The illusion of self-determination

The right of a people to determine its own fate—national self-determination—is one of pillars of the Westphalian model of world political order holding nation-state sovereignty as its core principle. It also underpins most philosophical defenses of the right of nation to control who moves across its borders and who can join its citizenry.

Here at the outset I’d like to submit that, provisionally, the principle of national self-determination makes a fair bit of sense. The principle was included in the Westphalian model in order to minimize war (capably discussed by my co-blogger in this post). It proscribes invasions of foreign lands for causes like defending or advancing a religion or ideology, for instance. After all, the birth of Protestantism was the proximate cause of the Thirty Years War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia and the principle of national self-determination.

But the presumption in favor of national self-determination can be overridden in certain circumstances. I take it as mostly uncontroversial to say that if a genocide is underway within a nation’s borders, national sovereignty carries insufficient moral weight to prevent a humanitarian intervention (even if, say, military intervention is ruled out for pragmatic reasons, it isn’t respect for sovereignty that restrains those who would intervene). More importantly (and less dramatically), I’d like to suggest that the principle of self-determination loses coherence when it strays too far from its primary task of protecting a population against external threats of violence.

To bring this to migration, national self-determination is often appealed to in order to justify the right of a state to limit its membership. Michael Walzer, the distinguished communitarian philosopher, has argued in his book, Spheres of Justice, that the authority to limit membership of the national community is fundamental to national independence.

Admission and exclusion are at the core of communal independence. They suggest the deepest meaning of self-determination. Without them, there could not be communities of character, historically ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life.

In his essay, Immigration: the Case for Limits (found in this book), David Miller has also defended the right of the citizens of a nation to exclude migrants at the border on the basis of cultural continuity:

[T]he public culture of their country is something that people have an interest in controlling: they want to be able to shape the way that their nation develops, including the values that are contained in the public culture. They may not of course succeed: valued cultural features can be eroded by economic and other forces that evade political control. But they may certainly have good reason to try, and in particular to try to maintain cultural continuity over time, so that they can see themselves as the bearers of an identifiable cultural tradition that stretches backward historically.

The ability to preserve culture is fundamental to self-determination-based defenses of controlled borders. “The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure. … If this distinctiveness is a value … then closure must be permitted somewhere.” (Walzer again) Given the persevering cultural distinctiveness that can be observed among the several states of the USA and among nations within the European Schengen area of porous borders, for a couple examples, it seems like this concern may be overwrought. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness can even be observed among various neighborhoods within individual multicultural metropolises around the world. Nonetheless, the preservation of national cultural distinctiveness has a strong and intuitive appeal. In Migration and Morality: a Liberal Egalitarian Perspective (found in this anthology), Joseph Carens—a friend of liberal migration if ever there was one—sketches out a case for limiting immigration for the sake of preserving culture as one of the few acceptable—in principle—justifications for limiting migration. He argues that Japanese culture, for example, would be worth preserving even to the inconvenience of would-be immigrants. This argument can only go so far, however, for he concludes that this cultural preservation can’t overcome the claims of migrants whose basic needs are not being met.

[M]ost people in Japan share a common culture, tradition and history to a much greater extent than people do in countries like Canada and the United States. It seems reasonable to suppose that many Japanese cherish their distinctive way of life, that they want to preserve it and pass it on to their children because they find that it gives meaning and depth to their lives. They cannot pass it on unchanged, to be sure, because no way of life remains entirely unchanged, but they can hope to do so in a form that retains both its vitality and its continuity with the past. In these ways many Japanese may have a vital interest in the preservation of a distinctive Japanese culture; they may regard it as crucial to their life projects. From a liberal egalitarian perspective this concern for preserving Japanese culture counts as a legitimate interest, assuming (as I do) that this culture is compatible with respect for all human beings as free and equal moral persons.

It also seems reasonable to suppose that this distinctive culture and way of life would be profoundly transformed if a significant number of immigrants came to live in Japan. A multicultural Japan would be a very different place. So, limits on new entrants would be necessary to preserve the culture if any significant number of people wanted to immigrate.

Carens anticipates the most obvious counter that restricting immigration limits real individual freedoms for the sake of what is essentially a “by-product of uncoordinated individual actions” that does not itself violate any individual’s rights.

