Academic journal article Independent Review

Government by Choice: Classical Liberalism and the Moral Status of Immigration Barriers

Academic journal article Independent Review

Government by Choice: Classical Liberalism and the Moral Status of Immigration Barriers

Article excerpt

My object in this article is to answer the following question: Can we accept the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism and at the same time support the state's raising of immigration barriers? I argue that if we accept these tenets as essentially correct, we should regard immigration barriers as essentially illegitimate.

I do not believe, however, that a direct appeal to individuals' property fights or other fundamental rights, such as the right to associate, is enough to establish such a conclusion because under certain conditions it is permissible to infringe on individuals' rights. Therefore, we must determine whether such conditions validate the raising of immigration barriers. Moreover, we run the risk of ignoring important issues if we focus exclusively on how things should be in an ideal world, regardless of how things are in the world in which we actually live.

Classical liberals believe that the state's role should be limited to some basic functions, such as protection of property rights, enforcement of contracts, and national defense. Under current conditions, however, virtually all existing states have gone beyond such limits, with a corresponding extension of their taxing power. In particular, states impose severe limitations on the use of individuals' property in the form of regulations, licenses, antidiscrimination laws, and so forth. They also bring about massive wealth transfers in the form of corporate subsidies and welfare benefits.

From a classical-liberal point of view, these actions create nonideal conditions. The thought that under certain conditions of injustice we should be allowed to act in ways that would otherwise be morally impermissible is not implausible. We consider, then, whether we can make a classical-liberal case for immigration barriers given the injustices inherent in current institutions.

Classical Liberalism

Classical liberals tend to support government's limitation to certain basic, minimal functions. They also tend to stress the importance of institutional restrictions that prevent government from extending its power. Classical liberals have offered alternative rationales in support of their conception of the proper scope and limits of government power, ranging from hedonistic forms of utilitarianism to uncompromising forms of deontology. The most convincing of such rationales, however, share a common ground.

Individual Rights: Guarantors of Sovereignty

The highlight of the ethical component of the most attractive versions of classical liberalism is the fundamental importance assigned to individuals' capacity to lead their own lives, where this capacity is taken to require an allocation of rather stringent and extensive areas of moral freedom in which others should not interfere. Classical liberals tend to reject certain patterns of moral reasoning that would subordinate the individuals' capacity to lead their own lives to the will of other individuals, to the promotion of social benefits, or even to the promotion of the same individuals' self-interest and moral good. Classical liberalism is in this sense an individualistic philosophy. It empowers the individual in a way that communitarian and nationalistic philosophies do not. (1)

An assignment of ownership rights, both over one's body and over external objects, is generally taken to play a fundamental role in the concrete representation of that commitment to individual sovereignty. The basic thought is that an individual's capacity to lead his own life would be seriously truncated should others have a right either to move or to block the movements of his body or to interfere with the use of the external resources the individual needs in order to achieve virtually any of his purposes. Under a system of collective ownership over external resources, for example, no individual has the liberty to use or possess such resources without everybody else's approval. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.