Thinking slow not fast: the basic requirements for a public theory of immigration

Contemporary Britain already has a more-or-less intelligible public moral theory that guides much of its laws and policy. Unfortunately, this public theory is virtually silent on the matter of immigration.

Jeff Howard
16 July 2012

Britons would have to work hard not to read something negative about immigration on their morning commutes: the media inundate the public with a portrayal of immigration as a serious burden on, and sometimes even a threat to, the nation.   Simultaneously, a significant portion of UK businesses and international businesses based in the UK have repeatedly made the case that immigration is key to Britain’s competitiveness.  So what conclusions should the public draw?

The media's sensationalist hype has inhibited a serious, focused conversation on this in modern Britain. But the time has come to push back against the fear-mongering on the one hand and the unbalanced chatter on the other. To do that, we need to move away from the speed and fury that usually characterise this debate and think in slow motion – we need to do some philosophy. 

Thinking in slow motion on immigration

Is immigration good or bad for Britain? To answer that question, we must get clear in two ways.

The first task is to get clear about the facts. Gut intuitions, or the funny feeling that one is seeing fewer jobs but more and more immigrants and that they therefore must be related, will no longer suffice.  At some point – quite urgently – we’re going to need an impartial empirical assessment of immigration’s impact on society.

On this issue, the facts are unclear. Take the debate about immigration’s effect on the national economy. A 2008 report from the House of Lords' Select Committee on Economic Affairs “found no evidence for the argument, made by the Government, business and many others, that net immigration—immigration minus emigration—generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population” – although immigration does, it says, “enlarge the economy, with relatively small costs and benefits for the incomes of the resident population.” Other sources suggest that while immigrants do represent a significant percentage of “new hires” – 15% in 2010 – that does not mean that they are “taking” the jobs of natives; rather, it is that immigrants, like young people, are more likely to be fresh additions to the workforce than (obviously) people who have been working or living around here for a while. Other studies show that the effects of immigration on average wages – and on employment – are minimal.

Evaluating immigration’s impact is a major task, but I’m going to leave it to one side, because it is subordinated to a much more pressing need:  some clear, shared moral criteria for evaluating what would count as an acceptable immigration policy and what would count as an unacceptable immigration policy.  This is the moral task we need to accomplish before we can even begin to make immigration policy on the basis of immigrants' potential contributions.

How should we go about identifying some shared moral criteria? Take the above example of whether immigration helps or hurts the national economy. One popular argument to determine whether immigration is good or bad concerns this economic impact. As reported by British Future, a new think-tank, 55% of Britons believe that immigration damages economic recovery. The philosophical key here is to figure out, exactly, whether and why this matters. Crucially, this is not as straightforward as it seems. The mere fact that something has good consequences for some people does not automatically make it the right thing to do. Framing an innocent person for a crime she didn't commit might well alleviate a riot or a panic, but that would not make it okay to do. And that is because innocent people have certain rights that others are morally obligated to respect. Perhaps, analogously, immigrants have certain rights that make their (ostensible) negative contribution to the economy morally irrelevant. Or maybe they don't. We need to do careful, hard thinking to settle the issue. 

Back to basics: disagreeing about values we share

We can talk all day long about how immigration has this or that effect on the economy or on our culture – and we may even be correct in such factual assessments – but unless we have some moral theory about why such facts matter, and how, no morally acceptable conclusions about public policy will follow.

Here ‘moral theory’ does not refer to our deepest convictions about the meaning of life or the demands of God. Rather, what I am referring to is a public moral theory – one that people of a diverse democracy can come together to share in the political realm. Contemporary Britain already has a more-or-less intelligible public moral theory that guides much of its laws and policy. This theory affirms the importance of free expression, liberty of conscience, political participation, basic criminal protections, and the idea that every human being should be afforded the conditions for living a minimally decent life, as supported by public commitments to universal education and healthcare. Citizens disagree, surely, about these matters – but they are disagreeing about the best interpretation or implications of fundamental political principles that they jointly affirm. They are disagreeing about values that they share.

Unfortunately, this public theory is virtually silent on the matter of immigration. It is not as though society is riven between two prevailing, well-developed views on the matter that conflict; rather, there are no prevailing, well-developed views present in the public conversation. This is exactly the kind of lacuna that we need political philosophy – clear, hard thinking about matters of public principle – to remedy.

Crafting a public theory of immigration, like any task in philosophy, is really complicated. Here is one account of how complicated it is.