The problem with this sort of response (which clearly does fit with some strains in the liberal tradition and even with some forms of liberal egalitarianism) is that it uses too narrow a definition of freedom. It excludes by fiat any concern for the cumulative, if unintended, consequences of individual actions. A richer concept of freedom will pay attention to the context of choice, to the extent to which background conditions make it possible for people to realize their most important goals and pursue their most important life projects. That is precisely the sort of approach that permits us to see the ways in which particular cultures can provide valuable resources for people and the costs associated with the loss of a culture, while still permitting a critical assessment of the consequences of the culture both for those who participate in it and for those who do not.

The problem with Carens’s “richer concept of freedom”—which I acknowledge is real and worthy of consideration—is that it is difficult to conceive of a legitimate ownership of it. Who decides which aspects of “traditional” society are worth preserving (at the cost of more focused and observable individual freedoms, let’s not forget) and which aspects are merely parts of inevitable cultural evolution? The “by-products of uncoordinated individual actions” can presumably manifest as cultural improvements, and not just “erosion”, as Miller seems to assume. Some things (Islam, manga comics, or capitalism, for a few examples) that may represent cultural decay to some will be embraced by others as beneficial innovation, and it’s difficult to say who would be right in such a contest of values. Should a committee of bureaucrats be set up to decide which foreign influences are acceptable cultural adaptations, the way the French have circled their wagons around the integrity of their language? Even if such a committee were popularly elected, it’s difficult to see how that democratic mechanism would achieve any greater legitimacy than uncoordinated individual actions.

The larger point I want to make is that restricting immigration for the sake of cultural preservation is ineffective to the point of quixotic. There are other influences that will impact culture, influences that cultural preservationists are less willing to stifle by coercion. Indeed in the quotes above Carens and Miller both recognize that culture evolves in ways that “evade political control”. The first of these purely internal. Culture, including language, social values, artistic (literary, musical, etc) expression, and political values can and do all change as a result of younger generations challenging the ideas and practices of their forebears. This process of change over generations may be exacerbated by outside influences, but it would be hard to deny that at its core it is a natural phenomenon at work even in closed societies. I think the relatively recent and rapid expansion of the gay rights movement in America is a good example of this. It has seemed primarily domestic in origin (the fact that some other countries have possibly made greater strides in gay rights hasn’t been particularly influential), and the level of acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is famously starkly divided between young and old folks. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s can likewise not be said to be imported, as the legal and cultural legacy of southern slavery and the long reign of Jim Crow were peculiar to American history. Less politically, musical innovations like rock & roll, entertainment innovations like video games and the mobile solitaire app, and linguistic innovations like African American Vernacular English have not needed outside influences to sprout and evoke consternation among parents and other squares.

It isn’t even clear that anyone notices the difference between cultural innovation by natives and that by outsiders. Invention from the outside can “go native” as well as a person can. Carens’s example of Japan gave me an excuse to read about the history of manga, an art form I think I can safely describe as distinctively Japanese. Five minutes of research unearthed a surprisingly mongrel history, including its inspiration by a nineteenth century British cartoonist and “U.S. cultural influences, including U.S. comics (brought to Japan by the GIs) and images and themes from U.S. television, film, and cartoons (especially Disney).” The desire to protect a national culture from outside influences seems to ignore the ability of those same cultures to ingest, adapt, and own inputs from the outside, all in bottom-up fashion without need for supervision from any cultural defenders at the top.

Technological innovation can radically change the contours of a society and isn’t intrinsically related to immigration. The Industrial Revolution destroyed old occupations and enabled people to leave rural life en masse. Widespread rail networks and the adoption of the automobile made the world a smaller place, even within nations. Electrification, radio, television, the airplane, the printing press, the integrated circuit, and the Internet have all profoundly changed human life and the ways individuals relate to each other and wider society. The birth control pill empowered women to control their own sexual and reproductive lives and enabled them to pursue opportunities in the world outside the home (occupational, educational, political, etc). All these innovations have arguably changed national cultures on a scale greater than anything widespread immigration could likely achieve.

