The Moral Case for Open Immigration

The Ethical Case for Open Borders
Individuals have the right to put one foot in front of another and cross a border in pursuit of freedom and happiness. Yet, borders mean something.

In an earlier article, I argued that migration is an individual right; an expression of a desire for the liberty to improve one’s quality of life. I sought then to outline the libertarian case for open immigration being careful to clarify that open immigration is not equivalent to unmonitored immigration. It does not have to grant a right to eligibility for citizenship, welfare benefits, or other government services.

I defined open immigration only as the right of individuals to freedom of movement to enter a country at designated check points where objective screenings are conducted to protect the nation from diseases, enemies, and criminality. Individuals have the right to put one foot in front of another and cross a border in pursuit of freedom and happiness. Yet, borders mean something.

Here I want to focus on the ethical case for open immigration borrowing from Michael Huemer’s book “Ethical Intuitionism.” Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine that Juan, who is hungry and poor, is walking to his local market to purchase some food with the little money he has. There, the retailer is happy to do business enabling Juan to satisfy his needs.

You learn of Juan’s intentions and you intersect Juan’s walk to forcibly prevent him from reaching the marketplace. Unable to reach the store, Juan remains hungry.

Your behavior is morally wrong as you are now responsible for Juan’s hunger. This thought experiment offers an analogy to a government’s restriction on immigration.

Notice that potential immigrants would like to travel to a country where there are employers willing to hire them to their mutual benefit. And, governments use armed border guards to forcibly prevent these individuals from entering the country to work. But notice further, that your treatment of Juan would not be morally permissible even if any of the following considerations were present.

  1. If you wanted to protect the people already in the marketplace from having to compete with Juan for the store’s hunger satisfying products.
  2. If you were concerned that Juan would influence the culture of the marketplace in ways you would disapprove.
  3. If you were worried that, since you run a program to aid the poor, you would have to give Juan some free food taking away from those in your program.

These considerations are analogous to:

  1. Immigrants take jobs away from low-skill native workers.
  2. Immigrants change the local culture.
  3.  Immigrants consume government services. These considerations do not justify your actions that prevent Juan from reaching the marketplace. Your actions are immoral from the point of view of moral realism. However, there are other moral viewpoints.

Moral realism holds that there are some values that are objectively true. That is, the truth of these values does not depend on someone’s attitudes. But not everyone agrees with moral realism. Relativists, for example, believe that what is right or wrong must be determined by what society approves or disapproves. To a relativist, what is true depends on one’s culture. Others, like subjectivists, believe that what is good, bad, right, or wrong, depends on the attitudes of the individual.

Libertarians, always distrustful of authority, argue for open immigration on the premise that governments should be held to the same ethical standards as individuals. In contrast, based on some variant of “social contract” theory, non-libertarians believe that government is exempted from the moral constrains that apply to individuals. Under social contract theory we have all implicitly consented to grant government the right to the monopolistic use of coercive force in exchange for the government’s protection. We have agreed, in an implicit contract, to permit the government to act immorally.

But social contract theory offers no satisfactory explanation as to why government should be exempt from the moral rules that apply to the rest of us. These rules embody a commitment to the moral equality of persons, a supreme respect for the dignity and rights of the individual, and reluctance to use force or coercion. In other words, these libertarian values call for letting Juan reach the marketplace unimpeded.

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