Anarchocapitalism and Open Borders

May 24th, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

In the world of Libertarianism, there are five great names that those who know libertarian history will recognize instantly: Freidrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard.  Of those five, Ayn Rand is perhaps the most controversial in the world at large due to some aspects of her personal life, some of the language she used in spreading her philosophy, the extreme reactions many critics had in response to her seminal works, and the sheer obduracy with which she clung to her radical beliefs despite the storm of fury that rose against her.  But when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts of the political system, I would have to call Murray Rothbard the most extreme of the five, as he was an actual anarchist who believed in competition for everything, even things such as defense and the courts, which are the most basic and essential functions of government.

Most Libertarians are not anarchocapitalists; that is, they do not believe that defense agencies should compete for customers in the same physical jurisdiction.  But in a certain sense I think Murray Rothbard was correct after all, for what else could you call a world of countries with open borders but a world of competing defense agencies, where people choose their governments by voting with their feet?  After all, isn’t one of the most obvious signs of America’s success the fact that people have been attempting to bang down the door for almost its entire existence?  Certainly one of the most obvious signs of the failure of Communism was the Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of the fact that the Soviet Union was such a horrible place to live that the only way the government could stop its own people from fleeing was by shooting them.

The organization of the United States followed the same basic principle.  By putting as few powers as possible into the hands of the federal government and explicitly leaving all other powers in the hands of the people and the states, the Founders created a country where every administrative jurisdiction would have to make their state a good place to live if they wanted to keep their residents.  Wide differences in voting laws, gun laws, education laws, and other areas of daily life may be irritating for those who wish to travel and do business in states other than their own, but they serve the essential purpose of keeping the country from descending into tyranny by making sure that any state which tries will promptly lose its citizens to a state which behaves more responsibly with respect to its powers and its people.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond theorized that the ultimate reason why Europe ended up dominating the world was because its geographical setup was such that individual people could travel fairly easily and information could spread between countries quickly, but large, unified kingdoms were difficult to create and rule.  This meant that governments could not bear down too hard on its citizens, for fear that those citizens would flee to other lands.  It also meant that if an entrepreneur or inventor came to a monarch in one country with an idea, the monarch would not only have an incentive to hear the person out in the hopes that accepting that idea would put his country above the others of Europe, but he would also have to worry about what might happen if he didn’t hear the innovater out but another monarch did.  This is perhaps the most likely explanation as to why the ideas of freedom ended up originating in Europe and not Asia or the Americas.  The layout of Europe was such that European monarchs were forced to allow their citizens a certain degree of freedom by default, which in turn created the conditions which led to the Enlightenment and the evolution of governments that operated on the premise of freedom by principle.

When you define anarchocapitalism as various defense agencies competing for the patronage of people in the same physical area, then the idea of competing governments quickly becomes a recipe for disaster because it wouldn’t take long for two defense agencies to get into a fight with each other over who had jurisdiction over a case.  But if you define it as various governments being given monopoly over a specific physical area in a world where people are free to openly travel between jurisdictions, then I view the idea of competing defense agencies as one of the best possible guards against tyranny.  In a world with simple, uniform rules for the switching of allegiances from one country to another, governments could make up whatever rules they pleased, but if they didn’t govern in a way their citizens could live with they would eventually find that they had very few people left to enforce those rules upon. The major fault in such a system, of course, is the possibility of two countries taking up force of arms against each other.  But countries which provide basic rights to their citizens seldom have reason to attack each other.  Conquest and confiscation of wealth may gain one riches in the short term, but in the long term individual freedom and peaceful trade are far more profitable for all concerned.

In fact, the only system that I would view as better than a world of competing countries and open borders would be a world government whose sole purpose was to prevent the use of force between various jurisdictions, arbitrate disputes between jurisdictions, and enforce simple, uniform rules for the transfer of individuals between jurisdictions.  But I doubt we’ll ever see a policy that liberal out of the current U.N.


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4 Responses to “Anarchocapitalism and Open Borders”



  1. Tom Carter |

    I’ve always throught that anarcho-capitalism is an oxymoron of the purest sort. The simple fact that most libertarians and some conservatives (but surprisingly few actual businessmen) don’t understand is that capitalism can’t function outside the framework of rules, protection of rights, and protection of private property that governments provide. The anarcho-capitalist would replace these essential functions with private, competitive defense organizations that would provide the protected environment capitalism requires. That would lead, of course, to vigilantism, vengeance, and a mafia-ized world. It’s totally impractical and impossible to operationalize, of course, but that’s the idea.

    The alternative discussed here includes states having a monopoly within specified geographic areas — that’s called sovereignty, and it already exists. The other ingredient is open borders, where people could move from one nation-state to another, depending on how well they like the governments. That’s as impossible as world government because it ignores a very long list of realities that would absolutely prevent it from ever happening. These include, but certainly aren’t limited to: family, clan, tribe, social, and cultural ties that are found, to one degree or another, in every segment of human civilization; vast differences in the productivity and creativity of national groups (compare Germans and Nigerians, for example); economic arrangements that can’t work well across significantly disparate societies and cultures (look at the EU/euro problems of today, for example); the necessity of protected national borders for everything from trade promotion/restriction to the demands of national defense; and on and on.