It could be argued that the American examples above do not actually serve my cause since America is so famously and fundamentally shaped by immigration. And it could be argued that the technological innovations I mentioned and the ways they undoubtedly transformed societies are nonetheless irrelevant to the present discussion: technological changes affecting the whole world can be adapted to different national cultures in unique ways and so perhaps the point is more that each national culture must be allowed to express itself through technological advancement in its own way. Technological change is, of course, not all homegrown, but it spreads through international avenues other than migration, avenues which most immigration restrictionists would not attempt to close.

Ideas are spread through trade between nations, through travel and tourism, through international communications and media, and through common international gatherings like professional conferences and sporting events. Good ideas (and bad ones), will find ways to spread whether there are appreciable levels of migration or not. International migration will surely speed up cultural change, but it’s not the only driver of change, or even the most important one. Yet the focus of the argument for national self-determination is always on preserving the right of a nation’s sovereign authority to restrict entry of new members, and little ink is spilled advocating closing off these other pathways of social change. Given the long odds of meaningfully preserving national culture (however it is defined), and the apparent lack of enthusiasm for protecting it from equally powerful mechanisms of change,  it is fair to ask, Why does immigration warrant such special treatment?

8 thoughts on “The illusion of self-determination”

  1. Great post.

    I agree with most of it, but there’s one point, not essential, where I think you are not right. The Westphalian system was much more limited. It was not about “nation-states” in the sense that states should correspond to “nations” (something like groups of people with the same language, culture, ancestry, etc.). That was not true for most states at the time which were the result of dynastic accident and had pretty inhomogeneous populations. And even for those where there was a certain correspondence (e. g. Sweden) it was not essential.

    The Westphalian system was about sovereign states that can do whatever they like on their soil and that other such states have to respect this and must not interfere. It was coming to grips with the reality that neither side could win and so it is perhaps better to agree to disagree. Similar to the result of the English Civil War, religious toleration, that you may hate the other side, but it is still the lesser evil to tolerate it. Only here on the level of whole states and not individuals within a society.

    The concept of the nation-state is more recent. You can trace it back perhaps to the late 18th century, and it took shape only in the 19th century. The supreme irony here is that the concept came about as the result of international cooperation with inputs from the French, Germans, Italians, etc. It was later exported from Europe to the world. It is also ironic that citizenism, which in my view is just the attempt to adapt nationalism and make it palatable to Americans, is an import from abroad.

    There is a very good book by German anarchist Rudolf Rocker: “Nationalism and Culture”, and there part 2 (unfortunately expensive in print, but also online, e. g. here: as scans and here as text:

    Rocker has a broad view of what constitutes culture: everything where human beings take their destiny into their own hands. So he includes science, literature, art, music, architecture, etc. His contention is that culture per se is an endeavor encompassing all humankind, and that it is silly to try and cut it into national pieces. He makes a lot of good points how what might look like the achievement of one nation at first sight, was actually the result of international cooperation. He also has a nice discussion on how languages have always influenced each other: English as a mix of Low German, Norman with admixture from the Celtic and Scandinavian languages, Latin, Greek, etc. And the same also applies for German although it is less obvious.

    His other thesis is that Nationalism and the drive to unify nations is inimical to culture. E. g. he contrasts the amazing achievements of the ancient Greeks with no sense of national unity and the blandness of the Romans who were obsessed with it. The book was written before 1933, but could only be published in 1937. Rocker’s main interest is Germany and how things could go so wrong. I think he has a good point that while the Germans after unification in 1871 thought they’d now be on top of the world and boasted about how cultured they were, in reality, descended lower and lower. And that most of what was seen as the height of German culture came before 1871 and not after.

    I don’t agree with all parts of Rocker’s analysis, e. g. his economics is not impressive. He’s smart enough to reject Marxism, but still believes in the whole capitalism leads to monopoly stuff. But I find it a very good antidote to all the theories how national cultures have to be protected and purified. You can be consistent in this regard, like the Nazis were with their “German mathematics”, “German physics”, etc. That did not produce anything of lasting value. Even the Nazis had to live off what had gone before and had been the result of international cooperation and the culture of humankind.

    Here’s the Wikipedia page for the book:

    1. Yes, I would distinguish Westphalian sovereignty from nationalism. The Westphalian system created a system of states which were absolutist at least with respect to outside intervention, and most of them were absolutist with respect to domestic actors as well, with England becoming an important exception especially after 1688. Nationalism can be traced to the Middle Ages, but as a political ideology it only became a major force in the 19th century, and the attempt to reorganize the world into nation-states that occurred after World War I, which has now become a sort of fundamental doctrine of the world constitution, would hardly have been conceivable a century before.

