Book Review: The Philosophy Department Looks at Immigration

By Martin Witkerk
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 22, Number 3 (Spring 2012)
Issue theme: "Immigration profiteers"

Book review:

Debating the Ethics of Immigration:
Is There a Right to Exclude?
By Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011
352pp., $24.95 PB

The volume under review takes the form of a debate: first Prof. Wellman of Washington University in St. Louis argues that legitimate states may regulate immigration as they see fit; then Prof. Cole of The University of Wales defends unrestricted freedom of movement, i.e., universal open borders. The discussion taught this reviewer more about the present state of academic philosophy than about the ethics of immigration.

§ § §

Prof. Wellman goes first. His central argument runs as follows: “1) legitimate states are entitled to political self-determination, 2) freedom of association is an integral component of self-determination, and 3) freedom of association entitles one not to associate with others.”

A legitimate state, in Prof. Wellman’s view, is one which “adequately protects the human rights of its constituents and respects the rights of all others,” (i.e., foreigners). Human rights are “individual moral rights to the protections generally needed against the standard and direct threats to leading a minimally decent human life in modern society.” Obviously, any term in these definitions might provide matter for long discussion, but we shall limit our review to the author’s explicit arguments: making one’s premises clear is a virtue, not a failing.

The Nazis make their first appearance in Prof. Wellman’s second paragraph. He is against them. The Nazis did not adequately protect the human rights of German citizens, thereby forfeiting the right of self-determination which accrues to legitimate states. Though Prof. Wellman does not draw the conclusion explicitly, it would seem that everyone in the world had a moral right to immigrate to Nazi Germany.

Contemporary Norway is much more to Prof. Wellman’s taste. Protecting human rights as it does, the Norwegian government is entitled to determine whether it wishes to associate with foreigners by permitting them to immigrate. Prof. Wellman compares this right to the discretion parents may exercise in regard to their own children. A mother may pack too many sweets in her child’s lunchbox, but (absent mental incompetence or criminal behavior) such “suboptimal” parenting is within her rights and no one else’s business.

Norway is presently home to a large Pakistani immigrant population. Prof. Wellman gives us little information about them other than to assure us they are “vibrant.” No doubt the Norwegians ought to be grateful to these glamorous foreigners for affording such vibrancy to their dull little “white bread” country, but what if they aren’t? Our author contends that the world must acquiesce in Norway’s xenophobia in the same way one must acquiesce in the parenting mistakes of others. If Norway wants to pass up all the benefits of multiculturalism, it is their mistake to make.

Prof. Wellman is quick to add that he is not advocating actual immigration restriction, but only the right to restrict:

I suspect that many of the world’s current policies are more the result of unprincipled politicians” exploiting the xenophobia of their constituents for short-term political gain than of well-reasoned assessments of what will be to the long-term advantage.

To hear the good professor tell it, the cause of immigration restriction is today’s path to cheap applause and power, while embattled multiculturalism must make do with what support it can garner from rational conviction.

Prof. Wellman includes an interesting argument to show that denying a nation’s freedom of association regarding individual immigrants is wrong in the same way and for the same reasons as forcible annexation would be:

The Soviet invasion and annexation of Lithuania in 1940 were about as clear violations of a nation’s self-determination as could be found. Yet suppose freedom of association applied only to Lithuania’s relation to other states and not to individuals. The Soviet leaders could then have arranged for a tidal wave of committed communists to enter Lithuania as immigrants. Once these persons were numerous enough to outvote the native Lithuanians, they could force that nation into a political union with the USSR. But it seems ridiculous to condemn the 1940 invasion and find this latter possibility consistent with Lithuanian self-determination.

Prof. Wellman makes clear, however, that he does not consider freedom of association an “absolute” right. In this connection, he discusses Augusta National Golf Club’s refusal to admit women as members. He views the club’s rules as “abhorrently sexist,” but also concedes its “presumptive right” to its own admission rules. Yet a merely presumptive right might be outweighed by “a sufficiently compelling interest” such as “advancing the cause of oppressed women.” Is presumptive freedom of association overridden in this particular case? “My own view,” he concludes, “is that this is a matter about which reasonable people may disagree.”

Wellman is aware that the segregated schools of the South might have been defended along the same lines. In the world of academic philosophy, there is no more devastating form of refutation than showing that a position implies sympathy for white Southerners. Wellman is suitably horrified at such a prospect, but it does not scare him away from maintaining a presumptive right of free association.

