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A Vision of a Free Society, Part 1
by Jacob G. Hornberger, February 1997
If we abolish public schooling, then how will the poor be educated? If drug laws are repealed, won't everyone go on drugs?
If Social Security is abolished, won't old people starve to death? If we don't have Medicare and Medicaid, how would anyone
afford decent medical care? If we don't have licensing, won't quacks be performing heart surgery? If we don't have a Food
and Drug Administration, won't Safeway sell rotten food?
What would happen if all of the government operations that take money from one person and give it to another and that regulate
peaceful behavior were abolished? What would a such a society look like?
This series of essays — "A Vision of a Free Society" — will be devoted to presenting the positive case for
freedom. It will examine the workings of an unhampered market economy — one in which individuals are free to accumulate
unlimited amounts of wealth; free to live their lives any way they want, so long as they do so peacefully; and free to dispose
of their money any way they see fit.
Would there be chaos or harmony in such a society? Would there be prosperity or poverty? Would such a society be moral
or immoral? Caring or selfish? How would it all work if government officials were not directing and restricting people's lives
But before beginning this project, it is instructive to analyze the depth to which Americans are dependent on the modern-day,
socialistic welfare state. The thought of abolishing, rather than simply reforming, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public
schooling, and the like sends shivers down the spines of our fellow citizens. The mind-set of dependency on welfare-state
programs is as pervasive as it is among the citizens of Cuba and North Korea, perhaps even more so, since Americans view these
programs as "capitalism," while the people in communist countries view them for what they really are — socialism.
Part of the problem is that most Americans living today have never seen a truly unhampered market economy. There are not
many Americans alive today who lived before 1913 — before income taxation, a central bank, Social Security, economic
regulations, Medicare, Medicaid, and so forth. When a person has grown up under a certain set of conditions — especially
ones that have been described as "freedom" — the thought of abolishing those conditions is quite frightening.
It is not surprising that, given a choice, the average North Korean would never give up his Social Security, Medicare,
Medicaid, and public schooling. It is also not surprising to me that the average American of today would not do so either.
The status quo appears safe and secure. Freedom appears risky and unpredictable, and this frightens people. They honestly
feel more secure in the knowledge that government is there and "doing something" than in the vicissitudes of the market economy.
Let's take a hypothetical example. Suppose during the New Deal that national, state, and local governments had begun extensive
regulation of all restaurants in the country and that this regulation had continued through the present. It is not difficult
to imagine the difficult task a libertarian would face in persuading his fellow Americans to repeal all of the restaurant
Average American : Are you joking? Are you honestly saying that the law requiring tipping should be repealed?
Libertarian : That's exactly what I'm saying.
Average American : Why that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. How would waiters and waitresses live if
the law didn't require people to leave at least 10 percent of the bill as a tip?
Libertarian : I believe that you could depend on most people to do the right thing — to leave a tip when the
service warranted it.
Average American : You libertarians are utopians! People would never leave tips if they weren't forced to. And certainly
out-of-town tourists would have no incentive to do so. Why, under your idealistic system, there would no longer be waiters
and waitresses because they'd all starve to death.
Libertarian : Well, how about repealing licensing of cooks?
Average American : You can't really be serious. You would let just anyone be a cook in a public restaurant? Oh,
great! Under your system, any mass murderer in the country could just walk into any restaurant, become the cook, and drop
arsenic in everybody's food.
Libertarian : I believe you could count on the market process to ferret this out. Restaurant owners would have an
incentive to hire good chefs in order to attract more customers to their restaurants. The hiring of a bad chef would certainly
not be in their interest. You really don't need government to certify whether a person is a good cook or not.
Average American : Under your system of anarchy, no one in his right mind would ever walk into any restaurant whose
cook had not been licensed by the government. Restaurants would simply go out of business.
Libertarian : How would you feel about abolishing government-owned restaurants for the poor?
Average American : What exactly do you have against the poor? Do you hate the poor? If you abolished government
restaurants, where would the poor eat? You libertarians ought to be ashamed of yourselves.
Libertarian : Don't you feel that the market process would generate restaurants for poor people?
Average American : Stop being so idealistic. If government didn't own and operate restaurants for the indigent,
people would be starving in the streets.
Libertarian : Would you at least agree that the national government's Department of Restaurants should be abolished?
Average America : Look, I'm in favor of getting rid of the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Restaurants.
But there is no way I'd ever support abolishing the entire department.
Libertarian : Why?
Average American : Because there would be chaos if the government weren't overseeing the operation of restaurants
in America. How could we be certain that each restaurant would have the right types and amounts of food if the government
weren't directing how food was to be distributed to each restaurant? Some restaurants would end up with all of the bad food
or the wrong food or, worst of all, no food at all. Moreover, imagine what would happen if the government weren't directing
where restaurants could be built. Why you'd probably have four different hamburger places competing at the same intersection.
What a waste of resources that would be! The free market is fine — and I'm the biggest free-enterpriser you'd ever find
— but you can't leave the restaurant business to the laws of supply and demand.
Libertarian : Well, Republicans and Democrats are now talking about ending restaurant regulation and welfare as
we know it . They want to return the whole thing to the state and local governments.
Average American : Well, I might be willing to support that. The state and local restaurant boards are closer to
the people. And the citizenry gets to elect the local restaurant-board trustees. It's really good to see that Democrats and
Republicans are finally moving in a free-enterprise direction.
Libertarian : But wouldn't a truly free-market approach entail abolishing all of the departments, agencies, and
laws — national, state, and local?
Average American : The trouble with you libertarians is that you always want to throw the baby out with the bath
water. There's nothing wrong with government overseeing the restaurant business. We just have to work together — get
better people in public office — elect Christians — restore morality and responsibility to America — and
we'll finally make the various departments of restaurants do a much better job in the future. Stop criticizing and start making
it happen! We Americans are a can-do people. We can make anything work, even government ownership or control over the means
of production, especially when we call it "free enterprise."
Libertarian : Well, it seems like I'm having a tough time convincing you of the merits of libertarianism.
Average American : It's just that you libertarians are so cold, cruel, and heartless. Forget your idealism and be
practical. Look, why don't you start with something easy — like ending public schools. It's foolish to begin with something
as important as food!
The problem we libertarians face in America, then, is multifaceted. It's an economic problem because the regulated economy
is so destructive to the economic well-being of society. It is political because the modern-day, socialistic welfare state
and government-controlled economy cannot be repealed without the support of the majority of the citizenry. It is moral because
of the political stealing that underlies the welfare state and the interference with free will that underlies the regulated
And it is psychological. While the proponents of central planning and control may debate endlessly about the merits of
such socialist schemes as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, income taxation, and the like, there is one
truth that is irrefutable: The American people are hooked on this junk and cannot let it go. And at the core of the addiction
to this political heroin is a lack of faith in themselves and in each other.
Look at the faith that Americans have in bureaucrats and government agencies. They honestly believe that their food is
safe because of government. That their planes are safe because of government. That lawyers and doctors are competent because
of government. That their children are educated because of government. That the elderly are taken care of because of government.
Their faith in the state — in bureaucrats and bureaucracies — is total and unwavering.
Yet ask them about abolishing the FDA, the FAA, licensing laws, public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.
Their lack of faith in themselves, their friends, and their neighbors becomes immediately manifest. "Private people are malicious,
selfish, and self-centered. They'll let people starve the death — and especially their own parents. They'll inject drugs
into their children and certainly won't get them educated. They'll let quacks perform open-heart surgery. No, you can't trust
private people because they're just not like our bureaucrats — they think only of themselves and hate everyone else."
Ultimately, the American people must come to grips with their own internal doubts about themselves, their friends and neighbors,
and their heritage of an unhampered market economy. As their faith in the state continues to wane in the face of increasing
government failures, we can hope that Americans will begin to look inward in an attempt to resolve the doubts they have about
themselves. As they raise their self-esteem, individuals will also begin to believe more in others, for when one thinks more
highly of himself, he thinks more highly of others, as well.
As this process continues to unfold — and as our fellow Americans begin discovering their libertarian heritage —
they will begin asking the questions that we libertarians have asked ourselves for decades. What would a free society look
like? How would it work? How would the market process function? Who would benefit? Would the poor be left out? Can the free
market really succeed?
The following series of essays will attempt to provide answers to these questions.
