Private Borders: There Won’t Be a Wall Without Government

By Mike Tront

Since the rise of the Trump Movement and the Alt Right, some in the libertarian community are rethinking their stance on borders and immigration.  Traditionally, libertarians believe that the government has no right to restrict people from traveling.  Today many are abandoning that stance in favor of government controlled borders.  Specifically, Trump’s plan to build a massive wall is somehow seen as a legitimate government action.

So how do libertarians morally justify a massive, centralized government border-industrial-complex?  There are two major arguments libertarians typically use to justify themselves here.  The first boils down to “the ends justify the means”.  Higher levels of immigration will equal bigger government, they claim.  Therefore, supporting an endlessly costly big government program and the inevitable Liberties it will trample on is worth it because it will actually REDUCE the size and scope of government.

This seems to be the most popular argument among closed-border libertarians, but that’s not the argument I’m tackling today.  Most of the holes in this stance are tackled very well in this Reason Magazine piece if you’re interested in reading that counter argument.

The other argument, which is the one that I find most compelling, is what I’m tackling today.  It’s the claim that since a world without government would have private borders, it’s not necessarily anti-libertarian to advocate for government controlled borders in the meantime.

Why It’s Compelling

An interesting analogy to the border situation is the fact that even the most hardcore libertarian doesn’t object when the government prosecutes murderers, rapists, and thieves.  The government has a monopoly on criminal prosecution, thereby preventing private actors from legitimately prosecuting criminals and extracting restitution.  Since they are actively preventing private solutions, we have no choice but to at least begrudgingly advocate for the government to do what it can to prosecute these criminals.  We may prefer a private option, but in the meantime we can’t just let these violent criminals run free.

Similarly, the government monopolizes the control of the border.  It owns large swaths of land that border other countries, it owns the roads, and it exercises tremendous control over airports and seaports.  The closed-border libertarians theorize that without government, these points of entry would all be privately owned and therefore owners would be able to restrict and prevent people from entering.  Private land owners would take measures to prevent trespassing.  Airport owners and seaport owners could put whatever restrictions on who can use their service that they like.  And road owners could similarly prevent access to their roads to anyone they please.  Since these owners could restrict who would be able use their property in a free market, closed-border libertarians claim that it’s completely legitimate to advocate for government to enforce similar restrictions in the meantime.

Since we’re willing to accept and even advocate for the government to be involved with prosecuting violent criminals, we should also accept the government exercising control over the borders, the closed-border libertarian could claim.

Where It Falls Apart

While it’s true that private property owners could prevent people from using or traveling on their property in a free market setting, there’s no clear evidence that all owners would want to stop people from certain geographical regions from using their services.  There’s no clear evidence that even a majority of these owners would be so restrictive.  In fact, the more restrictive a firm is, the less money it will make.

Take private airports for example.  On the surface, you would think it’d be easy and cheap to prevent immigration.  An airport could just simply refuse to accept airplanes from certain countries.  Boom.  Problem solved.  Except that someone from a “bad” geographical region could just move to a “good” geographical region and enter the country through their airline.  So the airport would either have to accept that a few “bad” immigrants would get in, or they’d have to spend huge amounts of money to do extensive background/litmus tests on every person coming in from an International flight.  I can’t imagine that they’d opt for the latter solution, especially since they’d have to pass the expense to their customers.

But let’s say, for some reason, the majority of airport owners decide that they don’t like making as much money as possible and they do whatever it takes to stop “bad” immigrants from using their services.  The only thing they will accomplish is raising the profits of their competitors that still allow these people to use their service.  And even if ALL the current airports in the land decide to form some kind of cartel with the intention to heavily restrict foreign flights, this will only embolden some profit-seeking entrepreneur to build a new airport outside of the cartel to take all the previously unwanted business.  And since they’re the only game in town, they’d make tremendous profits.  These huge profits would incentivize other people to build similar airports, or it would incentivize current airports to buck the cartel and start loosening their restrictions.  In a free market, discrimination can be costly.

The same goes for roads.  Yes, some road owners could have some sort of litmus test that they force all their customers to take before using their road, but that can get costly and intrusive for their customers.  The increased costs and intrusive paperwork will restrict the “bad” immigrants, but it will also drive away large amounts of “good” Americans who just want to travel without paying big fees and filling out intrusive paperwork.  Plus, entrepreneurs who are seeking profit are always there to pick up the slack from businesses who refuse or alienate potential customers.

The Wall

But surly The Wall is feasible in a free market, right?  Today we see many examples of gated communities and corporate buildings with walls, fences, tight security, etc.  There are already numerous examples of private walls to protect property, so wouldn’t the invisible hand of the free market lead entrepreneurs to build a wall along a border with a government controlled territory in order to stop its people from trespassing?  No.

The first problem is money.  Private walls are only built, maintained, and guarded in order to protect property that has significant value.  It wouldn’t make sense for someone to build, maintain, and guard a wall if this wall costs more than what the actual property is worth!

We could hypothetically say that a network of walls could happen if the entire border is populated with wealthy, thriving neighborhoods and valuable companies on the “good” side.  These communities could be gated as many are today.  However, any wealthy and thriving community is constantly in need of customers and workers.  The people on the “bad” side could end up being both.  In this case it would be in the best interest of the businesses of the communities to allow access to its services to as many people as possible.  More people also means a wider potential employee pool, which could ensure better employees and better services and prices for members of the communities.  Someone also has to mow the lawns, clean the pools, pick up the trash, and perform any number of menial low-paying jobs.  The homeowners who live in these expensive, gated communities probably aren’t garbagemen and pool cleaners.  Even in this hypothetical world, any private borders that are built would have to be rather porous.  No wall will overcome the demands of commerce.

The other problem is the lack of monopoly.  Unless we’re talking about a very small border, odds are at least some of the property owners on the border won’t erect any barriers.  In fact, just the opposite would happen.  Since this is a free market, if there is a demand for people to travel, entrepreneurs will work to satisfy that demand.  Without a government monopoly, who’s to stop someone from buying land on a border and building roads that charge potential immigrants for using them?  Right now potential immigrants pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, called Coyotaje’s, to get them across the Mexico/U.S. border.  With this much market demand, I can’t imagine entrepreneurs NOT building roads to make profits off people who are in the market to escape their oppressive territory.  The only way to stop private individuals and firms from doing this is if there is a centralized government that has a monopoly on the border.

Freedom of Association

When all else fails, the closed-border libertarian often falls back on the freedom of association.  No one has a right to force them to associate with people’s that they don’t wish to associate with.  They are correct, but that only works on their own private property.  Once you leave your property, and enter someone else’s property, they choose who they would like to associate with.  Freedom of association works both ways.  You get to choose who you’d like to associate with on your property, but you don’t get to dictate to someone else on their property who they get to associate with.  And in a free market setting, whether the closed-border libertarian likes it or not, businesses are incentivized by profit to associate with as many people as possible from as many lands as possible in order to get the most customers and the best employees.  Only a government monopoly can build barriers and walls to stop the movement of people.

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