Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Laissez faire borders (paca)

It's often been noted that conservatives and liberals don't differ on what amount of control the government has over a citizen's life so much as on what should be controlled. So the stereotypes have conservatives wanting to keep the government out of your wallet, while they are just fine with the government in your bedroom. Liberals then argue for reversing this. At least that's the stereotype.

I was thinking recently that not really anyone has a true laissez faire attitude about one thing - immigration. Certainly in the current immigration climate, conservatives clamor for more border patrol, while liberals argue for revamping immigration policy. But in general we all assume the right of governments to control their borders in some fashion.

This is a tremendous claim and it isn't obviously correct.

It's a version of property rights essentially and of course different societies have had very different ideas of what property is. In our culture, almost everyone has a very strong opinion about ownership of our own body. Each person gets to control their own physical body, and violating this is one part of what makes the abortion debate so controversial. Let's say we grant that each person has ownership over their own body.

The next step up is probably the house you live in, maybe a cow you own, or a garden you grow vegetables in. I don't really know how to justify the idea of property itself, but you can easily see the point of personal property of this sort (the cow might be another matter for some). By owning my house, I get to preserve the fruits of my labor. It would be hard to make almost any economic system function if there was not some concept of controlling access to personal goods. It may not be a matter of personal ownership but there would be some system of control and distribution.

Then we get to the idea of national borders in which this abstract entity, a government, owns an entire section of the earth. We actually think that we own a volcano in the area near Puget Sound. We think we own an island between a river and a sound on the east coast of the American continent. We own the Mississippi. Isn't this a bit weird? So there might be a piece of land in the Great Praries that someone from across an ocean would like to farm. However, we feel it is up to us to determine whether or not that person can actually farm there. That piece of the Earth is ours, and if we want to let it sit there while the other person waits, so be it. It's our land.

It's interesting that in our supposed capitalist economy we don't think it is reasonable to just let the market work out who works where. Our country can clearly handle the 12-20 million illegal immigrants, because it has. But few think that is the way things should work. No one advocates having an officially open border in which anyone can work anywhere in the world they can find a job. We do for the 300 million citizens who already live here. They can work and live wherever they can sustain themselves. But everyone outside those borders can only work if we give them permission.

I am not really arguing that open borders is the way to go as a practical matter. But as a matter of rights and ethics, I do find the idea of owning the earth a little dubious. We live on the earth, but is the earth ours? Do I really have a say over who lives in Nebraska? I've never been to Nebraska.


John said...

You may, or amy not, find my co-worker's book on open borders interesting. It is free online:
The Right To Migrate by Paul VanRaden

pacatrue said...

Thanks for the link, John. I've already skimmed through much of his Chapter 3, and the web site in general looks interesting. It seems that there could be some great benefits to open borders, but one cannot underestimate the damage as well. New societies and new amazing things would be created if people could live where they please, but it cannot be denied that the creation of these new societies would also destroy the ones that were there previously. Virtually every county on Earth is an example of this. The key would be to balance preserving some traditions while new traditions get created. It's all very interesting.