Is Liberal Immigration Anti-Democratic?—A Reply to Gadi Taub
Photo by Ggia/Wikimedia Commons, Greece, 2015.

Is Liberal Immigration Anti-Democratic?—A Reply to Gadi Taub

Sam Kiss
Sam Kiss
11 min read

In a recent Quillette essay, Gadi Taub argues that restricting voters’ power undermines the “ability of citizens to protect their hard-earned liberal rights.” He also says this is “bound to hurt these very rights, since their only real guarantee is the fact that we can dismiss our governments and appoint their replacement.” We may believe voting is an unreliable guarantor of liberal rights because more voters are turning to nationalism or socialism. We may also believe liberal rights and democracy, properly understood, imply wide restrictions on voting.

The second reservation gives us a sense what’s wrong with Taub’s central argument. He says the debate over immigration is a “proxy for a far larger struggle over the future of democracy itself.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But this struggle is more complicated than he admits.

Taub claims there are two sides to the debate over immigration: one says the state may restrict immigration, and the other says the state may not. This is a caricature. Pretty much everyone believes states may exclude known security or public health threats. Ebola patients, for instance, or terrorists. And few believe states must admit fugitive wrongdoers. The real debate is between those who believe the state may exclude other kinds of immigrant, and those who believe it may not. Call the first side restrictionist and the second anti-restrictionist. Restrictionism isn’t monolithic. Some say we must include genuine asylum-seekers, for example (Taub does not tell us if he questions the idea of a right to asylum.)

Taub’s narrative also pitches pro-immigration “liberals” and “progressives” against everyone else. It’s not clear what he means by “liberal” and “progressive;” he also equivocates between “moderate liberalism” and “extreme liberalism.” In most places and languages, a liberal is someone who believes in small government: what Americans call a “libertarian.” In North America, “liberals” are liberal egalitarians. The distinction between liberal egalitarianism and American “progressivism” is hazy, too. Roughly, liberal egalitarians lean social democrat and American progressives lean democratic socialist. Both care about liberty and economic equality; liberal egalitarians care more about liberty than progressives do. Outside North America, “progressive” and its cognates are rare. And when they are used, they’re elusive slurs rather than political identities. In some Australian and European nationalist commentary, everything from anarcho-capitalism to revolutionary socialism is “progressive.”

Most liberals are anti-restrictionists (many liberal philosophers and activists believe anti-restrictionism is essential to liberalism.) But many liberal egalitarians and American progressives favor extensive immigration restrictions. Like the philosopher David Miller, they may believe immigration undermines the welfare state. Like Bernie Sanders, they may worry immigration threatens the living standards of “ordinary” citizens. These egalitarian arguments are more palatable than racist or xenophobic ones. But without meaning to put too fine a point on it, the key differences between these arguments stem from their different moral reasons for restrictionism rather than any disagreement over restrictionism itself.

Taub also attributes disagreements over immigration to a non-democratic and “ultimately anti-democratic” shift in “liberal” ideology. But liberal egalitarianism and liberalism have always defended constraints on democratic procedures. The American liberal tradition is intimately connected to the American constitutional system. Liberal egalitarians like Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Anna Stilz defend stringent constraints on democratic procedures, including redistributive riders. The American Democratic Party does too. Liberal writers like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Isabel Paterson, and Ludwig von Mises also defend stringent constraints on democratic procedures. The same goes for their successors, whether these be contemporary liberal writers like Jason Brennan, Bryan Caplan, Chandran Kukathas, and Ilya Somin, or liberal political parties and institutions. Even John Stuart Mill endorsed democratic systems that give extra votes to college graduates and guarantee basic liberal rights. There’s been no great ideological shift on any normal reading of “liberalism.” What’s changed is debates over democracy and immigration policy are now far more pressing.

Liberals and liberal egalitarians aren’t unusual either, or at least not all that unusual. Most people believe in stringent constraints on democratic procedures: they believe some things are wrong, no matter how many citizens say otherwise. Maybe Taub thinks such views are “non-democratic” or “anti-democratic.” In what ways, exactly, are liberal egalitarianism and liberalism today “non-democratic” or “anti-democratic?” We’d expect Taub to answer this question.

Suppose there are two general accounts of democracy: procedural and substantive. The procedural account defines democracy in terms of democratic procedures. A procedure may be democratic if all its users are citizens or elected representatives, say. Maybe a system is only democratic if it leaves everything, or most things, to democratic procedures. Maybe democracy is scalar, depending on the proportion of democratic procedures in a system.

This procedural account gives us conceptual space to call anti-restrictionism, liberalism, and liberal egalitarianism “non-” or “anti-democratic.” It also gives us space to call Taub’s view “non-” or “anti-democratic.” A right to “take part in shaping a collective destiny,” say, would constrain democratic procedures. It’d imply citizens may not vote to disenfranchise any of their fellow citizens.

