Friday, April 8, 2016

Borders, Culture, and Decentralization

On the recent edition of Mises Weekends, Jeff Deist interviews Dr. Jörg Guido Hülsmann.  The topic is “Nation, State, and Borders.”  It is a worthwhile interview.  Fair warning: Hülsmann offers views similar to those of Hans Hoppe on these matters.  Quite importantly, he makes the distinction of nation vs. state.  It is a distinction worth internalizing for those who want to consider application of libertarian theory in this world populated by humans.

From the interview, I learned of an essay written by Murray Rothbard in 1994, entitled Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State.  As is often the case, when I discover something of Rothbard’s I find myself torn between excitement and depression: excitement because I have somehow worked my way to a conclusion similar to his, and depression because all I have done is somehow worked my way to a conclusion similar to his.

It is a quick read – ten pages.  I offer only a few highlights:

Libertarians tend to focus on two important units of analysis: the individual and the state. And yet, one of the most dramatic and significant events of our time has been the reemergence-with a bang-in the last five years of a third and much-neglected aspect of the real world, the "nation."

The "nation," of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians and classical liberals such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well.

This “nation” is…culture:

Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture.

…usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions.

To discuss the application of libertarian theory in the real world – a world made up of humans that are born into a family and culture – without recognizing this reality is nonsensical. Theory without recognizing human realities is bad theory.

Rothbard goes on to the issue of political borders, and suggests that God did not lay these down at the creation – there is no reason on earth to consider these permanent and sacred.  He doesn’t write it this way, but this is what he writes.  Secession and decentralization and shifting political borders are both a historical reality and fully consistent with libertarian theory.

Rothbard explains when and why he began to rethink his views on immigration and open borders – he previously took the open borders position:

I began to rethink my views on immigration when, as the Soviet Union collapsed, it became clear that ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these peoples.

Rothbard recall’s Jean Raspail's anti-immigration novel The Camp of the Saints (I offer some thoughts on this novel here).  Government encouraged and subsidized immigration is not libertarian.  Many in the libertarian “open borders” crowd ignore this form of government intervention.

Rothbard, on rethinking his views on immigration in an anarcho-capitalist world, has concluded that as no private property owner has “open borders,” no totally privatized community (or nation) would have open borders either.  I manage my borders.  What does “ownership” even mean if anyone and everyone had access to my property without my consent?

Rothbard would expect to see numerous different communities (or nations), each with their own views on the rules for gaining admission.  Perfectly libertarian, and perfectly in conformance with respect for private property.


Read the essay. 


  1. I think you need to define "borders" as it relates to this conversation. I see one border like the one drawn by our governments between the USA and Canada and Mexico. I see the one that defines the border of my property, I see one that defines the Home Owners Association that some of my friends live in and I see one that defines public property between all the other borders. I can keep anyone out of the borders of my property. An HOA even though private property owned in common may face discrimination charges if they try to keep people out. As long as we have public property we need to protect the borders drawn by government or we could find the public parks and streets full of undesirables. If we privatized all that was public and eliminated the restriction on groups who own property to determine what culture they choose to maintain, and if we had "government by consent of the governed" down to the last man, then we could have open government borders.

    1. Borders are borders - delineating property claims. Just as I manage the borders to my property, my neighbors and I can join to manage the borders of our property - call it an HOA or a line on the map.

      I don't like that today my only alternative to manage the lines on a map is the state - but this reality doesn't trump (only a slight pun intended) the application and extension of libertarian theory.

    2. Borders are like porn. I can't exactly describe to you what porn is but I know it when I see it. Same with borders.

    3. "Public property" is just a euphemism for property owned by the ruling class. There is no need to treat it differently from private property in this respect (the fact it was purchased with stolen money or appropriated is beside the point). It belongs to the rulers, so they control it, just like libertarian theory says they do.

      Of course things that are stolen should be recovered from the thieves, no argument there.

    4. Yes private property is results in better management. However, would you not like to have "public" property in the sense that it is a part of common space and free for the people to use?

      I want parks and public spaces to be open to the people. It can be privately owned but the only reason an owner would engage in such altruism is if he had a connection to the community.

  2. "What does “ownership” even mean if anyone and everyone had access to my property without my consent?"

    This seems to be a straw man, as no open borders advocate disagrees. The question is not about what happens on property you control, but on property that does not belong to you. If you want to exclude Mexicans from your property, that is your business. If your neighbor wants to invite Mexicans onto his, that is his business.

