Immigrants as Our “Future Rulers”: Does the Danger of Political Externalities Justify Restrictions on Immigration?

In a recent post, co-blogger Eugene Volokh raises an important potential objection to unconstrained migration – the danger that immigrants with abhorrent values will become our “future rulers”:

The bottom line is that for all the good that immigration can do… unregulated immigration can dramatically change the nature of the target society. It makes a lot of sense for those who live there to think hard about how those changes can be managed, and in some situations to restrict the flow of immigrants — who, after all, will soon be entitled to affect their new countrymen’s rights and lives, through the vote if not through force.

I sometimes pose for my liberal friends a stylized thought experiment. Say that they live in a country of 3 million people (the size of New Zealand) where 55% of the citizens are pro-choice and 45% are pro-life (1.65 million vs. 1.35 million). Now the country is facing an influx of 1 million devoutly Catholic immigrants, who are 90% pro-life. If these immigrants are let in and become citizens, the balance will flip to 2.25 million pro-life to 1.75 million pro-choice (56% to 44% pro-choice); and what my friends might see as their fundamental human right to abortion may well vanish, perfectly peacefully and democratically.

This is an important point. And as I previously discussed in this article (pp. 1792-93), it can sometimes justify restrictions on migration. But the circumstances where it can do so are much narrower than Eugene implies. He underrates the extent to which such “political externalities” can be combated by means short of banning immigration, and is also too ready to subordinate the rights and interests of potential migrants to those of current residents.

I. Alternative Mechanisms for Reducing Political Externalities.

There are many ways to reduce potential negative political effects of migration short of banning immigration itself. The most obvious is to deny the immigrants in question the right to vote. Both the United States and most other nations already impose waiting periods before new immigrants become eligible for citizenship (currently five years in the case of the US). If necessary, the five year period could be extended to ten years, fifteen, or even longer. We could even grant permanent residency rights to people who are ineligible to vote for life. Living in a country for many years without the right to vote may seem like an injustice. But living that way in a relatively free and prosperous society is still far better than living in a poor and oppressive Third World country – in many of which the citizens also lack any effective political influence.

Waiting periods for citizenship both eliminate the possibility of immediate political change and give time for the immigrants to become more assimilated and embrace more of their new country’s values. It’s true, as Eugene notes, that such assimilation isn’t always completely effective. But history shows that it does have a profound impact over time. Consider the differences between the views of current Americans – including even relatively recent immigrants – and those prevalent in the countries where they or their ancestors came from. In this context, it’s worth remembering that most immigrants are people who left their home countries at least in part because they were dissatisfied with its political and economic system and believe that life in the new country will be better. That makes them more open to accepting the new country’s values than the average foreigner would be. And, obviously, immigrants are self-selected for willingness to adjust to life in a new society with a different culture from the one they grew up in.

Even when immigrants do get the right to vote quickly and do not assimilate, they usually vote at rates much lower than natives and exercise far less in the way of political influence beyond the ballot (e.g. – by holding public office, making campaign contributions, and so on). That limits their ability to force any major policy changes.

Constitutional restrictions on government power can also help prevent negative political externalities. It’s true, as Eugene says, that constitutions can be changed. But they are harder to change than ordinary laws and require a bigger supermajority to do so.

All of the above assumes that the immigrants would change the political system for the worse. But, obviously, they could just as easily have a beneficial impact. Precisely because of their painful experience in less free or less prosperous societies, immigrants will sometimes have a better understanding of what makes their new country successful than many natives do. This isn’t always true, of course. But the possibility that immigrants might actually improve the political system needs to be carefully considered and weighed against the danger that they might have a negative impact.

II. Immigrants’ Rights and Interests Count Too.

In some cases, of course, negative political externalities caused by immigration cannot be completely eliminated. But Eugene and many others err in assuming that, in such scenarios, the natives are justified in blocking immigration without considering the welfare of the potential migrants.

Consider Eugene’s example of a situation where migration of pro-life immigrants will lead to a ban on abortion, and the only way to prevent that result is to keep them out. Now assume, for the sake of argument, that the migrants are fleeing a mass-murdering dictator who will kill them unless they are allowed to settle in the democratic nation. Even a strongly pro-choice person would have to admit that, in this case, saving thousands of innocent people from murder must take precedence over protecting the right to abortion. Thus, even when political externalities are a genuine danger, it is unjust to make immigration policy on the assumption that we can just give zero weight to the interests of the potential migrants.

Now consider the more typical case where keeping out potential migrants does not consign them to certain death, but “merely” to a life of poverty and oppression in the Third World. It is unjust to force that on them merely to protect relatively minor interests of natives, such as marginal deterioration in the quality of their government policies. Even if you conclude that natives have the right to value the interests of each one of them as, say, five or ten times more important than those of potential migrants, the difference between living in a Third World nation and First World one is so great that it would take very large political externalities to outweigh the benefits of immigration. If you choose a tradeoff ratio far higher than five or ten, then you are back to the situation where you would be willing to consign potential migrants to mass murder in order to protect minor benefits for natives. The person who holds such a view is similar to those who refused entry to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Some will object to this argument on the grounds that Westerners are not responsible for the poor conditions under which many Third World people live. But as philosopher Michael Huemer shows, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use of force to prevent people from bettering their condition through voluntary transactions with Westerners who are willing to hire them, rent housing to them, and so on. The US government in the 1930s was not responsible for the oppression of Jews in Nazi Germany. But it did deserve moral blame for using the threat of force to deny many of them an opportunity to escape that oppression by coming to this country.

None of the above proves that the danger of political externalities never justifies keeping out immigrants. To the contrary, I think there are extreme cases where it does. But before imposing such restrictions, natives have an obligation to seriously consider whether the externalities can be prevented or reduced by less repressive measures, such as delaying the grant of citizenship and constitutional constraints on government power. And in weighing costs against benefits, they cannot completely ignore the interests of the potential migrants themselves.

UPDATE: For those interested, the Open Borders blog has a good site devoted to the issue of the political externalities of immigration.

UPDATE #2: Tom Smith of the Right Coast responds to this post here:

Suppose one considers oneself a libertarian; it doesn’t matter whether you are soft or hard. Any sort of libertarian will do. Then you are asked whether you want to give somebody from outside your political body the power, via the vote, to make decisions that will apply to you, and that person does not share your attitude toward your rights. Indeed, he thinks there’s nothing wrong with a big state, lots of welfare benefits, and so on. I would think it would be an easy question to answer — the libertarian would say, uh, no thanks; you should go to a country more in line with your political beliefs….

So a libertarian would think everybody has the right to go wherever they want and be a citizen, but not think they should be able to exercise their rights, or rather they would not have those rights, once they got there….

I am all for immigration, so long as the people who come here share my political beliefs. Some will, but most will not.

I think this misses part of the point of my post. There is a difference between letting people go wherever they want and giving them citizenship and voting rights. The former doesn’t require the latter, especially not immediately. And there are other ways of reducing political externalities as well. Moreover, even when immigrants don’t share your political views, the relevant question is not whether they agree with you completely, but whether they, on average, disagree more than the present population of voters do. If the immigrants have roughly the same distribution of views as natives, then you are no worse off than before. If they are more libertarian than the present median voter but still less libertarian than I am, their arrival will still move the political system in what I would regard as a positive direction. Finally, whatever negative political effects immigrant voters might create have to be weighed against the nonpolitical benefits of migration to both natives and immigrants themselves.