Toward a public theory of immigration 

The role of the state—ultra-nationalism vs liberal nationalism

One's views on immigration will be, in part, determined by how one thinks about the state and its core purpose. If we begin with the proposition that the existence of states is justified by the fact that they advance crucial interests of their citizens, we can proceed in (at least) one of two ways. On one view, states can defend and advance their citizens' interests by any means necessary; there are no moral limits. States can declare wars for national gain, close borders even to refugees who may otherwise face genocide, and exploit superior bargaining power to crush economic rivals. This ultra-nationalist position, as we might call it, implies that we have no moral duties to foreigners, merely to our fellow citizens.

While some of the rhetoric on immigration appears to invoke that kind of position, it is not the kind of view likely to survive sustained public deliberation. Public opinion polls demonstrate considerable support for pro-democracy revolutions abroad and for eradicating severe poverty in foreign countries. These opinions rest in tension with the idea that foreigners' lives don't matter whatsoever. Why should one's chances at living a great or terrible life, after all, depend on the good fortune of having been born into a particularly powerful society? And this leaves us with the conclusion: the lives of foreigners morally matter. And if that'strue, so much for ultra-nationalism. We need to look elsewhere for a theory.

This moves us to consider a second view, which we could call liberal nationalism. Here, states are still properly regarded as assigning greater significance to the interests of their own citizens than those of foreigners. But liberal nationalists do not write off the interests of foreigners as insignificant. Rather, as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin has suggested, just as the curator to an art museum takes special responsibility for his paintings while nevertheless not thinking that his paintings are necessarily superior to those in other museums, states take special responsibility for their own citizens. Here, the system of states is part of a division of moral labour, whose goal (among others) is to ensure that every human being has a home where she is afforded with legally protected rights and substantive opportunities. Because liberal nationalism, however, recognizes the moral importance of foreigners, it makes decisions that respect that importance: not waging aggressive wars, potentially intervening to stop genocide when an intervention would involve relatively little cost, sending aid to alleviate famines, and so forth.

There are other kinds of views one could imagine, of course – such as radical cosmopolitan views that either endorse the idea of a world government, or that think all nations should equally redistribute their resources globally  – but liberal nationalism best accounts for the kind of view likely to be held by most modern Britons. And so it makes sense for us to start thinking about immigration policy within the framework of this view. What does liberal nationalism require in terms of immigration policy? And how would the aims of economic advancement and cultural preservation figure in such a policy?

Liberal nationalism: the complexity of the economic arguments

Even once we have identified a candidate theory that appears most plausible on reflection – and that itself is a marathon endeavour – the work has only just begun. The reality is that liberal nationalism, as it has been described here, remains a seriously imprecise view. All it tells us, so far, is that we have to make immigration policy in a way that takes seriously both the state's claims to prioritize its own citizens, and to recognize the moral status of foreigners. There are lots of ways of cashing out this balance. And some ways are more plausible than others.

“Admit them if they help us, exclude them if they don't”? 

One argument goes as follows: so long as prospective immigrants have a decent set of options for their life elsewhere, it does them no wrong to exclude them on the basis of the fact that they would not make a helpful contribution to economic growth here in our home.  But this argument leaves numerous issues undetermined. Firstly, the position is unclear as to whether prospective immigrants should be included or excluded if their effect on the economy is neutral. Secondly, it remains ambiguous as to which prospective immigrants, exactly, are having their economic prospects evaluated. Is it all prospective immigrants – everyone who might want to come—or those currently applying? Thirdly, it remains unclear what it means to say that immigrants should be excluded if they compromise the economy. Does it mean that prospective immigrants should be excluded if their inclusion would slow or reverse economic growth? Or does it mean that they should be excluded if they were to out-compete members of the indigenous working class for jobs? These in no way entail one another.  There are no obvious answers forthcoming to these important questions. But they need to be resolved – reflectively and patiently – before we are justified in smugly asserting a particular view on immigration policy.

“Admit as many as feasible”? 

This alternative argument contends that while limits to immigration are justified to maintain fiscal stability – so that the system is not flooded with infeasible demands – it is perverse to exclude immigrants on the basis that they might succeed when they come. Britain, according to this argument, ought to be conceived as a flourishing nation of immigrants whose innovation and willingness to do hard work should be welcomed. Even if they out-compete some, we should say, “bring it on!” This is  all the more reason to inspire our children to work harder and shoot for the stars. Note, of course, that crucial questions remain about this view, especially what is meant by ‘feasibility’. Does that mean that current levels of public services must be sustained? If so, need they be sustained without any tax increases? Is this the case for all public services, or just certain ones? If it is permitted that the strain increase on certain basic institutions, how much strain is allowed? If the current quality is excellent, is it allowed to degenerate to a ‘decent’ level? But what counts as decent? These are difficult questions to answer. 