    As to culture, I wrote a short piece here:

    1. Paul

      Read the statement in context; it will relieve your confusion.

      "If your neighbor wants to invite Mexicans onto his, that is his business."

      Strawman - as is your usual practice, you make arguments against positions that I have never taken.

    2. So, we both agree that people should invite whomever they please onto their property.

      It seems the argument is not that immigration should be unregulated (despite the "open borders" moniker), but how it should be regulated. Regulation by wall, by checkpoints on roads, etc. - or regulation by free market (availability of jobs, housing, etc.) that the government has currently suppressed or made unfeasible. The first requires more government and less liberty, the second requires the reverse.

      I suppose the main argument on your side is that culture will be destroyed if we don't act quickly, and we must indulge in a little more government to do it. But as you point out, government IS THE PROBLEM in the first place, providing incentives to move here. Then how reliable are they going to be in stopping the immigration, WITHOUT removing those incentives? Harry Browne wrote a book, "Why Government Doesn't Work", might be worth a review on this point. They are not working for us.

      Another thing is, what culture is being destroyed? This country is full of them. Anyway the English language is not in much danger of dying out.

    3. Paul

      I am troubled that after so much back and forth between us you misunderstand my views.

      How it should be regulated in this real world is the issue - given that states are not allowing for a competitive market on "borders."

      My position on culture is that changes are fine when they evolve naturally - based on immigration driven by voluntary agreements. Culture is destroyed when the government works to do so - in this case by subsidizing immigration.

      Now, I have written all this in short-hand in this comment, but extensively in my many earlier posts. I get the feeling that even though you have commented on many of my earlier posts on this topic, you do not understand my view.

    4. "So, we both agree that people should invite whomever they please onto their property"

      If people remained exclusively on the owners property then in theory its not a problem, but there is no reason to expect that would happen. In order to get to the property they would have to pass through other property. Once on the property they may venture off.

  3. "What does “ownership” even mean if anyone and everyone had access to my property without my consent?" And they only have access because the state has access. You cannot prevent them because you cannot prevent the state. It still seems the libertarian stance is only for the devolution of power over admittance to the locals, rather than espouse the exercise by any given state institution to exercise its current level of jurisdiction, whether with more or less restriction. Such state apparati will surely exercise it regardless, but only with all the accompanying economic tribulations of any monopoly provider: a decreasing quality of goods at an increasing price. Legitimate property holders will increasingly be made to host those whom they do not want, or be prevented from hosting those whom they do want, until the monopoly privilege of decision-making is extinguished in the minds of the ruled.

    This whole discussion seems to have progressed little beyond one side being against "open-borders" and the other being against "closed-borders". Most hits seem to land, but on straw-men.

    1. "This whole discussion seems to have progressed little beyond one side being against "open-borders" and the other being against "closed-borders"."

      Yes it has, at least at this blog. The last two paragraphs of the above post should make this clear (in case you haven't seen the half-dozen other things I have written on this topic).

  4. The idea of "nation" is bunk. Its derived from free market associations and is not good nor bad, it cannot act, it cannot be protected without the initiation of force. Either there is a government border or a private border. There is no other option. If you believe in private property as absolute, there should be no state borders. Thats is what we call open borders, irrelevant to whether the private border is open or closed.

    1. "The idea of "nation" is bunk."

      This might be correct in a lab experiment conducted by the uninformed. You will understand that there are several billion people who disagree with you, of course.

    2. I don't want to quibble but private closed borders are called closed borders, not open borders. You don't get to reverse meanings just because it's convenient.

  5. The 'open borders' people do not advocate for the right of individuals to enter into private property without the owner's consent.

    They simply posit that national borders are temporary political fictions, and that (for example) if I pay for a hotel room in London, I should be able to turn up in London and use the room I paid for, without seeking the permission of the UK (or Australian) political class.

    My ability to to enter and leave any piece of dirt on this earth should be determined entirely by my ability to negotiate a contract with a private property-owner in the destination dirt.

    (Leave aside, for the moment, what that means for people near the destination dirt who do not own real property - namely, differential treatment: non-owners get no say in who lives on or near the dirt, while owners may get a say - so non-owners get no role in determining the mix in their nation's dirt).

    And of course if there is unowned dirt, I should be able to get to it without hindrance - so long as I get agreements from owners of intervening dirt on which I need to touch down (if the empty dirt has a runway, I should be able to get there without question).

