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 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?