Caplan and Wellman: Is Immigration a Human Right?

Bryan Caplan and Kit Wellman recently debated open borders at USD:

I’ll briefly summarize the main arguments and then offer some thoughts.

Bryan Caplan, of course, argued in defense of open borders. His main argument takes after Huemer’s fantastic work. Sometimes open borders types are made fun of with phrases like “Should everyone be free to move into open borders types houses?” Caplan helpfully distinguishes between 3 views:

  1. Foreigners should be free to live in my house even if I don’t consent.
  2. Foreigners should be free to live in my house if I consent.
  3. Foreigners shouldn’t be free to live in my house even if I do consent.

Caplan’s view is the second. The restrictionists view is the third. But being able to restrict an individual’s freedom to invite others into their house is a bit odd, it’s certainly not something other private agents have the right to do. Caplan doesn’t think the state is any different. We do not consent to the state (as Wellman agrees), it has no justified special powers over our lives (though here Wellman may disagree). Hence, the state should no more restrict my guest’s freedom than other private agents should. Hence, we should be free to hire foreigners, sell them housing, and so on. This right to immigrate isn’t absolute, but the other side has to show that there are compelling costs, which is going to be especially difficult given the economic benefits.

Wellman dissents. Legitimate states have a right to political determination. The right to political determination demands a right to association. The right to association entails the right to not associate, that is, it justifies immigration restrictions.

In defense of this, we think that Denmark can’t just decide to merge into Sweden. This is because Sweden has a right to self-determination. If Denmark wants to merge into Sweden and the Swedes don’t want that, Fuck em. A merger with Denmark would completely alter the political landscape of Sweden. Question: what if the Danish all want to immigrate to Sweden? Maybe a few Swedes are opening their houses up and are willing to sell land to the Danish. Wellman thinks that the Danish have no such right to immigrate, the Swedish state should decide, using a just procedure, whether or not to open their borders. After all, opening the borders to the Danes would completely alter the political landscape of Sweden.

New question: what if Denmark really sucked. Hard to imagine [link], but suppose Denmark was really impoverished and a terrible place to live. Shouldn’t the Swedes open up their borders? Here Wellman takes a disjunctive view. Suppose one’s view of distributive justice entails that the Swedes have a duty to aid the Danish. The Swedes can discharge that duty either by opening their borders or by dispensing effective aid to the Swedes. The real force behind opening the borders, in this case, derives from one’s view of distributive justice, not a right to immigrate.

Wellman’s case is initially persuasive but begs the question. Here’s a matter which would completely alter the political landscape of Sweden: whether freedom of religion is enforced. Should freedom of religion be placed on the ballot or be decided by the usual political mechanisms? No. Because there is a right to freedom of religion. Here putting the law in the hands of the usual political mechanisms is out of the question! But then, why not say the same about immigration. “Because there is no right to immigration”— ah, got it.

To be fair, Wellman probably thinks the positive case for a right to immigration has not been provided. But we’ve been given strong reasons to think that there is an initial or prima facie right to— immigration restrictions are coercive and there’s a presupposition against coercive actions. In other words, violence and threats of violence are bad, we need a good reason to show that violence is justified.

Now the restrictionist needs to show what exactly will be this good reason (or reasons) in the immigration case. Elsewhere Caplan convincingly shows that the usual suspects are not persuasive.