    Now go the next, important step: in my example, who pays what to whom if
    (1) all roads between Heathrow (or Gatwick) and the hotel were private and
    (2) one or more owners of those roads specifically forbids me from travelling on their road (irrespective of my willingness to pay)?

    Generally, in a market-driven case, one of two things would be the case:
    (1) the road-owners would not care about who used their roads so long as they paid the toll (this is the most likely); or,
    (2) there would be a clause in the rental agreement indemnifying the landlord from damages if the road-owners prevented one of his guests from arriving (the landlord would still be required to refund monies paid since the contracted service was not delivered).

    Case (2) would mean that rates of return on being a landlord would be lower than they otherwise would have been, because anyone who needs to traverse a private road faces an actuarially-determinable* risk of exclusion, and so must factor that into their reservation price for the accommodation in question.

    Note that with government roads and checkpoints between airports and landlords, the risk of exclusion of patrons is much much much MUCH higher than it would be in a purely-private setting - and that increased exclusion risk has nothing whatsoever to do with security.

    Anyhow... that's a much clearer statement (with an example, no less) of what theoretical libertarians mean when they say 'open borders'.

    *: actuarially-determinable on the basis of known prior exclusions in toto, and - if reasons are given for individual exclusions - the extent to which the potential guest's profile includes those reasons.

    1. "Anyhow... that's a much clearer statement (with an example, no less) of what theoretical libertarians mean when they say 'open borders'."

      The theoretical case is obvious; it is the application in this world that is problematic. There is no answer to be derived via a pure application of the NAP.

  6. I really like this line of inquiry you have been pursuing lately. The evolution of the argument beyond theory is a very important and long-neglected aspect of realizing the NAP.

    The idea of Nation as an extension of culture is a great insight. Some people have characterized nations, countries, as a sort of extended tribal structure with all that implies. A shared culture in other words. Extending this concept of shared culture defining geographic boundaries should be an easy sell eventually. This is one of the things savagely attacked by "Globalists" as ethnic cleansing in the post-WWII propaganda era, and has been directly challenged by Putin recently in his comments on Ukraine. So the idea is afoot once again.

    If not shared culture, then how shall people organize themselves? Forcing the anti-culture people to answer this will reveal the underpinnings of their argument, which is Statism (top down control) and force without consent dictated by a ruling class. The fact is there is still culture at work with the Statist system, an old culture of aristocracy and classism. But Statist adherents believe it is a magical machine that fairly imposes laws on all subjects.

    Unfortunately the cognitive dissonance caused by the revelation that we live in an old school world of haves and have nots seems to inspire the Statist believers to deeper religiosity and defense of their faith rather than questioning their masters- up to a point. There is something about the American psyche that rejects it on a deep level, and I think that is what we are trying to kindle with these discussions. Bring it out, before they breed it out with time and erasure of history.

    What is often lost in this is just how much we have unintentionally moved from the area of nation to accepting State-As-All and rejecting our own culture in recent years. This, to the point where we adopt language specific to the latter when referring to the former, and become unable to criticize the State from an outside perspective. This gives the criticism the hollow ring which seems to plague many of the libertarian writers lately.

    In the mind of the reader it can impose a feeling of sour grapes, or sound like a spoiled child rejecting a parent. To the mind of someone who has not questioned the State up to that point, it is a tough sell to begin with.. It's difficult to write for these two audiences in the same piece but it's almost unavoidable when you publish to the internet.

    I think you are on the right track with this, like you mentioned with Rothbard having gone down this path before. There's no shame in rediscovering and supporting correct conclusions from other free thinkers but you experience that sort of bittersweet emotion, as you wrote. I think a lot of us can relate to that and it's nice to see someone expressing these kinds of sentiments as a preface to their articles. It humanizes things in an area where people tend to become dogmatic and lose the audience.

    1. “If not shared culture, then how shall people organize themselves? Forcing the anti-culture people to answer this will reveal the underpinnings of their argument, which is Statism (top down control) and force without consent dictated by a ruling class.”

      You have just summarized 20,000 of my words into a simple question and a paragraph. This is very well said. Destroy culture and a powerful vacuum is created for the state to step in – it is easy to understand why the state works so hard to destroy culture.

      “This, to the point where we adopt language specific to the latter [state-as-all] when referring to the former [nation]…”

      Hence “my country” means “my government” for too many people. “What? You don’t love your country?”

      “…it's nice to see someone expressing these kinds of sentiments as a preface to their articles.”

      Thank you; this is very considerate.

  7. Todays culture warrior is tomorrows collectivist authoritarian.