What would a free society look like? That is, what if everyone were free to live his life the way he wanted, so long as
his conduct was peaceful, and free to enter into any mutually beneficial exchanges with anyone in the world — a totally
free, unhampered market economy?
The answer is that there is no way to predict the outcome of such a society. No one can accurately guess the results of
the choices of millions of people. But while no one can predict the actual outcome of a market economy, the economic results
are usually nothing short of phenomenal — what we might call the "miracle of the market."
The late Leonard E. Read, founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, once wrote an essay entitled "I, Pencil," in
which he made the following startling observation: No one in the world knows how to make a pencil. Imagine that — the
world is filled with pencils, but no one knows how to make them.
What was Read's point? If you asked the CEO of the world's largest pencil manufacturer how to make a pencil, he would say,
that they get the "lead" (it's not really lead — it's graphite) from Sri Lanka. It's mixed with clay from Mississippi,
using sulfuric tallow, which is animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid.
Then he'd tell you about what goes into producing the wooden part of the pencil, including the logging operations in different
parts of the world. And he'd explain the creation of the lacquer that goes onto the wood — and how producers of castor
beans and refiners of castor oil play a major role here. What about the brass part? He'd tell you about miners of copper,
zinc, and nickel in different parts of the world and try to explain their operations.
And what about the eraser? He'd explain that it's made from a reaction between rape seed oil and sulfur chloride from Indonesia.
And what about the equipment that is a necessary part of all of these operations? How is that made? He probably couldn't
answer that one.
The point Read was making is that no one person knows the answer to all of these questions. And if no one knows how to
make a pencil, then certainly no one knows how to make automobiles, jet planes, computers, and so forth.
Yet, the world is filled with these marvelous devices!
How does this happen? It happens with people in different parts of the world acting in their own self-interest and coordinating
their plans with others.
Each person in the process of production tries to make a living and improve his economic well-being. He doesn't say to
himself, "Golly, the world needs pencils; I'd better be a good human being and do my part." For example, take a person who
is looking for a job in Sri Lanka because his family needs to eat. He goes to the local graphite company and asks whether
they have a job available and, if so, what the pay is. The company offers him employment, he accepts, and he helps to produce
graphite that is ultimately shipped to the United States, where it is used to make pencils.
The worker may never know that his efforts resulted in the production of millions of pencils. What might matter to him
is simply that he did a good job at his graphite-producing job. In other words, while his work certainly does improve the
lot of mankind through the ultimate production of pencils, that is not the goal of the worker. He's simply trying to make
life more prosperous for himself and his family.
And notice that millions of pencils come into existence without a decree from the U.S. government pronouncing that pencils
must be produced. That is, there is no central government plan for the production of pencils. There is not some bureaucrat
in Washington designing this enormously complex system in order to ensure the continued production of pencils. As Friedrich
A. Hayek pointed out, the unhampered market economy produces outcomes that are the results of human action but not of human
The 19th-century French free-market advocate Frederic Bastiat described this phenomenon in an essay describing how Paris
gets fed. The principles in that essay could be applied to any community in the United States.
For example, consider grocery stores in San Antonio, Texas. They are always filled with food, both perishable and nonperishable.
There always seems to be enough for everyone who walks into the store.
Think about the "danger" involved here: there is no government agency anywhere in the United States or Texas that is planning,
directing, or guaranteeing this phenomenon. Yet, no one (as far as I know) paces the floor in his home each night, unable
to sleep, saying: "Oh, my gosh, what if the food doesn't get delivered tomorrow to the grocery stores in San Antonio? What
if they forget to order the broccoli? What if someone forgets to plant beans? How do they know the right quantities? What
if there's a run on tomatoes? What if the grocery stores simply refuse to open? Oh, my gosh, we need the government to guarantee
us that the right food, in the right quantities, will be available at the right time. Why doesn't my congressman do something?"
So, how do the grocery stores do it? Well, grocery store owners don't open their stores because they love mankind or because
they don't want to see people starving to death. They do so because it is a way that they can make money and improve their
own well-being. And in the process of seeking their own interest, they serve the needs of everyone else!
And they do that by coordinating their plans with millions of others who are doing the same — the farmers, the equipment
manufacturers, the warehousers, the transporters, the middlemen, the secretaries, and on and on. Each person, seeking to improve
his own life by making money, effects an outcome that is no part of an overall design. And what a remarkable, even miraculous,
outcome it is! Grocery stores in every community across America filled with fresh food at relatively inexpensive prices —
and all without a government agency planning it or guaranteeing the outcome!
One of the principles taught in public schools across America is that the free market is fine for simple, poor societies
but that when things get complex, government is needed to provide the planning. But the principle is false. The more complex
and prosperous a society becomes, the more necessary it is that government be prohibited from meddling.
For example, assume that President Clinton and the Republican Congress agreed to the creation of a U.S. Department of Food.
(Before you automatically conclude that this is ridiculous, remember that Democrats and Republicans have already established
a Department of Agriculture and a Food and Drug Administration.) The purpose of the Department of Food would be to assume
the responsibility for planning the production and distribution of food in America. After all, the argument would go, if the
government is necessary to plan something as important as education, then it should certainly plan something even more important
— food. (If people starve to death, they won't learn as well.)
Will the government do a better job than the market? The result would be an unmitigated catastrophe. The outcome would
be what Ludwig von Mises called "planned chaos." Why? Because as Hayek points out, the central planners can never —
not even with the use of millions of computers — possess the same amount of knowledge that exists in the heads of millions
of individuals all over the world.
In his remarkable essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," Hayek pointed out that an unhampered market economy takes advantage
of the knowledge that people possess within their own particular set of circumstances. And since life is constantly changing
for everyone, each person is best equipped to adapt to the changes by utilizing his own particular bit of expertise.
For example, suppose a piece of equipment breaks down in a machine making the pencil erasers. The foreman knows a guy around
the corner who knows exactly what to do to solve the problem. He sends someone to get him. When the guy arrives, he asks for
$50 to effect the repair. The foreman knows whether the price is reasonable in light of the immediate problem.
Multiply this by millions of these types of occurrences all over the world. How would central planners know the best approach
to such things in a constantly changing world? The central planners possess only the knowledge that is in their particular
heads plus "frozen" knowledge found in computers. There is no way that they can match the knowledge that is possessed by millions
and millions of individuals, each of whom is having to adapt to ever-changing conditions.
The results of a central plan promulgated by the Department of Food would be the same as it is in other areas that government
plans (education, monetary, postal delivery, etc.): lousy! And, in fact, that's exactly the case in Cuba, North Korea, and
China, where the government does plan the production and distribution of food in the country.
Generally, people have faith in the marketplace when they can see it work. That's the reason that a politician or a bureaucrat
would have a tough time persuading Americans to let him establish a Department of Food. But the problem is that people have
a very difficult time transferring this faith to operations that government currently runs. For example, it would be extremely
difficult to persuade North Koreans to give up central planning of food. They would say: "But how can we be certain that there
will be the right quantities of food, that it will be of good quality, and that it will be sold at a reasonable price? Food
is too important to be left to the free market."
And it's the same with Americans' attitude toward, for example, education: "Look, the market's fine for food, but not for
something as important as education. How could we be certain that enough schools would be built, that they would be of the
sufficient quality, and that they would be reasonably priced? Education is just too important to be left to the free market."
The sad fact is that all too many people all over the world lack faith in the market economy, which means that they lack
faith in themselves and in others.
And the advocates of government planning always put the matter in terms of plan versus no plan. The suggestion is that
if government didn't plan important areas of human activity, there would be chaos. "If government didn't plan the delivery
of mail, there would be chaos! If government didn't plan education, there would be chaos! If government didn't plan monetary
affairs, there would be chaos!"
But the advocates of central government control are wrong on two counts: first, it is government intervention that creates
chaos in people's lives because it interferes with what people want to do.
Second, while the market economy is not the result of human design, that doesn't mean that the market process itself is
unplanned. On the contrary, the market economy consists of the individual plans of millions of people, each of whom coordinates
his plans with others, with a phenomenal result that no one person could have ever devised.
How do these millions of people coordinate their plans in an unhampered market economy? Do all of the people who are involved
in the production of pencils get together at annual conventions to plan their respective roles? No. The answer lies in the
market economy's simple and complex system of communication.
Karl Marx wrote that the value of an item is determined by how much labor goes into producing it. A diamond is valuable
because of all the work that goes into mining it. Therefore, Marx argued, since value is created by the worker, any revenues
that the capitalist receives constitute theft from the laborer.
