In recent months, borders and migration have been much in the news. This is a subject, on which I find myself disagreeing with traditionalists, conservatives and even many libertarians. For, as I wrote in an essay on the Libertarian Alliance (LA) forum back in 2013 : “I favour not so much open borders, as no borders – at least, no political borders, and so no barriers to migration.”
So, a few months ago I set myself to try to understand more fully the ideas of those on the other side of this issue. I owe thanks, first, to Keir Martland for his part in a most illuminating discussion in a comment thread on the LA website in late July. And second, to John Kersey for his clear enunciation of a traditionalist position in his speech to the Traditional Britain Group on 12th September 2015 . This essay is, in part, a reply to John’s views as there expressed.
Let me begin by asking: Why should I, an avowed radical, bother what conservatives think? The answer is simple; I share many values with them. For the part of me, which looks to the past for inspiration, sees great worth in the ideas of the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment. Some of these values are: Reason and the pursuit of science. Toleration of difference, most of all in religion. The idea that society exists for the individual, not the individual for society. The idea that human beings are naturally good. Freedom of thought and action. Natural rights and human dignity. Government for the benefit of the governed. Formal equality and the rule of law. A desire for human progress, and a rational optimism for the future.
I would hope that most conservatives today, even those on the further right, would agree with many if not all of these values. And, indeed, with many of my views on what constitutes civil or virtuous conduct. Such as: independence and self-reliance; seeking and telling truth; peacefulness and non-aggression; taking responsibility for one’s actions; respect for property, privacy and other human rights; economic productivity and trade; honesty and integrity.
Moreover, conservatives and I share many enemies; socialists and greens the most obvious among them. So, it’s important to me to try to understand why, on the subject of borders and migration, my view is so far away from people with whom I can agree in so many other ways.
I think that one root of the issue, at least, may lie in a difference in our understanding of what community is. One message I took home from my discussion with Keir is that English conservatives feel a strong attachment to something they call the community, or sometimes “the people.” This seems to be, specifically, a political community; and it’s coterminous with, if not exactly the same as, the state commonly called “Britain” or “the UK.”
In contrast, for me, there’s no such thing as the community. I see each human being as a member of many different communities. (For example, the brass band I play in is one. The LA blogosphere is another). No single one among these communities can be dignified with the definite article the.
Here’s my conception of community. I see the word as having two derivations. First, as a group of people who have things in common. And second, from com- and the Latin munire, to fortify, so meaning sharing walls. Thus, I think of a community as being defined by two aspects: binding forces, which hold the people of the community together; and walls, which separate them from those outside.
I recognize communities at several levels. First, the community of one, the individual; bound together by personality, and walled by human rights. Next, partnerships and marriages, bound together by voluntary contract. Then families, bound together by kinship. The marketplace, bound together by mutual trade. And societies, bound together by shared purpose and sense of belonging. (These include communes, the word I use for societies walled in by geographical boundaries as well as by membership. Monasteries and university colleges are examples of communes).
At the highest level comes what I call Civilization. Civilization is bound together by shared values of, and a shared commitment to, civil behaviour. And it’s walled, not by any geographical boundary, but by a strong distaste for uncivility and for those that practise it. If there was anything I could call the community, it would be this – as yet, unrealized – Civilization.
In my scheme, there’s no place for a political community. Indeed, as I put it back in 2007 : “Any community, of which I could feel a part, would blackball most, if not all, of today's politicians, and many of their toadies.” I feel no sense of community or shared culture with Blair, Brown or Cameron, or with any of their cronies or hangers-on. Far from sharing my values like truth, honesty, non-aggression and respect for individual rights, they actively flout them. Blair, Brown, Cameron and their kind are no more my fellows than Hitler or Stalin would have been.
As to the state, I see its claim of sovereignty, and the moral privileges it arrogates to itself, as incompatible with moral equality, and so with the rule of law and justice. Thus, I reject the state as : “a hangover from a way of thinking that pre-dates John Locke by 100+ years.” And that’s why I say, of the UK state: bugger bloody Britain.
