Immigration and Political Freedom

This is a guest post by Ilya Somin, a Professor of Law at George Mason University and a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy (posts by Somin only). He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. A list of some of his writings relevant to open borders can be found at the Open Borders page about Somin. Somin has also written on the relation between foot voting and political freedom (see here) and he draws upon that work in this blog post. His previous guest post for the site was about immigration and the US constitution.

There is widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental human right – that everyone is entitled to substantial freedom of choice in deciding what type of government policies they will live under. This is one of the main justifications for democracy. Voting enables the people to exercise political choice. But the principle of political freedom also has implications for international migration. The same logic that justifies giving people a right to vote at the ballot box also implies that they should have a right to vote with their feet. This is particularly true of people living under authoritarian governments, where foot voting is often the only feasible way of exercising any political choice at all. But even for those fortunate enough to live under a democracy, the right to migrate elsewhere is an important aspect of political freedom. In both cases, obviously, the right to emigrate is of little value unless there is also a right to immigrate to some other nation.

I. Political Freedom and Migration Rights for People Living Under Authoritarian Regimes.

Although the democracy has spread rapidly in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population still live in undemocratic states. According to Freedom House, almost 2.4 billion of the world’s 7 billion people live in nations that are “not free” at all in political terms, while another 1.6 billion live in “partly free” countries that have some semblance of democracy, but also place severe restrictions on political rights such as freedom of speech or the right to form opposition parties. These figures are surely imperfect. But there is no doubt that hundreds of millions of people languish in authoritarian and partially authoritarian societies where there is little or no meaningful democratic political process.

For most such people, emigration is their only practical way to exercise political freedom in the sense of the ability to choose the government policies they live under. One can object that they should instead work to democratize their home societies. In many cases, however, such efforts are both highly unlikely to succeed and dangerous for those who attempt them. Many authoritarian regimes repress dissenters ruthlessly, imprisoning or even killing them. We rightly admire the Vaclav Havels and Nelson Mandelas who bravely seek to transform oppressive regimes. But it is understandable that most subjects of such governments are unwilling to run such enormous risks. Moreover, in many oppressive societies, no amount of effort and courage is likely to succeed in establishing a functional democracy in the foreseeable future. Such societies lack the economic or cultural preconditions for the establishment of liberal democracy.

Residents of many authoritarian nations can exercise political freedom only through international migration or not at all. If developed democracies refuse admission to migrants from such countries, they effectively deprive them of their political freedom. They therefore become complicit in violating a fundamental human right. One can object that Westerners are not responsible for the lack of democracy in many Third World nations. But as philosopher Michael Huemer explains, 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. If I forcibly prevent a starving man from purchasing food, I bear moral responsibility for his resulting death, even if it is not my fault that he was starving in the first place. Similarly, those who use force to prevent the exercise of political freedom through migration are partially responsible for would-be immigrants’ political oppression, even if they had nothing to do with establishing undemocratic governments in the migrants’ homelands.

Deprivation of political freedom is far from the only wrong inflicted by immigration restrictions that prevent people from fleeing oppressive regimes. Such people are also often forced to endure a variety of other human rights violations, as well as severe poverty. But the loss of political freedom is an important additional strike against immigration restrictions, one that is usually ignored even by most advocates for migration rights.

II. Migration and Political Freedom for Citizens of Democracies.

Residents of democratic nations generally have much greater political freedom than those who live under authoritarian rulers. But even in the best-functioning democracies, the freedom provided by the franchise is distinctly limited. Any individual voter has only an infinitesmal chance of making a decisive difference in an election – about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential race, for example. We would not say that person enjoys adequate religious freedom if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine his religion. We would not say that he has freedom of speech if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine what he can say or write. Similarly, a 1 in 60 million chance at political freedom is far from sufficient. In many democracies, voters’ already miniscule chance of making a difference is further undermined by institutional corruption, “capture” of the political process by narrow interest groups, and other forces that make it harder for the electorate to influence government policy.