In 1871, Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school of economic thought, in his book Principles of Economics, destroyed
Marx's labor theory of value. The value of an item has no relation to the amount of labor that goes into producing it, Menger
showed. Value is like beauty — it lies in the eyes of the beholder. A diamond on top of the ground is just as valuable
as one dug from deep within the earth — it all depends on who is doing the valuing. The subjective theory of value came
to be one of the bedrock principles of an unhampered market economy. (The theory was independently developed by two other
economists at about the same time — a Swiss named Léon Walras and an Englishman named William Stanley Jevons.)
Different valuations permit people to improve their standard of living through the simple act of exchange. Suppose I have
ten apples and you have ten oranges. I value my tenth apple differently than if I owned only one apple. The same goes for
you and your oranges. We exchange one apple for one orange because we both value what we are gaining more than what we are
giving up. Otherwise, we would not make the exchange. Thus, we both improve our well-being by entering into a mutually beneficial
transaction with each other.
This was the original idea behind barter. People began specializing in producing goods and services in which they were
comparatively more talented. Then they would exchange what they produced with people who were doing the same. A wheat grower
would exchange with a cattle producer. A chicken grower would exchange with a cotton farmer.
But barter quickly became complicated. Suppose Farmer A wanted something that Farmer B produced. Suppose Farmer B wanted
something that Farmer C produced but not what Farmer A produced. Or suppose a cattle producer wanted a quantity of cotton
that he valued at only 1/2 a cow. How would the trades be effected?
Gradually, people began turning to a commodity that was readily marketable as well as easily divisible. For example, tobacco.
Farmer A would trade his apples for tobacco even though he had no use for tobacco. He knew that he could take the tobacco
and use it as a medium of exchange to buy what he wanted from someone else. And he knew that he could divide the tobacco into
smaller quantities in order to buy less expensive items.
People ultimately turned to the precious metals as money. Gold and silver were readily accepted in the marketplace, held
their value relatively well, and were easily divisible. A trader desiring to purchase 100 bushels of apples would ask the
seller what he wanted for them. The seller would respond with a quote of one ounce of gold. The buyer would agree and pull
out his bag of gold. The gold would be weighed and the transaction would be consummated.
Thus, the price of an item was determined by how much or how little value the owner put on it in relationship to other
things he wanted. By placing a price of one ounce of gold on 100 bushels of apples, the owner was saying: I value one ounce
of gold more than I do these 100 bushels of apples.
Gradually, people found it cumbersome to weigh their gold and silver every time they made a transaction. Moreover, there
was always the possibility that scales were false. Thus private minters came into existence.
A minter would issue, for example, a one-ounce gold coin. His private minting company would certify the coin as to weight
and fineness. He would sell the coin for a little more than one ounce of gold, and people would be willing to pay for it in
order to facilitate their trades. If the minter had a good reputation, his coins would circulate freely as money.
In his book Man, Economy, and State, Murray Rothbard refers to a private minter of great repute — the Count of Schlick,
who resided in Joachim's valley (or Joachimsthal) in Bohemia in the 16th century. His one-ounce silver coins were known as
"Joachims-thalers," ultimately shortened to "thalers." This is the origin of the term "dollar."
Unfortunately, kings and queens recognized an opportunity for plunder. They put private minters out of business and monopolized
the minting of coins, all for the "public good" of course. One-ounce gold coins, for example, would come into the hands of
the king in payment of taxes. The king would clip the coin by shaving gold off the edges. He would then gather up the shavings
and make a new one-ounce gold coin that he then would use to go buy things for himself and his royal ilk. It was the earliest
system of inflation, the insidious process by which governments loot the people through the destruction of their medium of
exchange — their method of communication in the marketplace.
As people began discovering that the king's one-ounce gold coins contained less than one ounce of gold (because of what
had been clipped off), the coins would begin trading at a discount. That is, a merchant would not accept them at face value
but rather at 7/8 ounce of gold, for example. This infuriated the king because it impugned the integrity of government. The
king, or course, would blame the debasement of the currency on those "greedy, profit-seeking, bourgeois, capitalist swine"
who were raising their prices. He would then decree "legal-tender laws" — laws that required people to accept government
money at face value, no matter how much loss it caused people in the marketplace.
Guttenberg's invention of the printing press made the monetary situation even worse. The king began printing promissory
notes or bills of exchange that he would require people to accept, on pain of fine and imprisonment, in lieu of gold and silver
coins. This process of inflation would become the method of choice by which governments in the modern era would plunder and
loot the citizenry.
The price system is simply the intricate system by which people communicate in the marketplace all over the world. For
example, suppose a hurricane destroys thousands of homes along the Texas Gulf Coast. The demand for plywood immediately skyrockets.
But how is this increased demand communicated? Do people have to put ads in the newspaper or on the radio?
No. The price system does the communicating for them. The price of plywood immediately soars as a result of the new demand
and the limited supply. The skyrocketing price sends a signal not only to buyers along the Texas seacoast but also to sellers
all over the world. Buyers are told by the higher price: Conserve! Sellers are told: Start producing more and ship it to Texas!
As new plywood starts to arrive in Texas, the increase in supply begins a downward pressure on the price.
But notice that no one — and especially not some politician or bureaucrat — has to start making big, public
pronouncements or decrees regarding the need for new plywood. The price system that is central to an unhampered market economy
does all the communicating that is necessary.
Does a logger thousands of miles away have to read the newspaper every day to keep up with these types of things? No. All
that he has to know is this: What's plywood going for today? When the price soars, he doesn't have to know why. The market
signal is enough to say to him: Start producing more. He doesn't have to know that the reason the price has gone up is that
families in Galveston, Texas, need to rebuild their homes.
Thus, when a politician condemns "profiteering" during a natural disaster, he actually aggravates the disaster. He tampers
with the intricate system of communication upon which the market relies. Suppose that the Texas governor decrees: "Anyone
who sells plywood at a higher price than existed before the emergency will be prosecuted and punished for 'price-gouging.'"
The result will be this: Purchasers will fail to conserve and sellers will fail to increase supplies because the financial
incentive (higher prices) to take these actions will have been eliminated. The current stock of plywood will disappear and
will not be replenished. In the name of "doing good," politicians and bureaucrats who interfere with the price system, especially
in times of emergency, do an infinite amount of harm, especially to the people who are already suffering.
The entrepreneur or capitalist is the person in the unhampered market economy who risks his money in order to capitalize
on an opportunity. Rather than condemning him, we should be exalting him! The profit he receives is not theft from the worker,
as Marx suggested, but rather his reward for taking the risk that ultimately benefits others.
For example, suppose that after the Texas hurricane, an entrepreneur has his agents immediately purchase enormous quantities
of ice from ice houses in San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, and ships the ice by helicopter into Galveston. He invests, let
us say, $25,000 in ice, personnel, and equipment.
If electricity has been restored by the time the ice arrives, the entrepreneur loses all his money. If electricity has
not been restored, he stands to receive, let us say, $100,000 — a profit of $75,000. Is this exorbitant? Excessive?
Obscene? How can a profit ever be any of these things? The capitalist takes the risk with his own money. Each of the purchases
and sales of ice is simply reflecting the respective valuations of the parties in the light of the circumstances then existing
— i.e., disaster conditions. Which is better: no ice or expensive ice?
Profits are simply part of the intricate system of communication in the unhampered market economy. They are a way of saying
to a capitalist: "Good job. You produced the goods and services that other people wanted and were willing to pay for under
the conditions existing at that time." Losses are the opposite. They say to the capitalist: "You did a bad job in satisfying
The fact is that any government regulation that interferes with mutually beneficial trades at any time is interfering with
people's ability to improve their well-being. People enter into trades to improve their standard of living. When politicians
and bureaucrats interfere with these peaceful transactions, they frustrate the ability of people to seek their own happiness
in their own way. Most important, government officials should never be permitted the power to interfere with prices and money.
People's well-being — sometimes even their survival — depends on the unhampered market economy's simple but intricate
system of communication.
In a primitive, economically poor society, a person has to do a lot of basic jobs just to survive. He has to be a master
of many trades. But as a society becomes wealthier and more complex, people begin to specialize at doing those things at which
they are comparatively more talented. They then trade with others who are doing the same.
In a free society, people would be able to enter into any economic enterprise without political permission or interference;
enter into any mutually beneficial exchange with others; and accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth in the process.
