“That said, it should be recognised that immigration is here to benefit native Australians and not the other way round.”
Why do you think that? Do you simply have no concern for people not born within the borders of your pretty arbitrary nation state? If not, why should foreigners matter less than Australians?
– Robert Wiblin, 2 March.
Robert’s point is a challenge for political philosophies with universalist ambitions, such as some forms of liberalism and egalitarianism. States are part of these liberal and egalitarian theories, to protect or enforce rights, but they are not nation-states and the people in them have no particular nationality. Individual rights and entitlements derive from an individual’s status as a human (‘human rights’), not their membership of any smaller group.
So on these accounts, a purist classical liberal would have no easy ideological grounds for limting geographic movement, and a purist egalitarian would have no grounds for denying the claims of poor people throughout the world to material support. Certainly there would be significant personal costs to both classical liberals and egalitarians from such policies, but being born into a rich and successful country is a piece of very good luck that is morally arbitrary.
In practice, of course, few classical liberals or egalitarians pursue this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion. Even Robert hesitates: pretty arbitrary nation states, not arbitrary nation states. And while I call myself a classical liberal, I hesitate too. Liberal societies are a complex mix of cultural beliefs, practices, and institutions that are deeply rooted in the histories of particular places. These beliefs, practices and institutions are not constructed out of abstract liberal theories based on universal human rights; rather universal human rights theories are constructed by intellectuals out of idealised versions of those beliefs, practices and institutions.
From this perspective, while there is something arbitrary about where any particular individual was born, being a current member of a liberal nation-state is not arbitrary. This state is a political, economic and sociological achievement of the people who have lived, and continue to live, in it. They were lucky to get the chance to do so, but most help sustain their society by playing by its rules and contributing as much or more than they take out. Their claim to a say in that state’s future is not morally arbitrary; it is a state they have helped build and they have a legitimate interest in how it (and their own lives) will turn out.
Liberal societies have typically been relatively welcoming to migrants; indeed leading liberal societies such as Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand are essentially migrant societies. They often maintain strong migration programs, to help boost the dynamism, creativity and energy that make liberal societies such attractive places. But the people who live in these liberal societies typically see migration as an exchange from which both parties hope they will benefit – the migrant gets the chance to live in free and prosperous society, the society gets the labour, skills and ideas of the migrant – and not a right that the migrant can choose to exercise alone.
This is not, as Robert suggests, indifference to people beyond the nation-state’s borders. Being a member of a group need not – and rarely does – imply that people outside the group have no moral standing or legitimate interests. But it is to say that members of groups can choose who joins and the terms on which they join.