I consider myself a libertarian (well, a classical liberal, to be precise, but let’s not split hairs). I’d like to slash taxes, leave the EU, privatise the NHS, get rid of state schools, scrap the license fee, reduce welfare to subsistence levels, cull the civil service, abolish anti-discrimination laws, devolve power to the lowest practical level, and throw as much as possible to the mercy of market forces. I don’t want to do this because I’m a stone-hearted capitalist, who would trade his children for a golf club membership and a gallon of crude, but because I believe in the sanctity of personal freedom and because I think it would create a happier, fairer, more prosperous society.
But I’m also a conservative in that I would like to conserve those things I consider conducive to the maintenance of a civilised society. This position cannot always be reconciled with a purist libertarian perspective, but I’m okay with that, because I believe that being on the political Right means rejecting utopianism, wherever it arises. I don’t concern myself with how nice it would be if people would set aside their selfish concerns and conform to some pie-in-the-sky blueprint for life; I’m bothered with what’s real and what’s possible. I understand that there are no solutions, only trade-offs, and that the best we can ever hope for is the most perfect state of imperfection. That’s why I believe that every political philosophy has its limitations – libertarianism included – and why it’s dangerous to believe that life can be lived according to rigid first principles. Human nature doesn’t always allow for intellectual consistency.
I mention this as a preface to one of the issues that divides libertarians: immigration. Last week, Bogpaper’s own RG Tyler put forward a good case for open borders, and many libertarians consider this to be the only position consistent with their beliefs. Immigration controls prevent the free movement of people, reduce competition in the job market, deny employers access to cheap labour, and infringe upon people’s property rights by preventing them from, for instance, gifting their property to foreigners. I understand all this, but I am personally opposed to lax immigration controls and I want to explain why from what is hopefully a libertarian, or at least a libertarian-conservative, point of view.
Free trade and the free movement of people are very different things, although libertarians often see an equivalence. The ‘free’ part of free trade is not just in the uninterrupted movement of goods from A to B; it’s in the voluntary consent between buyer and seller. If a new bike were unexpectedly delivered to your house and the cost of it taken from your bank account, it would be an infringement of your free will and your property rights. If you had ordered and paid for the bike in advance, it would not. When immigrants move to our country, they normally do so uninvited, meaning that the social and economic costs they impose on us are a violation of our freedom. There is no mutual consent between sender and receiver in the migration of people, so there is no equivalence with free trade.
Some libertarians are loath to acknowledge that there is any broad commonality of purpose between people, in case it is used to collectivise decision-making in the name of the ‘greater good’. But you only have to look around the world to see that nations tend to have distinct cultures, enshrined in their values and customs. This isn’t a concept that should trouble libertarians, because, left to their own devices, people are quite capable of establishing their own values, without some dogmatic elite doing it for them. Besides, mediating values needn’t constrain us; they can liberate us, too. A society in which everyone lived entirely by their own rules would be an oppressive one, because without the social pressure to show self-restraint and consideration for others, there would nothing to stop us from stamping on each other’s interests. For this reason, a society that inclines towards open borders allows hostile cultures to dilute or undermine its guiding principles and compromise its freedoms.
Many immigrants make a positive contribution to our country, of course, and enrich our culture with their presence. But many others want to live as they did in their own countries, while accepting the generosity and protection of the British state. Honour killings, gay-bashing and female genital mutilation are all the rage in some parts of the world, so when their adherents move to Britain they are liable to clash with our culture and our values, especially when our laws seek to protect them from criticism and discrimination. Then there’s the fact that a grossly disproportionate number of foreign-born convicts are sitting in British jails. Even if you subscribe to batty left-wing theories about discrimination causing crime, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that unfettered immigration equals greater lawlessness.
It could be argued that we must take the rough with the smooth, and that the economic benefits of open-door immigration outweigh all other costs; but who should decide? An absence of border controls imposes on people costs they may not be willing to accept; but denying them the economic benefits of immigration could be seen as an affront, too. This dilemma only highlights the impossibility of a policy that keeps everyone happy. I doubt there’s anyone who would put up with limitless cultural disruption for the possibility of financial gain. I’m for economic growth as much as anyone, but a few extra quid in my pocket in exchange for Sharia Law doesn’t sound like a good deal to me. That’s why I believe a compromise is required when it comes to immigration – and that means controls.
But what if I invited a foreigner to live with me? Wouldn’t that be different? Wouldn’t it mirror free trade? After all, it’s a private contract between me and another, and any attempts to block it would be an infringement of my rights. Well, if you start laying down conditions, such as only allowing in people who have been invited, then you are endorsing immigration controls of some sort or another. But more to the point, unless you plan to keep that person as a prisoner, they are going to end up imposing costs of the rest of us. There are the afore-mentioned cultural costs, but there are economic costs, too. Like it or not, we live in a country with socialised provision: health, schools, welfare, roads and so on. By inviting someone to this country you privatise the decision to let them in, but socialise the costs of them staying here. Yes, they could end up paying their way, but then again they might not. And if you start screening people for their potential for self-sufficiency, you’re back with immigration controls.
A libertarian would doubtless respond by saying, “OK, so scrap socialised provision.” And I would broadly agree with this sentiment. Get rid of the hand-outs and special treatment and only those people able to integrate and support themselves would bother coming here. Maybe we’ll live in such a country one day, and we should strive to do so, but I’m not holding my breath. If you have relaxed immigration and a generous welfare state, you import poverty, and the poor are far more likely to vote for parties committed to growing the state machine than ones intent on dismantling it. New Labour followed Bertholt Brecht’s advice and sought to elect a new people – one receptive to its nannying, statist ways – by encouraging immigration, and government provision expanded exponentially to meet its needs. An open-door policy would only witness more of the same, making the election of a freedom-loving party all the more unlikely. Much as I would like it to happen overnight, it will take years to roll back the state to where it ought to be. In the meantime, we should seek to minimise the costs imposed on others by carefully managing who enters our country.
There are many choices we make that impose costs on others, but, if life is to be worth living, a little give and take is required. Having children could be said to place a burden on society, for instance, but no reasonable person would want to outlaw childbirth. Tolerating certain impositions by others is the necessary price of living in a free country. Libertarians are more tolerant than most, because they understand the importance of personal sovereignty, but there is surely a limit to what any of us is willing to put up with. It is far easier to accommodate the interests of people who are generally sympathetic to our way of life than those who hold us in contempt. The more we have in common with others, the better the understanding between us and the less need there is for compromise. The larger and more diverse the population, the more likely we are to encounter ways of life hostile to our own and the more likely it is that our liberties will be encroached upon.
None of these objections are meant to present a case against immigration of any kind. A country without immigrants would be stale and insular; it would deny itself variety, talent and fresh ideas. I welcome people to this country, but on the condition that they respect its culture and traditions, and are willing to contribute to its success. The emphasis is also on us also to create an environment conducive to happy integration. Years of spiteful left-wing dogma has taught people that this country is a hive of prejudice, with a shameful history of oppression, in which it is impossible to progress if your face doesn’t fit. This is self-serving drivel designed to legitimise the Left’s pet grievances and persuade newcomers to become clients of the state. Immigrants who wander through an open door to find a nation of self-loathing malcontents, banging the empty drum of diversity and tolerance, are unlikely to find anything of substance to connect with. A country with a discerning immigration policy, which prides itself on its achievements, its customs and its heritage, will be one that attracts those who have the most to offer Britain. Irrespective of their background, I’d be proud to call such people my countrymen.