Restricted access for migrants: a liberal justification Fleur de Beaufort is a researcher and Patrick van Schie is director of the Telders Foundation, the Dutch Liberal think tank Introduction Is Pope Francis busy preparing a list of politicians he would like to excommunicate? One wonders, since the pontiff recently declared that he considered a politician who proposes building walls in order to keep immigrants at bay to be unchristian. A Christian politician should build bridges instead, he added. The Pope’s remarks were specifically targeted at Donald Trump, the leading contender for the Republican nomination in the United States. Trump is (nominally) a Protestant, so in his case excommunication is not an option. But much nearer to the Vatican, in its backyard as it were, walls and fences have already been built by Hungary, Slovenia and Austria, all predominantly Catholic countries. Will the Pope lecture their leading politicians as well? And does the (Protestant) German chancellor Angela Merkel, with her ‘welcome culture’, qualify as the embodiment of the true Christian spirit in his view? If so, should anyone in the mainly Catholic Bavarian CSU who criticises her be considered – and treated – as some kind of heretic? A liberal approach It is not for us to judge which migration policy is Christian or unchristian in this dispute. Similar lines of arguments, though, can be drawn from a liberal point of view. From a liberal perspective, on the ‘popish’ side of this argument about migration is the proposition that each individual should be treated as having an equal value regardless of their background. Why should any individual be ‘condemned’ to a life of misery, having to endure insecurity and poverty, just because of their birthplace? Did Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’ only apply to selected groups of individuals, or did these freedoms hold out a brighter prospect for all people everywhere? We will not approach questions such as these from an American ‘liberal’ point of view, because – at least since FDR’s New Deal – the meaning of the word liberal in the United States has come to stand for almost the opposite of what liberalism originally entailed, and what we as European liberals hold dear. The current US style of ‘liberalism’, with its high proportion of collective action, and thus preference for government interference, is ideologically much nearer to European social democracy than to (continental) European liberalism. Our prism will be that of the classical liberal. In this original brand of liberalism it is, as much as possible, the individual who makes his own decisions. And in most cases those individuals cooperate freely with their fellow-citizens, creating a spontaneous process. We will add the social liberal perspective, which came to the fore in the last quarter of the 19th century. This is a form of liberalism in which the individual is seen as being more embedded in his environment, although the mutual cooperation of all individuals and their organisations, rather than government bureaucracy, remains – according to social liberals – the driving force of society. Liberal nation building Classical liberalism is best known for its preference for the free market and, in an international context, for free trade. Classical liberals have always rejected protectionism, viewing the free movement of goods, services and capital as beneficial to all countries and their inhabitants. But does this also include the free movement of people? In principle, the answer is yes, but the right to move freely between countries is not the same as the right to settle wherever you want. This applies all the more when immigrants gain the right to enjoy all the entitlements and social benefits enjoyed by the native born citizens of the country concerned. Very few liberal philosophers have considered all men to be citizens of the world as a whole, as if their cultural backgrounds were of no relevance. The 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson wrote that men will always live in ‘a plurality of nations’. It would seem to be preferable for men to act with humanity towards all their fellow-creatures, but if there were a nation that could be persuaded to such a humanity ‘…we would probably break or weaken the bands of society at home…’ Some might doubt Ferguson’s liberal credentials, and classify the not overly optimistic Ferguson as an epigone of conservatism. Let us examine what his friend Adam Smith, whose liberal credentials are undisputed, had to say about the cosmopolitan dimension according to which men are supposed to be ‘willing that all those inferior interests [‘of the state or sovereignty’; FdB and PvS] should be sacrificed to the great system of the universe’. Smith deemed: ‘The administration of the great system of the universe, however, the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension; the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country.’ In the 20th century, the Dutch liberal professor of international law, Benjamin Telders, thought it was ‘foolish to deny, that consanguinity and commonality of land are the natural elements, upon which a public spirit such as nationalism can develop.’ As such, this was not enough. ‘What is really important is the awareness of connectedness, the knowledge of the national tradition (…) as one’s own.’ This implied that a kind of internationalism that reckoned with the disappearance of nations and their absorption into a supra-national world-state, should be considered absurd. One could make the counter argument, of course, that such reasoning is based upon historical or sociological realities, but not upon any normative conception. Individuals certainly tend to gather in groups such as nations, but they shouldn’t. It would be better, and more liberal, the argument then runs, if they regarded themselves as individuals to the fullest extent, and treated all other individuals in an equal way. We agree that normative values should indeed steer humanity in the direction of a better world, but it is dangerous to formulate and implement policies without a keen eye for realities. An ideology should be a symbiosis of ideals and realities, based on the world as it is, but with the hope that we can achieve a world that better resembles the world as we would like it to be. If this is disregarded, there is a tendency to deviate into flights of fancy. The great liberal philosophers certainly made no such error. They tried to understand the world in order to improve it, but they were certainly not utopians. So in our view, the observations of liberal philosophers as mentioned above are highly relevant. Nations with an inner coherence will remain the base of political units, at least for the foreseeable future. And even if we could start from scratch, things would not be so very different. Some philosophers have used the concept of a contract theory as the starting point for their thinking about a perfect, liberal state; for example, John Locke in the 17th century and, more recently, John Rawls a few decades ago. They have always reasoned that if there is no political order, individuals will soon come together to construct something like a state authority, because they need security and/or basic justice. To safeguard their own interests, individuals will, as it were, draw up a contract