Tevye the Milkman, Libertarianism, and the Open Borders Fantasy

 

“…Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders…” — Paragraph 3.4 of the 2016 Libertarian Party platform

I have nothing against Libertarians. In fact, some of my best friends are Libertarians. If one of my children wanted to marry a Libertarian, like Tevye the Milkman I would question G-d, grit my teeth, put on a brave face, and give them my blessing and my permission.

On the one hand, there is about 80 percent overlap between Libertarian and Conservative political values, and in practice we tend to arrive at many similar policy positions: the rule of law, strong private property rights, freedom of contract and of association, free trade, respect for constitutional authority, low taxes, light and economically literate regulations, federalism, a government of limited and enumerated powers, frugal fiscal policies, monetary discipline, and so on.

On the other hand, Libertarians don’t have much use for the Conservative’s attachment to tradition. In fact, some Libertarian positions seem utterly unmoored, not just from tradition, but from reality. Take for example, the Libertarian view of migration, expressed, inter alia, in the above-cited 2016 party platform. Without any limiting principle, this position would mean the end of both nations and states. Even on the level of utopian fantasy, I don’t get the appeal.

On the other hand, Libertarians advance a powerful universal moral claim that is consistent with both traditional liberal values and advanced economic thinking. Here, for example, is Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, making this moral claim:

There are fundamental human rights. There are rights which accrue to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they are on the globe. Those rights include the right to free expression. They include the right to freedom of religion. And I believe they should also include the right to move about the Earth.

And here is Michael Clemens, another Libertarian economist at the Center for Global Development, making the economic case:

So, you know how in real estate they say that value is all about location, location, location. It’s the same for the value of your labor. And that has a remarkable implication. It means that barriers that keep you in places where you’re less economically productive keep you from making the contribution you could make. And for every person who’s kept in a poor country, that’s a tiny little drag on the world economy that adds up. So, what that means is that even a modest relaxation of the barriers to migration that we have right now — I’m talking about one in 20 people who now live in poor countries being able to work in a rich country — would add trillions of dollars a year to the world economy. It would add more value to the world economy than dropping all remaining barriers to trade, every tariff, every quota — and dropping all remaining barriers to international investment combined.

Tabarrok again:

It’s actually very simple. You take a person from a poor country, a country like Haiti for example, and you bring them to the United States or another developed country, and their wages go up. Three times, four times, fives times. I’m told, sometimes as much as ten times. So, it’s an incredible increase in living standards simply by moving someone from where their labor has low value, moving them to where their labor has high value. It’s far more effective than any other anti-poverty program we’ve ever tried.

There is a kind of voodoo economics quality at work here: simply exposing a person from a poor country to the spacious skies and purple mountains’ majesty of the United States creates a ten-fold increase in that person’s welfare, and a net increase in the welfare of the world. Amazing. Are there any negative externalities associated with this transaction, multiplied millions (or billions) of times over? Neither economist tells us. If there are, presumably they are negligible, and it’s in poor taste to ask. (Pay no attention to Hamburg and Malmö.)

On the other hand, both Tevye and his creator Sholem Aleichem were immigrants who settled in New York City. Aleichem did well there, and I have to believe that Tevye did too.

On the other hand… I also believe strongly in individual rights, and I think that elevating group rights to preeminence, which is what we are doing here in the United States, is incompatible with our political traditions and notions of liberty. We will come to grief for it. But I don’t see how it can be a universal individual right to live anywhere on the globe one pleases. I may be a simple barefoot Virginia country lawyer, but I am used to thinking of a “right” as a claim for which a duly constituted political or judicial body has the power to grant relief or redress. No such body can grant relief for the claim advanced by Professors Tabarrok and Clemens, which has little basis in custom or practice. It is a purely abstract assertion that founders on such deeply rooted legal principles as state sovereignty.

Libertarianism shares with Marxism and other bastard stepchildren of the Enlightenment this abstract ideological quality, disconnected from the realities of lived human experience. For Marxism, the fatal conceit is its obsession with equality; for Libertarians, it is hyper-individualism. Like most primates, human beings are social, hierarchical, and tribal. Hierarchical means that humans are constantly jockeying with one another for social status, and a society of perfect equality is therefore a dangerous delusion. Tribal means that we are deeply, irrationally attached to exclusive collective identities, as anyone who has ever attended an American high school or a major team sporting event can tell you. There is no escape from the tribalism, it’s so deeply ingrained in us. Try to suppress it, and it comes out in other forms. Dissolve the 20th century American national identity, and you get the vicious and stupid identity politics of the 21st.

It seems to me that the error at the root of social contract theory is the understanding that the basic pre-political social unit is the individual. This understanding is ahistorical and wrongheaded as a matter of anthropology and psychology. The basic pre-political social unit is the family and tribe (which is really just extended family). Being an Old World immigrant myself, as well as a member of Tevye’s very ancient tribe, I am deeply sympathetic to Edmund Burke’s insight that human societies have an organic character, that their members are connected to each other and to past and future generations through bonds of partnership and obligation, and aren’t merely fungible, interchangeable economic units. Like any partnership, this is a kind of contract, but very different from what Libertarians and liberals believe. It encompasses nationalism, for one thing, whereas those other views tend to lead to borderless one-world utopianism. Of course, from a certain point of view modern nationalism is a deliberately manufactured construct. But what makes nation states such powerful political actors, and nationalism such a potent force in international politics, is that they are both the political manifestations of, and tap into, a very deep human feature. I also don’t think you can build a free society on the basis of a deracinated abstraction lacking a demos, as the EU enthusiasts are learning the hard way.

On the other hand, wasn’t it nationalism that brought us the worst crimes and conflagrations of the 20th century?

No. Western elites learned all the wrong lessons from the 20th century. After the Second World War they came to see in the nation-state not the fullest political expression of peoplehood, the seat of law and legitimacy, a celebration of human variety, and the font of culture, art, and human flourishing, but rather the heart of genocide. They completely misconstrued Adam Smith’s dictum that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.

The true lesson of the 20th century is that public policy works best when it works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Perhaps overcoming our irrational tendencies is a worthy individual goal. But the road to anti-human hell is paved with attempts to eliminate them altogether. The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.

On the other hand…

No. There is no other hand.

There are 45 comments.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Very well put. Better writing than I can do on this topic.

    • #1
  2. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    You’re not trying to start a conversation, you’re trying to start an argument, but not with me.  Libertarians are right about most policies but more  from our own traditions than from abstract libertarian thought.  It’s true that if we take a person arbitrarily from a poor country and bring him here he’ll increase his own productivity and production by many fold and lower others income only in great numbers; that is if we don’t pay him not to work or act white, but that attests to the accumulation of our laws, habits mores, i.e. Burkes platoons and bank of nations and of ages  not to  the ideas generated trying to build them up reasoning from extreme individualism.  We need both to know in which direction to nudge change and reform, but libertarianism standing on its own isn’t firmly grounded.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    People who lock their doors when they go out are impinging on the economic advancement of people who sell used television sets.

    • #3
  4. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Oblomov: [Clemens] I’m talking about one in 20 people who now live in poor countries being able to work in a rich country — would add trillions of dollars a year to the world economy.

    Good example of the inane results when the libertarian impulse — maybe the healthiest political starting point — is taken to principled extremes.

    There are 4 billion people on the planet living on less than $4 per day.  That “1 in 20” fraction amounts to 200 million humans.

    Try to imagine the practical political, epidemiological, economic and community results of that.

    If you don’t, of course, the principled statement can make you feel very virtuous.

    • #4
  5. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Oblomov: The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.

    Another superb essay which might generate a set of interesting debates.  You might want to rework the sentence above.  Maybe “The horrors of the Third Reich”?  The longest and bloodiest horrors of the century were perpetrated by the transnational dystopia of international communism, which of course supports your thesis.

    • #5
  6. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Percival (View Comment):
    People who lock their doors when they go out are impinging on the economic advancement of people who sell used television sets.

    When I contemplate libertarian open borders ideas, this is like my first destination. Then I must ask, ‘don’t libertarians believe in individual ownership of property?’, at least, in the sense of exclusive possession. If they do, then ‘open borders’ denies the extension of this idea to a group (nation) of individuals through free association.

    • #6
  7. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Quake Voter (View Comment):

    Oblomov: The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.

    Another superb essay which might generate a set of interesting debates. You might want to rework the sentence above. Maybe “The horrors of the Third Reich”? The longest and bloodiest horrors of the century were perpetrated by the transnational dystopia of international communism, which of course supports your thesis.

    Nah. I blame Soviet Communism on the Germans too.

    • #7
  8. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Hardcore Libertarians also lose me on the social contract rejection which is based on he notion that as individuals they did not agree to the norms of the previous generation. I think some of it comes from Jefferson’s quip about a revolution every 20 years, but I find it really difficult to swallow as any kind of intellectual doctrine.

