Crossing an Arbitrary Line: The Libertarian Case for Open Borders

Crossing an Arbitrary Line: The Libertarian Case for Open Borders

The restriction of movement along the borders of the United States is generally accepted as a fact of life, much like the sun rising in the morning and setting at night. Those on the right-wing of the political spectrum typically argue that those who cross the border illegally should face harsh consequences, up to and including jail time or deportation. Those on the left often support relaxing immigration regulation, but both usually agree that some level of enforcement is necessary.

Even many libertarians (and others who claim to be in favor of individual freedom) commonly spout rhetoric about “securing our border.” It is argued that the act of crossing the border illegally is wrong given that, by definition, one must break the law to do so. It is viewed as common sense; illegal immigrants are committing a crime, and because of this, they deserve to be punished. But this position rests on a flawed assumption: the idea that law has any kind of moral authority.

A sizable portion of Americans practice an almost cult-like following of the law, in that they will follow it without moral justification even when they are in no danger of any repercussions. Some are even willing to take this to the extreme of calling the police on others who are hurting no one (such as a neighbor who is smoking marijuana). When challenged, those who advocate this position often say things like “it’s the law” and “you do the crime, you do the time.” They seem to believe that morality derives itself from law and not the other way around.

This argument is easily debunked, unless one believes that the most horrible atrocities committed by governments around the world have been morally justifiable (in which case any discussion of morality will likely be futile). If morality is based on law, it means that anything legal is morally acceptable. In accordance with this, one would have to believe that Stalin’s acts of mass murder, Adolf Hitler’s extermination of Jews and others he deemed to be undesirable, and the actions of any other brutal dictator were permissible; these leaders created and maintained the law and could do as they pleased. It would mean that those who aided runaway slaves in the United States were committing a moral wrong, as the Fugitive Slave Acts made this illegal. It would mean that Middle Eastern countries who execute homosexuals are not doing anything wrong, as said homosexuals are committing a crime. It would also mean that morality varies depending on which country an action occurs in. In the United States, genocide would be morally wrong, but in a country where genocide is legal, it would be perfectly just. Suppose a law is passed legalizing the murder of anyone with green eyes. The law also stipulates that anyone harboring a green-eyed person or attempting to stop their murder will be convicted of a felony. Who is morally wrong in this situation: the person breaking the law or the one following it?

Unless one is willing to defend these previous examples, the idea of law dictating morality must be discarded. Law is simply the decree of those in power; it has no moral authority behind it. Breaking the law, in itself, is morally neutral. There are cases in which breaking the law is morally acceptable, and there are cases in which following the law is morally wrong. One must look at an action independent of law to determine if it is justifiable.

In the case of illegal immigration, a person breaking the law is crossing an arbitrary line. The location of this line has been chosen by a small group of people who have almost definitely never been to the place where the person is crossing. The immigrant is probably committing this action peacefully. If they are not, they are committing a different crime, and their act of crossing a line is not the issue. When someone says that they are in favor of penalizing those who cross the border illegally, they are saying that they want violence (or the threat of violence) used against someone who is aggressing upon the rights of no one. They want an armed police officer or immigration official to detain this person; this detention is done under the assumption that any attempt to run away or any attempted self-defense will be met with escalation on the part of the law enforcer, up to and including lethal force. They want this person to be kidnapped and thrown in a cage, eventually being forcibly moved to the place that they were trying to escape from in the first place. Again, this is all because the previously referenced person crossed an imaginary line, harming no one in the process; anyone who was not conditioned to find this normal from a young age would likely find it to be patently absurd.

Many would respond to my argument with the assertion that illegal immigrants are trespassing on the government’s land; this response shows a lack of understanding of the differences between government “property” and the property of an average person. An average person lives on their property or conducts some sort of business on it; most government officials have never even been to a tenth of the areas that the government claims to own. An average person buys their property or inherits it from a relative; government typically takes it by force. Government can take land, simply because it feels like it, through the process of eminent domain (compensation for “fair market value” is required, but the definition of fair market value is decided by the government). The 2005 Supreme Court case Kelo v New London expanded this even further; it established that the government can take land to sell to private businesses if the government believes this transaction is in the interest of the greater good. This effectively means that government can use eminent domain on almost any land that it wants; it simply has to make the argument it did in Kelo. If any other individual or group of people forced sales in this way, their property ownership would surely be viewed as illegitimate. Government should not be afforded special privileges; the rights of those who participate in it are not more important than the rights of others. A group of people who can choose to own vast swaths of land at will does not fit into a theory of just property ownership.

