Immigration and Freedom: A Conversation with Chandran Kukathas

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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Kevin talks with Chandran Kukathas (Singapore Management University) about his new book Immigration and Freedom, as well as his pluralistic approach to political philosophy. In the book, Kukathas argues that immigration restrictions not only problematically restrict the freedom of immigrants but also of citizens, and that many gains that immigration proponents/skeptics think they make by keeping immigrants away are illusory.

3:36​ – Chandran’s Unique Approach (Contra Rawls) to Political Philosophy 12:52​ – Is Chandran a… Libertarian? Cultural Relativist? Agonist? 24:00​ – Why Immigration Control Steals Freedom Both From Immigrants and Citizens 30:51​ – Are There Differences Between Those Bothered by Cultural Change (and Immigration) and Those Who Aren’t? 39:52​ – Objection to Chandran’s Immigration-Friendly Case: “The things you think you’re gaining are not real gains.” 50:05​ – Does a Society or Nation Need a Common Culture to Survive and Thrive? 59:21​ – Chandran and Kevin Discuss Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Case for Immigration Restrictions

33 comments

  1. Wonderful conversation! A couple of stray, semi-autobiographical thoughts…

    I like that Kukathas touches on the harm strict immigration enforcement can do to the people already living in a country. The increasing passivity and reliance on authority of the average American is something that irks me. Years ago, during the Obama presidency, I was having a conversation with a Hispanic guy outside a gas station when a police officer began harassing him about his immigration status. I found myself very offended – not merely on behalf of the guy I was talking to but on behalf of myself. “How are this cop just assume that I’m going to step aside and cower before his authority!” – Was basically my thought at the time. Anyways, the story does not end well for me. But I still find the desire people have for an authority to enforce immigration particularly at odds with how those of us (especially those from the “honor culture” regions view ourselves. I know many Trump voters and I have no doubt that despite how they voted, if confronted with a woman and child hiding from immigration officers, each and every one of them with assist in hiding the the pair. (Things would definitely go differently for a single male.) The ancient laws of hospitality still hold great power of most of our hearts and strict immigration laws – by discouraging the pride necessary for maintaing that sense of hospitality – pose a threat to what I think is one of the most noble of human virtues.

    Since the beginning of lockdowns I’ve been buying groceries for (and generally spending a lot more time with) my neighbors across the hall, an elderly couple originally from Bangladesh. They were both enthusiastic Biden supporters but loathed much of what they perceived as anti-American rhetoric coming from the left. I’ve heard similar stories from friends whose parents are immigrants. I gather the situation varies by country but here in the States it seems like both our nativist righties and woke lefties horribly underestimate the patriotism of recent immigrants and what it adds (and can add) to our social fabric. Conversations with this couple have certainly helped me gain some renewed appreciation for living in the States.

    Thanks again for this conversation!

    1. Where does Kukathas address the specific harms done to native people in the country? He talks about the loss of freedom, but where is the case that that’s harmful? Any law which places limitations on behavior will reduce freedom necessarily. That is it’s intended purpose. For instance, a restrictionist trade policy will limit the rights of citizens in a country to sell and purchase goods. Likewise, a restrictionist immigration policy will limit the rights of citizens to interact with foreign individuals. That’s working as designed, not a bug.

      Kukathasapparently has an entire book where he makes arguments about the costs of immigration enforcement. However, specific arguments along those lines did not seem to be a major topic in this interview.

      1. Apologies for that! I’m recovering from surgery and the meds must’ve caused me to project my own thoughts into the broadly stated opinions of Kukathas. (Yeah, it’s the meds I’ll blame.)

        But I am inclined to consider anything that makes people more dependent upon authorities as something that weakens them and is therefore harmful. I don’t know if that’s sound logic and I know there are certain things people *need* to defer to authorities regarding but that’s just my general disposition. I’m especially concerned about this deferment to authority when it comes to law enforcement agencies. So I’m inclined to view strict immigration enforcement as harmful to the citizens of a country. This probably comes bundled up with a lot of my redneck attitudes toward life and I get that those priorities aren’t everyone else’s.

