An Amateur Philosopher Has Lunch With Immigration Policy

Recently I had a friend drop me a note asking for my thoughts on an article she found in the Wall Street Journal (“Taking a NAFTA Approach to Immigration”), relating the idea that instead of paths to citizenship, which are just fields of political landmines, that possibly by taking a page from NAFTA or the EU we could acheive the immigration reform so many of us desperately want.

In a nutshell: Freedom of travel without citizenship.

The idea that within the borders of the agreement, all citizens of any country could freely move between nations, without ever needing to naturalize.

I told her shortly that I thought it might be an improvement, but as I told her, this question and proposal also gave me an excuse to run a little mental exercise on the issues surround inter-nation migration.

This is a highly charged topic in our nation and particularly to any of us with the good fortune to make our homes in the American Southwest. I appreciate empirical, statistics driven arguments, pros and cons, utilitarian analyses, but more persuasive to me are moral arguments, those that drive up from our core beliefs on how we think proper to treat each other as fellow human beings.
Acceptance of the “Freedom of Travel/Movement/Migration”, relatively open immigration, is a good example of a conclusion arrived at from extrapolation from first principles.

Follow with me for a couple minutes:


Start with one of the most basic human understandings of justice. Let’s call it the Law of Reciprocity.

This is arguably the most fundamental idea of moral fairness and is codified all the way back in the Code of Hammurabi (1700-1800 BC), “Lex Talionis”, the Law of Retaliation, which more or less states, “tooth for tooth, eye for eye.”

Thus, we have the right to retaliate in measure with that which is done to us.

In the Analects (475-221 BC) Confucius is quoted as phrasing it this way, “Zi Gong asked, saying, ‘Is there one word that may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘Is not reciprocity such a word?'”

This idea of rightful retaliation then naturally leads to a basic law of fair interaction. It implies a way in which you may control your circumstances within a community. If people, by right of reciprocity, may respond in kind to your actions, then if you don’t want something done to you, then don’t do it to others.

This is the Law of Restraint. If you thus restrain yourself others must then rightfully do likewise towards you. Confucius again incapsulated this idea well, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

This is sometimes called the Silver Rule because of its inverse relation to the more commonly known Golden Rule:

Golden: Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.

Silver: Do NOT unto others as you would NOT have done unto yourself.

The Golden as traditionally stated has some issues because it’s hard to imagine a proper reciprocal relationship. According to the Law of Reciprocity, as I’ve stated it, if I refrain from an action, you have a duty under reciprocity to refrain from acting on me in that same way. However, if you want that same action done to you (per the Golden) you could justify acting upon me in a way to which I object. That is a logical contradiction.

The Silver formulation is far more internally consistent and thus useful as a first principle. I cannot consistently be assured that a positive demand of action on another’s part in reaction to my behavior/situation/desires is possible (or morally sound), however I can be very confident that reciprocal restraint is achievable. That if I avoid an action it is likely or guaranteed that you also have the ability to behave with restraint as well.

These two can lead you to the more modern formulation of the Non Aggression Principle (NAP). Which states that a good society should be founded on the idea that no one should initiate coercive physical violence against another.

Reciprocity states if I hit you, you get to hit me back, and the Silver Rule goes further by saying if I don’t hit you you CAN’T initiate hitting me (it would be immoral/unjust). These ideas then are brought together in the NAP to describe the goal/object of moral civilization. If we construct institutions, traditions and rules for society as to punish, dissuade and avoid the initiation of violence against each other we can acheive a peaceful, prosperous and more just community.

But the NAP, doesn’t get us all the way because we’re then missing a mechanism which allows coercive action.

Coercion is certainly justified at times. Boxing matches would be pretty lame if each man had to wait for the other to swing before they could hit back. They would spend 10 rds just bouncing around on their toes. A bank as well would never loan you money for a house if they had no rightful way to force you out for unpaid bills.

What mechanism solves this problem? Voluntary Consent.

With consent we can choose to enter into arrangements and agreements which, while potentially coercive in nature, we have determined to be in our rational, objective (or subjective) self interest.


Many modern ideas and terms surrounding personal liberty come into focus with these four descriptions in mind.

If arrangements involving just initiation of coercion can be achieved by mutual consent then you have “Freedom of Contract/Agreement”.

If you have freedom to contract you must be able to contract WITH someone, “Freedom of Association”.

If you have freedom to make agreements with people you must have the right to develop and formulate those agreements, “Freedom of Thought/Conscience/Speech/Religion”.

And so on…

Side note: Funny enough, “property” rights generally are thought to come before everything I have mentioned so far and come from even baser first principles of self-ownership and self preservation.


This finally returns us to immigration… What do we say about armed guards on borders saying people cannot (backed by force of violence) cross a given piece of land, go where they want and work where they want (assuming no violation of property rights, theft, trespass, etc.).

1 – Reciprocity – They aren’t committing violence thus we don’t have a right to respond with violence.

2 – Restraint – Further, their peaceful behavior actually morally restricts us from initiating violence towards them.

