Political Philosophy Spring 2019

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 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.) So in order to control the budget, you have to be able to control immigration.

The second argument that I claimed to find in Miller’s text goes like this.

  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.

I think Jasper was right to think that this is what is really behind the desire to control immigration. Budgets are important, but the budgetary problems immigration causes are not large and many things affect public budgets. Culture is what people are really concerned with.

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.

Agnes found Miller’s style of argument frustrating. She didn’t see where he was getting his assumptions about the value of democracy or what is included in democratic self-governance. So she had trouble finding something to either argue or agree with.


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 does so as well.

For example, Danielle Allen (our commencement speaker last year) 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. First, 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.

Second, 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.