The substantive account says basic rights, which restrict the scope of democratic procedures, are as much a part of democracy as the procedures themselves.  Anti-restrictionism may be “non-” or “anti-democratic” if it’s inconsistent with basic rights. For example, anti-restrictionism would be “non-” or “anti-democratic” if our basic rights implied we may prevent citizens from inviting foreigners into their homes. It’s not clear our basic rights rule out anti-restrictionism, though, and Taub doesn’t give us any reasons for believing they do. And although they may disagree about accounts of democracy, most anti-restrictionists believe basic rights imply anti-restrictionism: our rights to associate with whomever we contract with, and to move across borders, are among our basic rights.

Assuming we favor using democratic procedures sometimes, here the meat of the dispute is what rights states should protect and the stringency of these rights relative to such procedures. That’s a long way from a Manichean struggle between “anti-democratic” “liberalism” and everything else.

This is more than hair-splitting and wordplay: the moral force of Taub’s argument depends on his view being more “democratic” than the alternatives. And the same conceptual problems reduce the moral force of Taub’s argument in another way. It’s not yet clear “non-democratic” or “anti-democratic” politics are even bad things. Normal liberal constraints on votes to kill or enslave people, say, outweigh anyone’s right to participate in “shaping” a “collective destiny,” on any plausible moral theory.

Taub could grant all this and still claim anti-restrictionist views don’t assign enough moral weight to democratic procedures. Many anti-restrictionists happily admit they simply care more about basic rights than they do about democratic procedures, and that they don’t include the right to vote in the set of basic rights. The problem is that Taub also seeks to reconcile basic “liberal” rights with restrictionism. Many economists, philosophers, and political scientists deny the two could ever be reconciled. I sketch some of their arguments below.

One approach is to identify the harms to prospective immigrants. The libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer writes of immigration restrictions,

They prevent individuals from living where they wish to live…Few decisions are so important as the choice of what society to live in… [and immigration restrictions] are extremely harmful to most of the individuals who are thus restricted. Few Americans would have any doubt that, if someone were to force them to live in the Third World for the rest of their lives, whoever did this would thereby visit a great harm upon them. The harm to potential immigrants from the Third World who are denied entry to the United States, or to illegal immigrants who are forcibly expelled, is of the same kind and approximate magnitude.

This is compelling stuff, and many liberals believe it’s sufficient. Another approach is to ask why citizens and foreigners should be treated any differently in the first place.

Besides some democratic rights, it’s not clear what rights Taub counts as liberal rights. As a rule, liberals and liberal egalitarians believe each citizen is entitled to associate with other citizens (other than associating by way of shared citizenship, if that is a form of association.) Almost all believe each citizen is entitled to procreate; many believe this right covers adopting foreign children. And almost all believe these two rights are in some way derivate of our basic liberal rights, or themselves basic liberal rights. I assume Taub endorses a right to associate and a right to procreate, and believes these are liberal rights. Pretty much everyone, liberal or not, affirms these two rights, and pretty much everyone believes these rights trump democratic ones. It’s not clear Taub believes the rights to associate and procreate trump democratic rights. But if he does, then he’ll struggle to reject anti-restrictionism.

If we think there’s value in forming certain relationships with other citizens, then why shouldn’t there be equal value in associating with foreigners in the same ways?

Conceptions of citizenship vary across political communities. Some require that someone be born in a given territory and reside there. Some require only that someone’s parent is a citizen. Depending on the conception, claims about the moral significance of citizenship may be more or less absurd. One may acquire Italian citizenship without ever residing in Italy, as long as one has an Italian ancestor. It’s far from clear that the many people in Australia, the United States, and elsewhere who’ve acquired Italian citizenship in this way have morally significant relationships with one another due to their shared citizenship.

The anti-restrictionist argument needn’t rest on jus sanguinus either. The reality is that many relationships we normally consider morally significant don’t track citizenship, on any conception of citizenship. Ties of friendship and family transcend citizenship. Foreigners may pay taxes, in significant amounts. Many non-citizens, including investors, have significant material stakes in public property; some foreigners will have a greater material stake than some citizens. Foreigners may even play a greater role in the cultural or political life of a political community than some citizens do, through trade, cultural achievements, political donations, INGOs, or supranational bodies like the EU. Economic, social, cultural, political, and even genetic ties, each of these kinds of relationship are poor sources of principled distinctions between citizens and foreigners. It won’t do to thump the table and stipulate citizenship just is special. The fact “somewheres” are less likely to have morally significant relationships with foreigners than “anywheres” are, doesn’t change things either.

Some restrictionists argue that democratic restrictions on immigration are an expression of associative rights. The state may not force you to be friends with someone, they say, or hire them. In the same way, it may not force you to associate with an immigrant. One problem with this argument is that it’s hard to see how anyone could be forced to associate with immigrants in significant ways, even given a welfare state, unless we’ve already begged the question and decided merely inhabiting the same territory establishes association. Taub talks about foreigners moving into neighborhoods, depressing wages, and so on. But unless one believes say, gentrification or losing out to another citizen in a job hunt infringe associative rights, there’s no road from such rights to immigration restrictions on such everyday grounds.

Another problem is political communities aren’t voluntary associations. We don’t choose to join them unless we’re immigrants; no one born into citizenship ever signed a social contract. And for all liberalisms, autonomy helps explain the value of associative rights. Taub and others may want to argue voting expresses individual autonomy in (liberal) democratic political communities. But voting isn’t a normal autonomy-promoting activity, if indeed it is such an activity. Even if it were true that voting made a qualitative difference to my autonomy, it would concern more than my autonomy: voting is telling people with guns to set the terms each of us lives by, whether we like the result or not. Some believe our co-citizens have consented to our votes if and because they’ve remained in our political community, or consumed public goods; by the same token, maybe civilians are legitimate wartime targets unless they’ve taken steps to overthrow their governments. From a liberal perspective or liberal egalitarian perspective, though, it’s hard to see why tacit consent should be any better than hypothetical water. And while the right to leave is as important as the ability on many liberal accounts, we may worry about taking habitation too seriously in a world of stringent immigration restrictions.

Taub and other restrictionists may want to say the fact that immigration is prospective weakens some of these claims about the moral differences between citizens and foreigners. Preventing some citizens from associating with other citizens in advance would be similarly prospective, of course. Even if it weren’t, it’s hard to identify morally relevant differences between citizens introducing newcomers into a society via procreation, and citizens introducing newcomers via invitation. The fact that a newborn is a citizen makes no difference to the fact that they may represent an unapproved economic or cultural burden. Many citizens-by-birth grow up to be economically inactive; some evidence from Europe and North America suggests natives are less likely to be economically active than immigrants. There are deep cultural differences within all political communities; intergenerational ones are among the deepest, with the young often refusing to assimilate into the culture of the old. The evidence suggests many immigrants regress to the cultural mean over time; some groups of immigrants integrate and assimilate quickly. Like the rest of us, citizens-by-birth are also unlikely to make significant cultural or political contributions to their home society.

A liberal view, egalitarian or not, must explain why one set of citizens, prospective parents, get to have their newcomers, but another set, those who want to, say, marry, employ, or house immigrants, do not. And Taub provides no such explanation. Similar problems arise when the liberal restrictionist argues from inequality and disadvantage. Just as Sanders frets about the effects of migration on “ordinary” workers, Taub stresses that immigration harms the most disadvantaged in a society most of all. Even if it were true immigration harmed the most disadvantaged in a society most of all, we would need strong independent reasons for moving from this fact to playing favorites with the state. Egalitarian and samaritan reasons look promising, until we notice that disadvantaged citizens may be much better off than the prospective newcomers. In most actual cases, natives start from a much better baseline.

None of these concerns rely on believing foreigners have the same (natural) rights as citizens. Immigration restrictions, like tariffs and other restrictions on trade, affect the activities of citizens above all; the basic effects on citizens are the same as they would be if they were domestic restrictions. Either way, you may not bring someone into your house, family, or business, say, without permission.

Liberal egalitarianism often invests national groups with some moral status that isn’t reducible to the moral status of each member. Taub seems to do this. And he hints that citizen participation is valuable because national self-determination matters. But even if citizenship tracked nationality and nations were gestalt “selves,” why would such “selves” matter more than their parts? Each person mastering their fate isn’t the same as some people mastering some other people’s fates. Some explain the significance of national “self”-determination in terms of individual identity: it matters because members identify with a project. But the mere fact that some people identify with a political community that masters its members wouldn’t solve the problem any more than the mere fact that a gang member identifies with their gang would show that its members may harm or exploit people.

Some accept a fiduciary argument that says we may reconcile liberal rights with restrictionism because one of these rights is the right to strong liberal institutions. Taub hints at this kind of justification when he criticizes immigration to Europe and Israel. The idea is that allowing immigration, particularly immigration from authoritarian, conservative societies, threatens liberal institutions in the long-term. To their credit, the main proponents of the fiduciary argument, Danny Frederick and Mark D. Friedman, admit the evidence they have for believing immigration would weaken liberal institutions is limited. Since immigration restrictions are stringent, extensive restrictions on citizens, the evidence would have to be decisive. This isn’t the only problem with the fiduciary argument. What if institutions only count as strong liberal institutions if they have opened their borders? The reply may be that some features of liberal institutions matter more than others: whatever rights immigration restrictions violate are less important than any they supposedly protect. As immigration restrictions are so similar to restrictions on certain rights almost all liberals accept are basic, we’d have to look to citizenship to explain things here too. And the explanation can’t be circular.

We should treat the idea that pro-immigration liberalism is “non-” or “anti-democratic” with caution. And Taub needs to explain how liberal rights could be combined with restrictionism.

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