Some new neighbours recently moved in next door to me. They seem nice, but the point is that I had no say whatsoever in the matter. And yet almost everybody believes that, together with my fellow Brits, I have a right to stop people moving into the UK. This is weird. Why should I have a right to stop people moving into, say, London when I have no right to stop them moving next door, even though I don’t care who lives in London but do care whether I have good neighbours or not? And how can a group of people acquire rights that individual members don’t have?
Chris Bertram’s new book Do States Have The Right To Exclude Immigrants? tackles such questions.
His key point, derived from Kant, is:
Claims of right, in order to be other than mere assertions of power against others, have to be justifiable to everyone…nobody should simply impose their will on someone else unilaterally.
Such reasoning justifies why I have no right of veto over who moves in next door. My lack of right in this regard is compensated for by the fact that nobody else has a veto over my moving where I want. Most of us think this is a reasonable bargain.
But this doesn’t apply to immigration. Why, asks Bertram, should would-be immigrants respect our claim to exclude them?
The answer is: they shouldn’t:
A world in which states simply assert their right to unilaterally exclude would-be migrants…is a world in which a kind of tyranny is imposed upon the excluded.
He argues that if we were behind a Rawlsian-style “veil of ignorance” we wouldn’t agree to draconian restrictions of free movement as they might trap us into horribly oppressive governments or condemn us to a life of poverty: John Gibson at the University of Waikato has estimated (pdf) that migrants from Tonga to New Zealand, for example, earn three times as much as comparable people remaining in Tonga. Behind such a veil of ignorance, he says, we’d pick open borders.
Now, I’m sympathetic to this. Which means I’m not the sort of person who should be reading it. It should instead be read by those who favour migration controls.
I asked myself: how might a reasonable defender of migration controls respond to it?
One possibility is to deny the appropriateness of the veil of ignorance thought experiment. Maybe our nationality isn’t something we can slough off but is instead an inherent part of who we are. Perhaps, as Michael Sandel said in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, we are “radically situated subjects” with loyalties that are deeper than mere contingent accidents.
I would have liked Chris to have done more to tackle this. I myself don’t know what to make of it. It gains credence from the fact that people die for their country. But on the other hand, nations are “imagined communities” and, as Chris says, historically quite recent ones: for most of our history, humans have not considered themselves defined by nationality.
My criticism of Chris on this point, however, is minuscule compared to my criticism of our political-media culture. Alasdair MacIntyre complained – rightly – that we lack the intellectual resources for serious moral enquiry, and also the institutions that would permit it. No, the Moral Maze does not count. The sort of world in which Chris might have been seriously grilled by a Bryan Magee-type is long gone. Instead, “debate” about moral questions (not just immigration) is more commonly merely an exchange of self-righteous shrieks and politics merely a haphazrd way of discerning the "will of the people". Much as I enjoyed Chris’s book, I fear it is wasted in this climate.