Open Borders

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From the Archives : Originally published April 21st, 2017
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Category : Editorials

Many left libertarians demand open borders. Nations have no significance, they tell us. To think otherwise, to recognize any limits to immigration, arbitrarily restricts people’s liberty. Those of us who think otherwise, they say, are no better than fascists.

Joe Salerno’s brilliant and comprehensive article, “Mises on Nationalism, the Right to Self-Determination, and the Problem of Immigration” shows that Mises rejected the extreme anti-nationalist, open borders position.

As Salerno shows, Mises supported “liberal nationalism,” one of the most important political movements of the 19th century. For him, the choices of individuals were bedrock.   People belonging to a single language community did not want to be ruled by those who spoke a different language. They wanted to form nations in which they could govern themselves.

As Mises said, “[T]he nationality principle includes only the rejection of every overlordship; it demands self-determination, autonomy. Then, however, its content expands; not only freedom but also unity is the watchword. But the desire for national unity, too, is above all thoroughly peaceful. . . . [N]ationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship.”

Why did people want self-rule? Otherwise, they would be dominated by those who spoke another language. They would be like colonial people ruled by an oppressive empire. Because the ruling class spoke another language, minority groups were doomed to be outsiders looking in.

Mises put the point with his usual eloquence: “Cast into the form of statute law, the outcome of [the majority’s] political discussions acquires direct significance for the citizen who speaks a foreign tongue, since he must obey the law; yet he has the feeling that he is excluded from Against the State: An ... Llewellyn Rockwell effective participation in shaping the will of the legislative authority or at least that he is not allowed to cooperate in shaping it to the same extent as those whose native tongue is that of the ruling majority. And when he appears before a magistrate or any administrative official as a party to a suit or petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences. . . . At every turn the member of a national minority is made to feel that he lives among strangers and that he is, even if the letter of the law denies it, a second-class citizen.”

The situation that Mises warned against arose after the Treaty of Versailles and the other unwise treaties that ended World War I. Linguistic minorities were forcibly included in states they didn’t want to join, and the struggle of minorities for self-determination, and resistance to this, helped spark World War II.  The difficulties were not just ones caused by differences in language. Ethnic groups didn’t want to be ruled by people from another ethnic group, especially if the groups had clashed in the past. Each group should be able to have a state of its own, if it wants one.

Mises condemned the suppression of linguistic and ethnic minorities as “militant” or “aggressive” nationalism.

Thus, fears of being overwhelmed by another people cannot be dismissed. Mises expresses this forcefully:  “If the government of these territories [inhabited by members of several nationalities] is not conducted along completely liberal lines, there can be no question of even an approach to equal rights in the treatment of the members of the various national groups. There can then be only rulers and those ruled. The only choice is whether one will be hammer or anvil.”

Mises recognized that immigration promotes the international division of labor, but this point did not end the discussion for him. As Salerno notes, “Mises thus takes the analysis of migration beyond the realm of narrowly economic considerations and brings it into contact with the concrete political reality of the democratic mixed-nation-state and its characteristic suppression and violation of the property rights of national minorities by the majority nation.”

Some open-borderians propose to deal with the nationalities problem in an odd way. In order to prevent the majority group from dominating others, the state must indoctrinate everybody to get them to accept compulsory “tolerance.” Any expression of ethnic pride by the majority is condemned as “racist”, while minorities are coddled and allowed to do what they want. This misguided policy doesn’t end ethnic suppression but merely turns it upside down. It is safe to say that Mises would have looked on this with derision.

Only if we lived in a completely laissez-faire world would the immigration problem come to an end. Then people would be free to associate, or not to associate, as they wish. Until then, people who wish to restrict immigration in order to preserve their own language and culture aren’t unreasonable, according to Mises. The open-borderites cannot claim Mises as one of their own.


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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, editor of, and author of Speaking of Liberty.
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