Black-only schools, he says, are perfectly entitled to exclude whites. Even the white schools of the South were unjust not because they were monoracial per se, but for other reasons. If blacks had been every bit as wealthy and politically powerful as whites, and also had access to comparable educational opportunities, the existence of all-white schools would not have mattered. But blacks were not in this situation “precisely because they and their ancestors had for generations been unjustly discriminated against by white Americans.” So these particular all-white schools had to go.

I am not sure I follow this reasoning, but it is probably sufficient to secure Prof. Wellman’s continued employment.

He then considers four possible justifications for open borders which he calls the democratic, libertarian, egalitarian, and utilitarian arguments.

First, the democratic argument goes like this: the point of democracy is to give people a voice in framing the coercive laws to which they are subject; foreigners wishing to immigrate are already subject to a country’s immigration laws; therefore democracy requires that prospective immigrants themselves be given a voice in the framing of immigration law.

Wellman’s response amounts to citing the case of two wolves and a lamb voting democratically on what to have for lunch. In essence, the democratic argument ignores that Norway belongs to the Norwegians. It is true that democracies often violate property rights, e.g., by voting themselves subsidies out of the property of wealthier citizens; perhaps partisans of the democratic argument for open borders consider such a procedure just. In that case, yes, the world can outvote any particular country and grant itself the right to move there.

Second, the libertarian argument is unusual among open borders arguments in that it focuses less on the alleged rights of immigrants than on the property rights of natives. In practice, the issue usually concerns native capitalists seeking access to cheap foreign labor. Here we have a conflict between the corporation’s freedom of association and that of the nation. If Home Depot has a right to hire foreigners, America does not have the right to control her borders; and vice-versa.

Prof. Wellman believes a nation’s right should outweigh a property owner’s right because of the costs immigrants can impose on others. A Mexican migrant may work forty hours a week at Home Depot, but the rest of the time other Americans have to deal with him. Home Depot’s property rights do not allow it to impose the costs associated with such workers on other Americans. Point taken.

Third, the egalitarian argument appeals to the “unfair distribution” of the world’s wealth. “Given that contemporary Norwegians obviously did nothing to deserve their good fortune of having been born in such an affluent country, what gives them the right to exclude outsiders (who equally did nothing to deserve having been born into absolute poverty)?”

If I were to tackle this question myself, I would probably begin by pointing out that wealth is not “distributed” by some higher power that irrationally practices favoritism toward fair skinned nations. Wealth must be produced. Most existing wealth is found in countries where most wealth has been produced over the past several generations. One of the main motives for its production was the producers’ expectation that they would be able to pass it on to their descendents rather than see it confiscated for the benefit of strangers. We may allow that children do not “deserve” their parents or the circumstances of their birth, but parents may well deserve the option of passing on the fruits of their labor to their own offspring.

I would then go on to discuss the human qualities that enable wealth production, such as intelligence, foresight, and industriousness, and point out that Norwegians are better endowed with these qualities than the inhabitants of certain other nations. I regard this state of affairs as neither fair nor unfair, since it is a natural fact not intended by anyone.

The author does not discuss natural differences in intelligence or foresight, but explicitly claims that all persons are equally industrious: “if afforded a similar opportunity [to a Norwegian], there is no reason to think that any given Chadian would not happily work just as hard.” I leave this empirical claim to the reader’s judgment. As for intelligence, Richard Lynn’s data put Norway’s IQ at 100, Chad’s at 72.

Prof. Wellman, however, maintains the “colonial exploitation” theory of wealth distribution, i.e., he holds that today’s wealthy nations became wealthy by plundering the rightful property of colonized peoples. This would predict the superior prosperity of a former colonial power such as Portugal to a nation like Norway; it would also lead us to seek African prosperity in Liberia.

Be that as it may, Prof. Wellman maintains that the history of colonialism somehow requires Norway to pay compensation to Chad. But Norwegian readers will be relieved to learn that such a capital transfer could, in Prof. Wellman’s view, be accomplished without the population of Chad actually immigrating to Norway. He does not give details on how the ransom is to be calculated, but seems to think a land as prosperous as Norway could afford it.

What if the Chadians consume this wealth as income instead of capitalizing it, with the result that within a few years they are just as poor as before? Does Norway get off the hook, or must it continue to pay indefinitely until Chad becomes an African Norway? Or must we assume such squandering could never take place, since everyone has an equal propensity toward savings and investment? Or perhaps such a propensity is lower among Chadians than among Norwegians, but only because of Chad’s history of colonial oppression? There is no shortage of material here for Prof. Wellman’s next philosophical opus.

Fourth, the utilitarian case for open borders is in part similar to the egalitarian argument in arguing the desirability of transferring wealth: given the law of diminishing returns, the equalizing effects of open borders would cost the affluent less than it would help the poor. Utilitarians add two other considerations as well: permitting the free movement of labor would also allow for greater efficiency in the use of labor for all concerned, and it would be more difficult for rulers to tyrannize over their subjects if everyone had the freedom to migrate anywhere.