Would this mean that everyone would become wealthy? Of course not. People have different talents and abilities. The accumulation
of wealth in a free society would depend not so much on the value that a person places on his own attributes, but rather on
the value that others in the marketplace put on them.
In an unhampered market economy, the consumer, not the producer, is the sovereign. The consumer's spending — and
abstention from spending — decide who is going to become wealthy and who is going to be poor. If consumers decide to
buy the recordings of a certain singer, that singer will become wealthy. If not, he might have to find another line of work.
Advocates of the socialistic welfare state claim that a free society would produce a small group of wealthy people who
would then control our lives. This was the rationale behind one of the earliest interventions leading up to America's paternalistic
welfare state — antitrust laws. Capitalism is fine, the welfare statists said, but only up to a point. Without antitrust
laws to protect the common man, big business would oppress and suppress the little guy.
What nonsense! Take Bill Gates, the owner of Microsoft. This guy is worth billions of dollars, somewhat more than what
you and I own. This may surprise you, but Gates has never oppressed or suppressed me. I have walked into many computer stores
that sell Microsoft products and they have actually let me leave without buying anything. Not one of Gates's agents has ever
held a gun to my head and forced me to buy anything.
Gates has a certain talent, and he capitalizes on it. But the reason he has become phenomenally wealthy is that he has
been successful in serving other people. He has produced a product that other people are willing to pay for because it has
tremendously improved their lives.
It is worth reemphasizing — Gates's billions do not enable him to suppress me or oppress me. Whether I choose to
buy a Microsoft product or not is up to me, not him.
I repeat: In a free society, consumers are sovereign. They decide who becomes wealthy and who becomes poor.
Welfare statists say, "Yeah, but big companies will just keep getting bigger and bigger under freedom. We need government
to confiscate a large portion of their income and money to make sure they don't get too big."
What nonsense! The unhampered market economy is a process that constantly redistributes wealth. Consumers are fickle people.
A company that has successfully satisfied them in the past is under constant pressure to continue doing so. If it fails to
do so, consumers go elsewhere, and the company loses market share and possibly goes out of business. Again, the consumers,
as sovereigns, redistribute wealth through their buying and abstention from buying. If a producer or seller stops serving
the consumer, he's history.
For example, take a look at the Fortune 500 list for the last 50 years. How many companies from 50 years ago — or
even 10 years ago — are still on it? I'd be willing to bet hardly any.
Or look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. If big companies just kept getting bigger, then why wouldn't the index have
the same companies as when it was first developed?
Twenty years ago, I remember welfare statists talking about the steel and automobile industries. They said, "These companies
are different from other companies. They are oligopolies. They can set any price they want in the market. They have to be
controlled by the government because otherwise they will get as big as they want."
Yet, within a few years, what happened to these "special cases" that welfare statists said had the power to control prices
and oppress consumers? Steel and automobile companies were fighting for survival. If a company has the omnipotent power to
control consumption, why would it ever have to fight for survival? The welfare statists never answer that one. They simply
go on to envy and condemn companies that currently are successful in satisfying consumers.
Welfare statists say, "But in the absence of antitrust laws, companies would get together and cooperate." Yeah, and so
what? It's their property, isn't it? If a person owns a company, why shouldn't he be free to merge or enter into agreements
with other people who own their company? Again, if the consumer is dissatisfied with the result, he doesn't have to buy what
is sold. Moreover, anyone is free to enter the market and offer an alternative product or service.
And there are benefits to consumers that arise from that kind of cooperation. For example, suppose all of the automobile
companies were free to get together and form a joint venture for research and development. It's possible that by combining
efforts in that way, they would come up with much more efficient and significant improvements in automobile quality. And then
they could compete in other areas — the model of the car, the features, the accessories, and so forth.
"But what about workers?" the welfare statists ask. "You can't deny that Karl Marx was right — capitalism enables
employers to oppress and suppress the working man."
What nonsense! For one thing, the assumption is always that employers hold all the cards when it comes to bargaining power.
But often the situation is exactly the opposite. For example, suppose that there is an unexpected shift in consumer demand
in favor of a new type of computer software. Producers have to scramble to find competent programmers. The programmers will
be able to write their own salary ticket, even if the company is worth billions. And the same principle holds true for people
in all walks of life — legal secretaries, farm workers, busboys. Sometimes a labor shortage in a particular line of
work enables the employee to hold a strengthened position in relationship to his employer.
But here again, it is the consumer, not the producer, who ultimately directs the pattern of wages and wage rates. Wages
tend to rise in those areas where consumers are demanding more.
And the producer does not pay a higher wage because he's a nice guy. He pays it because he knows that if he doesn't, the
employee is apt to go work for a competitor who is offering a higher wage.
But what if several employers get together and set wage rates too low? Then, there is always the threat that an upstart
company will come along and steal workers away. Employees are always on the lookout for employers paying more money, either
to use it as leverage for a raise or to leave for greener pastures.
Welfare statists never tire of saying to us, "But there is an inherent conflict between employers and employees. It's us
What nonsense! The exact opposite is true. Both the owner and the worker have a joint interest in a successful company,
that is, one that successfully satisfies consumers. If the company fails to do that, it goes out of business, which leaves
the employees unemployed. If the business successfully serves others in the marketplace, employees have a better chance for
If a company continually gets wealthier, what is the assurance that it will pay higher wages? That depends on what other
employers in the marketplace are paying. If others are paying significantly more, they will tend to attract the best workers
to their companies. The successful company might find itself less successful if it starts losing its best people to the competition.
Self-interest motivates a successful company to continue paying top wages in the marketplace.
Ultimately, the only way wage rates can rise generally in a society is through the accumulation of capital. Capital comes
from savings. Savings come from the accumulation of wealth in the marketplace. When people in a society are free to accumulate
wealth, the wages of workers rise.
For example, suppose there are 100 workers on a farm who are using nothing but hoes. They produce 1,000 bushels of wheat
that the farmer sells for $10,000. He pays the workers $5,000 in wages and keeps the other $5,000 for himself.
The farmer decides to save his money rather than spend it on a vacation. The following year, he takes his savings and buys
a new tractor, which he teaches his workers to operate. With this new equipment — capital — the workers produce
5,000 bushels of wheat, which means $50,000 in revenues for the farmer.
Let's assume that the farmer is the most self-centered, selfish Scrooge in the world. Will he pay more in wages? Yes. Because
the farmer next door will. If Scrooge fails to match him, Scrooge loses his workers to the competition.
Wages for workers rise because capitalists are free to accumulate wealth. If the capitalist had had his initial $5,000
confiscated and redistributed to the workers, not only would he not have had the money to pay for the tractor, he also would
have had no incentive to continue the business.
"But we need government to set a floor — a minimum wage — to protect the guy at the bottom," the welfare statists
What nonsense! An employment relationship is the same as any other transaction in the marketplace. An employer is going
to hire someone if he believes that what he gives up is less valuable to him than what he is getting. The same holds true
for an employee. Assume that a 17-year-old boy with no work experience asks for a job. The employer thinks to himself, "He's
worth $4 an hour to me but not a dime more." The kid thinks to himself, "I'd like more but I'm willing to settle for $4 so
that I can learn the business." A mandatory minimum wage of $5 an hour means that the kid goes unemployed. What a great law
Contrary to everything they teach in public schools in America, a nation cannot destroy poverty through laws. If it could,
every nation on earth would be wealthy. After all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to pass a law.
Poverty is the natural state of mankind. People have always been poor. The real question is: How do nations (or more accurately,
people in nations) get wealthy?
The answer is freedom. When people are free, they are able to utilize their respective talents and abilities to provide
goods and services to others in the marketplace. Those who are most successful in serving others are the ones who become the
wealthiest. It is the market's signal that says, "Good job. You used your resources well in the service of others. This is
As people accumulate ever growing amounts of wealth, more and more money is invested in capital, which ensures an ever
growing standard of living for everyone in society. It is not a coincidence that people who take vows of poverty in wealthy
societies live significantly better lives than those who do the same in poor societies.
A free society would be one in which people would be able to peacefully and harmoniously coordinate their lives with others.
It would be a society in which government would be constitutionally prohibited from interfering with the unlimited accumulation
of wealth. Not only would such a society provide the widest ambit of freedom of choice, it would be a society that would raise
the economic well-being of everyone.
