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Artillery Row

Immigration restrictionists need more honest arguments

Our debates are side-stepping fundamental questions of morality

During 2023, 1.4 million people were granted a visa to enter Britain. A popular argument against this large-scale immigration is that it puts an undue strain on public services, infrastructure and housing; hence, the government is right to restrict immigration into the country. Certainly, Suella Braverman, Richard Tice and Sam Ashworth-Hayes have put forward this reasoning as of late. 

Whatever your thoughts on immigration, this is a terrible argument. It either proves too much by justifying internal migration controls too, or, it simply asserts the justice of national migration controls to avoid this problem, i.e. the very issue in dispute. As such it should not be invoked by the conservatives who wish to restrict immigration to Britain. Instead, conservatives should fight against liberals in favour of free movement on other grounds, e.g., the state has a right to ensure the culture of the country is preserved which permits immigration restrictions. This would provoke a fraught debate among the public, yet it would be a true debate between conservative and liberal values.  

Many conservatives believe we have a “population crisis”. Indeed, they cite the fact that our population has increased by about eight million since 2000. They contend this has put a large strain on public services, infrastructure and housing, and, I think they are right in this. Conservatives then claim the state should stop this large pressure by restricting immigration, ensuring, all else equal, the interest of the population. 

The problem with this moral premise is it spreads too widely as a general rule. This scenario should show the plausibility of my claim. Imagine Bristol suddenly attracts a load of new residents exclusively from Britain because it becomes the nation’s centre of cuisine and its university expands. This will put a large pressure on public services, infrastructure and housing. By the outlined reasoning of the conservative, Bristol City Council decide to restrict immigration from within Britain, stopping people from Cardiff, London and Birmingham from moving there. I, along with most people, would reject Bristol City Council having the right to stop free movement within Britain. Ultimately, strained public services, infrastructure and housing is no warrant to restrict the freedom to migrate. 

I would contend, analogously, that strained public services, infrastructure and housing are no warrant to restrict the freedom to migrate into Britain either. At this point, when pushed, the typical conservative will argue the reason why internal controls on immigration are impermissible while external controls on migration are permissible is because everyone in Britain is entitled to move around the country, but those outside the country, i.e., foreigners, are not entitled to move into it. Begging the question is on full display, for the whole point of the undue strain argument was to justify national migration controls alone, yet, when we drill to the bottom of the undue strain argument it becomes evident the moral premise for excluding migrants at the national level is simply asserted or assumed and has little to do with undue strain at all; unless it is unconstrained and justifies internal migration control too. Yet it is this simple assertion which opponents of conservatives’ dispute.

Exposing the paucity of the undue strain argument forces conservatives to explicitly lay out their real justifications for immigration restrictions; which will usually be rooted in an aim to preserve the culture of the country, or, to a lesser extent, the ethnic stock. I admit both of these aims would be met by restricting immigration, and, crucially, do not support migration controls within Britain. However, the public relations problem for conservatives is these arguments are not politically correct, thus, conservative politicians don’t make them that often.

Nonetheless, I would maintain that both of these aims clash with our belief in individual freedom and should be rejected for this reason. Briefly, I would agree with Bryan Caplan when he argues that preserving our culture would require authoritarianism. A decline in Sunday roasts due to people switching to Ethiopian food would have to be met with requiring their cooking for the same reason the state would be required to restrict the immigration of Ethiopians into Britain who cooked their own type of food here, i.e., both processes undermine the (culinary) culture of Britain. If the ethnic stock of Britain being preserved requires immigration controls, does this not warrant, by parity of reasoning, the banning of interracial reproduction as well? Indeed, this is the reasoning pursued by thinkers such as Madison Grant who wished to preserve the Nordic stock of America in the early 20th Century.  

At this point I suspect most conservatives would resist these conclusions (although I’ve met an intellectual in Oxford who embraces them) by arguing that preserving the culture or the ethnic stock is not important enough to restrict the freedom to control the food we eat or the partners we mate with, but it is important enough to restrict the freedom to migrate to Britain. I would welcome hearing an argument which justified this precarious position; I don’t hold my breath though. Really, liberalism demands a free society and open borders and I doubt it is coherent to have the former without having the latter too.

Finally, I would argue both of these supports for immigration controls can be too permissive for the wants of their proponents, or, ensure very strange verdicts on tourism. If ensuring British culture is the point of migration controls, nothing would stop ten million Africans who had fully embraced British culture from coming to Britain, which, I believe, conservatives would on the whole reject. And, I suspect, it would require stopping those who are most steeped in British culture from leaving as well because this would reduce the height of British culture within the country. And this is all assuming we know what British culture is. 

In sum, the “undue strain” argument made by conservatives to justify national migration controls alone is totally flawed

Similarly, if ensuring the ethnic stock of Britain is preserved is the point of migration controls, little stops the immigration of ten million Africans into Britain provided they are banned from interracial reproduction another, I suspect, unacceptable conclusion for conservatives to swallow. And if ensuring the ethnic stock of Britain is understood to mean ensuring the area of the country has the greatest proportion of this ethnic stock as possible, this would require prohibiting tourism into the country which always creates a dilution, at the very least.

In sum, the “undue strain” argument made by conservatives to justify national migration controls alone is totally flawed, for, ultimately, it simply asserts that national migration controls are justified, i.e., the very issue in dispute. Instead of forwarding this phoney argument, conservatives ought to justify immigration controls on the moral grounds they really believe, e.g., the culture or ethnic stock of the country must be preserved. At this point conservatives and liberals could then have an honest debate about the proper limits of the state concerning immigration: A debate I hope liberals will win.

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