    • #8
  9. Underground Conservative Coolidge
    Underground Conservative
    @UndergroundConservative

    I’d take the open borders idea more seriously if it was reciprocal. Perhaps adventerous Americans would like to settle somewhere else, bring their capital, political system, property rights, rule of law, and productivity to other societies, but alas, we’re just as bound to our own borders as they are.

    • #9
  10. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Underground Conservative (View Comment):
    I’d take the open borders idea more seriously if it was reciprocal. Perhaps adventerous Americans would like to settle somewhere else, bring their capital, political system, property rights, rule of law, and productivity to other societies, but alas, we’re just as bound to our own borders as they are.

    Yes. I think the United States is not very libertarian when it comes to moving capital out of the country or your person, for that matter.

    • #10
  11. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    People who lock their doors when they go out are impinging on the economic advancement of people who sell used television sets.

    When I contemplate libertarian open borders ideas, this is like my first destination. Then I must ask, ‘don’t libertarians believe in individual ownership of property?’, at least, in the sense of exclusive possession. If they do, then ‘open borders’ denies the extension of this idea to a group (nation) of individuals through free association.

    I don’t see how that conclusion follows at all.

    Suppose we are neighbors.  One day a stranger from a foreign land shows up and camps on your front lawn.  That person is trespassing, and you as the property owner have every right to call the police and make him leave.

    Now suppose my cousin comes to visit me and stays in my guest bedroom.  Next day you knock on my door, demanding that my cousin leave town because you don’t want him around.  My response would be: this is my home, he is my guest, mind your own business.

    It seems clear to me that immigration laws restrict the rights of property owners and limit freedom of association.  I concede such limits are sometimes necessary, but let’s at least be honest and acknowledge the trade-offs involved.

    • #11
  12. OldDan Rhody Inactive
    OldDan Rhody
    @OldDanRhody

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Underground Conservative (View Comment):
    I’d take the open borders idea more seriously if it was reciprocal. Perhaps adventerous Americans would like to settle somewhere else, bring their capital, political system, property rights, rule of law, and productivity to other societies, but alas, we’re just as bound to our own borders as they are.

    Yes. I think the United States is not very libertarian when it comes to moving capital out of the country or your person, for that matter.

    It’s not just the United States, or just our borders.  Each border has two sides.  If you inquire into buying real estate in Mexico, you might find that it’s their border as well.

    • #12
  13. PHenry Member
    PHenry
    @PHenry

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):
    Now suppose my cousin comes to visit me and stays in my guest bedroom. Next day you knock on my door, demanding that my cousin leave town because you don’t want him around. My response would be: this is my home, he is my guest, mind your own business.

    I don’t mean to interpret you incorrectly, so please correct me if I’m wrong.  It sounds like you are saying that since you own a piece of property, you and only you get to determine who can come in to the country if they are going to stay with you?

    The analogy was more similar to your cousin coming to visit you without asking and against your will, and you are forced to let him because of his right to freedom of travel?

    Americans ‘own’ the country.  It is their property, and they, and they alone, have the right to admit visitors and residents.  Right?

    • #13
  14. Travis McKee Inactive
    Travis McKee
    @Typewriterking

    Robert McReynolds (View Comment):
    Hardcore Libertarians also lose me on the social contract rejection which is based on he notion that as individuals they did not agree to the norms of the previous generation. I think some of it comes from Jefferson’s quip about a revolution every 20 years, but I find it really difficult to swallow as any kind of intellectual doctrine.

    I believe the actual origin of the doctrine is in No Treason by Lysander Spooner. I recall it being fun to read.

    • #14
  15. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Oblomov:On the other hand, Libertarians advance a powerful universal moral claim that is consistent with both traditional liberal values and advanced economic thinking. Here, for example, is Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, making this moral claim:

    There are fundamental human rights. There are rights which accrue to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they are on the globe. Those rights include the right to free expression. They include the right to freedom of religion. And I believe they should also include the right to move about the Earth.

     

    Isn’t it generally accepted that a significant feature of a right is, it does not impinge on the rights of others?

    I have the right to publish a newspaper, but not the right to force the Daily Bugle to use their private resources to print it. Or force the government to supply funds for me to publish my newspaper.

    People have the right to move about the earth. But no nation has an obligation to accept immigrants or even tourists.

     

    • #15
  16. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Travis McKee (View Comment):

    Robert McReynolds (View Comment):
    Hardcore Libertarians also lose me on the social contract rejection which is based on he notion that as individuals they did not agree to the norms of the previous generation. I think some of it comes from Jefferson’s quip about a revolution every 20 years, but I find it really difficult to swallow as any kind of intellectual doctrine.