Libertarians, unlike conservatives and leftists, believe that people should be free to live their lives any way they wish,
as long as their conduct remains peaceful. That is, as long as people do not murder, rape, steal, loot, plunder, defraud,
and so forth, they have the absolute right to engage in any peaceful activity. Thus, many libertarians believe that government
has only three legitimate functions: to arrest, prosecute, and punish those who initiate violence against others; to operate
a judiciary with the monopoly power to enforce its judgments, which enables people to peacefully resolve their civil disputes;
and to protect the nation from invaders.
Libertarians believe that there should be no drug laws, pornography laws, sodomy laws, adultery laws, or coveting laws
— no laws whatsoever that regulate peaceful behavior.
Obviously, this approach is totally different from that of conservatives. Conservatives believe that government should
and must regulate the moral decisions and activities of the American people. Their reasoning is as follows: Americans are
an irresponsible people and thus cannot be free to engage in wrongful conduct. If Americans were free to engage in immoral
conduct, they would immediately engage in it, say the conservatives. When Americans become responsible, then — and only
then — will it be permissible to repeal the laws that regulate peaceful behavior.
An example: drug laws. Conservatives say: If we repealed drug laws, Americans would rush out to the drug stores (which
would then be free to sell drugs) and purchase syringes and heroin, because Americans are just desperately waiting for drug
laws to be repealed to shoot heroin into their veins. When Americans are no longer so irresponsible, say the conservatives,
we will be able to repeal drug laws.
(Of course, conservatives are also big advocates of public schooling, another area where government regulates peaceful
activity. It's always fun to ask conservatives, "Why are Americans such irresponsible drug nuts? Didn't they all spend large
portions of their waking hours in public schools? And if that's what public schools produce, why in the world do we want to
do it to more generations?" Conservatives usually scowl at that one and walk away.)
What conservatives fail to recognize is that if people are irresponsible, immoral, or incompetent, a government-regulated
system will only make the situation worse. Individuals need to have the widest ambit of freedom in order to achieve what most
of us want: a society of responsible, caring, competent, moral, and ethical people. Free will — and the individual consequences
that come with it — helps to elevate people's conscience and consciousness.
But isn't it dangerous, conservatives ask, to simply repeal drug laws without being assured that people have become responsible?
Of course. Throughout history, freedom has always been dangerous because it is impossible to predict the outcomes of a society
in which people have free choice. It is theoretically possible that if drug laws were repealed today, every single American
would start injecting heroin into his veins tomorrow.
But is that likely? After all, if someone desires or needs heroin today, it is unlikely that a criminal law, even one with
harsh penalties, dissuades him from doing whatever is necessary to satisfy his habit.
Actually, drug laws make a bad situation worse. How? By artificially restricting the supply of heroin for the addict, they
cause prices to skyrocket. Thus, the addict faces a difficult choice: he can give up his habit (not an easy task, even with
such dangerous and life-threatening drugs as tobacco and alcohol) or get the money to pay the exorbitant black-market price
of the heroin. Unfortunately, the choice he makes is usually the latter, which means committing robberies, burglaries, thefts,
and other violent crimes to get the money. After all, when was the last time you saw a wino committing a robbery to get the
money to pay for his addiction?
Ironically, conservatives, who usually are strong advocates of "individual responsibility," never themselves take responsibility
for the violent crimes that come with drug laws. Like the leftists who defend the welfare state, conservatives say, "We should
be judged by our good intentions, not by the actual consequences of our beliefs and actions."
Would drug legalization result in less drug addiction? It is impossible to say. Again, a free society is one in which people
are free to engage in irresponsible conduct, as long as it is peaceful. It is the role of government to protect the exercise
of such choices, especially when they are the "wrong ones." If people are "free" to make only "responsible" choices (as they
are in China, North Korea, and Cuba), then they cannot be considered free.
There is a good possibility, however, that drug addiction would diminish in a free society. For one, the mystique of illegality
will have been removed. But more fundamentally, drug addiction is usually a psychological problem. The best way to kick it
is for a person to bring it to the surface, talk about it, and try to figure out the reasons that he is engaging in self-destructive
conduct. Because drug addiction is driven underground by criminal penalties, addicts are scared to death to be open about
their addictions, for fear that their children, their neighbors, or their friends will turn them in to the authorities.
Conservatives argue that drug addiction can be ended with years of incarceration. But that really hasn't proven to be the
case. For one thing, the authorities can't even keep drugs out of well-guarded prisons. But again, simply depriving an addict
of his drug doesn't get at the root of the problem. As long as the underlying psychological causes haven't been addressed,
the addict will simply engage in some other self-destructive conduct.
Conservatives argue that drug legalization would send out a bad message — that society condones the use of heroin,
cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol. But why does that have to be the case? Wouldn't it actually send out the following
message: that Americans value freedom above all else?
Moreover, while conservatives want government to regulate most areas of morality, there are some areas that at least some
conservatives would oppose regulating. Take, for instance, adultery. Every conservative would agree that adultery is morally
wrong and that it is destructive of one of society's fundamental institutions — the family. Yet, when you ask conservatives
whether they believe that adultery should be criminalized, they say "No — this would not be good." And when you ask
them, "Doesn't this mean that you and society are sending out a bad message — that you and society are condoning adultery?"
— they simply respond, "That is different."
And the same is true when you confront conservatives with such peaceful activity as coveting a neighbor's wife or goods.
Many of them do not wish to criminalize that sin, but they aren't concerned about sending out a wrong message.
In other words, in some areas of peaceful sin, conservatives still cherish the principles of freedom. The task that we
libertarians have is to persuade conservatives to expand this limited commitment to liberty to all areas of peaceful conduct.
To paraphrase a libertarian friend of mine, who is a minister, conservatives must be taught that sin that involves peaceful
conduct is just too important an item to be left in the hands of the government.
It is impossible to predict the outcome of a free society, except in the following way: it would undoubtedly be an exciting,
dynamic place in which to live. Imagine — everyone would be free to live his life the way he wants, as long as he didn't
interfere with the rights of others to do the same. And the police would be able to focus their entire attention on protecting
us from the small minority of murderers, rapists, thieves, robbers, and the like.
Some people would devote their lives to accumulating wealth; but the only way they could do that is by providing goods
and services that other people want. Some people would take vows of poverty, but they still would have higher standards of
living (housing, cars, food, and so forth) than those doing the same in unfree, poverty-stricken societies. Some people would
spend their wealth, creating opportunities for businesses and employees in consumer-oriented businesses. Others would save
their wealth, creating opportunities for banks and those in capital-oriented businesses. Others would donate their wealth,
creating opportunities for churches, museums, universities, libraries, opera houses, and other eleemosynary enterprises. Most
people would probably engage in a combination of some or all of these things.
People would be free to travel and trade anywhere in the world without passports or other political permission. They would
be free to engage in any mutually beneficial transaction, exchange, or contract with anyone in the world. They would be free
to use any media of exchange they wished — gold or silver coins, American Express banknotes, or whatever.
The production of goods and services would skyrocket, with consumers directing production through their buying and abstention
from buying. Some businesses would go bust, but only because consumers were re-allocating capital through their spending habits.
Overall, capital would continue to accumulate, resulting in ever-increasing wage rates for workers.
Since every individual is different from every other individual, the choices that people would make in their daily lives
would vary in an infinite number of ways. Some would live as saints. Others would live as devils. Most people would live as
a combination of the two, struggling to find meaning for their lives in the relatively short journey from birth to death.
With freedom would come the responsibility to accept the consequences of choices, with the probable outcome being higher levels
of conscious and conscientious living.
Freedom would bring an excitement, the likes of which those who have lived all of their lives in the stagnant cesspool
of the socialistic welfare state and regulated society cannot imagine. It would undoubtedly bring higher standards of living,
peace, harmony, and the values — responsibility, compassion, and morality — that all of us hold dear.
Mr. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. www.fff.org
Immigration and Individual Rights
Every year, millions of people seek to immigrate to the United States, and with good reason: Opportunities to improve their
lives abound here. Immigrants and would-be immigrants want to pursue the American dream. Whether or not they would put it
in these terms, they want to be free to think and act on their best judgment; they want to produce wealth and keep and use
it as they see fit; they want to make better lives for themselves and their families. In other words, foreigners want to come
to America for the same reason the Founding Fathers established this republic: They want lives of liberty and happiness.