Property and land
Now I’ll backtrack a little way, and talk about property; specifically, land. Early in his talk, John Kersey says that freedom and civilization are based on the premise that land should be privately owned. I heartily agree; indeed, I go further. For me, all containable resources both can and should be privately owned; that is, by individuals or by voluntary societies. This includes areas of land and water, goods and chattels, and even some animals. (But it doesn’t include human beings. This is because humans, being moral agents, can’t be legitimately owned by anyone).
Items of real property, including land and buildings, confer on their owners certain rights. The most important of these, for the purpose of this discussion, is the right to set boundaries around and, at need, within the property. That is, to make and to enforce rules on access to the property, including which parts of it may be accessed by whom, when and for what purposes. Where the property is individually owned, these rules are up to the owner. Where the owner is a group of people, the rules will be agreed in some way among the group.
However, property can also place responsibilities on its owners, as well as giving them rights. For example, someone who buys a gun acquires a responsibility not to use it to shoot innocent people! Succinctly put, property must be used with propriety.
This is also important in the case of land. I see an ethical obligation of all landowners, which I call “non-encirclement.” This means that you must not use your property (either alone or with others) to surround someone else’s, and so to imprison them or to prevent them receiving visitors. And more generally, your right in your land is not so absolute that you can forbid others entirely to pass, peacefully and quietly, across your land if they have no other reasonable way to where they want to go. After all, if you stop them crossing your land, there’s nothing to prevent them doing the same thing, tit-for-tat, to you.
Private and public space
In the 2013 essay I referred to earlier, I built a picture of how borders might exist in a world based on libertarian principles. This included a general presumption of freedom of movement along defined routes (easements), even across property owned by others. In fact, this is not far away from how rights of way in the UK evolved in the first place. Bruce Benson has written a most interesting monograph  detailing, among much else, how the UK road system came about, and the shambles which on several occasions resulted from political interference by kings and others.
So, as I wrote back in 2013: “In a libertarian world, land (and water, too) would, I think, become divided into two types of space. There would be private (owned) space, with borders and designated easements. And there would be public (open to all) space, made up of those easements. Furthermore, I expect there would be, ultimately, only one public space, which would be connected. That is, any point of it would be accessible from any other without leaving the public space.”
There’s no place, in this picture, for any borders inside the public space. The only valid boundaries are those which arise from the property rights of individuals, groups, societies or communes. And these boundaries are all either at the edges of, or within, private spaces.
Moreover, these boundaries can only restrict movement from the public space (or from others’ private spaces) into private space, not in the opposite direction. Thus, absent good reasons to deny access to it to specific individuals (for example, to those convicted of serious crimes and thereby sentenced to incarceration), the public space must be open to all, without exception. And once an individual is legitimately in the public space, he has the right to go anywhere in the public space.
Next, I’ll give an example of a society which has a border, and controls who may cross it, but in a way which doesn’t contradict libertarian principles.
Consider a group of people living in an area subject to incursions by warlike, marauding tribes. Growing tired of predations, they decide to work together to erect defences. They form a City Wall Society. The purpose of this society is to build, and to maintain, walls for the defence of the people inside, and gates for passage. All those living inside must be members of the CWS, and pay their share for its upkeep. There will be associate members, too. For example, farmers whose lands are outside the gates, but who have the right to take shelter in the city at need.
Here, we have an embryonic city state. The City Wall Society owns the walls and the gates, and sets rules as to who may be allowed to pass into the city, when and for what purposes. These rules would, for example, secure permanent residence for all full members of the CWS and their dependants. They would allow temporary entry to those specifically invited in by inhabitants of the city. And they would allow for visits, regular or one-off, by tradesmen from outside. Moreover, due to the principle of non-encirclement, no-one would ever be denied exit from the city without very good reason, such as a substantiated accusation of a real crime.
This is a political society, in the strict meaning of the word; it’s a society of the city. And such a community, if its walls and its people are sufficiently strong, could last for a long time. For the city brings an important value, defence against external enemies, to each and every inhabitant and associate. And so, every person in the community has a strong incentive to continue as a member of it, and to do what he can for it.