  2. The conversation was at such a big picture level it never seemed to get into any concrete concerns at all.

    He seems to at least be sympathetic to a modified libertarian view and also seems to support a limited government. And I would say that if you have such a government then you do not need to be as concerned about immigration. But since it seems that in the US and other western countries the state seems to becoming more intrusive in our lives immigration becomes more problematic.

    This is true culturally as well as economically. Immigration is not so important if the state does not have the right to trump your religious or philosophical views. Immigration is not so important if you have free markets that lets people do business as they like.

    Consider the Somali immigrants in Sweden versus those in Minnesota.
    https://www.minnpost.com/community-voices/2017/05/tale-twin-cities-and-somalis-being-trumped/#:~:text=Examining%20the%20Somalia%20diaspora%20in,is%20a%20somewhat%20natural%20comparison.&text=Approximately%20one%2Dthird%20of%20all,Somalis%20reside%20in%20the%20state.

    So I am in favor of a more limited role for government so that people can move in and out of countries more freely. But unless you have a more limited government immigration will have issues.

    Can I move to Canada for their election and vote there and move to America and vote in ours a few months later? And if the borders are open then do we need to move to a country to vote there?

    Yes of course we need certain government internal controls to enforce immigration. I think that is a fairly obvious observation. However I do think it is an important observation to understand that the state is a “they” and not a “we.”

    I imagine the book gets into more concrete issues but I am a bit hesitant because he seems to start out with the view that there are no natural rights. I anticipate many of my disagreements will stem from where we part ways there.

  3. Given what countries are, that they will have borders and immigration standards is implicit, and nothing in the dialogue really challenged that. As for a shared culture and language and assimilation to both, this too is implicit in nationhood.

    The dialogue was not really challenging in any of these respects, but that in part is due to it not taking many risks, choosing instead to maintain a somewhat serene, pleasant affect. Nice to listen to but nothing really to chew on.

    1. “As for a shared culture and language and assimilation to both, this too is implicit in nationhood.”

      Is this the case for the United States? We have no legally official language. Until World War One a person could speak only German in central and northern Indiana and mostly get around okay.

      I’ve generally viewed the United States (proudly) as not like other countries in that we aren’t one single nation. This has mostly been informed by both personal experience and books like Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer and American Nations by Colin Woodard.

      1. Yes, it is implicit in the US too. The difference with European countries is the lack of an ethnic, “people” dimension to nationhood. [While I can become a citizen of Denmark, doing so does not make me Danish.].

        1. I think the different definitions of the word nation as you’re using it and as authors like Woodard have used it is above my head so I’ll concede that.

      2. I also don’t see any reason why what you describe would be something to be proud of in itself. There is nothing ignoble about being a nation, regardless of the current fashion among cosmopolitans.

        1. Being proud of a particular trait that sets your country apart from others doesn’t mean regarding other countries or nations as ignoble. It’s just saying, “I like this about us. I think it’s good.”

          1. “There is nothing ignoble about being a nation, regardless of the current fashion among cosmopolitans.”

            Just as Dan has suggested in another thread that he is perplexed on how I am a liberal, I am similarly perplexed about his liberalism per comments like this one. Dan has already said that he thinks the idea of a shared national culture is implicit in the idea of nationhood which imposes some sort of necessity on immigrants (and citizens?) to assimilate. I wonder how compatible that is with freedom of thought, the idea that if one wants to live in a certain territory, one must play only within the bounds of the national culture.

            I think this was precisely Chandran’s point in the interview and book. Not only do such restrictions and stipulations restrict the freedom of immigrants, but they will invariably restrict the freedom of citizens… in ways liberals as liberals should not be eager to accept.

          2. If you’d like to know how they are compatible, you should talk with my father and mother, who are immigrants to the US. They also could explain how you continue to conflate liberalism with libertarianism, as there is no conflict whatsoever between liberalism and nations, nationhood, national culture or assimilation.

            I realize I shouldn’t have commented given the agreement we made, so I’ll bow out. I totally forgot!

