Preference and borders

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    Some libertarians who follow the Austrian school have been using the Austrian preference and value rank theories to justify their preference for closed borders. The claim is that although their ultimate value is full privatization , they prefer closed borders to open borders given there is a State. This seems to make sense with Austrian Econ. They are simply voicing what they believe their current preference to be based on their ordinal value scales. However, wouldn’t they be erring when they claim that everyone must have a preference for one or the other? Isn’t it true that preference can only be revealed in action? Can someone truly not be aware of a preference or be genuinely indifferent on a topic like closed vs open borders? It was my understanding that the Austrian case was that people can be indifferent up until the point that thy act, and once they act they can’t be said to be indifferent. But up until the critical moment of choice, can’t an individual remain indifferent?

    Also, since you can’t make interpersonal utility comparisons , couldn’t it be said that a person may value opposing all borders , and choose not to make a choice between open vs closed borders? If the individual is so against any gov action that he gains in psychic utility from opposing all state action regardless of the consequences, couldn’t this still be rational in the realm of praxeology?

    Can you walk us through the correct Austrian way of looking at topics like these? Thanks in advance!


    In economic theory, the term “preference” has a narrow, technical meaning. It refers to the rank order of the two alternatives a person chooses between in taking an action.

    In common discourse, “preference” has a broader, non-technical meaning. It refers to what a person favors.

    For example, out of all the means of transportation, I favor a Mercedes S-Class Sedan. However, I prefer a Honda Accord. We know this because I own an Accord.

    Conclusions about policy issues are not preferences in the narrow sense. They are the last step of an argument. When someone states that he favors or prefers open borders, he is saying that his analysis reaches this conclusion for the various reasons outlined in the argument he makes for open borders.

    It would be a mistake, as you point out, for a person to assume that everyone else must have the same preferences that he has for alternatives in taking an action. For example, for me to assume that everyone must prefer, and hence own, a Honda Accord just as I do. It would also be a mistake for a person to assume that everyone else must be persuaded by an argument that he favors.

    A person cannot be indifferent between the alternatives of choice in his own action. To act, he must choose and to choose, he must prefer. A person, however, can be indifferent about policy issues or the actions of other people or even his own potential actions.

    While a person can be indifferent about policy issues, advocating a policy is an action and thus, requires a choice and a preference. I don’t see why a person couldn’t advocate against all state activity even if he thought that open borders was a good policy. Whether or not his position was logically consistent or wise would be an open question, but it would certainly be “rational” in the praxeological sense.


    Thank you professor! My apologies for the delayed reply. You always answer my questions with clarity, detail and thoughtfulness. Your time is more appreciated than you know!


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