The moral foundations of immigration restrictionism

It recently occurred to me that it would be interesting to try to interpret the seemingly irreconcilable differences in worldview between open borders advocates and restrictionists in terms of moral foundations theory. This theory has been developed by Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham, Ravi Iyer, and others. It attempts to identify the different foundations that people draw upon to make moral judgments and how people differ in the extent to which they draw upon the foundations. Quoting from the website, there are six moral foundations:

  1. Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
  2. Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
  3. Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
  4. Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”
  5. Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
  6. Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

A crude summary would be that welfare-state liberals are focused on (1) and (2), libertarians are almost completely focused on (3) (with a bit of (1) and (2)) and conservatives are somewhat concerned about all foundations.

How does this picture fit open borders advocates and restrictionists? A first guess is that since restrictionists have tended to be more on the conservative side, restrictionists draw significantly upon all moral foundations. In contrast, open borders advocates tend to be either libertarians or liberals (and some economic conservatives) which indicates that they draw upon foundations (1)-(3). This suggests that there are a number of arguments that restrictionists would make as moral arguments but which open borders advocates wouldn’t consider “moral arguments” at all because they draw upon foundations that aren’t recognized as sources of morality.

I think the data bear these out. In the rest of this post, I consider the three moral foundations that are employed to much greater effect by restrictionists.

Loyalty/betrayal (in-group)

This foundation is employed quite a bit by restrictionists. Most of the objections to the libertarian case as well as the philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments such as citizenism, territorialism, and nation as family employ the foundation of loyalty to one’s nation. Obviously, many open borders advocates spend time touting the benefits to immigrant-receiving countries. But possibly due to negativity bias, and the fact that the harms claimed by restrictionists are far more dramatic than the gains claimed by open borders advocates, the restrictionist arguments seem more salient.

There is another factor at play here. Most open borders advocates are (rightly) unapologetic about considering the substantial benefits to migrants when making the case for open borders. But strong in-group loyalty coupled with a zero-sum mindset might make this argument backfire. More indirectly, it might lead some of those with strong national loyalties to suspect that those advocating for open borders are traitors of some sort and that even their arguments about benefits to the nation are the result of spin.

There is also a huge divide between restrictionists who see loyalty to one’s nation as paramount and some open borders advocates who view national loyalty as no more a deep moral requirement than loyalty to one’s sports team. Restrictionists think that open borders advocates just “fail to get it” and have some sort of moral/cognitive deficiency (see also libertarian pipedream). For instance, this blog post:

Bryan Caplan has been recently putting on a tour de force display of smartifying himself into utter stupidity on the subject of Obama’s selective law enforcement (i.e. violation of the rule of law) in particular and immigration in general. It’s kind of fascinating to see what a highly intelligent person can talk himself into. You have to be a special kind of genius to fail to understand basic points like: nation-states exist, and have borders, and have a fundamental interest in controlling those borders, meaning, ideally, via law enforcement rather than vigilantism and tit-for-tat guerilla raids (but the latter could just as easily be arranged). 99.999% of the world – even probably most of the people Bryan thinks he’s helping – understands all this full well and really without much controversy. Only if you get a special sort of education and ensconce yourself into a sufficiently comfortable bubble do you learn to forget it and talk yourself out of this sort of common sense. There’s almost something Zen about it, like training your body to slow down its heartbeat. Or is that Hindu/fakirs? Well whatever, I’m definitely not there yet.


This is probably not that important, but it may come up indirectly: in arguments about citizen preference for reduced immigration and dislike of illegal immigration, because these both violate the authority of citizens and their elected representatives.

Sanctity/degradation (purity and disgust)

This is hardest to pin down, because explicit claims of sanctity are not made very often. It is possible that this issue is peripheral. However, I think there are important undercurrents of this in the alien invasion metaphor that is used often as a metaphor far more than it serves as an argument.

There are some subgroups of restrictionists who do seem to deal with the sanctity issue in explicit terms. For instance, many commenters on the website of the white racialist/nationalist group American Renaissance seem to take this stand (see the comments on this post, for instance, which is just a randomly chosen post and nothing particularly significant relative to the rest of the site). Similar concerns are expressed in subtler form on the VDARE website.

Overall conclusion

The above should not be taken to mean that restrictionists are exclusively focused on foundations (4)-(6). In fact, as the pages on this website make clear, restrictionists have raised a number of objections based on the harm/care, fairness, and liberty foundations. However, the objections raised based on foundations (4)-(6) are different in that these are often objections that many open borders advocates find hard to relate to, and hence where restrictionists have more of a monopoly. I don’t have any real idea of how open borders advocates can tackle this problem, but it might be possible to adapt some of Will Wilkinson’s advice.

6 thoughts on “The moral foundations of immigration restrictionism”

  1. This analysis seems plausible-to-persuasive to me, but here’s an interesting twist. Think back to the Age of Open Borders par excellence, that is, the 19th century. Do you think the moral foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation were more, or less, influential then? Surely more so, I would think. Racist nationalism, in particular, was an entirely legitimate attitude in those days, highly influential, even admired and regarded as virtuous. The old sacral halo of the churches seems to have been more intact, especially in Europe, probably in America too. This is hard to prove, but it seems that even in contemporary America, where religious participation has pretty much held steady and religion may even have strengthened in some ways, there has been a waning of the power of the idea of sanctity. And dynasties and classes that once symbolized authority have been swept away everywhere in an egalitarian tide.

    If all this is true, we are left with a curious paradox. In general, people are less authoritarian, less loyalist, less deferential to the sacred than they were a century ago, yet these discarded emotions continue to underlie attitudes on migration policy. One could even postulate a link between the two. When people had potent national mythologies, they were sufficiently secure in their identity that they did not feel threatened by immigrants. They knew what it meant to an Englishman, an American, a German, and having immigrant Poles or Italians or Irish living among them could not perturb that. But now, as the post-WWII reaction against racism, and in Europe against nationalism, has been extended into a state-backed cult of diversity, people’s notions of nationality have been so attenuated and confused that the bare fact of co-residence on the territory of a particular state is all that there is left. Similarly, when there were many sources of authority, kings and Kaisers and tsars and dukes and tycoons and aristocrats and bishops etc., little people could be left free to move about through these stable structures of authority. But when all authorities have been overturned except the omnipotent demos, which is regarded with more sanctimonious subservience than ever was any king, it becomes terrifyingly subversive to do anything that might raise in someone’s mind the question of who exactly is/should be part of the demos, and why; and the notion that there could be any just limits on the demos’s power becomes almost inconceivable.

    Well, all this is somewhat fanciful. Just playing with ideas here.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      As always, you’re spot on. The moral foundations do a good job explaining variation within a population at a given time, but seem to do a poor job of explaining variations across time.

      The puzzle of why immigration was freer in 19th century USA is a deep one, and I think you’ve hit upon part of the explanation — it has to do with the extent to which the moral foundations are increasingly directed at national boundaries rather than other forms of identity — so that even with a decline in absolute strength of these foundations, the effect on anti-immigration sentiment is in the opposite direction. Strong ingroup loyalty can coexist with open borders if this loyalty is directed only at your sports team, local church/synagogue/temple, or school.

  2. “A crude summary would be that welfare-state liberals are focused on (1) and (2), libertarians are almost completely focused on (3) (with a bit of (1) and (2)) and conservatives are somewhat concerned about all foundations.”

    There is a pretty reasonable argument that much of this is an artifact of the moral questions used to generate the dataset for PCA, which tend to be biased to activate conservative but not liberal sanctity, loyalty, and respect for authority. Here’s Bryan Caplan on the subject:

      1. For the key point about national loyalty/patriotism the point is solid in any case.

        Food for thought: in political orientation scales ethnic ingroup loyalty for African-Americans gets coded as liberal, while the corresponding sentiment in whites is coded as conservative.

        And note that much of the anti-immigrant force in the Democratic party comes from African-Americans concerned about their group’s welfare, exacerbated because the high school drop out group which suffers economically from unskilled migrant competition is disproportionately African-American.

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