      3. Kaufman
        “As for a shared culture and language and assimilation to both, this too is implicit in nationhood.”

        Matthew Jones:
        “Is this the case for the United States? We have no legally official language. Until World War One a person could speak only German in central and northern Indiana and mostly get around okay.

        I’ve generally viewed the United States (proudly) as not like other countries in that we aren’t one single nation.

        There have been traditional cultural norms in America. Even if the shared language in a locality could differ. In general people have enjoyed coming to America because the government does not require certain beliefs and allows them to live freely economically, religiously, and politically. ”

        Traditionally Americans are suspicious of government and think it should be limited to allow people to live freely in economic and religious pursuits is itself part of our traditional culture. Other cultures contrast with ours in this respect. If we give the vote to people who want a more intrusive government they will of course change that.

        1. I can’t agree with this characterization, though I do think there are some significant differences between the US and other developed, Western nations, they are not differences in fundamental kind, for the most part.

          1. “I can’t agree with this characterization, though I do think there are some significant differences between the US and other developed, Western nations, they are not differences in fundamental kind, for the most part.”

            I’m not sure if this was directed to my comment.

            I was contrasting our culture with other cultures generally not only those of developed western nations. I agree other western developed countries tend to share many of the fundamental values I listed.

          2. I suppose what I was trying to communicate here and failed was that one of the benefits of lacking an entrenched shared culture is that it allows immigrants to more quickly become American. The stories I’ve heard, mostly from African, Middle-Eastern, and Desi friends, about the experiences they or their family members have had in European countries versus here have genuinely filled me with pride at how much better we are at welcoming new cultures and new people. Over and over I hear immigrants (especially my Bangladeshi neighbors) praise the fact that in America most people only care if you can carry your own weight. One of the biggest reasons I hated Trump’s rhetoric about immigration is that I think it really undercut one of our genuine strengths, one that’s too often ignored by liberal types. I hope that follow-up helps explain where I’m coming from. For what it’s worth though, my girlfriend is happy *someone* thinks I’m fashionable.

    2. “Given what countries are, that they will have borders and immigration standards is implicit, and nothing in the dialogue really challenged that. As for a shared culture and language and assimilation to both, this too is implicit in nationhood.”

      I think this is either untrue (in some cases) or ends up being tautological. First, this is just not the way culture tends to work, especially in countries with diverse populations (South Africa stands out to me here). Even in the US, it just isn’t true that inner city Indianapolis, rural Louisiana, and upper crust Boston share much of the same culture in any but a minimal sense. And as others have said, that diversity is even more evident if we open things up to include areas where English is not the majority language, Christianity is not the majority religion, etc. It even widens more if we open things up to different subgroups: teen skaters in SoCal, online gamers, 4chan members, etc. Generally, when folks talk of a shared culture, they are talking about a snapshot of a single homogeneous group and argue that that SHOULD be the national culture.

      EBut in cases like France, Italy, even to some degree the US, the idea that nations have cultures that need to be protected is tautological, because the state is the very organ that ends up ‘establishing’ a national culture to begin with. France is a great example here. What started as place with multiple localities who all had slightly different cultures only to become homogenized by force into a single language, state schooling that inculcates the state’s desired values, etc. A great book describing exactly this process: https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=3200. Kwame Anthony Appiah also has a good chapter on this in The Lies That Bind. Kukathas himself has such a chapter describing the empircis of this process.

      “The dialogue was not really challenging in any of these respects, but that in part is due to it not taking many risks, choosing instead to maintain a somewhat serene, pleasant affect. Nice to listen to but nothing really to chew on.”

      Admittedly, that is my fault, and I’m a bit embarrassed by it. I’m probably too much a fan of Chandran’s work to have been the best discussant here if we wanted challenging questions. There is too much for me to agree with here.

      1. Yes, it’s tautological. That’s the point. ‘Country’ and ‘Nation’ are thick concepts. They don’t just mean people living in physical proximity.

      2. I can’t agree with your points re: Boston and Louisiana. Nor can I agree with your characterization of national culture. But I’ll leave it. It was an enjoyable dialogue.

