Political Philosophy Spring 2018

Closed Borders


Miller gives three reasons why societies should be allowed to regulate immigration:

  1. Doing so is necessary for their members to exercise their right of self-determination.

  2. Democracy as a political system is undermined by too much diversity.

  3. Allowing immigration from poor countries to wealthy ones would make climate change worse.


The idea behind self-determination is related to the idea behind democracy: the people should rule. Which people? Usually a nation, hence the phrase “national self-determination.” The break-up of multinational empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union was thought to be a victory for national self-determination and democracy at the same time as the different nations within these empires could rule themselves and self-rule is what democracy consists in. (The democracy part hasn’t always worked out, so the most you can probably say is that national self-determination is a necessary but not sufficient condition of democratic politics.)

OK, so what do the people get to determine? Can they take a vote on torture and decide that it’s OK? Miller is not that radical a democrat. He thinks there are some things that are not subject to democratic self-determination. But he also thinks that many of the topics that legitimately fall under the heading of national self-determination require the ability to control immigration.

He makes his case on pages 62-63 of his book (Miller 2016, 62–63). It seemed to me that there were two different arguments there. The first is about public expenditures.

  1. The members of a democracy have the right to determine how much they will spend on public services like housing, schools, hospitals, and so on.
  2. They cannot control spending on these things unless they control immigration.
  3. Therefore, they have a right to control immigration.

The idea, as Adrian said, is that some expenditures are mandatory. You can’t admit people into your society and refuse to pay for the education of their children. (Even if you could, it would be a dumb thing to do.) Plus, as Alec noted, it can be more expensive to provide services to immigrants than it is to provide them to the native-born population. Children who do not speak the language require extra help, for instance. So in order to control the budget, you have to be able to control immigration.

I can’t tell if this argument depends on an assumption that immigrants are not net contributors to the economy or not. If immigrants produce more wealth than they consume, the society isn’t worse off even if education for the first generation’s children is unusually expensive. Since I myself believe that immigrants do produce more than they consume, that would make this argument irrelevant (assuming I’m right, of course).

Another way to understand it is as saying that the incumbents get to determine whether to spend more on schools, roads, and so on regardless of whether immigrants are a net drain on their resources. Say we just don’t want to give up more undeveloped land to housing. The fact that it would not cost us any money to develop it is neither here nor there: it’s our land and we get to decide how it will be used. Remy said he thought this is what Miller has in mind and I suspect he’s right. If nothing else, it would avoid the kind of objection I proposed in the previous paragraph.

The second argument that I claimed to find in Miller’s text goes like this (with modifications thanks to Skye).

  1. Self-determination includes the right to control what happens to the political community in the future.
  2. What happens to the political community in the future will be determined by the beliefs and values of the people who belong to the community.
  3. The beliefs and values of the people who belong to the community are determined by whether the members of the community grow up in it or come from a different community.
  4. Therefore, self-determination includes “the right to control membership” in the political community.

Paskalina thought the first premise was both bad and impossible. The state can’t control what happens to the political community in the future and it shouldn’t try even if it could.

I think the state can exercise some control although I think “influence” would probably be a better word than “control.” I thought Alec had a good point when he said that it depends on the ratio of natives to immigrants. He gave examples of European societies that worry about the assimilation of their immigrant populations while I gave a fanciful example of 100 million people immigrating to the US. The point is basically the same. Make the numbers large enough relative to the incumbent population and you will get cultural change.

It’s still open to Paskalina to say that the attempt to steer the culture is a bad idea, of course, even if she accepts that it’s possible.

I agree with her that the first premise sounds sinister. Perhaps this helps to take the edge off. Miller is working with an implicit distinction between insiders and outsiders. The state can’t exile or disenfranchise insiders who might change the culture: kids with weird ideas, religious communities with growing memberships, women who want the vote, racial minorities who want to end favoritism for the dominant class, and so on. These are steps that cannot be taken to control the culture in the future. Insiders have rights. Outsiders do not: they can be excluded in the name of controlling the culture in the future.

The argument also assumes that immigrants will not assimilate to the majority culture without making more than minor changes to it. Michael thinks the historical record shows this is false. Alec expressed reservations about the recent experience of European societies.

One thing to watch out for with arguments that use the term “culture” is that it is ambiguous. It can be used as a synonym for “race” or for customs like languages and religious practices. It doesn’t help matters that the two often overlap: the people who speak the different language are also members of a different racial or ethnic group. I think you can make a case for the dominance of one particular ethnic or religious group over a particular territory. For example, you can make a respectable argument that Israel should be a homeland for the Jewish people. I’m just saying that’s different from the case for the preservation of whatever customary practices a group of people have.

You might think that the direct or indirect relationships between race and culture, in the sense of customs, are so strong that the conclusion to the second argument is unacceptable even if the premises are true. That is, you might think that a society should not discriminate on the basis of race even if that means it loses one lever to control the future of its culture. I think that’s a respectable position too.


Everyone thinks that diversity makes democracy more difficult. Egalitarians think the gap between the rich and poor threatens democracy. Many political scientists worry that ethnic, racial, or religious diversity do the same.

For example, Danielle Allen (our commencement speaker) says this: “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved” (quoted in Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 227).

In particular, according to Miller, it’s hard to get a constituency for public services and redistribution. David Frum has a good line about this: “In a multiethnic society, economic redistribution inescapably implies ethnic redistribution” (Frum 2018). The suggestion is that it’s easier to mobilize against redistribution if you can use racial divisions to do so.

If you have Carens’s point of view, I suppose you could treat this as a transitional problem. Societies should push immigration as high as they can without imperiling their system of government.

I’m inclined to push back a bit, though. I take to heart Adrian’s observation that history hasn’t had many liberal democracies of any kind, whether mono- or multiethnic. So the seemingly daunting historical fact might not tell us much more than that we do not have much historical experience with liberal democracy.

Also, we have examples of functioning political units that are majority minority with large immigrant populations: Texas and California. They’re hardly perfect, but their political systems are functional and democratic. In fact, they’re both doing quite well. Of course, they aren’t sovereign states. Maybe that makes a difference. But it’s some evidence that it can work.

Global warming

People in rich countries produce more greenhouse gases than people in poor countries do. So if you move people from a poor country to a rich country, they will produce more greenhouse gases as their standard of living rises.

I find this argument odd for a couple of reasons.

First, it has implications that I find unacceptable. If we were to accept this argument for limiting immigration we would also accept it in other areas such as trade. Basically, it would commit us to doing whatever we can to keep as many people in the world in poverty. I would have to be persuaded that climate change is a catastrophic problem that can only be addressed in this way before I would be willing to consider that.

Second, I don’t see how it supports Miller’s position. Miller thinks that societies should have discretion in how they manage their immigration policy but this argument dictates what societies should do regardless of what they want to do. If it is true, then wealthy countries should not increase immigration even if they want to do so and countries with low greenhouse gas emissions should admit immigrants from high emission societies even if they do not want to do so.

Since I have significant reservations about the logic of this argument, I didn’t devote much time to discussing it.

Main points

These are the main points that you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. Self-determination and immigration.
  2. Democracy and immigration.


Frum, David. 2018. “An Exit from Trumpocracy.” The Atlantic Monthly. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/frum-trumpocracy/550685/.

Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.

Miller, David. 2016. Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.