    I believe the actual origin of the doctrine is in No Treason by Lysander Spooner. I recall it being fun to read.

    Ah yes, I had forgotten about Spooner. I like a lot of Spooner, but some of Spooner–the social contract theory–is hard to reconcile with reality.

    • #16
  17. Travis McKee Inactive
    Travis McKee
    @Typewriterking

    Mr. Tabarrok is perhaps underestimating the impact of moving to America. Consider an African living in absolute poverty, subsisting on $1.25 a day. An entry-level job paying the federal minimum, $7.25, will boost him up to $58, or 46.4 times what he made in Africa, before withholding taxes.

    Of course, even where I live, one of the poorest zip codes in America, a dishwasher at Chilli’s is starting at $10-an-hour. Based on all those stories we hear from Cubans in Florida, that’s the real entry level for the model aspiring poor immigrant. Starting there, an African at absolute poverty in the Old World would boost his daily income 64-fold by washing dishes at Chilli’s.

    I’m I negating your argument at all? Not really. But it is staggering to think how much someone can improve their lives just to come to America and take one of our crappiest jobs.

    • #17
  18. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Oblomov: No. Western elites learned all the wrong lessons from the 20th century. After the Second World War they came to see in the nation-state not the fullest political expression of peoplehood, the seat of law and legitimacy, a celebration of human variety, and the font of culture, art, and human flourishing, but rather the heart of genocide. They completely misconstrued Adam Smith’s dictum that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.

    Your point about Soviet communism being the responsibility of German nationalism (in a post below this) is true up to a point. It was the Germans who put Lenin in the sealed train and fed him gold after he got to Petrograd, but it was Lenin who was successful in the end. His marriage with the Germans was short lived though certainly critical early on.

    Oblomov: The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.

    Isn’t that what Kantian-based multinational organizations claim to be doing? And Schengen and the open borders to refugees follow on from this.

     

    • #18
  19. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Oblomov: Tribal means that we are deeply, irrationally attached to exclusive collective identities

    I would substitute pre-rational instead of irrational.  There’s a lot of embedded, systemic knowledge in our instincts and habits that is beneficial but simultaneously beyond our conscious understanding.

    • #19
  20. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Aren’t humans and their labor a limited resource? At least until mid-teens, unless you approve of child labor (I might be convinced).

    My question for the SJWs of my church went something like this: “If I grant you that all the Mexicans crossing the border only want to improve their lives and are honest, hard working types, what does that do to the communities they leave behind? What happens when you empty Haiti of all its best people, for example?”

    In other words, I don’t buy that improving individual lives of immigrants necessarily increases worldwide wealth and is an unalloyed good. There simply has to be an effect on micro-economic climates they’re leaving behind. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    My utopian ideal would be to export the rule of law, constitutional limited government, sovereignty of the people, property rights, and robust faith in the Judeo-Christian God (pick your flavor). Barring that, our government has as its first responsibility the welfare of its own people, who, by virtue of enjoying American citizenship, have implicitly agreed to its terms and conditions.

    • #20
  21. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Great post, btw! Meant to mention that above.

    • #21
  22. Cyrano Inactive
    Cyrano
    @Cyrano

    Thank you for your thoughtful essay.

    It might be useful at some point to distinguish between capital-L and small-l libertarians. There are many more of the latter, myself among them, and some of us adopt that moniker as the least uncomfortable and most flexible of available labels. While capital-L Libertarians can be doctrinaire and dogmatic — it is a common human attitude, after all — I find small-l types to be a more varied bunch, and less prone to imposing litmus tests on each other.

    As an example, I suspect that the pro-open-borders segment of small-l libertarians is not actually very large.  You can be sympathetic to the plight of foreigners and to immigration in principle while still being circumspect and selective with respect to whom is permitted entry.

    “Dissolve the 20th century American national identity, and you get the vicious and stupid identity politics of the 21st.” This is far too true.

    • #22
  23. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    Aren’t humans and their labor a limited resource? At least until mid-teens, unless you approve of child labor (I might be convinced).

    My question for the SJWs of my church went something like this: “If I grant you that all the Mexicans crossing the border only want to improve their lives and are honest, hard working types, what does that do to the communities they leave behind? What happens when you empty Haiti of all its best people, for example?”

    In other words, I don’t buy that improving individual lives of immigrants necessarily increases worldwide wealth and is an unalloyed good. There simply has to be an effect on micro-economic climates they’re leaving behind. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    My utopian ideal would be to export the rule of law, constitutional limited government, sovereignty of the people, property rights, and robust faith in the Judeo-Christian God (pick your flavor). Barring that, our government has as its first responsibility the welfare of its own people, who, by virtue of enjoying American citizenship, have implicitly agreed to its terms and conditions.

    Another, more crude,, way to put your argument to the SJWs is:  If Mexican immigrants are so great for our country, why isn’t Mexico doing really well?  After all, that’s where they are coming from.

    • #23
  24. Bob W Member
    Bob W
    @WBob

    The libertarian principle at issue is basically a denial of the existence of nations. It is a roundabout way of saying that nations should be dissolved, or that all nations should become one nation. After all, what is the purpose of nations if not to separate peoples who have different backgrounds, cultures, economic views, etc.  So saying “economic freedom demands unrestricted access across national borders” is essentially a self-contradiction because on the one hand it takes for granted the existence of national borders but on the other renders borders meaningless.

    • #24
  25. Ed G. Member
    Ed G.
    @EdG

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    Aren’t humans and their labor a limited resource? At least until mid-teens, unless you approve of child labor (I might be convinced).

    My question for the SJWs of my church went something like this: “If I grant you that all the Mexicans crossing the border only want to improve their lives and are honest, hard working types, what does that do to the communities they leave behind? What happens when you empty Haiti of all its best people, for example?”

    In other words, I don’t buy that improving individual lives of immigrants necessarily increases worldwide wealth and is an unalloyed good. There simply has to be an effect on micro-economic climates they’re leaving behind. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    ….

    There is certainly a microeconomic effect on the places they settle to. I’ve lived it. of course nothing is simple and there are many causes for microeconomic effects, but too-fast immigration is destabilizing and ultimately destructive.

    • #25
  26. ToryWarWriter Thatcher
    ToryWarWriter
    @ToryWarWriter

    expressed, inter alia, in the above-cited 2016 party platform. Without any limiting principle, this position would mean the end of both nations and states. Even on the level of utopian fantasy, I don’t get the appeal.

     

    –As a sometimes Libertarianish conservative I will say this is also related to the elimination of the welfare state. Thus returning the US to the way things were before ww1.

     

    –I think you need to spend some time around libertarians and educate yourself on the arguments.

     

    –You kind of remind me of some of my atheist friends who point out the pagan roots of Christianity, like the previous 2000 years of scholarly work by theologians hasn’t explored this idea and debated, discussed and explored it.

     

    –My problems with libertarianism comes from their foreign policy. It just isn’t realistic.

    • #26
  27. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    Good post.  When you say “The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular”…

    …I would say the First World War was largely about nationalism…mainly German nationalism, perhaps, but by no means exclusively so…..While the Second World War was about Race, not just Nation.

    Anne Frank’s father was an officer in the World War I German army.  In the second war, he was put in a concentration camp.

     

    • #27
  28. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Mark Wilson (View Comment):

    Oblomov: Tribal means that we are deeply, irrationally attached to exclusive collective identities

    I would substitute pre-rational instead of irrational. There’s a lot of embedded, systemic knowledge in our instincts and habits that is beneficial but simultaneously beyond our conscious understanding.

    Great point.

    • #28
  29. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    PHenry (View Comment):
    Americans ‘own’ the country. It is their property, and they, and they alone, have the right to admit visitors and residents. Right?

    We “own” the country collectively?  No doubt Progressives would be happy to agree to that formulation, we collectively own Apple, Google, Facebook, and all their wealth, and we can collectively vote to redistribute that wealth however we, the people, see fit.  Majority rules.

    • #29
  30. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    My utopian ideal would be to export the rule of law, constitutional limited government, sovereignty of the people, property rights, and robust faith in the Judeo-Christian God (pick your flavor).

    So how do we accomplish that?  I think part of the process is that young, bright, idealistic people from around the world come to the United States to study in our universities, to get jobs and earn some money, and then they return home — perhaps just for a visit, but it’s not uncommon for people to come here for a while to study and/or earn some money and then eventually return home to live with their extended families, marry, and start their own family.

    Then when they return home, they tell their families and friends “you know, the U.S. is actually a pretty great place to live, it’s nothing like all that anti-American rhetoric I learned growing up.  I’ve been there, it’s not like that at all.”  And they start advocating for reforms in their home countries to make it a bit more like America.

    I don’t think you can just learn about property rights, rule of law, democracy, and so forth from a book and then put it into practice, it needs to be a lived experience.  People need to come here and live our lifestyle and get a taste of it or they’ll never be able to replicate it in their homeland.

     

    • #30

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