Immigration policy in the context of self-government

“Taxation without representation is tyranny.”

That famous phrase was credited to colonial lawyer and pamphleteer James Otis, speaking of the injustice of having to pay taxes to the British crown while the American colonists received no representation in Parliament.

Contained within the phrase is an implicit philosophy of government; a philosophy that is still popular today. That philosophy is that humans should, to the extent possible, be allowed to govern themselves. In practice, this means that the people affected by a law should play some role in forming that law. In representative democracies, this means having the right to select a person who acts in your stead when it comes time to write, interpret and enforce laws.

While I share the underlying philosophy of self-government, I see a few problems with how to put it into practice:

1) We’re going to have to define what it means to be “affected” by a law (or a government or another individual), which is trickier than you might think.

2) If we can prove that someone is affected by a law, does that mean that we should grant them political power to change the law?

Let’s start with the first problem. According to the dictionary, “to affect” means “To have an influence on or effect a change in.” Thus, when I go to the grocery store and purchase food, I am, to some small degree, raising the demand for all of the products that I purchase. That will, in the short run, make those products more expensive for everyone else who wants to buy them. I am effecting a change in the price of those goods. Therefore, we could say that I am making other people’s lives (slightly) worse, in the short term, every time I go to HyVee. Does it follow that those people who have to pay higher prices should have some control over whether or not I purchase groceries?

I think most reasonable people would say “no” (perhaps some would make exceptions for when I’m purchasing more than my share of a scarce commodity). I suspect that many libertarians would say I’m using the word “affect” too liberally, and that what is really meant in the case of our political philosophy is something closer to “coercion” on the part of a government or individual. “You should have control over laws or acts that coerce you to do something,” they might say.

Coercion is defined as, “To force to act or think in a certain way by use of pressure, threats, or intimidation.” Maybe that’s closer to what we have in mind, but even if we use this definition, problems remain.

If I am a foreigner attempting to immigrate to the United States without a visa, the American government will find me and physically transport me out of the country. Rightly or wrongly, I am clearly being coerced.

Now suppose that I learn of U.S. immigration laws in advance and decide to stay in my home country rather than be deported or apply for a visa. Are U.S. immigration laws coercing me since they have an effect on my behavior? After all, isn’t the country threatening to coerce me if I don’t comply with its laws, and isn’t that good enough?

It would seem so. But if it is the case that I am coerced by U.S. immigration laws, then so is everyone else who has ever gotten a visa to come here or thought of doing so and decided not to. This leads to the second problem with self-government, and that is the problem of who gets to be counted among the governed.

The reason I brought up immigration is because I think it is a good case study of the limits of self-government. The Americans I talk to may disagree about what level of immigration control the country should have, but nearly all of them agree that the people deciding on the controls should be American citizens. The problem with this, as you can now see for yourself, is that the Americans are not the only ones affected by immigration laws. Immigrants, both actual and potencial, are coerced in some sense but receive no representation in Congress.

The answer to this problem is not obvious, but there are a few solutions I can think of:

1) Allow everyone who is affected by the law to vote on it. If this were done, I don’t see how you could exclude anyone in the world from voting because they could all lay claim to being coerced by having the option of immigration taken away from them or at least made difficult by the law.

2) Have immigration policy set at the international level by a body such as the United Nations, which works if you think everyone in the world is represented at the United Nations.

3) Eliminate laws that affect people who can’t vote on them, which would mean eliminating immigration controls altogether.

The fact that none of these solutions seems practical (and some of them undesirable) underscores the difficulty of consistently applying the principles of self-government. Perhaps it also underscores the difficulty of trying to solve problems through representative democracy.


8 Responses to “Immigration policy in the context of self-government”

  1. David Says:

    3) seems best to me 🙂

    I think it might be interesting to think about why voting fails. I guess it is partly because there is such huge variance in people’s stake in the matter. What you really care about representing is interest, and if you’re adding lots of people who have much less at stake, you may actually be making the system less representative. Also, by giving everybody a vote you make it less likely that any vote will affect the outcome and maybe make it less rational for anyone to vote — would this tend to make the government less responsive?

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    I think it might be interesting to think about why voting fails. I guess it is partly because there is such huge variance in people’s stake in the matter.What you really care about representing is interest, and if you’re adding lots of people who have much less at stake, you may actually be making the system less representative.

    That would make sense to me too, but that assumes that people are voting mostly to promote their self-interest. The less they are either helped or harmed by the policy, the less likely they are to care about it.

