What is the government’s role regarding immigration and emigration under capitalism?

A capitalist country warmly welcomes all rights respecting individuals regardless of color, religion, sex, nationality, creed, race, etc. The sentiment is expressed in “The New Colossus” a sonnet by American poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the statue of liberty:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Under capitalism, where the right to defense is delegated to the government, it is the government’s responsibility to prevent the entrance of terrorists and other rights-violating individuals from entering the country by securing the nation’s borders — similar in principle to how one secures their house and property.

The implementation of this principle depends on many factors in a given context (which can change over time). The immigration policies of a nation-state under war would be different from one at peace. The immigration policies towards a citizen of a capitalist country (i.e., we have a valid criminal record from a foreign government we trust) would be different than to a citizen from a communist/socialist/theocratic one (i.e., is the immigrant a spy or a political refugee?).

Under capitalism immigration is an asset, as the human mind is the ultimate resource: the more people, the larger the market, the greater the possibilities for the division of labor. Contrast this to socialism, tribalism, and other forms of collectivism, where every additional mouth to feed is a drain on the welfare state’s dwindling resources and ever shrinking pie (see Immigration and The Welfare State.)

The immigration of people into a capitalist country is not a drain on a government’s fiscal budget (and by extension taxpayers), as it is in the American welfare state of today, as there is no government welfare in a capitalist society (only private charity.) The larger the population in a capitalist country, the more specialization is possible, and the greater the benefits from the division of labor (see Immigration and Individual Rights and Immigration Quotas vs. Individual Rights. Note that a later revised version of the second article published elsewhere advocates ‘open borders’ — essentially no borders — which this site does not agree with.)

Similarly, in regards to emigration, a rights-respecting individual is also not prevented from leaving a country (so long as their emigration is not resulting in the violation of the rights of others, or illegally interfering with the government’s ability to protect rights, i.e., smuggling stolen goods outside the country.) Generally, it is communist states — like the former Soviet bloc East Germany and Castro’s Cuba — that have to build walls, not to prevent invaders from entering, insomuch as to prevent “masses yearning to breathe free” from leaving these prison states.

Isn’t immigration a right?

There is no “right” to travel onto someone else’s property without permission of the owner — and by extension, no one has the unlimited “right” to enter a given nation. Such a “right” is in fact a privilege or permission. The freedom of movement (and by extension the right to migrate) is not the right to trespass; it is the right to move unmolested by the government if one is not violating the rights of others. (Similarly, the right to property is not the guarantee to own property, but the right to own the property that one has honestly produced or acquired through voluntary trade.)  The government will neither aid you in your movement (by providing you with transportation) nor will it bar your way (so long as you are not violating the rights of others).

The government’s only concern in regards to immigration (or emigration) is if that migrating individual will respect the laws of the country, i.e., respect individual rights.  Under capitalism, the government is not permitted to ban a rights-respecting individual of a foreign nationality from immigrating into the country — especially if a property owner in that country is welcoming that immigrant onto his property. It is only in this delimited sense that one has the right to immigrate.


Must not an immigrant speak a country’s official language?

Not unless it is in the immigrant’s rational self-interest to do so (and in almost all cases it is, but this is a choice which is left up to the individual). The key issue here in regard to the government is the right to free speech. Government’s job is not to mandate what languages one speaks, no more then it is to mandate the content of what one says.

Should government conduct “ideological profiling” of immigrants?

What is an ideology? An ideology is a set of political-cultural beliefs (ideas) of how society should operate, i.e., conservatism, liberalism, environmentalism, socialism, libertarianism, communism, anarchism, Islamism, etc. In Ayn Rand’s words:

A political ideology is a set of principles aimed at establishing or maintaining a certain social system; it is a program of long-range action, with the principles serving to unify and integrate particular steps into a consistent course. It is only by means of principles that men can project the future and choose their actions accordingly. [ Ayn Rand, “The Wreckage of the Consensus,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal 222]

Government’s job is not to judge ideology, but to judge whether a given immigrant poses an existential threat (of violating the rights of others) by primarily examining the prospective immigrant’s past actions and character — which in some delimited aspects can include ideology, particularly regarding ideologies that advocate terrorism. The critical issue is: where does one objectively draw the line? (It is beyond the scope of this FAQ to completely answer this question, but only to provide some general, and incomplete, thoughts on how this enormously complex question may be answered).