In addition, the effectiveness of the ballot as an exercise of political freedom is vitiated by the reality that voters have little incentive to acquire enough knowledge to make an informed decision. Because the chance of casting a decisive ballot are so low, most voters devote little time and effort to acquiring politically knowledge; they are “rationally ignorant.”

By contrast, migration rights enable individuals to have a genuinely decisive say in choosing the policies they wish to live under. An individual or family can migrate from one nation to another regardless of whether millions of others agree with the decision or not; or at least they can if governments do not use force to prevent it. And, unlike ballot box voters, migrants who “vote with their feet” have strong incentives to acquire adequate information about their decision, and use it wisely. While liberal democracies do not differ from each other as starkly as from authoritarian states, there is still substantial policy divergence between them on issues as varied as health care, economic regulation, land use policy, education, taxation, and law enforcement policy. That creates opportunities for meaningful international foot voting. Where governments permit it, many people already vote with their feet for such reasons.

None of this suggests that the ballot is utterly worthless. Democratic elections are often an important check on abuses of government power. But they are not enough to give individuals meaningful political freedom. That goal can only be achieved by giving people the power to “vote with their feet” as well as at the ballot box. Even for citizens of democratic states, political freedom is greatly enhanced by having the right to migrate to other nations.

Even in the absence of restrictive immigration policies, not everyone can effectively use international migration to enhance their political freedom. For many, the costs of moving are likely to be too great. Others are unable to make the adjustment to living in a society with different language or culture. Nonetheless, freer international migration could greatly increase political freedom for millions of people, even if it is not a complete solution for the problem of political oppression.

III. What About the Political Freedom of Citizens of Receiving Nations?

Immigration restrictionists might object to the above argument on the grounds that it ignores the political freedom of citizens of receiving countries. If they have to accept immigrants they may not want, that might vitiate their own freedom to choose their government’s policies. The new migrants could, for example, vote for policies that are inimical to the interests of natives. There may indeed be cases where the harms inflicted by immigration on natives are grave enough to justify restrictions on immigration. The political freedom of potential migrants is not an absolute right that always trumps all other considerations. But in the vast majority of situations, any such harms can be dealt with by “keyhole solutions” less draconian than excluding migrants, and forcibly consigning many of them to lives of poverty and political oppression.

For example, the obvious remedy for concerns that immigrant voters will undermine the political freedom of natives is to have a long waiting period before immigrants are allowed to gain the franchise or – in extreme cases – even deny them the vote entirely. Living in a nation without voting rights may be unjust to immigrants. But, in many cases, it will still be far better than being forcibly consigned to poverty and political oppression in their home countries. At the very least, their political freedom is enhanced by having the right to make the choice between the two for themselves. There are also a variety of other possible solutions for potential “political externalities” of immigration.

Restrictionists could still argue that denial of the ability to exclude migrants undermines the political freedom of natives even if immigration does not lead to objectionable changes in other government policies. But the right to political freedom surely cannot encompass the power to complete destroy the political freedom of others, as happens when residents of authoritarian states are denied the only means by which they can exercise any political choice at all. That is like saying that the right to religious freedom includes a right to force others to practice your own preferred faith if you believe God commands you to forcibly convert infidels. Moreover, any reduction in natives’ political freedom caused by an inability to exclude migrants irrespective of their influence on other policies is minor compared to that suffered by potential migrants who are trapped in authoritarian states by restrictionist policies.