Now, let’s consider what happens after a most unfortunate occurrence overtakes our city. A besieging king has contrived, perhaps by stratagem, or perhaps by the sheer number and military strength of his warriors, to enter into the city and to take possession of it. He and his cronies have become a ruling class in the city and its environs.
From outside, the city looks little different. As before, some are allowed in, and others not. And the City Wall Society continues to maintain the walls and gates. But inside, there has been a huge change. No longer can individual inhabitants of the city invite in their friends from outside as they wish. The ruling class must approve all such invitations. And no longer is the work of the CWS paid for directly by its members. Instead, the king and his cronies tax the people; then, having taken their (substantial) cut, they pass on to the CWS what it needs to do its work.
Something fundamental and rather nasty has happened here. Property has been replaced by sovereignty.
Let me elucidate. The walls and gates are no longer the property of the City Wall Society. Instead, the king and his ruling class claim ownership of the entire city, including its borders. The property rights of individuals and societies no longer exist. Or, at best, they’re regarded as leases from the king’s “eminent domain.”
And not only have property rights been lost or severely damaged in the transition from a free people’s city to a royal state. But the principle of non-encirclement has been lost, too.
I’ve already written, in no uncertain terms, about what I think of sovereignty . Here, I will add one thing. While boundaries of property are a one way filter, borders of sovereignty are two way. Not only can the king keep out of his city those he dislikes. But he can also forcibly keep in those he chooses to. For example, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe has pointed out , prior to 1824 the emigration of skilled workers from England was illegal.
When a king and his ruling class take over a city, the fox is in the hen-house. More; the fox controls the hen-house. Now, it’s true that some of the foxes are a bit less evil than others. On rare occasions, the interests of the ruling class can coincide for a while with the interests of the ruled; the UK from around 1830 to 1901 is an example. To live in a state during an empire-building phase isn’t so bad. But for traditionalists to hark back to such a time, and to claim that going back there is the only way forward, is... the nicest word I can find is myopic.
Living under monarchy palls after a while. People start to ask, why should a king and a ruling class have a right to do to us exactly what they want? And why should we put up with it? So they form a society, with the purpose of overthrowing the rulers. They can readily find two binding forces for such a society. First, a shared culture. And second, to a greater or lesser degree, a common ancestry and shared racial characteristics. Thus, a nation is born. It’s at this point that the idea of “the community” comes into being.
Against a dynamic as strong as nationalism, few monarchies can stand. The king may be unseated entirely, or relegated to a ceremonial role. But, importantly, the power of the ruling class as a whole is not broken; nor is its sovereignty destroyed. Indeed, by exploiting for their own gain the new feeling of “we” among the people, the ruling class can actually increase its power. And as to borders, nationalism makes them more important, not less. The xenophobic nation state is up and running.
Many countries, particularly those in which democracy has not yet been tried or in which it has never been any more than a false front, are today still stuck in this nation state phase. Others, most of all those with a history of liberal values, proceed to the next stage of social disintegration; democracy.
In the same spirit as Gary Chartier’s three kinds of capitalism , I’ll here offer you my four phases of democracy.
Democracy-1 is the honeymoon period. People are happy to have (at least apparently) a say in how their lives are governed. Everything seems fresh and new, and anything seems possible. I noticed, at a recent conference in Bali, that many Asian libertarians seem to be “in love” with democracy in this way. I’ve also noticed that this phase can often result in political frivolities, such as the Beer Lovers’ Party winning 16 parliamentary seats at the 1991 elections in Poland.
But honeymoons don’t last. It isn’t long before political factions emerge, looking to take advantage of the situation. The result is what I call democracy-2. In this phase, two factions each form a group of core supporters, and promote policies designed to favour their own supporters at the expense of everyone else. People who don’t feel a strong attachment to either of the factions will tend to support whichever side seems less evil at the time. And this, as often as not, is the faction currently out of power.
