Whose interests should matter when deciding a nation’s border policy? Campbell Brown takes a moral look at border control.

Much of the public debate surrounding immigration in the UK begins implicitly with the question “What’s in it for us?” Whether immigration is good, and to what extent it should be allowed, is judged by the effects it may have on the interests of UK residents. As it happens, research suggests that immigration is on the whole beneficial to the UK (see for example: Dhingra, et al., ‘Brexit and the Impact of Immigration on the UK’). My aim here, however, is to make a different point. “What’s in it for us?” is the wrong question, or at least not the only relevant one. From the perspective of morality and justice, we cannot decide how open the UK’s borders should be merely by asking what’s in it for UK residents. Immigration also confers benefits on others, including especially the migrants themselves, and these benefits should also be included in the moral equation. A recently leaked Home Office paper sets out a clear “UK first” test for immigration:

To be considered valuable to the country as a whole, immigration should benefit not just the migrants themselves but also make existing residents better off.

Residents are to be given the highest priority. Insofar as immigration fails to benefit residents, it should be restricted, regardless of any benefits it may have for non-residents. Such a view, I shall argue, is morally indefensible.

I begin with an idea that was eloquently expressed by John Rawls, a political philosopher whose modestly titled book A Theory of Justice has perhaps had more influence on the field than any other. He argued that certain features of people, such as their gender, race, and social class, which are mere results of the “natural lottery”, are therefore morally arbitrary. It is unjust for public policies to be sensitive to such features, so that people’s prospects in life are largely shaped by the hands nature dealt them by mere chance. Women should have the same opportunities as men. People of colour should have the same opportunities as people not of colour. And so on. Many, I assume, would agree with this.

Applying this idea to immigration is straightforward. Surely, a person’s place of birth is as much a result of the natural lottery as her gender or race. No one chooses where to be born. Thus “place of birth” also belongs on our list of morally arbitrary features. A policy of giving strict priority to residents over non-residents, as endorsed by the Home Office, is therefore no better, morally speaking, than giving priority to men over women, or to whites over blacks. Imagine a patriarchal society in which disenfranchised women are campaigning to be given equal status and opportunities with men. How outrageous it would be for the men of this society to oppose this merely on the grounds that it would make things worse for themselves! How can it be any more acceptable for UK residents to oppose immigration on the same grounds?

Well, that’s fine, you might say, but justice and fairness aren’t everything. If a certain good cannot be enjoyed by everyone, it’s better that at least some enjoy the good rather than none, even if this is unfair to those who miss out. Suppose twenty people are aboard a sinking ship, but the sole lifeboat has room for only ten. If there is no non-arbitrary way to select who gets a place in the lifeboat, it would be absurd to insist that everyone must drown for the sake of fairness. Some people see immigration in a similar way. The benefits of living in the UK are, like places in the lifeboat, a limited resource. The number of people the country can comfortably support is not unlimited. This way of thinking is reflected in the frequent refrain from politicians that current levels of immigration are “unsustainable”. If migrants continue to flow into the UK at present rates, then the country, like the lifeboat, will become full beyond its capacity and eventually “sink”, which would be no good for anybody.

I agree that we should not be so singularly focused on pursuing equality that we achieve this only by “levelling down” the better off to the position of the worse off. However, I doubt that immigration must lead to such levelling down. The lifeboat analogy is too simplistic. One important difference is that the capacity of a lifeboat is fixed, whereas the capacity of a country is not. This point is illustrated by the “lump of labour” fallacy, where it is assumed that the number of jobs in a country is a constant, so that when immigrants become employed, they are effectively taking employment away from residents. The reality, however, is that immigration may cause the economy to expand, creating new jobs. It would be overly optimistic, I believe, to claim that immigration always benefits everyone. Some residents, I concede, may be made worse off. As I have argued, however, it is indefensible to give priority to the interests of these individuals solely by virtue of the fact that they happened to be born in more favourable circumstances.

Some may object to the suggestion that the UK Government should make immigration policy based on the interests of non-residents. The UK Government is elected to serve the interests of UK citizens. If it chooses to allow immigration because of the benefits this brings to people from other countries, then it is simply not doing its job. Donald Trump expressed this sentiment in a speech to the UN:

As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.

However, this argument subtly misrepresents the role of the Government. Its job is to serve the will, not necessarily the interests, of the people on whose behalf it acts. What a person wants is not always what will be most beneficial to her personally. We sometimes sacrifice our own good for the sake of others. Parents make sacrifices for their children. When we donate to charity, we make sacrifices for strangers we may never meet. One may hope that UK citizens will also be prepared to make sacrifices, if necessary, for people who were not so lucky to be born in a prosperous country. I am not advocating that the Government impose more open borders against the will of the people. Rather, I am arguing that the will of the people should be sensitive to the interests of those beyond our national boundaries.

Here is another way to make the same point. Sometimes it is argued that states have a right to determine their own immigration policies. If a state chooses to close its borders – perhaps even to refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries – then it has a right to do so. States cannot be compelled to open their borders against their will. I am not denying that states have this right. However, accepting that an agent (e.g., a state or a person) has the right to decide some matter is compatible with thinking they should decide in a certain way. One question is who has the right to decide; another question is how they should decide. For example, a vegetarian may believe that when other people consume meat, they act in a way that is morally wrong. But this is compatible with thinking that each person has the right to decide her own diet. People should not always be compelled to do the right thing. In some cases, we may have a right to do wrong. Likewise, to argue that closed borders are morally wrong is not to imply that states have no right to close their borders.

Sometimes it is argued that open borders are not required to ensure global equality of opportunity. Closed borders serve only to preserve inequality; they do not create it. If there are both poor countries and rich countries, and people cannot move freely from one to the other, then those who happen to be born in a poor country will generally have worse opportunities because they are cut off from the opportunities provided by rich countries. But suppose there were no poor countries. Then people would not need to cross any borders to have the same opportunities as others. In this case, closed borders would not have the effect of preserving inequality, for the simple reason that there would be no inequality to preserve. Thus it may be argued that, insofar as our aim is to eliminate global inequality of opportunity, we need not pursue this by opening borders. An alternative would be for rich countries to transfer some of their wealth to poor countries. In some ways, this may be a superior alternative, since it deals with the problem of inequality at a more fundamental level. But, of course, this is not an exclusive either-or proposition. The most effective policy for achieving equality may be to do both: open borders and transfer wealth.

Ultimately, this is an empirical question. It requires careful examination of the likely effects of alternative policies. However, a sound policy decision also requires evaluation of these consequences, and it is important to be clear on what criteria are to be used in this evaluation. Should the sole, or primary, criterion be benefits to residents? Or should equal weight be given to the interests of non-residents? I have argued here for the latter option. To do otherwise would be to give moral weight to the morally arbitrary results of the natural lottery.

By Campbell Brown.


Campbell Brown is a philosopher from New Zealand. He specialises in moral and political philosophy, especially formal approaches to these. He has taught philosophy in five countries. When not philosophising, he likes to play guitar and video games. He draws cartoons, usually during department meetings. And he has a dog called Caprica.



Featured image by David McKelvey / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0