Why Libertarians Will Never Get Immigration

Why do libertarians have such a hard time understanding, and being understood, on the most contentious issue?

Next to taxation, immigration is possibly the most contentious and emotive issue of the last decade. This seems odd for us of a libertarian bent, as the evidence seems crushingly in favour of allowing people in to Britain. Indeed, this magazine has contributed to the debate on several occasions, most recently with this corker from Olly Neville, and my own humble offering here.

So what’s the problem? Why can’t people accept the numbers? The answer is that immigration isn’t just about numbers.

As any libertarian who has found themselves in a debate on immigration will tell you, it can be a frustrating and asymmetric experience. It’s not that the copious amounts for studies we copy and paste links to are refuted, rather our opponents are arguing about something far more nebulous and unquantifiable.

For most people, immigration isn’t about tax revenue or dependence ratios; it’s about national identity, integration, and real or perceived access to social services. And its that mindset that we libertarians can’t quite get our beautiful, beautiful heads around.

While we see immigrants keeping our labour market flexible and goods competitive, others see a race to the bottom and ‘their’ jobs being taken. Arguing that it is not their job or that we all benefit from cheaper goods just makes us come across as aloof and out of touch. Libertarians already have a reputation as being a bit heartless, and this isn’t helped by our habit of engaging with people via spreadsheets and obscure studies.

We’re even worse equipped when it comes to national identity. As I argued here, this is an incredibly difficult area for libertarians, given that so many reject the premise out of hand. For many of us, national identity is little more than embryonic racism, an irrational and primitive sentiment that must be ignored or shouted down.

This, in my view, does more to put people off libertarian ideas than almost anything else, because we’re questioning and ridiculing the very core of how most people identify themselves. We do the same with religion, but national identity goes deeper: anthropologically speaking, humans are hard-wired to feel affinity and bonds to people who look, sound and behave like them.

Even when you can drag your opponent back to numbers, warm comfortable numbers, you’ll still be approaching the issue from wildly different perspectives. Not without good reason, libertarians look at the macro economic data, big picture numbers and global trends. But others insist on focusing on how immigration impacts on the individual, (invariably including an anecdote about somebody they know). For them, class sizes, doctors waiting rooms and social housing waiting lists are the effects of immigration. It doesn’t matter that immigrant paid taxes to pay for teachers, or that immigrants staff the NHS or build the very same social houses. In their eyes, these all can and should be done by native Brits, and no about of academic literature can argue with that.

While we know that keeping wages under control is good for the economy in the long term because it keeps down inflation and allows more money for investment and growth, most people have more immediate concerns, and see only their monthly pay packet looking worryingly similar to how it did three years ago.

For most people, take home salary IS the economy. Access to social services IS the size and scope of government.

This is not to say we should throw in the towel and say why bother. Immigration is too important to be left to those who would make policy on emotion and short termism. But equally, we’d find our hand greatly strengthened if we tried to be a shade less cerebral and acknowledged that politics extends beyond bar graphs and little known philosophers.

Libertarians are the Sheldon Cooper and C3-P0 of British politics. And when it comes to disseminating our ideas to a wider public, that’s not a good thing.



  1. Immigration is meaningless in terms of libertarianism.

    If you want to live somewhere you need to find someone who will provide you with accomodation there.

    Whether accomodation is offered is up to the people who own the land. A libertarian would not seek to influence those landowners one way or the other…

    Want to move to richard bransons island? What would a libertarian say?

    Libertarianism. like anarchy, is a platform on which individuals build their societies.

    Branson islands society/culture is what he allows – he owns it. As is/should be for every other place on earth – up to the owners – no?

  2. It’s interesting that you note that Libertarians often discuss the macro benefits of immigration, but when discussing the economy generally most disparage Keynesian macro aggregates and praise the individual actor in an Austrian sense.

    Is this contradiction (?) because some libertarians are trying to avoid appearing ideological by not speaking to libertarian principles because they think that other people will not accept or understand them? People are not as selfish as we first think. Plant the seeds of libertarian ideas, but then give the person room to think for themselves. Ideas matter, but it takes time. Let’s plant the seeds and not try to covert everyone by the end of every discussion,

  3. Just because its not currently quantifiable doesn’t mean it has no value, one of the issues of arguing for unlimited migration is a failure to understand not everybody just wants to better themselves, some people just want to carry on doing the same thing in a richer country, rather than be just another cog in the economy.. something that is nearly always left out.
    This series of articles is going to be pretty usefull in shaping libertarians into a more pragmatic viewpoint (depending on if libertarianism ever wants to make it mainstream part of me suspects it would rather exist as purely theoretical).

    One of the childish things is often “we should not have a border” now thats a fine idea, but people don’t all view the world the same and not everyone is inherently good, which is sometimes an assumption that seems to have been made, yet there are many ideologies at work and a great deal of people do not wish to be exposed to some of them.

  4. Great piece Lee, very true. How can you counter arguments to do with national identity though? It’s relevant and important to clarify what not to do, but what’s the positive to take from this article?

  5. I think the reason why many people don’t like Free immigration is because people think it will be a burden on the welfare state.


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