Prof. Wellman responds by appealing to his initial premise that only legitimate states should enjoy self-determination (including an autonomous immigration policy), and that states are only legitimate if they protect human rights. Just as he allowed nations to opt out of open borders if they are willing to pay restitution for colonialism, he points out that a state might do its part to fight tyranny and poverty all over the world while still controlling its borders.

In fact, Prof. Wellman has subtly changed his position. At the beginning, he defined a legitimate state as one which “adequately protects the human rights of its constituents and respects the rights of all others” (emphasis added). His example of respecting but not protecting the rights of foreigners involved not invading their countries, i.e., mere non-aggression. But in this later chapter he switches to maintaining that wealthy countries have a duty to protect the rights of poor and tyrannized people around the world. No existing country meets this higher standard; hence, it seems, no country currently possesses a moral right to control its own borders.

Prof. Wellman does not draw this conclusion, however. Even if no country is meeting his standard now, he believes the wealthy nations of the world could guarantee both a decent standard of living and a government protective of its citizens’ rights to all the world’s oppressed. Then these nations could be left free to control immigration in their own lands.

Of course, even to attempt carrying out such a program, the wealthy nations would need very broad freedom of action within all the various poor and/or tyrannized countries. Indeed, I do not see how they could proceed short of actually colonizing the said countries. What the author seems to have in mind amounts to a kind of altruistic colonialism—aimed at the benefit of the colonized nations rather than that of the colonizers. Where such paternalism would leave the “equality” of the people being thus helped and protected is anybody’s guess.

An immigration restrictionist might well conclude that, with friends like Prof. Wellman, his cause hardly needs enemies. But we haven’t even begun to consider the arguments of Prof. Cole, who is the volume’s explicit defender of open borders.

Prof. Cole is at pains to refute

the family of arguments developed within liberal theory that claim to show that immigration restrictions exercised by liberal nation-states are ethically justifiable. [M]y aim is to show that these arguments fail to be ethically consistent with liberal theory’s own central moral principles.

No doubt such an argument can easily succeed on its own terms. As Cole says, the central principles of liberalism are equality and universality. The very existence of nation-states is a violation of these principles: nation-states by definition must distinguish between insiders and outsiders, and treat the two groups differently. So, strictly speaking, there can never be any such thing as a liberal nation-state. States which proclaim allegiance to liberal principles continue to exist through a failure to draw the ultimate conclusions from their own principles. (Prof. Wellman, in his half of the book, took the existence of nation-states for granted, as an historical fact.)

Prof. Cole’s own argument turns on the possible grounds for rejecting potential immigrants, and whether any of them can be morally legitimate. To cut to the chase, he is mainly concerned with one justification which he calls “exclusion based on racism.” Prof. Cole takes an extremely dim view of “racism” — kind of like Prof. Wellman with the Nazis — and he is confident that all readers will concur with him. As he writes: “Racism as an issue is more or less absent from philosophical discussions of immigration controls, probably because all of the participants are strongly antiracist.” So the reader must not expect any argument for the wrongness of “racism” from Prof. Cole. Perhaps he considers it a universal moral intuition, though this would leave its absence from the entirety of world literature before the twentieth century somewhat difficult to account for. In any case, it would have been nice if he had at least provided a definition of a term which plays so critical a role in his argument.

He does offer a brief history of what he considers to have been “exclusions based on racism,” including the Chinese Exclusion Act, the White Australia Policy, and the United Kingdom’s Aliens Act (1905), as well as restrictive legislation in the histories of Canada, New Zealand, and Natal (South Africa). Apparently, the governments of these Anglophone countries feared that foreigners were simply too racist to be safely permitted...

Wait a minute...

I think Prof. Cole must mean to condemn exclusions based on race, not racism. As soon as “racism” enters the discussion, Prof. Cole starts to sound like a revivalist preacher calling down hellfire and brimstone on the enemies of righteousness. His philosophical equanimity is out the window, including ordinary care in his use of terms. Unfortunately, he doesn’t bother to define “race” any more than “racism,” so it is still hard to know just what he means.

I propose to understand “race” as equivalent to “ancestry.” The African race, e.g., I understand to consist of persons most of whose ancestors lived in Africa. Of course, race could be something else entirely, such as a social construct; but since Prof. Cole leaves me adrift here, I must proceed by my own lights. Taking “racism” to mean “race,” and “race” to be equivalent to “ancestry,” I am happy to concur with Prof. Cole’s view that a great deal of immigration policy has, historically, been motivated in this way.