Many people who are sympathetic to the argument outlined above have one major reservation to the idea of granting amnesty to illegal immigrants: the use of government benefits by illegal immigrants. Libertarians especially say that while they agree with the philosophy of open borders, they can’t support it at the moment because illegal immigrants will take advantage of government programs. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is actually government programs, not immigration, that the anti-immigration libertarian is arguing against. It should make no difference what side of an arbitrary line a person receiving these benefits is from. This categorization of immigrants is a form of the collectivist thinking that libertarians typically argue against. It is generalizing a group of people and taking away their right to freedom of movement in order to prevent a small amount of them from doing something, which is analogous to banning gun ownership for all because someone may commit a gun-related crime. Even citing statistics about the use of government programs by immigrants (regardless of their validity) should not be enough to generalize vastly different people. These people should be viewed as individuals, not groups. Those on one side of a line are no more deserving of life and liberty than those on the other side.

Closed border advocates sometimes argue that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from hard-working Americans. In reality, this is misleading, as illegal immigrants often take low-skilled and low-paying jobs that many Americans would not want in the first place. But even if it were true, this would not be a valid reason to restrict their ability to work. Competition for employment from an illegal immigrant is no more a violation of anyone’s rights than competition from a neighbor. If one wants to ban people from other countries because they may “take jobs”, than why not ban people from other states? Why not ban people from other towns or even other neighborhoods? Being born between the arbitrary lines of another government does not make a person less deserving of opportunity. We should not be basing our identities on the government that rules us, but on our shared experiences as human beings.

Someone who cares deeply about freedom would not advocate for banning free speech in order to maintain order. In that same vein, they should not argue for banning freedom of movement. We should all be wary of vague, consequentialist arguments arguing for the restriction of freedom for our safety or “the greater good.” We also must remember that law is not infallible. It is the duty of good people to disobey laws that trample on our rights and the rights of others.


No Thank You For Your Service: The Fallacy of Troop Worship

No Thank You For Your Service: The Fallacy of Troop Worship

There is a pervasive idea in today’s American society that regardless of political philosophy or party affiliation, one must never criticize the members of the United States military. Conventional wisdom holds that we must appreciate the sacrifice soldiers have made to “fight for our freedom,” and even if one is against the war, they must always “support the troops.” This line of thinking is not coming solely from the pro-war crowd; many of those who consider themselves anti-war (or at least oppose a specific war or conflict) have the utmost regard for those who fight in them. But is this canonization of those who take up arms in the name of the United States government truly just? Or is it a falsehood based on propaganda, emotion, and a lack of critical thinking?

The first myth that must be debunked is the previously-mentioned idea that the job of a soldier is to protect “our freedom.” This assertion is unequivocally untrue. The role of U.S. soldiers, first and foremost, is to obey the orders of their government and commanders, whether these orders support or infringe upon the freedoms of Americans and those in other countries. A soldier is not beholden to the average American, but instead to a small group of people in authority. His job is not to keep us free, but to do what he is told, even if that includes participating in the deaths of innocent people. Propaganda slogans aside (“a government for the people, by the people”), governments are not the people of a country. A soldier is not accountable to us, but to them.

Many troop supporters would also point out that the job of a soldier includes disobeying illegal orders. In theory, this seems like an appropriate safeguard. But in practice, this rarely happens. Take the 2003 Iraq War, for instance, which was viewed by many in the U.S. as an unconstitutional war. The war was also viewed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a violation of international law. In theory, one would have expected a sizable contingent of soldiers to disobey the orders of President George W. Bush and refuse to step foot on Iraqi soil. Instead, a full-fledged invasion was launched. There are numerous other instances of soldiers breaking the law to do what they are told, whether it be the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib or the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. Even for soldiers who refuse to break the law, the legality of a war or order is fairly irrelevant in practice; those who are in power are able to bend the law to their liking, as the Bush administration did when it argued that “enhanced interrogation” (otherwise known as torture) was not in violation of the Geneva Convention. It is entirely possible that an individual soldier could at least attempt to opt out of performing illegal actions. But, there’s a relativity good chance he would be punished instead of commended. Even if he were to succeed without any repercussions, there would still likely be many more soldiers willing to do what he refused to.

The Iraq War is also a relevant example of the falsity of soldiers fighting for our freedom. Saddam Hussein was no threat to the freedoms of everyday Americans. He was not attacking us and had no plans to do so. What American freedoms were at stake in Iraq? The United States government, with its domestic spying, draconian drug laws, and disregard for our civil liberties has done far more to reduce the freedoms of the average American than Saddam Hussein ever did or could have. Yet the war raged on, killing somewhere from 150,000 to 1 million Iraqis (estimates vary) and over 4,000 U.S. soldiers. In reality, the only thing this war did was make Americans less safe. The disposal of Saddam Hussein paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State, which is now viewed as a greater threat to attack the US than Saddam ever was. But beyond that, the killing of civilians (estimated to be more than 100,000 by the Iraq Body Count Project) furthered a problem that the CIA refers to as “blowback.” Blowback is the idea that there are indirect consequences resulting from US military and government actions. In this case, the murder of civilians (dismissed by many as “collateral damage,” as if the victims were less than human) and the destruction of homes from bombings and drone strikes resulted in increased anti-American sentiment, which leads to increased recruitment by terrorist groups and more attacks on innocent people. It’s not hard to imagine why the killing of an innocent family member or friend by a foreign invader could lead to someone having an intense feeling of anger; it only requires us to think of Iraqis as people like us and not statistics. If a foreign invader were bombing American cities and killing civilians, Americans would be rightfully outraged.

Blowback has not just been a problem stemming from the Iraq War; the United States has a long history of meddling in the Middle East. installing dictators (as it did in Iran in 1952), toppling leaders, and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people (if not more) in the process. U.S. interventionism in the Middle East was cited by Osama bin Laden as the main reason for his planning of the 9/11 attacks (they did not simply “hate us for our freedoms”). One would be hard-pressed to find an American war in the last fifty years in which our freedoms were actually being protected. Some would say Afghanistan, as the original purpose was said to be finding those responsible for 9/11. But it quickly turned into a nation-building exercise with many of the qualities of the Iraq War.

Even many of those who would agree that the aforementioned wars have made us less safe and agree that the killing of civilians in war is morally reprehensible believe that soldiers do not deserve any of the blame. They blame solely the politicians who send them to war, and excuse the actions of the soldiers by saying that they’re “just doing their jobs.” Of course, the politicians do deserve a great share of the blame and in no way escape moral responsibility for the atrocities they’ve proposed or supported. But such actions could not occur without members of the military willing to carry them out. If it were true that “doing their jobs” excuses their actions, it would mean that someone getting paid for something (even if that something is morally wrong) automatically makes that action ok, or at least excuses the person from any moral responsibility. If this were true, it would be ok for a contract killer to commit a murder; he’s simply doing his job. It would be ok for a slave-catcher to hunt down, kidnap, and return a runaway slave. A Nazi concentration camp guard would not deserve any blame for shooting those who attempt to run away; he is paid to do so, and he is just trying to feed his family. Of course, this is utter nonsense; individuals are responsible for the choices they make and the actions they commit. Soldiers choose to sign up to kill who they are told to by a government. Soldiers are the ones fighting pre-emptive wars against those who have done nothing to them or their country. Soldiers are the ones bombing hospitals to take out a suspected enemy, even though innocent people will be killed or disfigured in the process. Ultimately, unless someone is coerced into an action under the threat of violence or some other type of harm, that person is responsible for the things they do.

This is not to say that all soldiers, or even most, are bad people. While I’m sure there are a collection of soldiers that delight in exercising their power over others or killing those they view as sub-human (as Chris Kyle, the subject of the movie American Sniper, did), I have no problem asserting that many soldiers believe they are doing the right thing. I am also sure that some do so for selfless reasons, like protecting others. But someone believing that they’re doing the right thing does not mean that they actually are. Many who commit horrific acts do not believe they are doing anything wrong. Members of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups believe that their actions are morally correct; this does not make them so. If soldiers are excused of moral wrongdoing when they aggress upon others because they believe they are protecting our freedoms, one would have to believe al-Qaeda is also excused of moral culpability when they kill innocent people. Every soldier, even the most self-sacrificing, who participates in the war machine shares at least some responsibility. But this is not to say that some don’t join for the benefits, both monetary and otherwise, that they receive. Americans in particular practice a form of troop worship: responding angrily to anyone who dares to criticizes soldiers, thanking soldiers “for their service” without even knowing what they’ve done, and valuing members of the military and veterans as a higher, protected class. Soldiers are also honored at public gatherings and sporting events. Beyond that, soldiers are paid for what they do, and receive benefits such as free or reduced tuition at colleges and universities. They also receive on the job training that can help them in other careers. Regardless of how taboo it is to say in our culture, there are selfish reasons to join the military; a low-skilled worker could create a better future for himself by joining the military than by taking a minimum-wage job.

Americans are taught from a young age in public schools that the government does what is best for us, and as an extension of the government, soldiers are here to protect our freedom. This is a “truth” that many carry with them throughout their lives, never bothering to rethink it and immediately shutting down those who attempt to dispute it. This is not by accident, but instead by design. No one would attempt to disagree that a Catholic school would teach what the Catholic Church would want to be told. No one would disagree that a Jewish school would teach from the viewpoint of Judaism. It is not a stretch to believe that a school run by the government would teach us what the government wants us to believe. Recognizing the differences between logical thought and our preconceived biases is the first step toward ending the reign of the military-industrial complex.