3 – NAP – Armed guards acting on arbitrary rules certainly is in violation of the spirit of non aggression.

4 – Voluntarism – Consent is certainly not explicitly present in existing immigration law. The immigrant has not consented to our laws. Our citizens have not consented explicitly either. In fact many actively object to these restrictions including not just activists but also employers who desire to contract/employ immigrants and many others.

Is there “implicit” consent? Some might say this gets into Social Contract Theory, which is way outside of what I would discuss here, but the nice thing is that there are so many non consensual elements to immigration restrictions that I think, even with some clever manufacturing of implied consent in certain circumstances, we can easily establish that immigration restrictions regularly (overwhelmingly) violate the principles of voluntary consent.

When we look at reciprocity, restraint, non agression and voluntarism it is VERY difficult to morally argue for violence-backed coercive restrictions on an individual’s ability to move/travel/work. Thus the more current formulation, “Freedom of Travel/Movement/Migration”.

But that’s the whole point. Current immigration law isn’t a moral formulation at all. It’s either nationalist/isolationist/protectionist/populist demagoging (Can you tell how highly I think of anti-immigrationistas?) or it is fear mongering based on highly speculative terrorist, drug trafficking, or “They’ll take our jobs!” threats (which, come to think of it, is basically the same as the demagoging).

How do you get to wholly free immigration from the morass of anti-human and economically harmful policies imposed on us today? That’s a quadrillion dollar question, but freedom of movement without citizenship as suggested by the Journal article might be a good step in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “An Amateur Philosopher Has Lunch With Immigration Policy

  1. Your article assumes that immigration law is something which can be derived from first principles by the nation receiving the immigrants.

    Unfortunately, the migration of people is largely about foreign policy. Immigration laws at any given moment have to reflect international realities.

    Foreign policy, of course, is about the way that nations treat other nations. Foreign policy is about the way that nations treat other nations.

    Applying the Law of Reciprocity to foreign policy creates a different picture of immigration.

    For example, when one nation attempts to colonize another nation, the nation being colonized needs to respond in a different manner from ordination economic based migration.

    Notably, Turkey actually sought to colonize Cyprus in the 1970s. They sent a large number of their citizens to Crypus with the goal of turning Cyprus into an Islamic majority state. Similarly, Russia sought to colonize the Baltic States.

    On accepting that there is a foreign policy element to migration, one realizes that domestic immigration policies sometimes need to become subservient to the reciprocity that ends up occurring at the national level.

    In contrast, if we enforced our immigration and visa laws, our nation would be in a better position to use the law of reciprocity to create a world that allows freer migration.

  2. First, well written and I appreciate you taking time!


    My article assumes that opinions and conclusions about immigration “can be derived from first principles.” Yes, obviously I agree, however your next line I would say is fairly definitively incorrect, that, “the migration of people is largely about foreign policy.” If by that, you mean nations policy towards and in regards to OTHER nations.

    While migration may periodically be used purposefully to advance foreign policy aims (such as your Turkey example below), it is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of differential of opportunity, caused by natural realities (if you are a ski instructor you need to live somewhere with mountains) and domestic policies which inhibit or encourage economic development which lead to greater opportunities in one country relative to another.

    The natural differences create the impetus for a structural flow of people, a natural migratory flow, and the domestic policy differences (as Hayek pointed out in “Road to Serfdom”) create almost a pressure differential across national borders, leading to a higher than natural migratory flow as people attempt to leave the low opportunity state towards the higher opportunity state.

    We see this across Europe, along our US-Mexico border and in large number of other areas of the world anywhere natural and policy differences between countries cause differences in employment, religious, education or other types of opportunities.

    None of this has anything to do with “foreign policy”.

    The examples you give are not of “immigration” per se, but of coercive invasion. You even say at one point “when one nation attempts to colonize another nation”, that is clearly not voluntary migration. Military conquest, mercantilist exploration and annexations, as well as other forceful/fraudulent (even if covert) appropriations of land and movement of people, is clearly not about “Freedom of Travel” in a philosophical framework. It is about the tendency of the state to engage in coercive expansionism.

    So while I do not agree at all that migration is about foreign policy, I certainly do agree that if a neighbor state is engaging in any sort of invasion (even of an insidious type) we have the right to defend ourselves proportionally.

    However, if you are arguing that Mexican and Central American immigrants have come to this country as part of a plan of harmful invasion by our southern neighbors, well I just disagree with that and I think a normal immigration analysis (differential of opportunity) more than explains the migratory patterns we have seen, without resorting to a narrative about any sort of coercive state plot.

    The important thing to remember is that my framework of moral philosophy will always start AFTER initiation of coercive force/fraud/violence has been taken off the table. It does not deny the existence of those activities, but Freedoms and Human Rights, happen outside the framework of coercion. When people stop coercing each other, that is when moral character and ethical interactions begin.

    The very first ethical action is a actually a non-action. Committing NOT to use aggression and coercion against each other, such as saying, “I won’t stop you from moving to where you feel your best life opportunities lie.”

    Thanks for reading and responding!

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