Are Strong Borders Compatible with Libertarianism?

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Immigration is back on the agenda (if it ever left) following a series of running battles surrounding Britain’s post-Brexit border policy. General reactions of outrage met suggestions by Boris Johnson and Theresa May that Britain could maintain our current policy of freedom of movement once we leave the European Union.

These reactions were seemingly justified when the ONS admitted its counting methodology for immigration figures is highly flawed, as suggested in the 1.2 million more National Insurance numbers registered than actual migrants in official population statistics.

Public appetite for robust border controls remains high. Yet, in recent weeks, there has been increased support for freedom of movement between the CANZUK nations – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. Leave EU, the pro-Brexit campaign group, have been particularly vocal in support of this idea, despite being vehemently against free movement within the EU.

The issue of border control is a divisive one within the libertarian community, including writers on this site. Many critics of border enforcement point to state intervention in movement as a curtailment of one’s liberties. Certainly, the Libertarian Party of America advocate open borders as an extension of market forces, “as long as [those who come] are peaceful”.

I have my reservations. The suggestion by LP here is that peaceful behaviour or non-aggression is the only value or principle upon which we should judge the suitability of an entrant to our society. This, in my estimation, is a rather naïve view of the world that refuses to acknowledge cultural, economic, and structural differences between nations.

Structural and economic conditions present less of a problem for the open-border nation than they do for those elsewhere. As wealthy countries, open borders in the UK or US would represent a major draw factor for those in less well-off nations. Plucking the best and brightest from other nations, particularly those with the capital to make such a move, would create devastating brain drains within those countries.

This draw factor has proven to be the case within the EU, whose Schengen system has directly led to an exodus of the masses from poorer Eastern European members to their richer cousins in the west. Libertarians would rightly argue that this is an example of market forces at work, and it benefits us immensely. Should we then care if other nations fail to retain their populations? Such conditions should surely act as a deterrent against bad economic policies.

There is, however, a more pressing concern – that of culture, and of values. We do not live in a homogeneous world. Certain subtle differences in culture and values, such as those that distinguish British and American societies, are surmountable. Others, however, are not. I speak, for example, about the glaring and seemingly irreconcilable idiosyncrasies between Western and Islamic societies.

There are other societies that, to a lesser extent, can be considered thus. I do not wish to single out the Muslim community for criticism here, but I specify Islamic societies because they present the most obvious contrast in attitudes towards the founding principle of libertarian philosophy – liberty itself.

Briefly, if one examines the Pew research, one sees obvious structural norms that are incompatible with Western ideas of individualism and personal autonomy, particularly in relation to the emancipation of women and sexual minorities. Whilst this isn’t necessarily indicative of Muslims currently here, the research suggests that those surveyed who are domiciled elsewhere have generally disagreeable attitudes in relevant areas.

In small numbers, the impacts of extreme cultural differences are manageable, and integration possible. In a scenario in which immigration is high, however, as is the case today in the UK, integration becomes much more challenging. Oldham, the town in which I grew up, is an example of this: much of the town is observably segregated, with high concentrations of cultural minorities affecting the town’s ability to achieve cross-community cohesion.

And whilst this in itself is, again, not necessarily a problem, the nature of liberty in the UK is a cause for concern. Unlike the U.S., we do not have a single codified constitution to protect our rights, only the principles and precedents developed organically through the process of parliamentary law-making. As such, these very same principles and precedents could potentially be undone if, say, we expose unsustainable levels of multiculturalism to the ballot box.

This speculation is not unfounded. It wasn’t too long ago that Sir Eric Pickles’ report into voter fraud found evidence linking specific, non-indigenous communities with the practice. Democracy is the mechanism through which we direct into practice our collective ideas and values. A lack of respect or blatant manipulation of the process, supported by unfiltered influxes of those who would support such actions is a slippery slope to the destruction of liberty.

Supporting free movement in CANZUK alongside general selective borders seems like a contradiction, but it is precisely the relative homogeneity of those specific nations that makes it a viable option. One could also include several other countries, such as the U.S. or parts of Western Europe. But blind adherence to the philosophy of universal liberty for all, neglects to recognise this final point: that not everyone wishes to respect and protect the liberty of all others, and so liberty and the social conditions that preserve it must be sheltered until at least a majority do.

Harley Dalton


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