The Changing Ethics of Immigration

Friday, 28 September 2012 15:24

Historically, tribal groups and sovereign states had good reasons to restrict immigration, among them, there wasn't enough food for everyone.

If you let strangers join your group someone would starve. Rules about who could join the group were designed to maximize survival to adulthood. During times of shortage--most of recorded history--not letting new people into the group was a way to maximize the probability of children surviving. Fewer people to share limited resources meant more for the group, and increased the probability of healthy offspring. This is one explanation of the roots of xenophobia and why excluding strangers became a strategy for most societies.

But now, there are two big changes occurring in the developed world to challenge the old reality that was the basis of an exclusionary ethic.   We have entered a time of food surplus and the population bomb has become, to use a term coined by Ben Wattenburg in his 1991 book The First Universal Nation, the “birth dearth”. We are, although it is sometimes hard to see, entering a period of worldwide surplus caused by decreasing birthrates and improved technologies, and if what we learned in last weeks blog post about how ethics shifted on birth control and slavery, then our ethics on immigration will change to adjust to this new reality as well.

The last two hundred years saw a population explosion that increased the world’s population eightfold. although now—particularly in the developed world but also in the developing world—the birth rate is collapsing. Birthrates in countries like Russia, South Korea, Japan, and Italy are not high enough to maintain a stable population, and if something doesn’t change they will not be able to support their economies. At the same time the developed world has gone from shortages of food to surpluses, and this surplus is not evenly distributed. Allowing people to migrate to where food is more available would be a great good, but that is not why we should—and will—allow more immigration. The food surplus is only one aspect of the prosperity that is sweeping the world; think cellphones, TV, air conditioning, electricity, low cost clothing and motorized transportation. People will adjust their behavior to maximize their and their children’s access to these wonders and the opportunities they offer. This will likely result in fewer births, necessitating a freer flow of immigrants to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

This change is already apparent in the politics of immigration in the United States. Part of the great compromise in the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) legislation proposed by President Bush was a guest worker program for farm and seasonal workers, and a significant increase in the number of visas for skilled workers. Although it failed in 2007 for political reasons, it will eventually pass because, as Philippe Legrain said in the title of his 2006 book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.