The Many Ways in Which a Nation Is Not Like a House

By Donald J. Boudreaux

The way we frame an issue plays a large role in determining our conclusions about that issue.

If, for example, wage determination is framed – as it often is – as a power struggle between employers and employees, minimum wages appear in a favorable light. The reason is that employers are generally believed to be more powerful than are workers near the bottom of the pay scale. Being more powerful, employers greedily grab for themselves unfairly large shares of the earnings from operating their businesses. 

Because minimum-wage legislation appears to put the power of the state on the side of low-paid workers, thus making the power of these workers closer to that of employers, such legislation receives wide applause.

But if instead wage determination is framed using supply and demand analysis – in which workers voluntarily choose to supply an input (hourly labor) that is purchased by firms to help produce outputs for sale to the public – there emerges an image of minimum wages that is more true-to-life. 

The supply-and-demand framing shows that minimum wages compel many low-skilled workers to insist on being paid more than the value of what these workers produce. It’s a short step from this realization to the more realistic conclusion that minimum wages reduce the number and quality of employment opportunities open to low-skilled workers.

On no public-policy issue today, however, are conclusions more affected by its framing than immigration.

The Nation Framed as a House

One commonplace framing of immigration treats the nation as a house. Just as each household has the right to lock its doors and legitimately refuse admission to anyone who is not invited in by any member of the household, as a nation we have the right to lock our doors and refuse admission to any and all persons whom we do not invite in. Framed in this way, the case for immigration restrictions seems clear.

Yet this framing is deeply distorting.

Unlike a home, a nation – at least one whose citizens are free – is not a private domain. The nation does not belong to anyone in the same way that a home belongs to its owner. No one, including any collection of its citizens or any government, has a property title to the likes of the United States or to Switzerland.

Also, unlike in a home each nation is full of places that are open to the public. Most roads, bridges, and sidewalks are examples of public places that by their nature are open to people without invitations of the sort that are required of visitors to private homes. Ditto for places such as parks, town squares, city centers, and airports.

Another important difference between a home and a nation is the fact that while in a home each resident personally knows, and frequently loves, each of the other residents, in a nation the citizens overwhelmingly remain strangers to one another. The percentage of today’s 328 million Americans whom I know is infinitesimal. I’ve not even laid eyes on the vast majority of my fellow citizens, and I will never do so. The same is true for every other American, including the president of the United States.

Therefore, the relationships that each of us has with our fellow citizens overwhelmingly are arm’s-length and impersonal. They are mostly market relationships, governed chiefly by self-interest on both sides of each exchange. They are not the sorts of personal relationships that guide decisions made within households. Significantly, the relationships that each of us has with the vast majority of our fellow citizens are precisely the same sorts of relationships that each of us has with strangers from foreign countries.

One consequence of this reality is that living space within a free country is allocated by market transactions rather than by the conscious, noncommercial decisions of the residents of a house. A person who enters a country and purchases or rents a place to live, or who opens a place of business, displaces no one in the way that a home intruder displaces a resident from her bed or favorite chair.

Here’s yet another vital difference between a home and a nation: every intruder into a home likely intends to inflict personal or financial harm on the household’s members. In contrast, the vast majority of immigrants who enter a country - whether with or without government permission - intend no harm to anyone.

Analogizing a nation to a home fosters the myth that citizens of a nation can, and do, trust each other in ways that members of the same household typically trust each other. But of course, when I lock my home at night I do so largely to guard against violence and theft that might otherwise be inflicted on me by other Americans. If every foreigner were immediately and forever expelled from the United States, I would be not one whit less vigilant in locking my home.

Public Spaces Are Not Private Spaces

Political jurisdictions are nothing close to private residences.

For those who still doubt this reality, ask this question: if it’s valid to analogize one sort of political jurisdiction – namely, the nation – to a house, shouldn’t it be valid to analogize other political jurisdictions – such as states, counties, and towns – to houses? Seems so. Yet I’ve heard no one argue that Maryland, or Montgomery County, or Gaithersburg should “secure its borders” against nonresidents of these political jurisdictions. No one supposes that the government of Maryland is irresponsibly ignoring its duties and endangering Marylanders by failing to prevent me, a citizen of Virginia, from entering Maryland whenever I choose. 

But why not? If a political jurisdiction really is like a house, then surely the failure of the state, county, and city governments to “lock the doors” of those jurisdictions is a foolhardy dereliction of their responsibility.

Ironically, those who attempt to build a case for immigration restrictions by portraying the nation as if it is “our” collective house are among those who wish to strip each of us, as property owners, of some of our real and sacred property rights. Because I secure and govern my actual home in Fairfax, Virginia, I acknowledge the importance of my private rights to this property. And further, I strengthen this institution by acting in accordance with those rights. 

My home is mine. Only I control access to it. If my neighbor appears at my door waving a gun, asserting some imagined prerogative to keep certain of my invited guests from entering my home, my neighbor clearly steals from me one of my rights of homeownership. His actions diminish my freedom by stripping from me my right to host in my home whoever I wish and on whatever peaceful terms my guests and I agree upon.

And so because I, as a homeowner, might wish to invite into my actual home one or more non-Americans, when any of my fellow citizens use government to prevent peaceful non-Americans from immigrating into the United States, my freedom is diminished and my rights are obstructed no less than when my neighbor presumes to determine which particular persons may and may not enter my home. The sanctity of the private property to which anti-immigrationists appeal in their attempt to justify exclusionist policies is, in fact, weakened by those policies.

The nation is not a house, and only mischief results when it is treated as such.

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Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.