    There’s also a rather significant misunderstanding (or confusion) about European history, apparently on Diamond’s part. The only sense in which the argument could be made — but not validly — would be to restrict it to the past century or less, when there actually was some freedom of movement of populations in Europe. In earlier periods, which must be what we’re talking about with discussion of the formation of “unified kingdoms,” the vast majority of people were not free to travel among competing kingdoms. Most were tied to the land and virtually owned by the nobles and gentry who controlled the land. Small principalities survived for a very long time not because they competed successfully with the principality next door but because they controlled their population almost absolutely. In the 19th century, the movement toward a more unified Europe, with fewer small governmental units and established nation-states (particularly modern Germany and Italy), was pretty much completed. So, the thread of argument in the article is not historically accurate and doesn’t indicate any support for the concept of anarcho-capitalism, however modified.

    I love libertarians. They make interesting gut-level arguments, but for the most part they’ve never actually worked in politics and policy making, and they don’t understand that politics is the art of the possible. The few who have made it into positions of public responsibility (e.g., Ron Paul) are generally eccentrics who haven’t made a difference. But, if you want to hear and read fascinating stories of utopian societies in some sort of imaginary land that has never existed and will never exist, then libertarianism is the best source.


  2. Brian Bagent |

    I’ve always thought anarcho-syndicalist communes were the way to go.

    “Help, help, I’m being repressed! Come see the violence inherent in the system.”

    “Bloody peasant.”


  3. larry ennis |

    Brianna
    I read your piece several times. At the risk of sounding backwards, I’m confused. The conditions and the outcomes you describe worked in Europe in times past but wouldn’t have a chance today. I agree with your sentiments on the U.N. and its lack of power. Not surprising when you consider that the U.N. gets it police powers from the very people it is supposed to police.
    Escaping the rule of an oppressive government is not so easy in this country. Mexico despite their inability to stop their citizens from crossing into this country take a dim view of U.S. citizens showing up in Mexico. Canada although not as inhospitable as Mexico wears thin very quickly. Even large cities like Toronto have little to offer to anyone not akin to a socialist environment.
    U.S.citizens are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard spot. We have nowhere to go if we foolishly allow a bad government to usurp power. Either way we are cornered with no escape. People forced to their knee’s and with no where to go will invariably become “subjects” or patriots.


  4. Brianna |

    …The other ingredient is open borders, where people could move from one nation-state to another, depending on how well they like the governments. That’s as impossible as world government because it ignores a very long list of realities that would absolutely prevent it from ever happening. These include, but certainly aren’t limited to: family, clan, tribe, social, and cultural ties that are found, to one degree or another, in every segment of human civilization;

    > People might not choose to leave a country because of ties, but those ties do not forbid them to leave.

    vast differences in the productivity and creativity of national groups (compare Germans and Nigerians, for example);

    >A difference in productivity between Nigerian and Germany does not prevent a Nigerian from moving to Germany to get an education, or a German starting a business in Nigeria due to a good opportunity.

    economic arrangements that can’t work well across significantly disparate societies and cultures (look at the EU/euro problems of today, for example)

    > The euro is, I believe, as much meant to harmonize between borders as promote open trade. After all, fact that the Euro would prevent countries from controlling their own currency was well known when the Euro was formed, which was undoubtedly why Britain was wise enough to keep the pound. If the current economic problems in Europe do not lead to greater centralization of monetary policy rather than greater liberalization and independent sovereignty of the Euro countries, I will be very shocked.

    > As for the subject of harmonization itself, I’ll get around to it. Eventually.

    the necessity of protected national borders for everything from trade promotion/restriction

    > I do not think that national borders need to be or should be protected from trade. Nor do I think that restrictions on imports/exports would necessarily lead to restrictions on the inflow/outgo of individual citizens.

    to the demands of national defense

    > A call for open borders does not mean that a government does not have the right to secure and control those borders. It just means that peaceable citizens who want to move to or do business in another jurisdiction should be able to proceed in a simple and straghtfoward manner. I actually think that open borders would in some ways help national defense, since when the only people who can’t get in illegally are the criminals, it makes the prosecution of illegals for entering illegally much easier and cleaner than it would be under our current, utterly screwed up policies.

    The only sense in which the argument could be made — but not validly — would be to restrict it to the past century or less, when there actually was some freedom of movement of populations in Europe.

    > I am aware that many people of Europe did not enjoy freedom of movement in the days before the 19th century. My argument is that enough of them did to make a difference. For example, when Columbus was rejected at Portugal, he was free to make his case to Spain, which eventually granted his request, thus throwing itself far ahead of the other countries in Europe with a single lucky leap and (for better or worse) indelibly changing the world. Contrast this with China in the 15th century, where the emperor was able to end the amazing Chinese exploratory voyages by fiat, and it was done. Where did Zheng He go to fund his voyages when the emperor told him to stop sailing? Nowhere, because there was nowhere to go. Freedom is like literacy. You do not have to have very many literate people in a society for that society to reap the vast majority of the benefits and advantages of literacy, and you do not have to have very much freedom in order to benefit from it and perceive its value.

    In the 19th century, the movement toward a more unified Europe, with fewer small governmental units and established nation-states (particularly modern Germany and Italy), was pretty much completed.

    > I would argue that it has gotten to the point where Europe has become almost too unified. One of the points of open borders is choice, which gets defeated when countries get tied too close together. Certainly the results of the Euro policy and the fact that one of the main problems with Greece is that it no longer controls its own currency would bear me out on that one. But in the 19th century, I would say that the degree of unification between European countries was just about right. We tend to think of globalization as a modern phenomenon, but we often fail to realize that before WWI Europe, and espeically Britan, were already quite globalized even if they did have to use ships instead of planes. Note that the late 19th century was also a period of massive immigration and freedom of movement between borders.

    “Small principalities survived for a very long time not because they competed successfully with the principality next door but because they controlled their population almost absolutely.”

    > You do England a grave disservice. Also Switzerland, and if I remember correctly, Denmark.


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