Immigration Restriction and Liberal Democracy

I appreciate Benjamin Powell’s considered response to my piece on the risks of ethnic fractionalization, and a subsequent response to Peter Skerry’s important essay. I think Powell may be correct in the narrower claim that economic freedom is not affected by immigration. Indeed, most of the studies cited, including their own (“no meaningful relationship between immigration and U.S. state-level economic freedom”), seem to report as much. But this raises two issues. First, this is a very different claim from one that argues that immigration will increase economic freedom. Second, the ad hoc support for “keyhole” policies and the rationale that restricting immigration to prevent backlash is “morally perverse” are not properly justified in empirical or normative-theoretical terms.

Before proceeding, I would note in response to Powell’s reply that the work of Alesina et al. (1999) explicitly noted that their findings held even when controlling for African-American share, so this objection to the diversity-solidarity argument is not, in my view, convincing. In Europe, studies have generally replicated the diversity-trust findings, and here the groups in question are entirely immigrant in provenance rather than a native minority, such as African-American. The cross-sectional relationship between ethnic fractionalization and economic outcomes was also, in my view, not persuasively addressed. It may be the case that immigrant diversity going forward will not affect social solidarity and the political economy of growth, but we need to know why. Given the clear inverse relationship in the cross-sectional data, the onus in my view is on the free movement side to explain why the same relationship will not obtain in the future. While the causal mechanism from ethnopolitics to political sclerosis to lower growth is more indirect, the aggregate data is powerful. Perhaps a positive effect on economic freedom and per capita income is more demonstrable when the scope conditions are limited. That is, based on only admitting a certain kind of immigrant (high skilled?) or that the economic impact is only positive for a certain kind of host society, such as Dubai (where citizenship rights are limited to a restricted group, and there is only a minimal welfare state for noncitizens) could be demonstrated.

But let me return to my main argument as set out in the introduction. Powell and Somin’s normative argument for open borders, unlike Powell’s empirical claim that immigration does not reduce economic freedom, seems to rest on narrower ground. The claim that all ethical frameworks support free movement is not correct. Numerous ethical approaches, such as liberal nationalism (Miller 2016) or communitarianism, support the case for restriction. For Michael Walzer (1983), there can be no communities without boundaries, these restrictions are necessary to protect communal solidarity. For Chris Wellman (2008), nations are free associations that have the right to associate or not associate with outsiders (i.e. accept immigrants) the way they have the right to enter and leave supranational organizations or trade deals. The relations between a country and the rest of the world with regard to admitting entrants are associational, similar to those governing relations between the Sons of Italy and the rest of American society. There is no right to migrate because there is no global political community and social contract akin to that between a citizen and their national government.

Restriction of immigration is not a violation of individual liberty or equal treatment as understood in classical liberal theory, which was nationally bounded (cosmopolitan theory takes a different view, of course). By contrast, free movement rules that override the will of the demos are undemocratic unless the national democracy supports these frameworks. Attempting to implement supranational policies by stealth, or in a fashion that bypasses democratic assent, is in my view unethical. The populism that is ascendant in our time is, in important part, a response to what many see as the insufficiently consultative and transparent character of such processes. Populism brings neglected views to the democratic conversation. However, it presents a risk in that it opens the door to an indiscriminate anti-elitism and can stoke anti-minority sentiment and a politics of unreason. This means it is important not to aggravate it unless elites are on solid normative ground and have first attempted to bring public opinion with them. That is, “moral leadership” is only appropriate where populism’s claims are normatively repugnant, as with George Wallace’s segregationist third party movement which would deny equal rights to African-American citizens.

Such is not the case with immigration restriction, which is linked to the desire of many citizens to slow the rate of cultural change to their national “imagined community” (Anderson 1983). Immigration attitudes have very little to do with material considerations and are largely linked to psychological, cultural, and ideological dispositions (Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014). Attitudes are also only modestly shaped by local experiences. This is why “keyhole” approaches, such as moving funds for public services to high-immigration locales or redistributing income to poorer natives, are unlikely to make a difference to public sentiment.

As I have pointed out elsewhere (Kaufmann 2019a), attachment to a community—even a specific version of community—cannot be conflated with hostility to outsiders (i.e. racism, xenophobia). As decades of research has shown (Brewer 1999), these orientations are generally not correlated except in times of conflict, such as civil war, yet advocates of open immigration persistently elide these distinct motivations to label them racist. Whether this stems from a position of ignorance or dishonesty is unclear—I am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, so assume it is the former. Yet I am also aware that the overuse of the charge of racism in public discussions of immigration prior to 2015 helped silence mainstream politicians, opening up a market for populist parties like the Sweden Democrats or leaders like Donald Trump who were willing to violate taboos. Is this really who we want leading the conversation over immigration levels?

