Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The Invisible Hoppe

Winter 1997

Donald Boudreaux
"Notes From FEE"
The Freeman (October 1997)

Professor Donald Boudreaux, recently installed as president of the Foundation for Economic Education, is off to a bad start. He offers some thoughts on immigration which to my mind succeed only in darkening counsel on this difficult topic.

Boudreaux discusses an argument that he says has recently attracted attention in libertarian circles. To summarize his summary, the argument in question is this: a purely voluntary society, in which all property was private, would not be one with "open borders." Quite the contrary, each owner could admit, or refuse admittance, to whomever he wishes. A free society ought to approach this ideal as closely as possible. Hence, the government, in charge of "public" property, ought to act in its immigration policy as near as it can to a private property owner. The result of doing so is apt to be carefully controlled immigration, not unrestricted entry.

Professor Boudreaux directs three objections against this argument. Before turning to these, I am constrained to take exception to a curious omission in Boudreaux's article. The argument he discusses did not spring into the world from thin air: as Boudreaux knows full well, Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has written extensively in its support.

But Boudreaux does not so much as mention Hoppe, much less cite any paper of his on the topic. Surely the Freeman's readers, many of whom do not know Hoppe's work, are entitled to know where they may look should they wish to compare Boudreaux's criticisms with the presentation of the argument offered by its author.

By contrast, let me cite the practice of a paragon of academic fairness myself. When I decide to smear a book or article, I always inform readers exactly what I am criticizing. Readers can then go to the original source and make their own judgment about my critical faculties. Professor Boudreaux ought to heed this elementary principle of fair controversy.

In contrast with Boudreaux, I find Hoppe's argument a most valuable contribution. Its main importance, as it seems to me, is not as a deductive proof of what a free society's immigration policy ought to be. Rather, the thought experiment of asking about immigration under private property jars us out of our complacent belief that libertarian principles mandate absolutely open borders.

Boudreaux puts the case for that common view succinctly in the third argument he directs against the Invisible Hoppe. Immigrants who are not on welfare aggress against no one: hence to block their entry is coercion. And this the non-aggression axiom forbids.

But does it? Hoppe's thought experiment serves to remind us that libertarian rights to freedom of action must be viewed in connection with entitlements to property. May someone enter "public" property at will? I suggest that the non-aggression principle provides no answer to this. From (1) you may enter unowned property at will, it does not follow that (2) you may enter "public" property at will. The issue seems to me one of prudence rather than rights. And Hoppe has the merit, by his striking example, of bringing this gap in the usual argument for unrestricted immigration to the attention of libertarians.

Boudreaux's other two arguments may be dealt with more briefly. He suggests that government, possessed of the power to coerce, cannot be granted the same discretion as a private owner. This strikes me as an excellent point: but how does it bear on the issue under discussion? The need to limit the government's discretion hardly requires us to institute free immigration. A policy of allowing no immigration at all, for example, restricts governmental discretion as well as open borders.

More realistically, the nature of rules needed to restrict governments has been studied extensively by public choice economists. I had thought this Professor Boudreaux's area of specialization. I am sure he could devise appropriate rules for a minimal state wishing to limit immigration far better than I.

Boudreaux next attempts a reductio. If the government may forbid entry into "public" property, may it not also regulate speech in public places? And is this not self-evidently absurd?

I quite fail to see that it is. Why may panhandlers and assorted riffraff not be banned from airports? Do you have the right to enter a "public" street whenever you wish, regardless of traffic regulations? Once more the issues of use of public property seem to me prudential in character, rather than rights- based.

And attention to prudence leads us to question an aspect, so far undiscussed, of Boudreaux's third argument. He maintains, once more, that immigrants not on welfare coerce no one. But what about the many who are on welfare? May a country, anticipating that large numbers of people will enter its territory in order to obtain welfare, act to prevent this? And what of those immigrants who benefit on entry from affirmative action? May citizens concerned that immigrants will form pressure groups hostile to the principles and culture of a free society take preventive measures against the dangers they fear? If not, why not?

Professor Boudreaux refers to alleged friends of freedom, who propose restrictions on immigration. To name the nameless, these include Murray Rothbard and Ralph Raico, as well as Hans Hoppe. I do not recall that Boudreaux has been granted the authority to anathematize them. Fair-minded supporters of free immigration should recognize that Boudreaux's attitude is the height of presumption.

I close on an unaccustomed irenic note. Those in search of further discussion on this vital issue should look out for a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies entirely devoted to immigration. The issue, edited by Ralph Raico, includes both supporters of free immigration, such as Walter Block, and critics, including Hoppe and John Hospers. Some people believe that immigration merits discussion, not curt dismissal and invective. I regret that Donald Boudreaux is not yet among them.


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