Mass migration is not the solution. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

April 25, 2024   4 mins

Before entering today’s torturous immigration debate, we would do well to remember James Baldwin. “Power without morality is no longer power,” he observed. And the border question is fundamentally a moral one.

On one side, there is a growing belief that an open borders policy is a vital moral response to the economic inequality between countries. In these milieus, national citizenship within a bounded community in the Western world is increasingly seen not as a birth right but as just another unfair advantage. As the political theorist Joseph Carens puts it, Western citizenship is “the modern equivalent to feudal privilege — an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances [that] is hard to justify when one thinks about it closely”. And just like feudal privileges, they should be cast aside.

On the other side, meanwhile, the vox populi disagrees. Polling consistently shows that most Western citizens want less immigration, a sentiment that has risen in recent years in the US, UK, France and Germany. Faced with the elite-approved “human right” to unlimited free movement, popular opinion responds with an emphatic no.

With die-hards on both sides, it’s no wonder the Senate border bill has become such a point of contention. For Democrats, the problem is not that too many foreigners are abusing asylum claims in order to immigrate illegally; it’s more that, with an election coming up, news coverage of chaotic conditions at the border doesn’t paint Biden in a good light. For the rest of us, meanwhile, the problem is the assumption that everyone in the developing world has a moral right to claim asylum in the US.

This is not to say that immigration should be stopped entirely; but rather that unlimited immigration is incompatible with the right of a bounded community to durable political self-determination. This, in turn, is a far weightier moral consideration than the self-interest of any given economic immigrant. As the political philosopher Christopher Heath Wellman put it: “[n]o collective can be fully self-determining without enjoying freedom of association because, when the members of a group can change, an essential part of group self-determination is exercising control over what the ‘self’ is.”

But how can a community control its “self” in a world of open borders? Inevitably, a subsection of immigrants will acquire the right to vote in their new home. Over time, their presence will change the composition of the electorate, or, in other words, the “self” part of “self-determination”. And eventually this will alter the outcome of political decisions taken by the demos — for immigrants typically don’t share the same preferences or identity as the existing citizenry. Give a large group of outsiders the vote, and you may find that voting patterns start to change. To prevent this, claims Heath Wellman, the demos must have a right to say “no” to radical, unwanted alterations to the citizen body.

The open border advocates would naturally dispute this, insisting that no self-determining group of citizens has the right to protect itself from such change. After all, who’s to say that the next generation of voters won’t also revolutionise politics? Radical change doesn’t just come from abroad. We wouldn’t choose to disenfranchise our rebellious children, even if they threaten to overturn our political decisions. By the same token, we cannot deny the vote to immigrants with conflicting values or interests.

This analogy, however, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Generational changes in the electorate arise from citizens voluntarily exercising their basic human rights: in this case, the right to form a family and the right to freedom of conscience. By contrast, the replacement of the electorate through unwanted mass immigration occurs wholly involuntarily and is facilitated by governments acting entirely morally ultra vires.

What’s more, education and upbringing tend to ensure a large amount of continuity between the preferences, interests and identity of one generation and the next. A parent and child have far more in common than a person born in the US and a newly arrived immigrant. This is especially true under conditions of mass migration across great civilisational distances, and even more so when the state insists on multiculturalism, rather than integration. While new arrivals will be subject to some cultural pressure to adopt the norms of their host society, contemporary liberal democracies encourage immigrants to celebrate their ethnic identities and, increasingly, their grievances. These groups then ask for policy shifts to accommodate their cultural preferences.

“It’s hard to see how open border advocates would enjoy living in the world they propose.”

We have seen this play out in America, the UK and Europe, where — contrary to those who talk of the natural conservatism of immigrants — new arrivals tend to vote well to the Left of non-immigrants. Over time, this can start to distort the political system. As former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once observed, “in multiracial societies, you don’t vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion”. This can eventually lead to an aggressive style of ethnopolitics evident in many countries around the world from South Africa to Malaysia.

Even if this doesn’t happen, mass migration can warp democracy in other ways. As Robert Putnam argued, “ethnic diversity” can reduce both “horizontal” interpersonal trust and “vertical” trust in political institutions, leading residents of all races to “hunker down”. We can see this in the way social trust had steadily declined since mass non-Western immigration began in the mid-Sixties, while political polarisation has conversely increased. Some have blamed this on the rise of cable news or social media — and indeed, both probably play a part. But the timeline of America’s deteriorating social trust and the geographical distribution of that trust — highest in homogenous places such as New England and the Midwest, lowest in the Southwest and in New York — are consistent with the diversity-trust hypothesis.

While declining trust probably won’t result in societal collapse, it will certainly weaken our political institutions. A high-trust society can afford the sort of deliberative democracy that offers fair consideration of all affected parties. This system presupposes that political parties play fair, keep their promises and work together for the common public good. But it is easily distorted, and can swiftly morph into a low-trust society with a Lebanon-style “consociational democracy” and a system of zero-sum tribal bargaining. In such a scenario, political outcomes are determined by the balance of power between representatives of different ethnic and religious communities. This makes redistributive economic policies difficult to pass, as warring factions care little about each other’s welfare.

As a result, it’s hard to see how open border advocates would enjoy living in the world they propose. They would be poorer, unhappier and exposed to conflict. What could be more immoral than that?


A version of this article was first published on Restoration.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an UnHerd columnist. She is also a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Founder of the AHA Foundation, and host of The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Podcast. Her new book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights.