It’s not uncommon to think of immigration restrictions in terms of individuals’ rights of association. In the same way that a private club has the right to select its members, the state has the right to select its residents — or so the thinking goes.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that immigration restrictions actually curtail that very same right to decide with whom citizens associate, or trade. If we take individual rights seriously, then, we should understand immigration restrictions as rights infringements.

I believe this must be our starting point in discussing the ethics of immigration restrictions. But I don’t believe this should be our last word.

When is it justifiable to infringe on individual rights?

From any reasonable perspective, some rights infringements are justified in the presence of some extraordinary circumstances. We should admit, for example, that those infringements are justified, if necessary, to secure the same values those rights protect under normal circumstances. This is how many of us justify the existence of the state — it’s supposed to protect individual rights. But even the least restrictive state, by its very nature, does infringe on some of our rights.

Several of the usual concerns regarding immigration don’t seem to be significant enough to justify infringing on individual rights. This, of course, does not mean that we should discount their importance; we must simply weigh the cost of addressing the concerns. For example, we might believe the loss in cultural homogeneity implied by open immigration entails some real costs. Yet the alternative is to constrict people’s freedom to decide where to live and work.

If we take individuals’ rights seriously, this is a high moral cost to pay.

Do immigrants threaten free societies?

But those who take individual rights seriously must surely address one argument in particular. This is the argument that immigration restrictions are justified as a means of securing the sort of liberal institutions that, albeit imperfectly, have been able to prosper in those countries to which individuals want to migrate. The fear is that open immigration would somehow contribute to the erosion of such institutions, and of individual rights as a result. Immigration restrictions would then be justified by appealing to the same fundamental values to which we had appealed in our originally condemnation of them.

The 19th-century English philosophers Henry Sidgwick made this case. Sidgwick thought that the cosmopolitan ideal was the ideal of the future. As he stated in his 1919 book, The Elements of Politics, the business of the state is “to maintain order over the particular territory that historical causes have appropriated to it, but not in any way to determine who is to inhabit this territory.” But he also thought that under present conditions “a large intermixture of immigrants brought up under different institutions might inevitably introduce corruption and disorder into a previously well-ordered State.”

In a brief article entitled, “A Two Country Parable,” James Buchanan made a similar argument, noting that “[t]he entry of an immigrant into an ongoing social-political-legal-economic order, with a defined membership, an experienced history, and a set of informal conventions, necessarily modifies the structure of ‘the game’ itself, the complex and ill-understood set of interpersonal and intergroup relationships that generates the pattern of results that are observed by participants.” In other words, because of the fragility of ill-understood parameters which have made some countries relatively free, one can justify restrictions to the entry in an ongoing political community.

I’ll put aside the question of whether these concerns have a robust empirical basis, and what exactly their implications are for the particularities of immigration policy (for example, whether general restrictions would be justified or whether they would need to apply only against members of particular political communities). Here, I only want to draw attention to an issue that is often overlooked: the importance of the mobility constraint on governments that is forgone by the establishment of immigration restrictions.

What can bandits can tell us about the relationship between immigrants and the state?

Mancur Olson’s distinction between “roving” and “stationary” bandits, in his famous “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development”, is helpful in thinking about this.

  • Lacking the prospect of future interactions with their victims, roving bandits will take everything from them.
  • Stationary bandits, on the other hand, need to take into account how their actions affect the productive decisions of their victims. How much there will be to steal depends on how much income individuals produce. In Olson’s words, the stationary bandit must become “a benefactor to those he robs.”

So the state is a stationary bandit. Therefore, it levies a tax rate far from 100 percent and provides some minimal security, as well as other public goods.

Why can’t we ultimately argue for immigration restrictions if we care about individual rights?

Stationary bandits are clearly preferable to roving bandits. But there’s an even better option: multiple stationary bandits with roving rather than stationary victims. Under this system, victims would not to be victims for long. They would instead become clients whom those bandits must now satisfy rather than rob. Immigration restrictions protect stationary bandits (in this case, different governments) from this option.

We could then say that it’s the very existence of strict immigration restrictions that currently creates the very need for massive numbers of individuals to migrate away from their homes.

This is because in the absence of such restrictions, performance declines in governance are kept in check by individuals’ willingness to move. Not everybody might afford the costs of migration, but everybody is protected by those who can. This is the essence of the case made by Buchanan himself in support of federalism.

Immigration restrictions are thus best seen as a reliable mechanism to reproduce the situation to which we must appeal as a means of justifying those restrictions themselves. In some places, historical contingencies might still produce the sort of political culture and institutional setting that allow individuals to flourish in liberty. Unrestricted freedom of movement might conceivably bring the sort of challenges to those places that Sidgwick and Buchanan imagine. But we need to recognize the high moral cost of addressing those challenges through immigration restrictions: condemning millions to low hopes of securing adequate protections for their individual rights.