Liberal nationalism: the complexity of the cultural arguments

Even if we set aside the economic matters, there is another purported fact – that immigrants undermine the local culture – to which many people assign moral significance. According to the European Social Survey, 40% of the UK contends that culture is ‘undermined’ by immigrants. But what does this mean?

Lifeworld culture 

The first potential view is that immigrants can be excluded according to what might be called, to borrow a term from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, lifeworld culture – the assumptions, customs, and habits that give structure, predictability, and comfort to our daily lives. Such matters range from film, food, and clothes, to language, religion, and etiquette. The question is whether this is a plausible basis for excluding prospective immigrants on a liberal view. Many liberals would answer a resounding ‘no’: it is inconsistent with our principles to think that we can ban prospective immigrants simply because the choices they will freely make when they come change the cultural landscape (say, by introducing new restaurants and places of worship in our neighbourhood). After all, if a large group of our citizen neighbours took a foreign trip one day and, deciding they enjoyed a particular culture, wanted to recreate its basic features at home, we would have no liberal grounds to dispute their decisions. According to many liberals, lifeworld culture has no proper role in restricting immigration policy.

Moral culture 

There is a second kind of argument about the way cultural factors might plausibly play a role in immigration restrictions. It begins with the idea that it is important for a liberal democracy such as Britain to preserve its moral culture: the body of norms and values that animate public debate and in reference to which laws are conceived and enacted. According to this argument, immigrants should not be admitted if they do not profess the fundamental moral commitments to the freedom and equality of others – if they reject the values of democracy, free speech, equal rights for women, religious equality, etc. This is a much more plausible argument; if it were likely that immigrants were illiberal fascists-in-waiting, scheming to overthrow liberal democracy the moment a sufficient quantity of them amassed, then one could see easily how restricting immigration would be justified. But, of course, even if this argument were vindicated, its applicability would depend crucially on whether it is, in fact, the case that immigrants constitute genuine and enduring threats to freedom and equality in this way.

National culture

There is a third, trickier kind of argument, concerning the importance of what we might call national culture. According to this argument, the maintenance of liberal democracy depends on certain political bonds between citizens, and is unsustainable without these kinds of bonds. These bonds are facilitated by shared history, traditions, and cultural artefacts. They are the children's stories we all grew up with, the patriotic songs we all know by heart, the famous historical figures whose speeches we recognize instantly, and are inspired by, when cited by politicians. This shared political vocabulary enables a coherent democratic politics, and moreover facilitates an intensified feeling of solidarity that galvanizes and motivates spirited public engagement among all citizens. Given that this is necessary for successful democracy, national culture need not be viewed as parochial and exclusionary, but as the precious glue that makes an enduring politics of freedom and equality possible.

The question for this view, of course, is how thick the shared political tradition and language need to be. Need they include shared arts and culture? Support for majority religions? Suddenly concerns about national culture – a potentially legitimate basis for excluding immigrants on a liberal view – and concerns aboutlifeworld culture – a potentially illegitimate basis – can seem hardly distinguishable. Some will not apologize for that tension: if democracy needs not merely shared stories to be sustained, but also shared foods, customs, and norms of etiquette, then so be it; it's part of who we are as humans to care most for those who are most like us, and so we might as well celebrate the benefits of community that such a tendency brings. Others will view that fact, if true, as lamentable: it is a shame, for example, that we are only motivated to support a large welfare state for people who look and act like us, and so while we might have to make immigration policy in recognition of that fact, we should see this as a pragmatic compromise of liberal values. And others will continue to tow a hard liberal line, refusing to compromise: it is we who must bend our habits to adhere to correct moral principles, not the other way around.


We need to answer these questions—what we consider acceptable and unacceptable when we grant ourselves and others the time to think through some of the moral implications of our opinions.  Only once we have thought these through can we then usefully assess empirical evidence and elaborate intelligent policy.  The arguments about culture, those that have any plausibility – for example the argument that it would not be objectionable to ban immigrants who are hostile to liberal democracy, and the argument that there would be either pragmatic or principled reasons of cultural or linguistic cohesion to restrict immigration – are easily hijacked by illiberal political forces, as well as by run-of-the-mill paranoia and fear. Often it is easy to convince oneself that the empirical premises necessary for the arguments' applicability are true, even when the evidence for their truth is quite slim.

These are some of the complex arguments we need to have.


This article was first published on Counterpoint in May, 2012

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