      The rise of nationalism may be connected to the rise of democracy, and I suppose also to socialism. Think of all three of them as “rule of the people” in different senses: democracy is rule of the people as opposed to kings or aristocrats; socialism is a kind of economic populism in which the rich and the capitalists and entrepreneurs are dispossessed for the benefit (supposedly) of the masses; and nationalism is rule of the people, in an ethno-national sense, as opposed to foreigners. That is, peoples are separated out into self-governing polities. Such at least is the theory. The reality is messier and sometimes gets very bloody.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I may be sloppy in my understanding of what all is entailed by “Westphalian”, but certainly the most important point is the notion that a sovereign’s authority over its territory is pretty much absolute, and outsiders shouldn’t interfere.

    This Rudolph Rocker guy sounds interesting (also he had a great name!). I hadn’t heard of him before.

    1. When I first heard of an anarchist named Rudolf Rocker, I thought it was a cool pen name. 😉

      No, you were not sloppy, I am only pedantic. And I think there is a connection between the Westphalian system and the nation-state, only it is a development through different stages over 200 and more years.

  3. I think my general reaction to the cultural protectionist argument for restricting migration is that restricting immigration seems to be the ONLY thing stays use this justification for. If it’s so important to preserve a national culture, why not have an active cultural policy to promote characteristically national films, musicians, singers, and writers. You could also have censorship of anti-national views, which might promote cultural solidarity, but let’s assume that we have pro-free speech principles that exclude that. Without violating free speech principles, you could still develop a nationalistic cultural agenda and create a system of subsidies to encourage writers to contribute to it. You might, for example, buy out the copyrights of a few hundred books every year, books that were judged specially to express “national” values, and then distribute them free via Kindle, put them in libraries, etc. You might have a large budget to sponsor nationalistic statues and murals in public places. You might hire writers to write admiring biographies of chosen national heroes. You might make the educational curriculum particularly nationalistic, inculcating in the young a knowledge of, and pride in, the country’s history, achievements, laws, geography, ethnography, literature, etc. You might create patriotic youth organizations to organize parades, sing patriotic songs together, decorate public places.

    I’m not necessarily recommending any of this. Some of it I’d oppose; most of it I’d be skeptical about. But if having a unified national culture is such an important policy goal, why aren’t we talking about it? Do we think culture is automatically transmitted by the fact of being born in a territory, and cannot be acquired any other way? Surely that’s absurd. I think there are a number of reasons why we don’t adopt pro-active cultural policies like that. First, we don’t care enough. Second, we don’t feel that’s a proper role for government. Third, as Paul argues, we can’t agree on what the culture is. Anyway, it all makes me find cultural protectionist arguments against open borders to be somewhat disingenuous. American culture has become far more diverse and centrifugal in the past few decades, and we’ve done nothing to speak of to try to stop that. As a result, it’s quite common for Americans to have more in common with foreigners than with one another. I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, but where does it leave the argument that we have to exclude foreigners to protect American culture? What is the American culture that we want to protect? Where are natives to find this in themselves? What should we do to preserve it, whether “we” means the government, or individual Americans on a voluntary basis, or perhaps public bodies through moral suasion alone? I basically have no idea.

    If there were an answer to those questions, it would probably be pretty easy to adapt open borders arguments to accommodate them. If it’s important for people to know American history, let foreigners pass a test showing knowledge of American history comparable to what the average American knows, before being candidates for citizenship.

    By the way, if cultural balkanization is a worry, then nationalistic education might even be a kind of “keyhole solution,” specifically adapted to deal with this problem. Open the borders to foreigners, but at the same time, fill the schools and universities with a positive agenda of cultural propagation; have more patriotic youth organizations and patriotic parades; use prizes to sponsor characteristically national literature, etc. If preserving the culture is important (though I’m skeptical how meaningful that desideratum is), I’d much rather see it done through a pro-active cultural policy, than by closing the borders.

    By the way, gay marriage is one issue where immigrants are likely to have attitudes closer to traditional American ways, than native Americans do. At any rate, foreigners do. Sometimes, indeed I suspect rather often, immigration might be a good way to mitigate cultural change.

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