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Professors debate America’s right to build a border wall, immigration ethics

| Friday, December 6, 2019

Professors Jason Brennan of Georgetown University and Christopher Heath Wellman of Washington University in St. Louis participated in a debate Thursday evening surrounding the ethics of immigration. During the event, entitled “Do we have a right to build the Border Wall?” the two academics clashed over whether or not states have a right to restrict immigration.

Brennan advocated a position of open borders. Noting it would strike the average person as unethical to ban certain Americans from living elsewhere in the United States, he said this same logic should apply to people born abroad.

“Imagine that the people of northern Virginia get together and decide they have a bill they want to pass through their various county legislatures,” Brennan said. “And the bill says the following: ‘Whereas white people from West Virginia and black people from east D.C. commit crime at high rates, use drugs, have low wages, low employment and low educational attainment; and to protect our distinctively high-achieving culture, our community, our schools — which are some of the best in the country — and our exceptional welfare services and way of life. … We the people of northern Virginia hereby forbid them from moving here.”

Such a move, Brennan said, would strike the average person as wrong.

“Suppose [northern Virginia] did that,” Brennan said. “How would you think about that? What sort of word would you use to describe that kind of bill? Probably think ‘classist,’ maybe think ‘racist’ … something kind of nasty. Nevertheless, these kinds of arguments are precisely the arguments that nation-states use for excluding foreigners for these very same kinds of reasons. So what’s the difference? What’s the magic of a border of a nation-state that’s different from the magic of the border of a town, or a county, or a state?”

Brennan enumerated what he saw as the numerous benefits of immigration, noting that researchers estimate free movement would lead to a global economy that is 100% larger than it is now.

“A number of current economists — libertarian economists, left-wing economists, socialist economists, conservative economists — there’s surprising agreement: it seems to be that restricting immigration is the single most inefficient thing that countries can do around the world,” Brennan said. “… Immigration restrictions are so inefficient they cut world production in half.”

Given immigration’s myriad benefits, Brennan said there would need to be a compelling reason for countries to severely restrict the inflow of people. In his view, such a reason does not exist. He said newcomers enhance the host country’s culture, it would be easier to “build a wall around the welfare state, not the country” and that immigrants commit crimes at lower levels than native-born citizens.

“Places where you do not have a lot of immigrants are cultural wastelands,” Brennan said. “Think about the places that are cultural centers in the United States: Los Angeles, New York, Miami. Probably not South Bend, Indiana, probably not … New Hampshire. They’re places with lots of immigrants.”

Brennan concluded with a discussion of the self-determination issue, arguing that it is not a sufficient reason to restrict immigration.

“Why would a right of self-determination, or a right to decide who associates with a country, simply imply a right to exclude foreigners? Why would it also not imply other kinds of rights?” Brennan said. “Why not say, ‘We have a right to self-determination, that means the country can decide to engage in eugenics if it wants. We have a right to engage in self-determination, so we can force people to use birth control. We can have censorship, religious control. We can have a command economy.’ The puzzle here is if there is a right to self-determination, why does it specifically say the right to exclude, and not all of this other stuff? Because if you’re a liberal like I am, you definitely tend to think countries do have some sort of right to self-determination, but only within very well-defined borders. They can’t decide everything.”

Wellman responded with arguments in favor of a right to self-determination. While he did not dispute Brennan’s points about the benefits of immigration, he said the question of who to let in should be left to individual states.

“I think as the discussion goes on you’ll see there’s a lot of agreement between Jason and me,” Wellman said. “But I’d like to start by unapologetically defending the claim that legitimate states have a right to design and enforce their own immigration policy.”

Wellman encouraged the audience to imagine a scenario in which he had the right to get married, but his father got to choose his partner. Without being able to say no, Wellman said his freedom would be curtailed.

“My father is much wiser than I. He might choose better than I. My life might go better, if he got to choose my marital partner,” Wellman said. “But it seems unquestionable that my freedom of association is denied in a very important sense, and my self-determination is restricted in a very important sense. If I’m not the one who gets to decide whether or not I want to marry someone … the important thing is unless I’m in a position to decline a prospective suitor … I don’t have freedom of association.”

Wellman built on this logic by stating “legitimate” states should be able to say no to prospective immigrants, if they so desire. He defined a legitimate state as one that protects the rights of the people who live there, citing Norway as the “paradigmatic” example.

“Norway seceded from Sweden in I believe 1905,” Wellman said. “Imagine that Sweden said ‘we miss you, let’s get back together.’ Norway says ‘well, we’ll think about it.’ They have a debate, they have a plebiscite and they decide ‘no thank you.’ Do you think Sweden gets to forcibly annex Norway? I don’t. And I think if you agree with that the best explanation is ‘well, Norway, in virtue of being a legitimate state, enjoys political self-determination, one important component of which is the freedom of association. As we saw in the marital case, that includes the right to decline to associate, if they want to.”

Wellman applied this logic directly to immigration.

“A lot of teenage, young Swedes go to Norway for the summer because they can make so much more money in Oslo because the economy in Norway is stronger than in Sweden,” Wellman said. “Imagine a Swede says … “let’s stay here permanently. Let’s be a part of this union. I think that just as Norway can’t force a Swede to come over and join the union, the Swede can’t unilaterally insert herself into the political community.”

However, Wellman did say that rich, legitimate states do have an obligation to help those in need. Nevertheless, he argued states cannot be obligated to take in people they don’t want. Instead, he advocated building institutions in struggling countries so people can have opportunities in their own land while expressing qualms with the current immigration model.

“Let me be clear: I’m not a defender of the status quo, which I take to be a moral abomination,” Wellman said. “I’m not saying that Norwegians get to close the door, put guns at the door, turn their backs and say, ‘… it’s their fault, not my problem.’ My claim is that they probably do have much more demanding duties than they’re currently discharging. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one thing they can do, which is open their borders.”

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About Tom Naatz

Tom is a senior at University of Notre Dame. He is majoring in Political Science and Spanish and is originally from Rockville, Maryland. Formerly The Observer's Notre Dame News Editor, he's now a proud columnist for the paper.

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