Blogs > Liberty and Power > Immigration, Secession, and Taxation

May 23, 2007 11:24 pm

Immigration, Secession, and Taxation

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

1. A frequent argument against secession is: What about the tax money that the rest of the country has invested in the would-be secessionist region for infrastructure, education, security, etc.? A region shouldn’t be allowed to secede until it first pays back the full costs of those investments.

Now many things could be said in response to this objection: do these investments really outweigh the costs, direct or indirect, that the larger unit has been imposing on the region? to what extent did the region voluntarily solicit these investments? and so on.

But I want to offer a somewhat different response. Suppose this argument is a good one. Then by the same logic it should be justifiable to forbid individuals to leave the country. Let’s say I want to move to Canada, and the U.S. government says, “Not so fast – we paid for part of your education, we’ve protected you from criminals and foreign invaders, and now you can’t leave the country until you first pay back our investment.”

Now some countries have indeed had just such a policy – the Soviet Union, for example. But nowadays hardly anyone, including opponents of secession, is willing to embrace the idea of forbidding emigration. So if a history of tax-funded investment isn’t legitimate grounds for forbidding emigration, why is it grounds for forbidding secession? What’s the difference? Why should the principle of “consent of the governed” apply in one case and not in the other?

If the claim to a return on tax-funded investment doesn’t justify a prohibition on emigration (and I agree that it doesn’t), I don’t see how it can justify a prohibition on secession.

2. A frequent argument against open borders (strikingly similar to the anti-secession argument above, though not necessarily offered by the same people) is: What about the tax-funded benefits, such as welfare and education, that immigrants become eligible to receive? So long as immigrants can draw on these benefits, don’t those who pay the taxes have the right to demand that immigrants be excluded from the country?

Here too, many things could be said in response to this argument: is the average immigrant really a net tax-recipient rather than a net taxpayer? and so on. But here too, I want to offer a somewhat different response.

Suppose this argument for forbidding entry by those who would probably become net tax-recipients is a good one. Why wouldn’t it be an equally good argument for deporting native-born citizens who are likewise net tax-recipients? Now most proponents of restrictions on immigration don’t favour deporting existing U.S.-born welfare recipients. But again, what’s the difference? How can the right of net taxpayers to defend themselves against net tax-recipients depend on where the net tax-recipients were born?

Just as in the secession case, so here, if tax-based considerations don’t justify compulsory emigration (and I agree that they don’t), I don’t see how they can justify compulsory non-immigration.

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Roderick T. Long - 7/2/2007


Otto M. Kerner - 5/25/2007

I agree completely, but I think this is a bit beside the point in most cases, because, I suspect, very few immigration restrictionists are interested in justifying immigration restriction. They are interested in strategising on the basis of "us" vs. "them". Contrary to what I had long assumed, "us" does not need to be any kind of rational category -- it is a gang assembled for the practical purpose of inter-group competition. Now, (accordingly to the conventional view) the people who are already members of the gang must be treated with a certain amount of dignity. You can't just kick them out, because that would turn the members of the in-group against each other. But this certainly doesn't mean that the members are committed to treating everybody in the world fairly -- on the contrary, the whole point of the in-group is to compete effectively against others (not necessarily through violent competition, of course). The question of immigration, then, is entirely a question of which immigrants, if any, will bring the most benefit to the current members.

As a P.S., I think open borders is the most radical libertarian policy position. The concept of "this is our land, where our people live" is deeply ingrained in people's thinking, especially among settled peoples. I would almost like to salvage it for libertarianism, but I don't think it can be salvaged, at least not around here. If "peoples" own a right to the integrity of their territory, and if we apply this on a basis more consistent than simply "might makes right", then all the land in North America must be surrendered to the various Indian tribal governments.

Anthony Gregory - 5/24/2007

Great points, Roderick.