Minor parties can also attract such people; so, they can flourish for a time. But rarely do they get big enough to acquire any chance of real power. Thus, as long as democracy-2 lasts, power tends to swing from one side to the other and back again. The social fabric becomes more and more stretched, and the tone of politics becomes nastier and nastier.
In the UK, democracy-2 was the norm for a period stretching roughly from the 1920s to the 1980s. It was the norm for several decades in the USA, too. Many people, particularly conservatives, seem to think that we still live under that system. But the reality is otherwise. For in the 1980s – I think I can date it to a particular year, 1987, but that’s a long story and one for another day – in most if not all Western democracies, the transition began to democracy-3.
Under democracy-3, the differences between the political factions become greatly reduced. They may sometimes spout different rhetoric; and they may, perhaps, propose slightly different bad laws. But their ideologies are essentially the same. And their policies are directed, not to the benefit of the people, but for the personal benefit of the political class and their hangers-on, and to satisfy the agendas of special interest groups.
So, under democracy-3, society inevitably descends towards where we are today. Everything is politicized. Government has been hi-jacked by special interests, such as environmentalists, warmongers and the pro-EU lobby. And the interests of the political class and their cronies have become diametrically opposed to the interests of good people. The fox is back in control of the hen-house.
Indeed, the fox is sovereign in the hen-house. It’s this very sovereignty that allows the fox to make the bad laws, and the taxes, and the wars, that harm good people so much. I don’t blame the titular monarch, Lizzie Windsor, for this; my guess is that she’s as much a victim as we are.
Living under democracy-3 is even worse than living under monarchy. For under a monarchy – a hereditary one, at least – you might get a good egg like William IV, or a bad one like Mary. But under democracy-3, those that rise to the top are, almost without exception, the worst, the most dishonest and devious, the most politically hip. It’s a system perfectly made for the Blairs, the Browns, the Camerons and their ilk. Moreover, under democracy-3 the political class and their hangers-on are far more numerous than any king and his courtiers. And so, their interferences with, and predations on, the people will become far more stringent and far more pervasive than those of any monarchy.
There’s a fourth phase of democracy; and it’s a terminal social illness. Democracy-4 is the tyranny of a parasite majority. The Greeks suffer it already; for, as I learned recently , 67 per cent of Greeks depend on the state for their existence. It’s ironic that Greece, the so called “cradle of democracy,” is also the first exemplar of its destruction. For the productive 33 per cent of Greeks, there are only two options now: exit (while it’s still available), or revolution.
Multiculturalism and Islam
On to multiculturalism. I confess that, before my discussion with Keir, I didn’t grasp the problem of multiculturalism; or, indeed, why so many people think it’s such a big deal. But now, I think I understand that what they find to be a problem is the idea of having several cultures inside one of these things they call “the community.”
Even knowing this, I still don’t really grok the issue. I look, for example, at one of the most successful countries in the world, Switzerland. Switzerland is a multicultural society, and has been for centuries. Where’s the problem with multiculturalism? Or what about the UK itself? The UK was multicultural long before immigration ever became a talking point. I’ll never forget, on my first visit to North Wales, discovering that they spoke a language I couldn’t make head or tail of, and that the pubs were closed on Sundays!
So, I’m coming towards the view that “multiculturalism” is no more than a label, a convenient euphemism, for something else. Those that decry multiculturalism are really, deep down, saying that they hate immigrants. And often, it’s specifically Muslim immigrants that they hate.
Now, those who know me will be aware that I take a very liberal view towards different religions, and towards Muslims in particular. That doesn’t mean that I’m in any way an apologist for Islam. I find Islam even less attractive than Christianity, which I rejected at the age of 16. I’m not comfortable with its central theme, surrender to the will of a god. I abhor its attitude to alcohol. I'm not too convinced by its attitude to women either. (Though Western feminism, it must be said, has tipped that particular balance too far the other way). Nor do I like the fanaticism it can engender, or the suspicion it causes some Muslims to show for non Muslims. Nor do I approve of the propensity of a minority of Muslims to seek to rip people off.
