-states are all they’re cracked up to be, I thought, then surely I ought to be able to find a measly three – out of almost 200 – which demonstrate some stability over the rather short time frame since 1813? But I could not immediately think of any at all; let alone three.

Wikipedia has a most informative article entitled “List of sovereign states by date of formation.”[i] I used this as a starting point to look for answers to my challenge. Now, what constitutes a change in form of government can be unclear – for example, a new constitution may, or may not, imply a change. But I was able to see, clearly, that my challenge was a tough one.

Africa? No hope there. Before the 1880s Africa, with the possible exception of Liberia, had no red lines on the map at all.

South and Central America? Better. Several countries (Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Paraguay) were formed before 1813. But each has changed its borders and/or form of government since then. They seem to like their wars in that part of the world.

North America? Sorry. Even the US/Canadian border wasn’t finalized until the 1840s.

Oceania? Not a hope. First off the mark in this area was Australia in 1901.

Asia, south of Russia? Not much doing there, either. Nepal was almost a near-miss, its borders having been set in 1816. But it became a democracy in 2008. Strike one.

Europe and Russia? The exploits of Mr. Hitler and Mr. Stalin, and their aftermaths, make much of this area an unlikely one for success. But there are candidates towards the west. Switzerland’s borders were set in 1815, 198 years ago; but it became a federal republic in 1848. San Marino is a candidate, having existed since the 15th century at least. It’s a close call whether its occupation by the Germans, for less than a month in 1944, changed its political status. I’m feeling generous, so I’ll call that Ball one.

Iceland was united with Denmark until 1944. Spain has a long history of monarchy and republic, but reverted to a monarchy in 1974. Portugal, too, had a revolution in 1974. Andorra gets close, but it moved from a feudal set-up to a democracy in 1993. Strike two.

Leaving only one remaining candidate… cue timpani… the UK! After all, it has been around since 1801 – or, some say, 1707. But no, unfortunately, the UK doesn’t qualify. Partition of Ireland, 1922. Strike three.

I’ve given you this historical merriment for a purpose. That is, to show that the record of nation-states in providing peace, justice and stability to the people who live in them is far worse than merely appalling. It’s fashionable today for the liberty avant-garde – among whom I number myself – to say that the state is out of date. But more accurately, I think, the nation-state has never been in date.

Rationalizing Borders

There are several rationalizations given for the existence of borders. One, indeed, is the suggestion I made above – that borders may be needed at the boundaries of different jurisdictions. But perhaps not. For example, England and Scotland are separate jurisdictions; they don’t even have the same legal system! Yet there are no border posts at Berwick or Carter Bar.

A second rationalization for borders is monarchy. In this view, the border is the boundary of property rights – of a king or queen. So the UK border, for example, is the boundary of the property of an old woman called Lizzie. If Lizzie doesn’t want you in there, you aren’t allowed in there.

Unfortunately, I can’t accept this view. For the theory of monarchy was debunked, more than 300 years ago, by no less a luminary than John Locke. And, as far as I am aware, it hasn’t been re-bunked in the meantime.

A third rationalization is that a nation-state or country is the city-state brought up to date. It is a society of people who are supposed to share (usually un-explicated) goals and culture – the “we’re all in this together” canard. Thus it is entitled to borders, to keep out those who don’t share those goals and that culture.

Now the people in a city-state did, indeed, have a goal in common – the defence of their city. But in a nation-state, whose primary binding force is supposed to be a shared region of birth, there’s no necessary goal or aspiration common to all. Indeed, politics tends to create and increase tensions between different factions – such as the left-right divide. Democracy makes things worse, tending to make the tensions personal between supporters of different factions. Add to the mix large-scale immigration and the super-state projects (EU and UN), and it becomes clear that the glue which binds together people in a nation-state will lose its adhesion with time. The chimera of “national identity,” while hard won, is easily lost.

How far this process has already gone in the UK was brought home to me when Margaret Thatcher died. I was surprised, even shocked, by the vehemence of the anti-Thatcher sentiment among my more left-leaning acquaintances. And I don’t think those on the opposite side are far behind in their condemnation of Blair and Brown – nor, indeed, of Cameron.

Even this attitude, though, is only half way toward a fuller understanding. Slowly, people are starting to see today’s political society for what it is – a system in which a corrupt political class and its crony-capitalist hangers-on solicit just enough support from the lazy and the feckless to enable them to rule, without concern, over everyone else. And, once this insight is reached, national identity and fellow feeling can never be re-gained.

Further, how can the “UK” possibly be justified as a political unit? For, if an Englishman has a country, is his country not England, rather than some arbitrary construction called the “UK?” And if this “UK” was a natural political unit, then how could the partition of Ireland possibly have happened, and how could Scottish independence even be under discussion? (Let’s not even mention absorption into the EU…)

Political states, as they exist today, are illogical. And this is one of many reasons why they are failing. But, just as political states are illogical, so political borders as they exist today are illogical, and will fail in time.

The Border of Civilization

There’s one border, though, which is both natural and logical. That is, the border between civilized human beings and barbarians. It is primarily a mental border rather than a physical one. Which side of it an individual falls depends only on the individual’s behaviour, not on (for example) their race, religion, nationality, social class or gender. It is sometimes characterized as the border between law-abiding citizens and outlaws.

On one side of this border, we have honest people, who strive to earn satisfaction of their needs through wealth creation and trade. Who desire economic prosperity for all who deserve it. Who are peaceful, unless attacked. Who favour objective justice. And who uphold the rights and freedoms of all human beings, including property rights and free movement throughout the public space.

On the other side, we see the lazy and dishonest. Those that satisfy their needs through simply taking away others’ wealth – using what Franz Oppenheimer called the “political means.” Those that hate human prosperity. Those that favour aggressions and wars. Those that pervert justice into fictions like “social justice” or “environmental justice.” And those that scorn rights and freedoms – including those that want to hem people about with arbitrary boundaries.

Now there’s a border worth setting and maintaining, no?