Holding a particular ideology in and of itself is not a violation of individual rights. For example, in a capitalist society, an individual (for instance a Harvard Marxist professor) is allowed to believe in communism and peacefully express and promote that ideology, and in a similar vein, others are free to speak out against him. What an individual is not entitled to do is to initiate physical force to implement that ideology. For example, government action is required to prosecute ‘card-carrying’ members of a communist group that seeks to overthrow the constitution and impose communism by force. (Justice for Elia Kazan and The Big Lie in Hollywood: The Hollywood Ten Were Not Victims But Villains explains why the U.S. government was justified in prosecuting members of the Communist Party in the 1940’s).

The distinction between free speech and freedom of thought and rights-violating action is not always a clear one. For example, terrorist Muslims who used the term ‘jihad’ as a holy war against western civilization as contrasted with secularized Muslims who used the term in a nonviolent personal sense– leading to the problem of equivocation in discussions on the nature of ‘jihad.’ In regards to policy, the terrorist is banned from immigrating; the secularist welcomed.

Those who advocate a broad and extensive scope of ideological profiling by the government must be careful about opening the door in regards to censorship. They believe that once the government is granted the power to judge ideologies, the state will favor their doctrine. The danger, of course, is when their ideology ends up not being in favor (see Censorship in Canada for an ominous example), they will be the ones called domestic terrorists. It will be little consolation to know that it is their policies (bred by their fear of the invasion of foreign ideology) that constructed the ropes they are to be hanged with.

Such ‘ideological profiling’ to the extent that it is used should be severely delimited to searching out those who will commit violations of individual rights, and not as a blunt instrument to collectively ban peaceful individuals by group association.

Leonard Peikoff brilliantly makes this point regarding government enforcement of ideology:

“Government is inherently negative. The power of force is the power of destruction, not of creation, and it must be used accordingly, i.e., only to destroy destruction. For a society to inject this power into any creative realm, spiritual or material, is a lethal contradiction: it is the attempt to use death as a means of sustaining life.

“The above means, first of all, that the state must not intervene in the intellectual or moral life of its citizens. It has no standards to uphold and no benefits to confer in regard to education, literature, art, science, sex (if adult and voluntary), or philosophy. Its function is to protect freedom, not truth or virtue.

“The right to think and act as one chooses necessarily includes the right to choose incorrectly, whether through ignorance or evasion (and then to suffer the consequences). An individual free to choose only what the government authorizes as correct has no freedom. A proper government is based on a definite philosophy, but it can play no role in promoting that philosophy. Such a responsibility belongs to private citizens, who can keep the right system only by exercising “eternal (ideological) vigilance.” If the agency with a monopoly on coercion undertakes to enforce ideas, any ideas, whether true or false, it thereby reverses its function; it becomes the enemy, not the protector, of the free mind and thus loses its moral basis for existing.

“In an intrinsicist or subjectivist approach to philosophy, virtue (along with truth, beauty, and all other human values) is divorced from the mind and therefore is attainable by means of force. In an objective approach, force and value are opposites. The goal of a proper society, accordingly, is not to compel truth or virtue (which would be a contradiction in terms), but to make them possible—by ensuring that men are left free.” [Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand 367]

What about open borders versus closed borders?

A capitalist country secures its borders just like an individual secures their property: borders are closed to rights violating individuals, and open to rights-respecting individuals.

The difference between a country that secures its borders and an individual that secures their home is that under capitalism a private individual can close or open their home/business to whomever they wish, whereas the government is only permitted to close off migration to rights violating individuals.

What degree of security that is implemented depends on the context, i.e., one’s neighbors and neighborhood.