All that said, back in 1983 I spent two and a half months working in a moderate Muslim country, Indonesia. And it was one of the happiest times of my life. I found the people there, for the most part, to be friendly, helpful and tolerant of Westerners' foibles. (The beer wasn’t so bad, either). And, in England, I have known several fine people, who also happened to be Muslims. So, as an upholder of the values of the Enlightenment, I will not condemn Muslims for being Muslims.
Indeed, I see Muslim immigration less as a problem than as an opportunity. Unlike Protestants, Catholics and Jews, Muslims as a whole haven’t yet been through the process of Enlightenment. Isn’t having so many of them among us a good chance to teach them our Enlightenment values?
In reply to John Kersey
At last, I’m ready to address some points John Kersey raises in his talk.
First, individualism. John says that individualism will cause society “to atomize into multiple and ever-changing identity groups.” I disagree. For individualism, simply put, is a way of thinking that focuses on the individual as opposed to the collective. It concentrates on the rights and responsibilities of individuals and their relations towards each other, rather than on nation states and politics, or on received cultures or religions. It’s a bottom up way of thinking, as opposed to a top down one. And in my view, individualism is a vital part of the way out of the bedlam that is democracy-3 and into a liveable future.
Further, I’d say that if you want to build a worthwhile society, if you want to create institutions to endure into the future, you need individualism at the core of your ideas. The best institutions are always built by people working freely and voluntarily with each other to solve the problems they face. I already mentioned the founding of cities, and the development of rights of way. And there are other traditions, that have grown outside the prevailing political order; the lex mercatoria is a prime example. In contrast, top down systems like nation states can’t build anything, except bureaucracies and war machines.
Second, the “Crown” and its role in setting borders. Now, either this “Crown” is a private landowner, or it is not. If it was something other than a private landowner, that would contradict the assumption with which we came in; namely, that land should be privately owned. But if it’s a private landowner, then it can have no rights over its land that other landowners do not. In particular, it should be expected to keep to the principle of non-encirclement. It should not have a right to prohibit people from crossing its land at, say, the Port of Dover or Heathrow Airport. Nor should it have any right to prevent someone from Slovakia (for example) visiting a friend who has invited him to his home in Kent. The conclusion of my argument is clear: if all land is privately owned, then there can be no national borders.
Third, legal versus illegal immigration. Now for me, what is legal conduct and what is illegal conduct must be the same for everyone. You cannot reasonably claim, of twin brothers Mo and Ahmed, neither of whom has ever committed a crime, that it’s legal for one to be in a particular place in the public space, and illegal for the other.
You can, of course, rightly say that Mo is legally on your property (because he’s a plumber, and you have invited him in to fix a leak), while Ahmed, if he was in the same place, would be trespassing. But to say that an immigrant is legal or illegal is to miss the vital difference between property and sovereignty. All valid claims to set boundaries, across which individuals may not pass, arise from property rights. But if you claim a right to stop individuals from crossing a line in some place you don’t own, like the Port of Dover or Heathrow Airport, you’re not basing your claim on property rights. Rather, you’re arrogating to yourself a sovereignty which neither you nor anyone else has any right to.
Fourth, banning the burqa. However much some of John’s audience might agree with this, I find the idea unlibertarian. In my view, it’s wrong to deny people free expression of their religion, as long as it isn’t intended to be provocative. And moreover, if you’re going to ban the burqa, why not also ban the Sikh turban? Jewish headgear? The papal zucchetto? Catholic nuns’ veils? Or crosses on British Airways uniforms?
Fifth and last, cultural dilution. Here, I’m much more sympathetic to John Kersey’s views. He is discomforted by individuals “whose cultural commitment is to values which are profoundly different from our own.” So am I; and I don’t want them around me any more than John does. But the fact is, that most of them aren’t immigrants. Most of them are British born and bred; yet, far from sharing my values, they commit themselves to socialism, environmentalism, welfare statism, political correctness, warmongering or other uncivil ideologies.
