January 5, 2011


The Freedom to Move: Can we hope to explain the blessings of freedom to foreign people while we deny them the freedom to cross our boundaries? (Oscar W. Cooley and Paul L. Poirot, January 1986, FEE)

Freedom of movement underlies the concept of private property rights. A person has the right to exclusive possession and use of that which he has assembled and improved without trespass against others—the right to the product of his own labor. Any move of a man might be deemed proper and beneficial when he acts to assemble, transport, or otherwise convert the free gifts of Nature so that they may satisfy human needs more readily. This involves no infringement on the equal right of others. It would seem to be the kind of movement that should not be discouraged by man or by government.

On the other hand, freedom of movement may lead to trespass. A person may move or act in such a way as to threaten the life, or to seize or damage the property, of someone else. His apparent personal gain would be at the direct expense of another person. Surely, government should lend no encouragement to such harmful actions or threats of harm by individuals.

The problem of society, then, is to permit and encourage individuals to move and act in a productive and beneficial manner, and to avoid harmful intervention or trespass. The founding fathers wisely depended upon voluntary exchange—freedom of trade in the competitive market place—as the automatic, non-governmental guide to productivity and progress among men. They delegated to government the power to restrict only those actions of individuals designed to circumvent the free market through fraud, deceit, or coercion. The penalty for violation was restitution for damages, or imprisonment, or some other restraint upon that person’s freedom to act or move.

The freedom of the individual to move toward greener pastures, wherever they may seem to be, has been a vital part of the freedom of commerce—the freedom of choice that has constituted the truly distinctive characteristic of “the American way.”

In view of our long experience of near-perfect freedom to move about as each might choose, some of us may not realize the limitations that confront people in many other parts of the world who might like to move toward something better. Many who might choose to enter the United States, peacefully observing our laws and paying their own way, are denied entry. Our community slogans now seem to read: “Welcome to all peaceful and productive newcomers—except foreigners.” And a foreigner here is an individual who has crossed a special political line, supposedly which bounds “the land of the free”!

If it is sound to erect a barrier along our national boundary lines, against those who see greater opportunities here than in their native lands, why should we not erect similar barriers between states and localities within our nation? Why should a low-paid worker—“obviously ignorant, and probably a Socialist”—be allowed to migrate from a failing buggy shop in Massachusetts to the expanding automobile shops of Detroit? According to the common attitude toward immigrants, he would compete with native Detroiters for food and clothing and housing. He might be willing to work for less than the prevailing wage rate in Detroit, “upsetting the labor market” there. His wife and children might “contaminate” the local sewing circles and playgrounds with foreign ways and ideas. Anyhow, he was a native of Massachusetts, and therefore that state should bear the full “responsibility for his welfare.”

Those are matters we might ponder, but our honest answer to all of them is reflected in our actions—we’d rather ride in automobiles than in buggies. It would be foolish to try to buy an automobile or anything else in the free market, and at the same time deny any individual an opportunity to help produce those things we want.

Our domestic relationships would be harmed seriously by restraints upon man’s freedom to migrate. But why shouldn’t the same reasoning hold for our foreign relationships?

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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2011 11:11 AM
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