The left's immigration problem

Many on the center-left are living in an untenable fantasy world. It might cost them the immigration debate.

Refugees and migrants arrive in Greece.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis)

The center-left has a serious immigration problem — one that could prove to be a serious political handicap. That it's also intellectually incoherent only makes it worse.

The occasion for the latest demonstration of politically self-destructive thoughtlessness from the left was the Trump administration's Wednesday announcement of new immigration restrictions and the unflinching defense of it by senior adviser Stephen Miller.

The administration's immigration policy — which would cut legal immigration in half — deserves careful scrutiny and criticism, and it's perfectly appropriate for center-left analysts to make a strong pragmatic and even moral case against President Trump's policy, if that's what they are convinced is warranted. But what we're hearing in response to the administration isn't just a criticism of the consequences of this particular policy of cutting rates of certain kinds of immigration to the United States. It's a denunciation of any immigration restriction at all, on the grounds that all such restrictions are morally illegitimate.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Consider the following exchange on Twitter between Vox's Zack Beauchamp and a reader:

See more
See more
See more

In response to several people who took Beauchamp to be saying that the only way to avoid the charge of racism is to support a completely open-border policy, another reader rose to Beauchamp's defense:

See more

To which Beauchamp responded:

See more

He's not the only one.

It's still relatively uncommon for center-left policy intellectuals and politicians to explicitly advocate for open borders (unless, like Hillary Clinton, they're speaking privately to banking executives). But it is common for them to reject the moral legitimacy of any policy that falls short of open borders. As The New York Times' Ross Douthat noted in his own tweet obliquely commenting on the ruckus surrounding Beauchamp's remarks: "Liberalism's current relationship to open borders is asymptotic: Not for it, but for every step toward it."

Vox's Dylan Matthews recently made precisely this all-but-open-borders case in terms of a support for "egalitarianism" that cuts across national boundaries, arguing that "any center-left party worth its salt has to be deeply committed to egalitarianism, not just for people born in the U.S. but for everyone." Such sentiments are pervasive in the neoliberal leadership of the European Union as well.

This is a politically untenable position. I mean that both in the sense that it's bound to prove politically unpopular and in the sense that it's incompatible with a recognition of the moral legitimacy of politics as such.

Politics in all times and places involves a bounded community defining itself, and its citizens ruling themselves, in contradistinction to other bounded communities. The community can be a village, tribe, or city-state; a nation-state; or an empire. Certain forms of government are better suited to certain sizes than others. (A small community can work as a pure democracy, for example, but a vast empire never could.) But regardless of the community's size, it always has limits (a border), and it always draws a distinction between those who are permitted to join the community and those who are not; between who is and who is not a citizen; and between who does and who does not get to enjoy the privileges that come with citizenship, including a say in making such determinations in the future. This may in fact be the most elemental political act of all, the basis of everything else the political community does. To declare that this act is prima facie illegitimate is to declare a foundational political act to be illegitimate. It is to treat politics itself as in some sense morally compromised.

Is this foundational political act based on, as Beauchamp's interlocutor believes, a "fiction that one group has a natural right to live in a place that another group lacks"? The answer may well be yes, in the sense that it's impossible to justify in universal-rational terms this "natural right to live in a place" that has nonetheless been presumed by just about every political community in human history. (Only some nomadic tribes have managed to avoid making such a presumption.)

But then again, neither is it possible to justify in universal-rational terms the right to private property or, really, any form of inherited (unearned) wealth or privilege. The more you think about it, politics (very much including liberal politics) is an activity shot through with norms, practices, and beliefs that can be rather easily exposed as "fictions" once subjected to universal-rational scrutiny.

That's why philosophers as otherwise so profoundly different as Plato and Karl Marx have concluded that the rule of reason and justice demands communism (the abolition of private property). Indeed, Plato went even further than Marx, to suggest that in a perfectly rational and just political system, property communism would need to be combined with communism of families, with children taken from their parents at birth and raised by the community as a whole. After all, isn't deference to a mother's love for her own child based on the fiction that she is always automatically best suited by nature to raise him or her?

The most that might be said for our neoliberal almost-open-border advocates is that they think Plato should have gone even farther in subjecting politics to universal-rational scrutiny and advocated a completely communist state that is also boundless in extent, encompassing all people everywhere, without distinction.

In other words, Plato should have advocated the universal, homogenous state — which is precisely what many on the center-left seem to not-so-secretly believe morality demands.

That such a state is neither possible nor desirable (recall what I said about the largest political communities and their incompatibility with democracy) should be obvious. But then what do our universalist liberals hope to accomplish, not by raising perfectly reasonable objections to specific immigration restrictions, but by denying the legitimacy of having any immigration restrictions at all? There are many, many intellectually coherent answers to the two key questions of immigration policy (Who can come here? And how many of them?) — but many on the left seem to think there is only one legitimate answer to each question (Everyone. And all of them). This is ludicrous.

Politics has its own logic, and part of that logic is the distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Those who deny the moral permissibility of making that distinction won't eliminate the need to make it. They will merely exclude themselves from the ranks of those the citizenry will be willing to entrust with responsibility for participating in the rule of the community. And that distrust will be fully justified.

To continue reading this article...
Continue reading this article and get limited website access each month.
Get unlimited website access, exclusive newsletters plus much more.
Cancel or pause at any time.
Already a subscriber to The Week?
Not sure which email you used for your subscription? Contact us