To return to our previous example, it seems to me that Norway’s primary reason for hesitating to accept immigrants is closely bound up with the circumstance that most persons born outside Norway are not Norwegian. In other words, the ancestry of most potential immigrants diverges more or less widely from that of the natives. There can be absolutely no question that considerations of this sort have informed most immigration policy around the world, past and present.

Are you thinking of applying for citizenship in India? It helps to be Indian. If you have China or Taiwan in your sights, it helps to be Chinese. South Korea gives preference to Koreans. Liberia and Haiti have both imposed constitutional requirements that citizens be of African ancestry.

Is such regard for the ancestry of immigrants “racism”? Prof. Cole doesn’t say: all his examples of racist immigration law concern white countries excluding various swarthy peoples.

Prof. Wellman’s views are also doubtful, although at one point he explicitly holds that Norway belongs to the Norwegians. Yet elsewhere he makes this revealing remark: “It seems to me that there must be something wrong with a country’s denying admission on the basis of race. I must confess, however, that I find it surprisingly difficult to provide an entirely satisfying argument for this conclusion.”

Let’s stop and think about this a second. Prof. Wellman has a distinct feeling that discriminating between persons on the basis of race is morally impermissible; but as soon as he stops to reflect upon it, he realizes he can allege no rational grounds for such a position. Remember that Prof. Cole also declined to argue against “racism” on the grounds that everybody already agreed with him. What might explain such strongly held but rationally unsupported convictions on the part of two such learned philosophers? Might it possibly be due to both of them having had this very conviction deliberately inculcated in them since the age of five by every movie or television show they ever watched, every book they got assigned in school, and every public authority figure with whom they ever came into contact?

Just a suggestion...

I do not know whether there exist any rational grounds for the belief in the moral impermissibility of treating persons of different races differently. I am fairly confident I have never heard any put forward. But I also know for certain that the Western World’s rulers are extremely keen on getting impressionable young white people to believe there are. It is almost as if they were setting whites up to accept their own displacement by foreign racial stocks. It is almost as if they don’t believe themselves in the “race doesn’t matter” doctrine which they have been cramming down white throats for the past six decades.

It almost sounds like a conspiracy, doesn’t it?

If I were to attempt my own analysis of what Profs. Wellman and Cole are pleased to call “racism,” I would begin by pointing out that Homo sapiens evolved for many thousands of years in small kinship-based hunter-gatherer bands. Survival under such circumstances depended on cooperation within the group, even extending to a willingness of individuals to sacrifice themselves for the group.

On the other hand, survival also depended on success in competition with other hunter-gatherer bands. Relations between such bands, therefore, fluctuated between deep suspicion and murderous hatred. Any mistake in one’s perception of group boundaries was likely to be punished with death.

Over the ages, humans became adapted to this state of affairs through natural selection. They developed a deep sense of the distinction between “our people” and “outsiders.” A dual pattern of behavior developed, involving cooperation and altruism within the group and suspicion or hostility toward those outside. This evolutionary adaptation is still visible in its rawest form among man’s nearest evolutionary relatives, African chimpanzees, which unhesitatingly kill intruders found within the territory of their troop.

We have inherited all of this. But because of our higher cognitive development, the raw tribal instinct is flexible and educable to some extent: men genetically programmed for loyalty to a band of not more than a hundred kinsmen can be taught loyalty to a larger nation. Such education, however, is an entirely different matter from the eradication of all sense of group distinctions recommended by “antiracists” such as Prof. Cole. Group loyalties of some sort are as natural to man as economic self-interest, and attempting to abolish them through exhortation and punishment is about as likely to succeed as the Soviet attempt to make people selfless through enforced collectivization.

A vast scientific literature exists to back up the extremely brief sketch I have just given. It has been produced by students of genetics, animal behavior, childhood development, evolutionary psychology, and even sociology. None of it was produced by philosophy departments. A quick look at our authors’ references makes clear that most of their reading is devoted to the work of other contemporary academic philosophers. Most of this seems to consist of armchair speculation as to what a perfectly fair world of universal love would look like. The work under review is, therefore, likely to reinforce the very worst prejudices against the authors’ own discipline. Political and moral philosophy would find a firmer basis in the careful study of human nature.

§ § §

I’m afraid all this has taken us rather far from the text of Debating the Ethics of Immigration. It looks like I won’t even have space to expound upon Prof. Cole’s “egalitarian theory of global justice.” I leave my readers the pleasure of discovering it for themselves.

About the author

Martin Witkerk writes from the mid-Atlantic region and has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Tulane University.

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