Tag Archives: political freedom

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.