How evil are immigration restrictions?

Round and round we go. From Ben Southwold:

(a) restricting migration restricts extremely important rights, like the freedom to take a job you are offered and the freedom to offer a job to a desired applicant, (b) when we curtail these sorts of freedoms we need to have a preponderance of evidence that the costs are very high, (c) the economic evidence says immigration is pretty good for the recipient country, very good for the source country, and amazingly good for the migrant themselves, (d) the magnitude of the social/cultural impact (i.e. the effect of migrants on our institutions, customs, etc.) is unclear, (e) therefore, we ought to have open borders (or something very close to open borders).

Ben Six responds:

To my mind, the burden of proof lies with advocates of radical change. One requires a large body of evidence to justify a course of action that would significantly and permanently change a stable and somewhat civilised nation.

I disagree, of course. Similar arguments were made in the antebellum south. Slavery was a well established system. Destroying it, argued white slave owners, could perhaps be justified but a lot of evidence would be required to prove such a radical change was worthwhile.

This argument sounds evil and ridiculous now, but were they so wrong? Ex ante they had the weight of tradition on their side, ex post blacks in the south continued suffering intensely under sharecropping and Jim Crow, without much of a material improvement over their pre-emancipation condition.

How you feel about these arguments will depend on how you feel about slavery. Under what conditions does the burden of proof fall on the radical? When it comes to slavery I don’t think the burden falls on the revolutionary. I think a similar logic applies to immigration restrictions.


2 thoughts on “How evil are immigration restrictions?

  1. There are, of course, occasions on which striving to alter the status quo is a moral imperative. One of them, which I believe applied to slavery, is when you are inflicting harm on others for your own benefit. I think, however, that there are significant differences between inflicting harm and choosing not to attempt to ameliorate that which already exists. Bob, who locks somebody in his cellar, deprives them of food and beats them on occasion is a far worse man than Bill, who refuses to let people into his house when it is cold outside; if they are hungry or even if someone is pursuing them. (I think that Bill could be wrong, but he need not be.)

    Ethical perceptions are so different between people, though. It is strange that this is not more often obvious in political debates, but I think people like to pretend that they work from the same premises. It makes the world feel simpler.

    1. Many foreigners might be physically distant, but we interact with them intimately at a distance.Thomas Pogge is good on this.

      You might think that they are outside, external, and thus we owe them less than those we interact with “directly” but I think you’re wrong. I interact more with people in the supply chain of the laptop I’m typing on than those who sell newspapers in Pembrokeshire.

      We have an obligation to people we interact with, because we are alienated from what we produce and consumer it doesn’t mean we don’t owe those involved anything.

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