Immigration is the act of moving to a country with the intention of remaining there. Morally speaking, if a person rationally
judges that immigrating to America would be good for his life, he should immigrate; a rational morality holds that one should
always act on one’s best judgment. But does a foreigner have a right to move to America? And should America
welcome him? Yes, he does—and yes, she should. Recognition of these facts was part and parcel of this country’s
The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted
of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and
propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment. 1
Unfortunately this pro-immigration attitude, expressed by George Washington in 1783, has all but vanished from American
politics. Indeed, the policies of America—the republic built by and for immigrants—have become hostile to immigrants.
Although some foreigners today are fortunate enough to receive special permission to immigrate to the U.S.—via quotas
(as if freedom were good only for a limited number of people) and lotteries (as if Liberty were a scratch-card game)—millions
more aspiring immigrants are forbidden entry. Today, productive, life-loving immigrants such as Isaac Asimov, Irving Berlin,
Andrew Carnegie, Enrico Fermi, Andrew Grove, Itzhak Perlman, Wolfgang Puck, David Sarnoff, Nikola Tesla, Arturo Toscanini,
Eddie Van Halen, and Ayn Rand would likely be turned away from the land of the free. Today, the vast majority of would-be
immigrants—including physicists from Israel, software engineers from India, restaurateurs from Mexico, musicians from
Canada, architects from Brazil, biochemists from Japan, and countless other perfectly good people—are simply shut out
of the melting pot. Immigration to the land of liberty is now largely prohibited by American law.
This prohibition, however, is un-American and immoral. The basic principle of America—the principle of individual
rights—demands a policy of open immigration.
Open immigration does not mean that anyone may enter the country at any location or in any manner he chooses; it is not
unchecked or unmonitored immigration. Nor does it mean that anyone who immigrates to America should be eligible for U.S. citizenship—the
proper requirements of which are a separate matter. Open immigration means that anyone is free to enter and reside in America—providing
that he enters at a designated checkpoint and passes an objective screening process, the purpose of which is to keep out criminals,
enemies of America, and people with certain kinds of contagious diseases.2 Such a policy is not only politically right; it is morally right.
Here is why:
Man lives by means of reason—that is, by acting on his rational judgment. To live, he must observe facts, identify
causal relationships, use logic, form principles about what is good and bad for his life, and act on his best judgment. For
instance, he must observe that food, shelter, medical care, and the like are necessary for his survival; he must acknowledge
that such goods cannot be wished or prayed into existence but must be produced by means of rational thought and effort; he
must conclude that producing values is good for his life and that failing to produce them is bad for his life; and he must
act on that principle. A person who fails to recognize such facts and take such actions will either soon die or, as is more
often the case, exist parasitically on those who do think and produce.3
Because reason is man’s basic means of living—and because reason is a faculty of the individual—a human
life, a life proper to man, is a life lived by the judgment of one’s own mind. The basic principle on which America
was founded and on which slavery was abolished is an acknowledgment of this fact: Each individual has a moral right to act
in accordance with his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the same right of others. This is the meaning of the right
to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to life is the right to act as one’s life requires—which
means, on the judgment of one’s mind. The right to liberty is the right to be free from coercive interference—so
that one can act on the judgment of one’s mind. The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of the
product of one’s effort—which one does by acting on one’s judgment. And the right to the pursuit of happiness
is the right to seek the values of one’s choice—which one does by acting on one’s judgment.
Each of these rights—and every other legitimate right—is a species of the right to act on one’s judgment;
thus, if we want to protect our rights, we must recognize and reject the one thing that can stop us from acting on
our judgment: physical force.
If someone puts a gun to your head and commands “Give me your wallet” or “Take off your clothes”
or “Don’t criticize the government” or “Don’t cross that border,” you cannot act on your
judgment; you cannot keep your wallet or remain clothed or criticize the government or cross the border. The threat of death
makes your judgment—your basic means of survival—irrelevant; you now have to act on the gunman’s judgment.
Absent such force, you can act as you see fit; you can keep your wallet, remain clothed, criticize the government,
cross the border.
The principle here is: Physical force used against a person prevents him from acting on his judgment—and only
physical force has this effect. In other words, individual rights can be violated only by means of physical force.4
This fact gives rise to the basic principle of a civilized society: No one—including the government—may initiate
the use of physical force against a human being.5 To the extent that this principle is recognized by a society’s citizens and upheld by its government, that society
is conducive to human life; to the extent that this principle is rejected or violated by a society, that society is inimical
to human life.
In a civilized society, whether or not a person is legally free to take a particular action depends on whether he has a
right to take the action. If the action will violate the rights of others, then he does not have a right to take
it; if the action will not violate the rights of others, then he does have a right to take it. There is no middle ground here:
Either a person has a right to take a given action, or he does not. And if he does, he morally must be left free to do so.
Suppose, for example, a man in Los Angeles wants to work at a local car wash, and suppose the owner of that car wash wants
to hire him. Should the two men be free to do business? Yes. And the reason why they should be free to do business
is that each man has a moral right to act on his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the same right of others. In
other words, the reason is the principle of individual rights.
The right to act on one’s judgment includes the right to contract with others by mutual consent to mutual advantage.
No one’s rights are violated by an employer hiring an employee. The employer might fire another employee to make room
for the new, more-desirable employee—but (unless doing so breaches a contract) firing an employee does not violate his
rights; it does not prevent him from acting on his judgment. The fired employee remains free to improve his skills or lower
his rate or seek another job or start his own business.
There is no such thing as a right to a job—which is why no one ever has or ever will present the facts that give
rise to such a “right.” If a person had a “right” to a job, what would that imply? It would imply
that someone must be forced to provide him with a job. A “right” that violates a right is a contradiction
Consider another example. Suppose a man in Virginia wants to move to North Carolina, and suppose a landlord in North Carolina
wants to lease the man an apartment. Should the Virginian be free to move? Yes. Should the landlord be free to lease him the
apartment? Yes. And why should they be free to take these actions? They should be free to move and to lease because,
as human beings, they have the right to act on their own judgment and because neither of these actions violates anyone’s
rights. Again, the reason is the principle of individual rights.
Now, let us consider some slightly altered examples.
Suppose a man in Mexico wants to work at a car wash in LA, and suppose the owner of that car wash wants to hire him. Should
these men be free to do business? The question here is not whether it is legal for them to do business, but whether
it should be legal. What moral principle governs this situation? The principle of individual rights does. Each individual
has the right to act on his own judgment, so long as he does not violate the same right of others. Accordingly, these men
should be free to do business.
Similarly, suppose a man in India wants to move to North Carolina, and suppose a landlord in North Carolina wants to lease
him an apartment. Should the Indian be free to move? Should the landlord be free to lease him an apartment? Again, the governing
principle is that of individual rights.
We could multiply examples, but the point should be clear: Foreigners have a right to move to America, and Americans have
a right to hire, contract, and associate with them by mutual consent. A government that prohibits or limits immigration thereby
initiates force against would-be immigrants—and against those Americans who want to associate with them—and thus
violates the rights of both parties. The principle of individual rights forbids this prohibition and mandates open immigration.
Individuals possess rights not by virtue of their geographic location or national origin or genetic lineage, but by nature
of the fact that in order to live they must be free to act on their basic means of living: their judgment. This principle,
in conjunction with the fact that rights can be violated only by means of physical force, gives rise to the need for a government—an
institution with a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographic area—the proper purpose of which is to
protect individual rights. A government serves this function by banning the use of physical force from social relations—and
by using retaliatory force as necessary against those who initiate (or threaten to initiate) force. But a government has a
moral right to use force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use; it has no moral
right to initiate force against anyone—citizen or non-citizen, within or without its border—for any reason.6
America’s border is not properly a barrier for the purpose of keeping foreigners out; it is properly a boundary designating
the area in which the U.S. government must protect rights. Rights-respecting foreigners who want to cross that boundary in
order to enjoy the relative freedom and abundant opportunity in America have a moral right to do so. Likewise, American citizens
who want to associate with foreigners in rights-respecting ways—whether through friendship, romance, recreation, or
commerce—have a moral right to do so. And Americans who do not want to associate with foreigners have a moral
right not to associate with them. But no one—including the government—has a moral right to prevent anyone from
acting on his judgment.
To prohibit a person from immigrating to the U.S. is to violate his right to act on his judgment; it is to retard his ability
to live a life proper to man; it is to commit a moral crime.
