As we noted in our previous post, there is a tension between liberalism and immigration restrictions. Why? Well, immigration restrictions interfere with important liberties, like freedom of association and occupational choice. We now want to generalize the argument. Our claim is that standard arguments for immigration restrictions also justify curtailing other basic liberties (liberties that no liberal wants to curtail).
Some philosophers argue that states have rights to exclude immigrants because states have rights to collective self-determination. The idea here is that citizens have the right to control their collective affairs and shape the character of their society. Some people cash this out in cultural terms: we have rights to control cultural change and preserve our national culture. Immigration causes cultural disruption and so citizens have the right to restrict immigration.
It’s true that the freedom to immigrate can cause cultural change. But so can the exercise of other freedoms. Take freedom of speech. Imagine that Joe invents a distinctive new religion and persuades many other people to join up. Or imagine that you are wildly successful at convincing people to become libertarians. Or suppose that the campaign to use Esperanto gains steam. All of these exercises of speech cause cultural change. But, if self-determination justifies restricting immigration to prevent cultural change, why can’t it justify restricting freedom of speech?
Other people think that states have rights to freedom of association. Harvard isn’t obligated to admit all applicants. Why not? Well, Harvard has a right to freedom of association. But why can’t the same point apply to the United States? Maybe the USA is kind of like a big, private club. Just as Harvard can deny admission to 95 percent of all applicants, so can the USA.
Notice though that private organizations routinely restrict the liberty of their members in ways that would be seriously illiberal if stated acted in a similar manner. Consider private universities. Some private universities forbid students from having sex out of wedlock or growing beards. Other private colleges only allow free speech in tiny “free speech” zones” (if you’re lucky). If states are like private clubs, then why can’t states also restrict the liberty of their members in similar ways?
Or take the idea that citizens collectively own their country. Suppose you and your spouse co-own a house and yard. You have the right to exclude people from trespassing on your lawn. Perhaps immigration restrictions are justifiable in this way.
The problem with the ownership argument is that it also proves too much. Imagine a worker-owned co-op. A majority of the co-owners vote to require everyone to wear uniforms and spend at least 5 minutes a day sweeping the floors. Collectively mandating forms of dress and occupation may be permissible for this worker-owned co-op, but liberals would balk at the idea that a democratic state may collectively mandate certain forms of dress and occupation.
Collective ownership can only justify immigration restrictions if collective ownership takes precedent over individual liberties. Suppose you want to hire a foreigner or invite foreigners to live with you, and your fellow citizens (your “co-owners”) say no. If your co-owners can forbid you from doing this, why can’t they forbid you from holding a political protest, dressing flamboyantly, or criticizing Christianity on “their” property? After all, these are the rights that the owners of private property often already have.
So, if you buy that rights to collective self-determination justify immigration restrictions, you should be prepared to say goodbye to a whole range of other basic liberties, like freedom of speech, sexual freedom, occupational choice, and freedom of religion.