By Chris Freiman and Javier Hidalgo

We recently published an article in the Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy titled “Liberalism or Immigration Restrictions, But Not Both.” We argue for a dilemma. You can either accept the core principles of liberalism or you can accept substantial restrictions on immigration (Brennan made a similar point in a post a few months ago.) We’ll spell this argument out over the course of several posts and, in doing so, show that the main objections liberals (classical liberals included) make to open borders are inconsistent with their own principles.


Protests for legalization of all immigrants in California | Photo courtesy : CNN

First things first–what does it take to qualify as a “liberal”? We identify three commitments:

  • It’s important for the state to protect specific liberties like freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, occupational choice, bodily integrity, etc.
  • The burden of justification rests with those who restrict liberty rather than those who exercise it. (E.g., You don’t owe the police an explanation for peacefully walking down the street; they owe you a justification for stopping you.)
  • Generally speaking, the only successful justifications for restricting liberty are those that appeal to other liberty-based reasons rather than reasons concerning, e.g., moral virtue, social solidarity, economic growth, etc. For instance, the state may restrict your freedom of occupational choice if your chosen occupation involves blocking people’s access to their places of worship. But the state may not restrict your freedom of occupational choice simply because you could be more productive in a different field.

Our argument for open borders is straightforward. First, freedom of movement is on a par with other textbook liberal freedoms and so the burden of justification rests with those who would restrict freedom of movement just as it rests with those who would restrict freedom of speech or association. Then we show that the standard arguments for restricting freedom of movement are arguments that liberals wouldn’t accept as justification for restricting any other sort of freedom.

So why think that freedom of movement is worthy of the same protection of other liberal freedoms? Well, imagine that you wake up one day and you discover that the police have cordoned off your neighborhood. They won’t let you out and, if you try to escape, they will just forcibly shove you back in. As a result, you can’t get to your job, you can’t attend your church, and you can’t hang out with your friends and family.

Clearly, the government has restricted your basic liberties, like your right to freedom of association and your freedom of occupational choice.

This suggests that freedom of movement is a valuable liberty because it is a constitutive component of these other liberties: people need freedom of movement in order to enjoy freedom of association and occupational choice.

Liberals, at any rate, think that freedom of association and occupational choice are basic liberties that warrant protection.

Now, that’s not to say that freedom of movement is some absolute right—obviously, it is not. The point is that freedom of movement just is an extension of other basic freedoms.

But, if freedom of movement is valuable, then surely it is valuable across national borders too. Take two cases. In case 1, the US government won’t let you move from New Jersey to Florida. That’s a violation of your freedom of movement. In case 2, the Canadian government won’t let you move from New Jersey to Vancouver. This seems like it’s a violation of your right to free movement for the same reasons.

What does all of this show? Only that, if you think freedom of association and occupational choice are valuable, then you should think that freedom of movement is important too. And there is no reason to think that the value of free movement only applies domestically. Its value extends across borders.

The upshot: restrictions on freedom of movement are restrictions on liberal freedoms.

Thus, immigration restrictions stand in serious tension with liberalism. If you want to defend immigration restrictions, you need to be prepared to limit freedoms that liberals prize.

Of course, maybe there are important differences between the freedom to immigrate and other liberal freedoms that justify restrictions on the former but not the latter. We’ll take up that objection in a future post.

This article was originally published in Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Posted by The Indian Economist