Right to Migrate

This libertarian principle says that the right of free mobility is a natural right and cannot legitimately be restricted unless there is strong evidence that the exercise of this right would violate other rights. A common formulation of this is that there is no morally relevant distinction between migration that occurs within national boundaries and migration that occurs across such boundaries.

There are many different levels at which one may endorse this right:

  • An absolute right to migrate: This right is endorsed by some absolutist libertarians and anarchists, and also by some people of other political philosophies.
  • A presumptive right to migrate: Here, there is a strong presumption in favor of letting people migrate that can be overridden only in the presence of clear evidence of harm or danger.
  • A prior in favor of the right to migrate, or, the right to migrate as a useful rule of thumb: Here, the right to migrate is not treated as a “right” in a moral sense, but is rather considered a useful rule of thumb for some other end. For instance, a utilitarian may favor a right to migrate as a useful rule of thumb, but deny it in a particular case if the costs exceeded the benefits even by a very small amount.

Self-Ownership vs State Ownership

This is a libertarian response to some of the anti-open borders arguments that stem from concerns about the harms to immigrant-sending countries such as brain drain and delay of political reform. The claim is that, even if there are some harms to others due to an individual’s choice to migrate, these harms are not sufficient to overcome the right to migrate. This is because of the principle of self-ownership: each person is owned by himself/herself, not by the state where he/she happens to be born.

This argument has been made by many people, most notably Michael Clemens, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD). He leads the Migration and Development Initiative at the center.

This argument is not made solely by libertarians, however it draws on libertarian modes of reasoning, in this case aspects of these modes of reasoning are shared by many non-libertarians.

The limiting case of the anti-libertarian principle of state ownership has been seen in communist countries that forbid people from emigrating. For more on this, see emigration: escaping communism.

Obligations to Strangers

Part of the case for open borders is that at the very minimum, our obligation to strangers is to leave them alone. Immigration restrictions, by denying strangers the freedom to move to another country, violates this basic obligation.

It is conceivable that individuals have no positive obligations toward the welfare of those from other countries. Thus, there may be a case that immigrants (or for that matter even natives) do not have a right to one’s charity. However, preventing people from immigrating is a form of active harm rather than simply failing to provide charity.


  • Starving Marvin, a hypothetical by Michael Huemer that illustrates that immigration restrictions are akin to forcibly preventing a hungry person from going to the market rather than refusing him charity.
  • John and Julio, a hypothetical by Bryan Caplan that illustrates that immigration restrictions are more akin to forcibly preventing a potential competitor from appearing at a job interview in order to increase one’s own chances of getting a job.