Even in cases where immigration does cause some harm that cannot be alleviated by keyhole solutions, any such harm must be weighed against the many wrongs caused by immigration restrictions themselves. Political freedom should be an important factor in any such analysis. It certainly is not the only issue that must be weighed in debates over immigration policy. But it is a major and oft-ignored consideration tipping the scales towards broader migration rights.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law. His research focuses on constitutional law, property law, and the study of popular political participation and its implications for constitutional democracy. He is the author of The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), and Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2013), and coauthor of A Conspiracy Against Obamacare: The Volokh Conspiracy and the Health Care Case (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

8 thoughts on “Immigration and Political Freedom”

  1. It would be worthwhile to clarify the relationship between your argument (that political freedom is valuable as an end goal for the individual) and a related argument that’s been made on our site, namely that the right of exit might lead to more competition in government, as discussed at This latter argument is more speculative (the empirical evidence is quite mixed). I’d originally not though of the two arguments as sufficiently distinct and viewed them as part of the same “freedom of movement and more government responsiveness” but your post has made me better appreciate that political freedom of jurisdictional choice has value independent of how responsive government policies are to people’s foot voting (as long as they don’t explicitly try to stop the foot voting itself through coercion).

    This related post by John Lee might also be interesting:

  2. A further reply to restrictionists’ concerns that natives’ political freedoms are limited by allowing others to immigrate, is that the imposition of restrictions on immigrants necessarily imposes those same restrictions on natives. One cannot, for example, enforce restrictions on immigrants’ employment without subjecting natives to the same requirements. Thus, all of us are required to show proof of our “right to work” in the U.S. if anybody is. If original identity documents are required to travel, how much different are we from the Soviet requirement of “internal passports.”

    But the restrictionists, who generally seem to be in the “limited government” camp, haven’t recognized that all the restrictions they wish to impose on others will in fact apply to themselves.

    1. All of this documentation is already required for other reasons. We’re required to have driver’s licenses or other government ID to drive, to board an airplane, open a bank account, cash a check, and conduct an almost infinite number of other commercial transactions necessary to lead a normal life.

      Aside from that, the government collects voluminous amounts of data on its citizens, and has access to a great deal more via surreptitious means (e.g., the NSA). The government knows where you work, where you live, how much you earn a year, and to what charities you contribute (if you itemize, and probably even if you don’t).

      So what’s the objection, that we would have to show an ID? Oh God, the horror! Or is it that we would have to provide the government WITH DATA THAT IT ALREADY HAS?

      Opening our own borders does not assure us that other countries will reciprocate. If the results are catastrophic, the odds that we ourselves would be allowed to migrate will actually diminish.

      A nation is a form of private property – a kind owned jointly by all its citizens. The only job of the government is to pursue policies that serve the best interests of its citizens.

      There is an old saying: “no one washes a rental car.” Per Robert Putnam, the same applies to communities and nations. People do not invest in communities and countries in which they do not feel a long-term stake. They take what they can get and leave when there’s nothing left. There is no reason to think open borders will increase civic capital, and a great deal of data to suggest the opposite.

      Open borders is an enormous, unprecedented, and irreversible experiment. It takes a hell of a lot of gall to impose it on a country of 320 million people.

  3. Brilliant post, it’s an honor to have it here. I particularly liked the argument about how even citizens of wealthy democracies need freedom of migration in order to have real political choice. There’s actually a strong overlap between the arguments for open borders and the argument for federalism in domestic policy. In both cases, Tiebout competition can help to optimize the supply of public goods.

    Your staying point, about widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental right, actually leaves me on the outside. Of course, it seems to be true that there is widespread agreement about this, but it’s not a view I particularly sympathize with. I believe in fundamental rights, particularly in habeas corpus as I explain it in Principles of a Free Society, and in freedom of conscience. But I don’t see how to connect those to representative government or democracy. Democracy may be a good idea (or the least bad of political options) but I wouldn’t call it a fundamental human right.

  4. The question for the defenders of democracy is this: if a recognised legitimate democracy can treat one group like this, why not others? From the point of view of an illegal immigrant, a western democracy such as Britain or Australia has most of the characteristics attributed to dictatorships or ‘authoritarian regimes’. Yet they meet the criteria of Freedom House for political freedom. If a clever dictatorship can arrange repression, in such a way as to meet the standard of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ applied to illegal immigrants, then why is such a dictatorship wrong? And if any dictatorship can meet these standards, merely by clever administrative arrangements, than why is dictatorship fundamentally wrong?

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