    I did a search for “why people vote” and I found an article written by Bryan Caplan where he alleges that people don’t vote for their self-interest as everyone says they do.

    That may actually be good news. I started with the assumption that in order to have the interests of immigrants taken into account, they would need to vote, because the natives were just going to vote for their own interests. But if that’s not how people vote in the first place, then we may not need to give immigrants votes if we can convince natives to care about them in the voting booth.

    Also, by giving everybody a vote you make it less likely that any vote will affect the outcome and maybe make it less rational for anyone to vote — would this tend to make the government less responsive?

    I’d have to do a little more research on the question of whether low voter participation makes governments worse (or less responsive, which I guess is a different issue). According to wikipedia, the United States has a fairly low turnout compared to other countries (around 54%). Nations such as Australia, Malta, Chile and Austria have turnouts greater than 90%. Does that cause them to have better governments? I don’t know.

  3. David Says:

    I think that if my — not too strongly thought out — idea were true, you’d see worse governments in those places since there’s a smaller chance of a swing vote. Of course, the proper comparison is those same places but without required voting, data points we don’t have. To account for that, we might want to bring in some other variables that we think predict how well a society will do and see if voter participation explains some of the pattern left over. But, yeah, I guess I haven’t heard of these places having especially bad governments so that tends to discredit the idea.

  4. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comments, David.

    Before we go on, perhaps it’s worth exploring whether what we care about is good government or representative government. It could be the case that high voter turnout makes the government more responsive but worse, because the people voting have mistaken beliefs about what makes for good government. In fact, Bryan Caplan, along with a few more famous economists such as Ludwig von Mises and Frédéric Bastiat, argue exactly that.

  5. Andy Hallman Says:

    I probably should have seen this at the outset, but it’s wrong to think of representation as an end in itself. What matters a lot more to people is how much of their life they get to control. Having a 1 in 10 million chance of affecting the outcome of an election hardly seems like self-determination.

    Compare that kind of self-government to the self-government we enjoy from a free market. No one gets to vote on what church I attend, or what apartment I rent, or what food I eat. A cursory glance at modern life suggests that a capitalist economy comes closer to fulfilling the ideal of “self-government” than a republic with elections every other November.

    In fact, suppose you asked potential immigrants, “Which would you prefer: Having to wait for years to move to a country where you may someday have a one in a million chance of deciding some aspect of the government; or, being able to move immediately to a country that didn’t control immigration but was ruled by a monarch?”

    I’m guessing they would sooner be ruled by a lazy autocrat than a controlling democrat.

  6. David Says:

    I think one in a million is being generous 🙂 The effects of policies can be huge though, of course, so some people argue it is “rational” — if you look at everyone’s welfare and not just your own — to vote.

    To your last point, I guess Singapore is now one of the most attractive places for immigrants by some measures. (Of course, I guess a lot of those people aren’t coming from such democratic places to begin with.)

    I would definitely take good government over representative government. I guess I’m still not convinced you can preserve a good government long term without representation though. (On the other hand, I guess I do think you can run a company or other organization well long term without such. Maybe this is a contradiction.)

  7. David Says:

    P.S.: Someone seems to be thinking about the same things here:

  8. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for that link, David.

    The blogger David cites, Will Wilkinson, makes an argument very similar to mine for why we should be squeamish about border control (or, since he posted his essay before I did, I make a similar argument to his).

    I read the comments to his blog and I came across an objection which I’d like to address here in my own blog because it’s the kind of argument someone could make against me.

    One commentator wrote:

    I don’t agree with the premise that immigration policy and associated border security are in fact “policies that subject them [foreigners] to state force”. A foreigner becomes subject to immigration policy and border laws when he freely chooses to enter the sovereign territory of a neighbor. Until such time, he is not subject to state force.

    Essentially what the poster is saying is that threats of coercion don’t count as coercion (which is contrary to the definition of coercion I provided in the original post). The government has to physically transport you to jail in order to count as coercion.

    Under this view, almost nothing the government does is truly coercive. When the government tells people to pay income taxes and they acquiesce, they are not being coerced because the government isn’t really taking the money from their bank account. The government gives them the option of paying the tax or going to jail.

    The poster is missing the fact that what makes the act coercive is that the government can use coercion as leverage over the individual to get him to pay. Non-governmental entities cannot use coercion as leverage over him if he doesn’t do what they want.

    That is, in a nutshell, why both taxes and immigration controls are coercive.

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