John gives an excellent example of what we’re up against, when he mentions Tony Blair and cronies. He describes their motivations as “short-term, materialistic, self-interested greed and tribalism.” My own view of them is far less kind; definitely not fit to be published on the website of an educational charity!
Let me offer a thought experiment here. Imagine that you have both the right and the power to set an exclusion zone of, say, 100 miles radius around your home. (You don’t, in reality, have either; but this is a thought experiment!) You can set a border around it, and so keep out of your exclusion zone anyone you choose to. Furthermore, you can boot out of your domain anyone you want to, and not let them in again. The question is: who would you exclude?
I know what my own answer would be. Blair, Brown and Cameron would, of course, be the first to go. They’d soon be followed by supporters of Agenda 21, the “humans are causing catastrophic global warming” fraud and other green lunacies. Anyone that supports draconian speed limits or other anti-car policies. Anyone that supports re-distribution of wealth from the productive to the lazy, dishonest and politicized. Anyone that supports any policy intended to tell me how to live, or to subject me to indignity, or to constrain my freedom. Any bureaucrat that ever violated my human rights, for example by stealing a penny of my earnings or intercepting one of my e-mails. Anyone that supports aggressive wars in places like Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. Anyone that tries to rip me off, or treats me uncivilly or dishonestly. Anyone that lies to me, or tries to mislead or to propagandize me, about any matter of importance.
But to economic migrants – wherever they’re from, be it Syria, or Poland, or Iraq, or Greece, or Libya, or even Scotland – what I would say would be along the following lines. “I know of no harm that you’ve done to me. Therefore, I don’t wish any harm to you. So as long as you are, and remain, peaceful, honest and respectful of others’ rights, I’m happy for you to live your lives in my domain.”
Questions for conservatives
Most conservatives and traditionalists are well meaning people. They like to cling to the old ways, because they believe they work. In normal times and places, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the situation today, in the UK, USA and other democracies, is exceptional. The political system, that everybody knows and some are still stupid enough to love, has failed. As it stands, it has only one way to go; down to democracy-4, the rule of the parasite majority. Therefore, radical change is necessary. And that must start with radical change in people’s thinking.
So, my conservative friends, I think you need to ask yourselves some questions. For example: Why do you venerate the state and its sovereignty? Why do you show any respect at all for politicians that make bad laws, taxes and wars? Why do you even pay lip service to a political system that enables your enemies – and mine – to oppress us all? And why do you not only allow, but encourage, the state to prevent people from crossing certain arbitrary lines?
My vision is of a world in which property rights are fully respected; but there is no sovereignty. In which there is the rule of law and justice; but there are no politicians to make wars, taxes or bad laws. In which there are boundaries, set by individuals or societies around and within their properties; but there are no national borders, or obstructions to movement within the public space. In which everyone can associate with others to form societies or communes – political, religious or of other kinds; but no-one is forced into the company of those he doesn’t like.
Within that vision, forsooth, there might be an English Traditions Society. They might club together to buy a stately home or several, and form their own communes there. So, they can enjoy long summer Sunday afternoons, watching cricket, eating bacon butties, and drinking warm beer from a bar that doesn’t open until 7pm. And they can deny entry to Muslims; though they may make an exception for members of visiting cricket teams. You never know, I might pop in there from time to time for a pint or two, and to hear how my traditionalist friends are doing.
The vision I’m describing is founded on two ideas. The first consists, broadly, of Enlightenment values, with the rule of law and justice at the centre. The second is the state of nature. That is the condition which John Locke describes as : “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”
Locke also says, of the individual under the law of Nature : “He and all the rest of mankind are one community, make up one society distinct from all other creatures. And were it not for the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men, there would be no need of any other, no necessity that men should separate from this great and natural community, and associate into lesser combinations.” Corrupt, vicious, degenerate; these words could almost have been invented to describe the Blairs, Browns and Camerons of today.
There’s a world-wide Civilization to be built out there – a new “great and natural community” of civil people. Those like me, who are doing what we can to bring it about, need as much help as we can get. Do conservatives and traditionalists want to join in?
 Second Treatise of Government, §4.
 Second Treatise of Government, §128.