Arguments against open immigration abound, but all of them are invalid. None of them names a principle (i.e., a general
truth) by reference to which limiting immigration is a requirement of human life—and each of them calls for actions
that violate individual rights. Let us consider several and see, in pattern, how they fail to make their case.
1. “This is our country, and we have a right to refuse entry to foreigners.”
No one owns America. American individuals and corporations own specific tracts of land, homes, businesses, automobiles,
and the like; and the owners of this property can rightfully prohibit others from entering or using it. But America as such—America
the country—is not owned by anyone.
There are two kinds of property in America: private property and so-called “public” property. Whereas private
property is owned by individuals and corporations, “public” property, which is allegedly “owned by everyone
in general,” is actually owned by no one in particular. This is why no one in particular can dictate how it will or
will not be used. Consider that if citizen Jones insists on permitting immigrants to enter “his” portion of “public”
property, but citizen Smith insists on prohibiting immigrants to enter “his” portion, the conflict cannot
be justly resolved. Someone’s “right” to “his” portion of the property “owned by everyone
in general” is going to be violated. This and the countless similar conflicts arising from the notion of “public”
property point to the invalidity of such property—property which, by its very nature, violates individual rights and
generates an endless stream of irresolvable rights disputes.
There are no facts of reality that give rise to the need for “public” property, thus there is no principle
governing the use of such property; there is only this person or group’s desires against that person or group’s
desires—and, of course, the old saw that “might makes right.” Since there is no principle governing the
use of “public” property, there can be no principled argument for excluding immigrants from using such property.
But there is a principle governing the actions that all individuals should be free to take by nature of the requirements
of human life—namely, the principle of individual rights—and that principle implies that immigrants should be
free to use “public” property.7
Americans who wish to permit immigrants to visit or use or purchase their private property have a moral right
to permit them. And Americans who want to prohibit immigrants from visiting, using, or purchasing their private property
have a moral right to prohibit them. But no one has a moral right to stop others from acting on their judgment. So says the
basic principle of civilized society—the fundamental principle of America—the principle of individual rights.
The “This is our country” argument for prohibiting or limiting immigration to America is invalid and un-American.
2. “We Americans have a right to our culture, which immigrants erode.”
There are three possible interpretations of this claim: (a) “We have a right to preserve the racial makeup of our
culture”; (b) “We have a right to preserve the language of our culture”; and (c) “We have a right
to preserve our lifestyle choices.” Let us consider them in that order.
If by “We have a right to our culture” opponents of immigration are speaking of a right to preserve the racial
makeup of their culture, then what they seek is not to protect American culture but to “achieve” something on
the order of Nazi culture. Nothing more need be said about that.
As to preserving the use of English in America: In one sense, Americans have both a moral right and a political need to
do so; in another sense, however, they have no such right or need. An official national language is necessary for the purpose
of clarity and consistency in government documents and legal proceedings. In America, that language obviously should be English,
the language on which the country was built. But there is no such thing as a right to force someone to speak English,
or to bar him from speaking Spanish or French or any other language. That said, just as American immigrants throughout history
have learned to speak English out of practical necessity, so most American immigrants today eventually learn to speak English
out of practical necessity: The ability to speak English makes one more competitive in the free market. The major shelters
from this necessity are: (1) the welfare state, which substantially obviates the need for immigrants to compete, and (2) the
status of “illegal alien,” which gives rise to black markets in which English is unnecessary. Americans concerned
about immigrants learning English should oppose welfare programs and advocate a policy of open immigration, under which the
now thriving black markets would wither away.
Finally, if by “We have a right to our culture” opponents of immigration are speaking of a right to their lifestyle
preferences—their music, their cuisine, their mode of dress, and so forth—then they should be arguing not against
immigration but for open immigration: The right to one’s lifestyle preferences means the right to one’s
pursuit of happiness (i.e., the right to seek the values of one’s choice), which one exercises by acting on one’s
own judgment while respecting the right of others—including immigrants—to do the same.
The only culture to which anyone can have a right is a culture of respect for and protection of individual rights. Fortunately
for those who love and want to preserve American culture, the principle of individual rights is the basic principle of that
culture; respect for that principle is an essential characteristic of a true American; and foreigners who immigrate to America,
for the most part, embody that characteristic.
The “We have a right to our culture” argument against immigration is at worst unspeakably evil and at best
an argument for open immigration.
3. “We Americans have a right to our jobs, which immigrants take, and to our wage rates, which immigrants lower.”
As mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a right to a job; such a “right” on the part of one person
would necessitate the use of force against others. Nor, for the same reason, is there any such thing as a “right”
to a wage rate, which would violate the rights of employers and employees to set mutually beneficial terms of doing business
with each other.
If a man is fired from a job—or if his wages are reduced—because a willing immigrant is able to do the job
better or cheaper, no force has thereby been used against the fired man; he remains free to act on his own judgment. He can
and should either improve his skills or offer his services for less or seek another job or start his own business or think
of something better to do. But he has no right to have the government prevent the employer and the immigrant from doing business
with each other.
The desire of certain U.S. workers and labor-union members for the government to grant them an entitlement to a job created
by someone else—or to a wage paid by someone else—is not an argument against immigration, but a consequence of
a false and grossly un-American premise: the notion that “might makes right.” In reality, and in accordance with
the basic principle of America, whether a person is best qualified for a given job is determined not by a gun but by the free
market. No one, and no group, has a right to forcibly exclude from the marketplace those with whom he or they cannot compete—and
no true American would claim such a right or advocate such force.
The “We Americans have a right to our jobs and wage rates” argument against immigration is invalid and un-American.
4. “Immigrants come to America to live on the public dole via our welfare programs, and we simply can’t afford
to support them.”
Most immigrants do not come to America to live on the public dole; most come to enjoy America’s (relative)
freedom, to work hard, and to be self-sufficient. The fact that some immigrants come to America to leech off our
welfare state is an argument not against immigration but against the welfare state—which, by coercively redistributing
the wealth of productive Americans, attracts foreign parasites (and encourages domestic ones).
Punishing an individual for someone else’s wrongdoing is patently immoral—and the wrongdoing here is not just
that of the relatively few immigrants who seek welfare handouts. The greater wrongdoing is that of the American intellectuals,
citizens, and politicians who established and who maintain the welfare state. For America to bar would-be immigrants from
entry to America because of immoral “welfare” policies instituted by Americans is the height of injustice.
What should we do about the problem of welfare with regard to immigrants? We should mercifully bar immigrants
from any involvement in this legalized violation of rights. This would be good both for immigrants and for Americans.
In order to live the good life, immigrants, like all human beings, need to develop and maintain the virtue of independence;
they need to face the demands of reality and live by their own thought and effort. Precluding them from receiving the so-called
“benefits” of welfare will help them to develop or maintain that virtue.
More importantly, barring immigrants from receiving welfare will be a step in the direction of recognizing and protecting
the property rights of American citizens. (The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which
barred immigrants from receiving most welfare “benefits” for their first five years in America, was a step in
the right direction.)
Immigrants should also be ineligible to use government schools, which are worse than welfare programs. Whereas welfare
programs merely provide people with stolen goods for “free,” government schools retard the minds of children while
forcibly charging their parents and neighbors for the “service.”
By not receiving stolen goods, immigrants would retain the natural incentive to earn their success by working. And by not
using government schools, immigrants would have the opportunity to provide their children with quality education—whether
by sending them to private school or by homeschooling them. (There are many immigrants here in southern California who already
do one or the other.) Of course, insofar as immigrants are excluded from receiving welfare and using government schools, they
should also be exempted from paying taxes toward these illegitimate programs.
That is the solution to the problem of welfare with regard to immigrants. (A similar solution applies to the related problem
of doctors and hospitals being forced to provide immigrants with “free” medical goods and services. The solution
is that such force morally must be stopped.)
The “Immigrants seek welfare, so we can’t afford them” argument against immigration is not an argument
against immigration; it is an argument against the welfare state and all its life-thwarting manifestations. Punishing would-be
immigrants for the moral failings of a few immigrants—and for the moral failings of Americans and their intellectual
and political leaders—is immoral.
5. “Statistics show that immigrants commit a lot of crime. The more immigrants we allow into the country, the more
crime we will suffer.”
