Is a wall to keep people out better than a wall to keep people in?

Martin Wolf in the Financial Times says he is calling for “a debate” about immigration but his article is, in truth, a thinly-veiled diatribe against immigration on the grounds that it harms the economy, the environment and society.

The most important step in his argument is the first one.   Wolf says:

I, for one, have no difficulty with arguing that immigration is a privilege, not a right. Most people agree.

The assertion that “immigration is a privilege not a right” seems to me to be the wrong starting point.  I would begin with an opposite premise that seems to me to be much more basic and compelling:  “The burden of proof rests on those who would restrict human freedom.” If someone wants to move from one part of the planet to another, to live and work and raise their family, then we ought to have a very good reason before we set up a system to stop them.

To construct his argument, Martin Wolf wants us to believe both the following claims:

  1. Immigration has a negative impact on the existing population; and
  2. We ought to pay more attention to the interests of the existing population than the interests of the migrants.

On the first leg of this argument, Martin Wolf (under the guise of “calling for a debate”) claims that immigration is harmful to the economy, environment and society of the existing population.  As it happens, I don’t agree with any of this, though since that is not the point I want to focus on, I shall restrict myself to pointing to the economic and social success of countries that have been open to large-scale immigration.   But while I think the first leg of the argument is wrong, it is the second leg of the argument that I most want to challenge.

I doubt if anyone would seriously contest the view that even if if immigration causes some harm to the existing population, this harm is in total is far less than the very significant benefits to the migrants themselves.   So the case for restricting the freedom of people to live where they choose can only be made if you accept that we should pay more attention to the interests of the existing population than to the interests of the migrants.

There is no question that it is a widely-held view that we should give more weight to the interests of the existing population.  For example, Wolf says:

My view is that the interests of the existing citizens are of decisive weight, though we should also place some weight, too, on the interests of immigrants.

Perhaps I was born with faulty wiring, but I simply do not understand this view.

I believe we should give equal weight to the rights and interests of every human being. The idea that the interests of people born in our own country should weigh more in our moral calculus than the interests of people born elsewhere is, in my view, indefensible.  To say that we will less attention to the interests of another human  because they happen to have been born far away is organised racism, directly comparable with the pass laws under apartheid.

The United States Declaration of Independence asserts:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence does not limit its assertion of equality to people born within a single country. Nor is the pursuit of happiness bounded by national borders created by man. (This is just as well, as in the period following US independence one third of Europe’s population migrated to the Americas.)

Of course, the view that we should give equal weight to the interests of all human beings is unlikely to get very far in political systems designed to represent the interests of the citizens within existing borders.  But just because a political system makes it possible to ignore the rights and interests of a group of people who are weakly represented in it does not mean that it is morally right to do so.

My view is that the burden of proof lies with those who would restrict the freedom of people to live anywhere they choose.   This argument would require, at minimum, weighing up the costs and benefits of a restriction to show that we are better off in total if we curtail this freedom.  A case could only be made by placing more weight on the interests of the existing population than on the interests of other people.  I understand that there is a a widely-held view that we should do exactly that, but I nonetheless think it is profoundly wrong.   When we weigh up the argument for a policy to restrict people’s freedom based on the benefits that such a restriction will bring, we should place equal weight on the rights and interests of all people, and not privilege the interests of some people who happen to be like ourselves.  The case for restricting immigration rests on denying the equal humanity of people born abroad.  I hope that, over time, we will come to see this with the same moral outrage as we now view slavery and apartheid.

When I was a teenager, I visited Berlin, and read the grafitti on the Berlin Wall that said “No wall can stand forever”.  Now on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, we look back with horror at the way the wall was used to keep people in.  Perhaps in another twenty years we will look back with equal disgust at the walls we build today to keep people out.

Published by Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and

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3 Comments

  1. Younotsneaky crunched the numbers on this a while ago:

    How much of a jerk do you have to be to oppose immigration?

    “we should care more about native workers – the citizens – then the migrants – the non-citizens. Ok. But how much more? …

    How much do you have to weight the native’s welfare relative to that of the Mexican immigrant in order to oppose moving this migrant into US?…

    each native worker counts about 26 and a half times as much as a migrant.”

    http://notsneaky.blogspot.com/2007/05/how-much-of-jerk-do-you-have-to-be-to.html

    Owen replies: Right. Yet there seems to be such widespread consensus that it is OK to take more account of the existing population than the migrant.

  2. I used to be an “open borders” advocate, but I actually now find the view very implausible that citizens and non-citizens should be treated equally (although they may deserve equal consideration). Here is a parallel to the argument you gave.

    The benefit of the U.S. stimulus package, if spent outside the U.S. rather than within, would be many many times greater for non-citizens than if it were spent on citizens. But nobody thinks that any government should just spend its money in any way that maximizes utility. There is a social-democratic contract between the government and the governed. And part of this contract means explicitly giving priority to compatriots.

    So I think the question is, given that states should give priority to citizens over non-citizens but some consideration to non-citizens, what are just levels and circumstances under which immigrant admission should occur?

    Owen replies: Thanks Scott. You seem to glide between what it is realistic to think that governments will do, given the pressures on them, and what you think they should do. The word “should” is not a prediction about what will happen, but a statement about what would be right. I agree that it does not seem likely that governments will act the way I think they should, but it does not follow (as you seem to imply) that therefore they should not.

    I do think that all of us should put pressure on governments to act in a way that maximises total utility. And as it happens, I have indeed argued on this very blog that part of the stimulus package should be used for people in other countries.

    So the fact that you think it unlikely does not in any way deter me from believing that the government should take account of the interests of people outside the country, nor from arguing vigorously for this point of view.

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