THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 452, January 20, 2008
"They promise us a world of fear"
Who Wills the End, Wills the Means
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
One of the more contentious disagreements among libertarians is over the issue of immigration. This has been intensified by the candidacy of Ron Paul, who advocates strict restrictions on immigration while the welfare state is still in place, and who supports the idea of building a fence along the Mexican border. Calls for stricter measures to keep out illegals are growing.
Most of that debate has been about the principle of the thing itself, that is, whether restrictions on immigration can be reconciled with the libertarian ideal of nonaggression. But there is something else to consider, something that ought to give supporters of a crackdown on immigration pause. Let's look at something seemingly unrelated, which libertarians are united in opposing: the war on drugs.
Drug prohibition has, as libertarians well know, been devastating for American liberty. If you are suspected of drug activity, your car, house, or money can be seized without trial; the burden of proof is then on you to prove that you aren't a drug user or dealer. Prosecutors speed up the process of convicting suspects by threatening massively increased charges and penalties against those who don't accept a plea bargain, effectively making it a crime to insist on your constitutionally guaranteed right to a trial. 4th Amendment protections against search and seizure have been weakened to make drug arrests easier. More and more police departments have become militarized and adopted a dangerously aggressive attitude towards the "civilian" population. Numerous innocent people have been killed because of the use of dubious informers and the thuggish tactics routinely used to storm the homes of suspected drug users.
These results are not the product of random bad luck, or happening to have the "wrong people" running things. Crimes with victims can be reported by the victims or their families; crimes without victims can't be, and so more intrusive and oppressive means are needed if they are to be detected and stopped in any serious numbers. The sheer number of drug arrests and the burden they place on the court system make the "streamlining" of due process through plea bargains and property forfeiture inevitable, and police and prosecutors have strong incentives to use these tactics to improve their records and acquire resources for their departments. Above all, the supposed urgency and sheer scale of the drug war gives the most power-hungry politicians and law enforcers the excuse they need to seize more power, more resources, and more of our freedoms.
Even if you could somehow torture logic enough to come up with an argument that libertarianism does not forbid drug prohibition as a matter of principle, purely consequentialist arguments on how drug prohibition affects other rights and liberties would still provide an overwhelming case against it.
A serious effort to stamp out illegal immigration in this country would face much the same problemsand, for the power-hungry, offer the same opportunities. Like drugs, illegal immigration is easy to conceal, creates no victims to go to the police, is in high demand, and pours over the border in massive quantities. This is important, because it shows how the government can be expected to act. The prohibitions on immigration and immigrant labor that some libertarians favor would not be enforced by some idealized minarchist constitutional republic. They would be enforced by the state that actually exists today, with the personnel that state has and the incentives those personnel face. In other words, any real-world program to clamp down on illegal immigrants and those who employ them would be run by the same people who brought you no-knock midnight SWAT raids on suspected drug users, property forfeiture without trial, the gutting of the right to privacy and due process, and the deaths of dozens of innocents at the hands of the increasingly militarized police. Much as pro-war/interventionist libertarians forget everything they know about the state's competence and benevolence when warfare and the idea of transforming foreign cultures into modern democracies comes up, anti-immigration libertarians often seem to switch to an uncharacteristically rosy view of the government on this issue.
Apologists for the measures used to fight the drug war often argue that they are necessary to fight that war effectively, and they're right. You cannot expect to successfully stamp out a victimless crime that is in massive demand and committed by millions of people and respect the traditional rights of Americans. This would be true even if enforcement was conducted entirely by libertarian angels with absolutely no desire for power, a willingness to sacrifice themselves rather than do something that might harm the innocent, and a strong commitment to curtailing the liberty of the people only to the extent absolutely necessary for effective enforcement.
In the real world, of course, we won't have libertarian angels writing the laws, judging the court cases, or conducting the arrests and raids. We'll have the legal system and law enforcement we have now. We'll have people who eagerly lust after new powers and resources for their arm of the government, who gladly use tactics that routinely get innocent people killed rather than endanger their own precious hides, and who have consistently demonstrated an utter contempt for the rights and liberties of the average American.
Even that won't be enough, of course. All of the drug war's billions of dollars, thousands of personnel, draconian penalties, and brutal and oppressive methods haven't even come close to stopping the influx of drugs into this country; they've merely slowed the flow down a bit. There's no reason to expect more success from a war on illegal immigration. Even if you think there is, think about what a serious crackdown on illegal immigrants will entail. Is it really worth that much to you? Just how much freedom, how many lives, and how much of America's soul are you willing to sacrifice?