Yes, there are statistics showing that some immigrants commit crime. There are also statistics showing that some
native-born Americans commit crime. Statistics showing that some people commit crime, however, say nothing about what any
particular person will do; and group statistics as such are wholly irrelevant to the question of whether
an individual should be free to act on his judgment.
People, including immigrants and would-be immigrants, have free will; they choose to think or not to think, to act on reason
or to act on feelings, to respect individual rights or to violate them. A person’s choice to respect or violate individual
rights is not dictated by his national origin or his race or his language, but by his philosophy, which can be either rational
or irrational, depending on whether or not he chooses to think.8
If an immigrant chooses to be irrational and commits a crime, then, like anyone who commits a crime, he should suffer the
consequences of his wrongdoing. But the presumption of innocence reigns here: An individual is logically and morally to be
presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Individuals who leave socialist, communist, or theocratic hellholes to seek a better life in America are not criminals
to be punished but heroes to be admired (would that more Americans were so inspiring). To arbitrarily judge them as corrupt
or to condemn them to the third-world hell into which they were accidentally born on the “grounds” that some
immigrants commit crime is logically absurd and morally obscene.
The “Statistics show that immigrants commit a lot of crime” argument is an evasion of the self-evident fact
of free will, and it betrays a thoroughly collectivist mentality on the part of those who advance it.
6. “Open immigration might be practical under laissez-faire capitalism, but it is not practical under a welfare
state. We cannot institute open immigration until we’ve achieved laissez-faire capitalism.”
This claim—which amounts to: “We can’t begin implementing the principles of laissez-faire capitalism
until we live under laissez-faire capitalism” or “We can’t begin upholding the principle of individual rights
until the principle of individual rights is fully upheld”—reverses cause and effect.
The only way to achieve a fully rights-respecting society is to begin moving incrementally in that direction, by consistently
taking action in every area in which such progress is possible. We must make a concerted effort toward (among other things)
eradicating so-called entitlement programs, liquidating government schools (i.e., establishing a free market in education),
repealing antitrust laws, eliminating eminent domain, implementing a self-interested foreign policy, and establishing
a policy of open immigration. None of these aspects of a free society can ever be fully accomplished apart from a principled
effort to accomplish the whole, but each and every one of them can be accomplished step-by-step over time—if
we grasp and appeal to the principle by reference to which each is a morally necessary measure: the principle of individual
The “We must wait for laissez-faire” argument against open immigration is invalid and betrays a fundamental
misunderstanding of the nature of positive political change.
7. “Open immigration makes it easy for terrorists to enter the U.S.; American security requires immigration restrictions.”
What makes it easy for terrorists to enter America is (a) the 12,000-mile perimeter of the contiguous forty-eight states
(not to mention Alaska and Hawaii) combined with (b) the fact that the U.S. government has not eliminated the states that
The solution to the problem of terrorists harming or threatening Americans is not to violate the rights of would-be immigrants,
but to annihilate the states that sponsor terrorism. Islamic terrorism against the “Great Satan” is not a lone-wolf
activity; it is fueled and made possible by the material and spiritual support of Islamist regimes—regimes such as those
in Iran and Saudi Arabia. To end terrorism against America, we must end such regimes.
Banning Mexicans, Canadians, Indians, and Sudanese from seeking the American dream has exactly nothing to do with ending
terrorism or protecting America. Neither closed borders nor limits on immigration can stop terrorists from entering this country.
All that is accomplished by banning or limiting immigration is the violation of individual rights.
Those concerned about terrorists harming Americans should advocate (a) the summary elimination of all regimes that have
financed or called for or otherwise incited harm to Americans, and (b) a policy of open immigration to the “Great Satan.”
With the state sponsors of terrorism destroyed, and with an American policy of open immigration in place, anyone attempting
to enter the U.S. at a non-designated location could legitimately be considered a threat to the rights of Americans and dealt
The “American security requires immigration restrictions” argument against open immigration is invalid and
suicidal. To violate the rights of would-be immigrants while ignoring the wrongs of American-murdering regimes is unjust and
The foregoing examples demonstrate that one cannot argue from a rights-respecting, American perspective against a policy
of open immigration—because the basic principle of America, the principle of individual rights, mandates open immigration.
Bearing that in mind, what should we do about the estimated 12 million “illegal” immigrants currently residing
in the U.S.?
In light of the immoral and illegitimate law they “broke” by moving to (or remaining in) America—and
in light of the suffering they have endured by being labeled “illegal” (e.g., having to live in the shadows, not
being able to market their goods or services openly, not being able to use banks or credit cards, etc.)—the solution
to the problem of so-called “illegals” is to grant them unconditional amnesty and a presidential apology. Just
as the principle of individual rights mandates open immigration, so too it mandates amnesty for those whose moral actions
were made “criminal” by immoral laws. (“Amnesty” is really the wrong word, as one logically should
not have to be “pardoned” for having acted morally, but there is no accurate word for what has been necessitated
by our irrational immigration policy.)
Some argue that granting amnesty to “illegal” immigrants would make a mockery of the rule of law and that “illegals”
broke our laws and should be held accountable for having done so. On the contrary, what mocks the rule of law is the existence
and attempted enforcement of anti-immigration laws.
Upholding the rule of law does not mean upholding whatever laws happen to be on the books. Should the citizens of Nazi
Germany have turned Jews over to the Gestapo? Nazi law dictated that they must. Would the refusal to obey that law have been
a mockery of the rule of law? Should the citizens of theocratic Iran behead apostates? That is what Shariah law calls
for. Would refusal to do so mock the rule of law? Should Americans living in the North in the 1850s have returned runaway
slaves to their Southern “owners” in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act? Did violators of this act mock the
rule of law?
Upholding the rule of law does not mean enforcing illegitimate laws; it means establishing and maintaining a government
and legal system based on the objective social requirements of human life—namely: the recognition and protection of
individual rights. Laws that violate individual rights are illegitimate laws, and such laws morally must be repealed. Consciously
“violating” such laws in order to sustain and further one’s life (or the lives of others) is not a violation
of the rule of law; it is a recognition of the fact that valid moral principles trump invalid political policies.
(This is not to say that it is proper to disobey any and every illegitimate law. There are contexts in which it is morally
right to obey laws that are morally wrong—because violating them would harm one’s life. For instance, it is morally
right to pay one’s taxes, because refusing to pay them will land one in jail. But such value judgments can be properly
made only by reference to the principle that what is right depends on the requirements of one’s life, all available
and relevant facts considered.)
Although the political status of 12 million immigrants now residing in America is “illegal,” the moral status
of most of them is: American. They risked life and limb to get here; they do everything they can to stay here; and they endure
all the trouble that comes with being labeled “illegal”—all in pursuit of a better life for themselves and
their families in the freest country on earth. What could be more American than that?
As to the specific steps required to achieve a rights-respecting and thus moral immigration policy for the U.S., here is
a broad five-point plan, all aspects of which should be advocated simultaneously and by reference to the moral principle that
mandates them: the principle of individual rights.
- Repeal all laws restricting immigration; do away with all quotas, visas, green-cards, and the like; make open immigration
the law of the land.
- Establish an objective screening process at designated points of entry along the U.S. border; turn away (or detain) only
criminals, enemies of America, and people with certain kinds of contagious diseases.9
- Grant unconditional amnesty to all so-called “illegal” immigrants, and apologize to them for the trouble our
immoral laws have caused them.
- Exclude immigrants from receiving welfare and from using government schools—and exempt them from paying taxes toward
these immoral programs.
- Declare war on Iran; eliminate its current regime; and announce to the world that, from now on, this is how America will
deal with regimes that threaten our citizens, our immigrants, or our allies. Turn next to the Saudi regime. Repeat as necessary.
Accomplishing these measures will require substantial time, effort, and intellectual activism, but there is no shortcut;
these are the actions necessary to solve the misnamed “immigration problem,” which is, in fact, a problem of too
few Americans recognizing, embracing, and upholding the basic principle on which America was founded.
Those who argue that the “immigration problem” is too “pressing” and requires more “expedient”
measures—or too “complex” and requires measures more “agreeable” to opponents of individual
rights—either misunderstand the nature of the problem or choose to evade it. The problem, however, is what it is, and
if Americans want to solve it, we must recognize its actual nature and proceed accordingly.
Help defend the rights of foreigners to immigrate to America and the rights of Americans to associate with them. Fight
this battle by understanding and appealing to the principle of individual rights. It is the proper governing principle
in politics, and it mandates open immigration.