Vietnamese boat people arriving in Australia in 1976
In the Western liberal democracies there are few people who claim that individuals do not have the right to choose where they live. However, many people set limits on the extent to which they recognize that right. They only recognize that foreigners have the right to live in their neighborhood if they meet stringent immigration requirements.
Is that a reasonable view? If people readily accept that individuals should be free to choose where they will live within national borders, why are they reluctant to accept that individuals have a right to choose which country to live in?
If you view national borders as arbitrary lines on maps, it will seem absurd to you that immigration requirements should make it more difficult to re-locate across national borders than within a nation. International migration could normally be expected to be as beneficial as migration within national borders. For example, the potential benefits to both the employees and employers concerned when workers relocate to take up employment opportunities are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed. Similarly, the potential benefits to both the grandparents and grandchildren of living in the same locality are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed to enable that to happen.
I have been pondering such questions while reading Ilya Somin’s recent book, Free to Move: Foot voting, migration, and political freedom. Somin presents a powerful argument in favour of foot voting – choosing to move to a different country, city, condo etc. because you prefer its rules to the ones you currently live under. Foot voting enables individuals to make a choice that actually matters to them, whereas voting in an election offers individuals only a miniscule chance of affecting the outcome.
I didn’t need to read Somin’s book to be persuaded of the potential value of foot voting. It would be difficult for an economist engaged in public policy not to be aware of those benefits. I also had the benefit of considering the issues involved many years ago when I read Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
However, it is one thing to accept the potential benefits of foot voting as an ideal, and quite another to advocate removal of current obstacles to foot voting posed by migration regulations.
Somin suggest that the sovereignty argument – the view that the right to bar migrants is intrinsic to the existence of an independent nation state – has little support among political theorists, although it often arises in public discourse. Somin mentions Donald Trump and his southern border wall proposal in this context, but John Howard, a former Australian prime minister, advanced the argument just as strongly in 2001:
“National Security … is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open-hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
While national governments continue to exist, it would not be realistic to expect them to refrain from accepting responsibility for migration policy. However, that does not mean that it is beyond the realms of possibility for governments to adopt something more closely approaching an open borders policy. As Somin points out, sovereign nations existed for centuries without exercising a general power to bar peaceful migrants. Most governments made significant efforts to restrict entry only in the late 19th century.
The reason why the sovereignty argument seems persuasive to many people must be related to their perception that illegal or unauthorized migration has adverse consequences. They want immigration regulation enforced because they believe it serves a useful purpose.
Somin discusses in some detail various reasons that have been advanced for immigration restrictions. These include fear of terrorism and crime, possible reduction of wage levels, burdening of the welfare state, destruction of the environment, and the spread of harmful cultural values. He recognizes the validity of some objections to freedom of international migration, but suggests that “keyhole solutions” are available to meet negative side-effects of expanded migration. These keyhole solutions aim to target real problems, minimizing risks of adverse outcomes without imposing unnecessary restrictions on foot voting.
As in many other policy areas, carefully targeted regulation which minimizes adverse side-effects is clearly preferable to blanket bans and restrictions that are directed toward meeting political demands of anti-migrant nationalist groups. Somin recognizes that such groups are the main obstacle to international foot voting.
This brings me back to the sovereignty argument. It seems to me that anti-migrant nationalist groups had greater sway in Australian politics 20 years ago when significant numbers of people seeking refugee status were arriving by boat without prior approval. Under those circumstances it was relatively easy for the opponents of immigration to claim that “people smuggling” and “queue jumping” by refugees was likely to lead to huge social problems.
The government’s action to enforce regulation and discourage unauthorized arrivals seems to have enabled the public debate about immigration levels in Australia to become somewhat more civilized in recent years. It may also have reduced public disquiet about the relatively high migrant intake in recent years (prior to the Covid 19 pandemic).
The sovereignty argument is clearly opposed to recognition that people have a right to choose which country they will live in. Nevertheless, Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since the government stridently asserted sovereignty by taking effective action to discourage unauthorized arrivals.
The last couple of paragraphs have attracted some comment in response to a Facebook post by Boris Karpa: https://www.facebook.com/548209107/posts/10159829476419108/
The issue is whether there is any evidence to back up my assertion that Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since more effective action was taken to discourage unauthorized arrivals.
Survey evidence certainly suggests that immigration has gone off the radar as a major political issue in Australia over the last decade (Scanlan Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, 2020, p24).
The total number of migrants has increased, but there has been substantial opposition associated with the "somewhat more civilized debate" that I referred to. It now seems possible for people to argue for a lower migrant intake on grounds of pressure on infrastructure, impacts on unskilled wage, and house prices etc. without being accused of racism, or lack of sympathy for refugees.
The refugee intake has not risen much over the last decade. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be survey data on perceptions of whether the current refugee intake is too high or too low for long enough to assess whether attitudes have changed over the last decade. The Scanlan Foundation's report for 2019 suggests that in recent years opinion has been evenly balanced between those who say the intake is too small and those who say it is too large.
I think the Australian public would now be receptive to a larger refugee intake, provided people don’t arrive uninvited. However, that is just my personal view. I guess we will see whether or not I am right over the next year or so.
Further comments are welcome.