to provide guidelines by which everyone should abide. When a number of individuals sign a contract, other individuals are consequently excluded. But they, in turn, will be able to enter into another contract with a number of different individuals. Thus, even when starting from scratch, we will end up with a number of coexisting contracts. In fact, even the historical developments that have actually happened can be seen as having resulting in ‘contracts’ in which the citizens of a state engage, provided that these citizens have had a voice in the political arrangements. This was made clear by Ferguson, who wrote that nations ‘…have been fortunate in the tenor, and in the execution of their laws, in proportion as they have admitted every order of the people, by representation or otherwise, to an actual share of the legislature. Under establishment of this sort, law is literally a treaty, to which the parties concerned have agreed…’ Thus it can be concluded that, in modern democracies, the state is not an abstract construction, but is and should be the work of participating citizens. They should have a genuine say in its construction, and they should be able to identify with the policies produced by the state. Freedom of association, cohesiveness and rights One of the fundamental freedoms in classical liberalism is the freedom of association. This freedom would be a hollow one if each association were obliged to accept anyone as a new member without the right to check whether or not they met the membership requirements. The right to freedom of association implies the possibility of at least several associations operating in the same field. This is similar to the principle of competition in the economy, which can only work if there is more than one company and the real possibility of starting new companies making similar products. If you are running a company, you do not indiscriminately allow people access to your business information simply because they must be treated as equals. That would make it too easy for any competitor to learn how you operate and steal the ingredients of your success, taking advantage of the open door that has been enforced upon you. The right to establish and run a company, or any association whatsoever, is only meaningful if you have the right to decide who may enter and who may not. If this strikes you as too severe – as the product of a ‘cold’ kind of liberalism – you might be inclined to suppose that the social liberal view of political cooperation projects a ‘warmer’ approach towards ‘outsiders’. On the contrary, social liberalism lays even more stress upon the cohesiveness of society. According to social liberals, the individual must always be viewed not as an isolated human being, but in close connection with their social environment: family, neighbourhood and the larger society in which they were born and raised and in which they live. Society enables the individual to ‘grow’ and develop to the best of their ability. In this way, each individual enriches society by their own development. In the social liberal view, this is also precisely the way in which rights grow. They do not drop out of the sky, as if sprinkled at random on individuals. Rights are the products of a given society, they result from the way in which individuals and their organisations have arranged themselves and have influenced each other’s thoughts and thus legal activities. No one can claim to have ‘rights’ unless other members of society, and its ‘instrument’, the State, will recognise those ‘rights’. One of the main social liberal theorists, Leonard Hobhouse, put it quite bluntly: ‘A right is nothing but what the good of society makes it.’ Reciprocity and security If states had stuck to the core task of providing so-called ‘negative freedoms’: civil rights (guaranteeing citizens the right not to be hindered) and safeguarding the security and property of all inhabitants, the problems they have encountered with the admission of foreigners to settle on their territories would probably have been fewer. But modern states engage in many other activities. They deliver or subsidise healthcare and social benefits, to name only their most costly expenditures. Liberals are critical of some of these policies and certainly of the massive scale of present-day welfare states, but most of them do support at least some of its aspects. In any case, when it comes to discussing current migration rights, it is the welfare state as it is which must be considered to be a reality, whether one likes it or not. In these circumstances, it is not at all unreasonable, nor in any way anti-liberal, for citizens of the host nation to want to ensure that migrants will not be entitled to receive healthcare or social benefits without first having made a meaningful long-term contribution to society. Specifically, newcomers should pay taxes and social contributions for a certain number of years before they are entitled to make a claim for benefits. Letting in new people without such a quid-pro-quo undermines the basic solidarity that underpins the welfare state. Without reciprocity, no society will be able to survive. A country flooded by foreigners entitled to make all kind of claims will implode – and no nation can be asked to commit suicide. Nor should a nation be compelled to admit newcomers who are hostile towards the country or its most fundamental values. No church should be forced to admit new members who have proclaimed themselves to be atheists, and whose aim is to secularise the organisation they are joining. Neither should any liberal democracy which adheres to basic civil rights, the freedom of its citizens and separation of church and state (in large measure), feel obliged to open its doors to migrants whose avowed intent it is to establish a theocracy, or of whom the intent to use violence has been proven, for example, by acts of terrorism. The minimum requirement for any newcomer must be that he or she will contribute in a positive way to the host nation. Different kinds of wall But what about the Pope’s statement that building walls is unacceptable? Regardless of whether or not it is deemed unchristian, should not such a policy be condemned as anti-liberal? If you accept, as we have argued, that liberal societies must be allowed to restrict entrance, then they must also have the means to carry out such a policy effectively. Whether this is done by physically building walls or by other means is not what matters. Furthermore, it is important to understand that there are many types of wall. A wall to keep people in is not at all the same as a wall to keep people out. Think about the walls of your house. No one is allowed to detain guests in their house against their will. To do so would be committing a crime. However, neither can anyone be compelled to accept guests they do not want in their home. To force them to do so would be to infringe a fundamental freedom. This is why any comparison of the walls that have been built to keep immigrants out of European countries with the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain is totally inappropriate. Yes, liberals see freedom of movement as vital, but it must always be limited by the freedom of others not to be disturbed.
... freedom of movement as vital, but it must always be limited by the freedom of others not to be disturbed