From a deontological point of view, restricting immigration to a level compatible with the democratic wishes of the population is the right policy. From a consequentialist standpoint, doing so to preserve social harmony and reduce political polarization, so long as rights are respected, is the ethical position. Should assimilation proceed as it has in the past, conservative and order-seeking people (Stenner 2005) are likely to accept higher immigration once again. In survey experiments, mention of assimilation and retention of a country’s character reduces opposition to immigration while extolling the benefits of diversity, as Stenner predicts, arouses resistance (Kaufmann 2019b; Ekins and Kemp 2020). The comparatively high immigrant-origin diversity of western countries today—excepting the American experience of 1840-56 and 1890-1924 when similar populist pressures emerged—is mobilizing a significant number of citizens to vote for reduced numbers. There is nothing perverse here, just the workings of a democracy with the right to freely associate with citizens of other states, and which is fully in accord with the principles of liberalism.


Alesina, A., et al. (1999). “Public Goods and Ethnic Divisions.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 114(November): 1243–1284.

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, Verso.

Brewer, M. B. (1999). “The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love and outgroup hate?” Journal of social issues 55(3): 429-444.

Ekins, E. and D. Kemp. (2020). “What Increases Public Support for Immigration? Results from a New Experiment,” Cato Institute, December 29.

Hainmueller, J. and D. J. Hopkins (2014). “Public Attitudes Toward Immigration.” Annual Review of Political Science 17: 225-249.

Kaufmann, E. P. (2019a). Whiteshift : populism, immigration, and the future of white majorities. New York, Abrams Press.

Kaufmann, E. (2019b). “Can narratives of white identity reduce opposition to immigration and support for Hard Brexit? A survey experiment.” Political Studies 67(1): 31-46.

Miller, D. (2016). Strangers in our midst, Harvard University Press.

Stenner, K. (2005). The authoritarian dynamic, Cambridge University Press.

Walzer, M. (1983). Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Oxford, Blackwell.

Wellman, C. H. (2008). “Immigration and freedom of association.” Ethics 119(1): 109-141.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Looking specifically at immigrants’ effects on economic institutions, Benjamin Powell finds little to be concerned about. Natural experiments in Israel and Jordan in particular suggest that immigration does not lead to reduced economic freedom, and historical data from the United States corroborates this. Though the matter isn’t open and shut, the evidence needed to establish a likelihood of harm appears so far to be lacking.

Response Essays

  • Suppose that immigration skeptics are right, and that higher immigration levels threaten American institutions. That threat need not always come to fruition; in particular, if we suspect that it’s coming, we can prepare for it. Not only that, but economists have observed that higher immigration levels translate to substantially more wealth for both the immigrant and the host country. Ilya Somin argues that we can and should spend some of this new wealth on sustaining the institutions that help to create it.

  • Eric Kaufmann explains the mechanism by which immigrants degrade a host country’s institutions: Because they are of a different ethnicity, immigrants cause mistrust; labor unions in particular are weakened. This results in a relatively free market for labor, which lowers living standards for the working class. Beyond a certain level of fragmentation, even political parties come to be dominated by ethnic concerns, and ethnic parties corrode a society still further. The way to address these problems, says Kaufmann, is to limit immigration to the rate at which immigrants can assimilate to the host society.

  • Peter Skerry questions the relevance of Powell and Nowrasteh’s analysis to the United States, because the “quasi-natural experiments” they highlight—two large but discrete migrant flows in the Middle East—differ drastically from the prolonged U.S. experience of mass immigration, legal and illegal, that began in 1965 and has ramped up to the present day. More lax enforcement than explicit policy, this American “experiment” has led to an entrenched undocumented population of 10-11 million and provoked a backlash exacerbated by five aspects of the contemporary debate: 1) a rhetorically convenient but operationally simplistic distinction between “good” legal immigrants and “bad” illegal ones; 2) a deliberate blurring, by advocates, of the distinction between immigrants and refugees; 3) post-Cold War, globalist rhetoric of a “flat” and “borderless” world; 4) organizationally debilitated political parties that do not seek to assimilate newcomers as they once did; and 5) a media-driven politics that portrays immigrants, especially Hispanics, as having the same problems, and needs, as the poorest and most marginalized black Americans.