In the wake of the murder of Christmas shoppers in Breitscheidplatz public square in Berlin comes Mises Institute President Jeff Deist’s tragicomic article Market Borders, not Open Borders. After some correction that the suspect was Tunisian rather than Pakistani (making no difference to Deist), it takes him all the way up until the second sentence to frame the issue as one of a cultural clash between Germans and Islamic outsiders. Rather than risk rejection by demanding an eradication of borders, he argues that libertarians should defer to political correctness, and sets out at the familiar paleo-libertarian task of twisting cosmopolitan individualist ideas into the awkward and arbitrary pretzel shapes of national borders.
After some thinly-veiled race baiting of Pakistanis, Deist calls for libertarians to stop espousing alienating theories such as insisting that immigrants are people and not politically disposable. Instead, says Deist, libertarians should embrace the quick-fix solution of selling privatization through the lens of border security. A fully privatized society, with property boundaries replacing borders, could more effectively deter high-risk immigrants than the state currently does. Certainly more than the state chained to the Schengen Agreement’s demand of relatively freer movement.
This argument is bizarre on so many levels, least of all the praxeological one. Without some hefty favor from the German state, no one entity is ever realistically going to own the entire land border, coastline, all conceivable aircraft landing locations, or potential sites for a bridge or tunnel like the kind that virtuous entrepreneurs dig underneath the US-Mexico border. In fact, within a US context, border wall proposals routinely face stiff opposition from landowners in southern Texas because of the threat of eminent domain; suffice to say, if these individuals want walls of their own, nothing is stopping them. Their revealed preference is clear.
Aren’t Austrian economists the very same people who argue against the sustainability of cartels in the absence of state enforced compliance? Murray Rothbard demonstrated in Man, Economy and State that cartels of this sort are inherently unstable because they generate strong profit incentives to the first defectors. If by some unholy miracle a Hoppean covenant of bigoted landlords did try to build a wall, then it’s all the more profitable for their queer Muslim neighbors to build a road. A rational economic actor invests in toll booths. The market finds a way.
Deist then goes on to claim that the existence of government-owned land complicates matters too much for open borders by precluding enclosure, and that until full privatization happens “it is facile for libertarians simply to insist that everyone has a right to go wherever they wish.” This is almost entirely irrelevant, as immigrants are not sleeping on park benches or sidewalks. They’re renting apartments from people who wish to trade with them. He might as well argue that, because the existence of government roads complicates matters, no one can be allowed to drive.
Deist maintains that “We also should argue for localized decision-making regarding immigration, as with every political matter. Germans, like everyone else, want and deserve true self-determination. The smaller the political unit, the closer we come to Mises’s concept of granting this power to every individual.”
The size and scale of a state says nothing definite about its character. The Communist German Democratic Republic comprised a smaller political unit than its Western counterpart, or the modern unified Germany that succeeded them both. Small states and communities can be hideously cloistered and oppressive in intimate ways that larger empires, with their Hayekian knowledge problems and perverse incentives, struggle to replicate.
More than that, local governments would likely maintain their democratic character even with a more decentralized state, which is anything but a scaled up version of the autonomous individual. Democracy, like all political systems, is inherently monopolistic and coercive toward dissenting minorities. Direct democracy no less than its representative version. It maintains all the familiar vulnerabilities to capture and rent seeking behavior otherwise so elegantly detailed by economists and political theorists like von Mises. You don’t get to favorably cite someone like Hoppe and then worship the God that Failed.
Let’s also note the irony that Jeff Deist is President of an institution named after an Austrian Jew who narrowly fled the Gestapo to Switzerland, and then later the United States. Far be it for me to suggest that libertarians ought to extend solidarity to victims of state terror, and push hard to maintain the very openness that allowed Mises and others like him to escape with their lives. Even if harboring Jews makes you unpopular with Germans seeking “self-determination”.
Then, as now, fear mongering against immigrants is a common refrain of far-right parties that are surging across Europe. These people are directly responsible for the growth of coercive state power in the countries in which their movements have taken hold. They are also the number one terrorist threat in these societies, their street presence responsible for numerous acts of violence against migrants, Roma, sexual minorities and other such peaceful contracting self-owners. Such pandering to misplaced fears only serves to feed these homegrown threats, which in turn compromises everyone’s security.
Now is not at all the time to give in to cowardice and xenophobia. A decentralized market for security could make great strides in countering terrorism of all varieties, but not if that market is based on moral cowardice or shortsighted populism. Libertarian ideas are meant to have universal applicability and appeal. To reject their application in politically unpopular instances such as this is to reject libertarianism itself. Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.