Is Immigration a Basic Human Right? My Opening Statement
By Bryan Caplan
Here’s my opening statement from Thursday’s debate. Enjoy.
There are many complaints
about governments, but the harshest is, “This government grossly violates human
rights.” The background assumption is
that human beings have rights that everyone – including governments – is morally obliged to respect. When looking
at the grossest violators – Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China –
almost no one denies the validity of the idea of human rights. But then you have to wonder: Do the
governments we know, accept, and even love have clean hands? Or do they violate human rights, too?
To answer, we normally apply
a simple test: If an individual
treated other people the same way the government does, would he clearly be a
horrible criminal? If an individual
deliberately kills innocent people, he’s a murderer; if an individual imprisons
innocent people, he’s a kidnapper. A
government that does the same violates basic human rights – and it can’t
justify its actions by calling innocent people “criminals.” If someone is peacefully living his life,
he’s innocent – whatever the government says.
What does this have to do
with immigration? Lots. Since we’re in San Diego, we‘ve seen illegal
immigrants. What are the vast majority
of them doing? Working for willing
employers. Renting apartments from
willing landlords. Buying stuff from
willing merchants. Sending money home to
their families. Maybe even sitting next to you in class. They sure look innocent – even admirable. But the U.S. government can and does forcibly
arrest and exile them to the Third World.
Why can’t they all just come legally?
Because exile is the default; they’re all exiled unless the U.S. government makes a rare exception. This is far less bad than killing or
imprisoning them, but it sure looks like a severe human rights violation. If the U.S. government forbade you to live
and work here, wouldn’t that be a severe violation of your human rights?
You could reasonably object
that human rights are not absolute.
While there’s a strong moral presumption
against killing, imprisoning, or exiling innocent people, it’s okay to do so if
the overall consequences of respecting human rights are clearly awful. The main problem with this objection is that
when social scientists measure the overall consequences of immigration, they’re
not clearly awful. In fact, the overall consequences look
totally awesome. Most notably, standard
economic estimates say that letting all the world’s talent flow to wherever
it’s most productive would roughly DOUBLE global prosperity. That’s an extra $75 TRILLION of extra wealth per
year. How is this possible? Because even the world’s lowest-skill workers
produce far more in the First World than they do at home. Even if all other fears about immigration
were bulletproof – which they aren’t – they’re dwarfed by this gargantuan
economic gain. This isn’t trickle-down
economics; it’s Niagara Falls economics.
To effectively defend
immigration restrictions, then, saying “Human rights are not absolute” is
insufficient. You need to flatly deny
that immigration is a human right – to say that while the illegal immigrants
you meet on the street may look innocent, they’re actually guilty as hell. The most popular argument analogizes illegal
immigrants to trespassers. No one has
any right to be here without government permission; it’s our country, so we set
The obvious problem with this
position is that it justifies a vast range of blatant human rights abuses. If it’s our country and we set the rules, why
can’t we exile citizens, too? Why can’t
we imprison people for saying the wrong thing, practicing the wrong religion,
or having kids without government permission?
Saying, “That won’t happen,” dodges the question: If the U.S. government
did this to you, would it be violating your human rights or not?
Prof. Wellman offers a more
sophisticated version of this story. He
defends immigration restrictions for “legitimate states” only, on the grounds
that immigration restrictions are vital for “freedom of association.” Unfortunately, we have two conflicting
freedoms of association. I want to be
free to associate with foreigners; lots of foreigners want to associate with
me. Immigration restrictions deny us
this freedom in the name of all the Americans who don’t want my associates breathing
Who should prevail? In his work, Wellman concedes a crucial
premise, freely admitting that the popular notion that we all consent to
government is a “fiction,” and that “the coercion states invariably employ is
nonconsensual and, as such, is extremely difficult to justify.” We don’t really face a choice between two
freedoms of association, but between freedom for real associations we choose to
join and freedom for fictional “associations” we’re forced to join. Unless the overall consequences are clearly awful,
the fictional ones should lose. Freedom
of association is only for free associations.
My critics often tease me,
“Should everyone on Earth be free to immigrate into Bryan’s house?” Their point: Treating immigration as a human
right is utopian nonsense. My reply:
There are three competing moral
positions on immigration.
- Foreigners should be free to live in my house
even if I don’t consent – a view held by almost no one.
- Foreigners should be free to live in my house if
I consent – my view.
- Foreigners shouldn’t
be free to live in my house even if I do consent – the standard view I’m criticizing.
Far from being utopian,
saying “Immigration is a human right” is just the moderate, common-sense
position that when natives and foreigners voluntarily interact, strangers are morally
obliged to leave them alone unless the overall consequences are clearly awful. Even if the
stranger happens to be the government – and the government happens to be popular.