        1. Dan,

          My understanding of our agreement not to comment on each other’s articles about liberalism an cancel culture was such that it wouldn’t apply here. You should feel welcome to comment on this one unless you’d prefer not to.

          Thanks for the kind words about the dialogue, of course. I really was (and in light of some comments on this thread, still am) a bit embarrassed that I didn’t challenge Chandran a bit more.

      3. “But in cases like France, Italy, even to some degree the US, the idea that nations have cultures that need to be protected is tautological, because the state is the very organ that ends up ‘establishing’ a national culture to begin with.”

        I think the culture is also shaped by religion not just the state. Many western countries have Judeo-Christian roots. Thanks to mass media many of these cultural views have been expanded to other countries. But you will generally see considerable cultural differences between countries with Judeo-Christian roots and those that do not have them. You will also see the differences when governments actively try to suppress these influences.

        How much influence and whether it was mostly good, or bad, is subject to debate. But I think religion has been very important in shaping cultures.

  4. Kukathas starts by saying his disquisition won’t be about borders but the dynamics of immigration law once arrived and itransit movements of people. I didn’t think what followed was particularly profound but rather mundane and more applicable to plain old human dynamics of dealing with each other and perceptions of in and out groups.

    It was only a matter of time before open borders and free movement came into the fore. The first thing to come to mind is an en mass land rush from poor to wealthy. But, this didn’t seem to be of a paramount concern. To my chagrin the other three arguments against unchecked inundation , though not ignored, where treated as surprisingly inconsequential. This isn’t utopian cosmopolitan, it’s wishful thinking and a complete ignoring of human nature.
    That was my impression, anyway.

    1. Forgive me in advance if I’m misunderstanding your comment. But though the conversation seemed mundane I found it more interesting than most immigration conversations I’ve heard online. “Plain old human dynamics of dealing with each other and perceptions of in and out groups.” is very interesting to me. What concerns me in conversations about immigration is much less about border enforcement and much more about how we view in group and out group – or how we encounter strangers. I’m very concerned with maintaining the traditional virtue of hospitality and how that’s endangered by immigration enforcement within borders. That said, the exploration of the notion that the state is “they not we” landed pretty well with me and addressed immigration enforcement in a way I haven’t seen many people explore. Though I could just be looking in the wrong places for those conversations! I’m not a professional policy person or philosopher (I suspect my ignorance is immediately obvious to anyone reading my comments).

      1. Thanks for the words, Matthew. As I’ve said above, I can see how someone would think this discussion a bit mundane, as it wasn’t the sort of challenging and contesting discussion that Dan is so good at (and yes, Dan, I mean that as a compliment.) I am a fan of Kukathas’s work and see little in it to disagree with, though when I watch the discussion back, I definitely see areas I could have pressed him a bit to make the dialogue more interesting.

        I love that you noticed the “they not we” thing, because – yeah, I’ll take credit – that was the verbiage I came up with when I read the proofs of Chandran’s book. And I think we were right to go in that direction in the dialogue, because that’s a large part of what his book’s second half is trying to remind us. States are groups of people who are in a literal sense the rulers and managers of a population subject to the state. And this isn’t wild libertarian theory; it is borne out by the history of nation states and how nation states impose uniformity on populations. But since they are the managers, managers often have quite different interests and incentives than ‘the managed.’ It’s a point that we rarely see mentioned (especially with Chandran’s sensitivity) in immigration discussions.

        By the way, the “they not we” thingy is better fleshed out here in an older essay Chandran wrote on patriotism and why he isn’t a fan of it: https://www.cato-unbound.org/2008/03/13/chandran-kukathas/patriotism-hair-tail-dog

        1. “States are groups of people who are in a literal sense the rulers and managers of a population subject to the state.”

          = = = = =

          I suspected that the problem lay in what you think nations/countries are. Suffice it to say, I think this is entirely wrong. But I’ll leave you to discuss it with the others.

    2. “It was only a matter of time before open borders and free movement came into the fore. The first thing to come to mind is an en mass land rush from poor to wealthy. But, this didn’t seem to be of a paramount concern”

      Azin,

      My fault for not going there. We almost did, but opted for the other arguments from the book. My reasoning – whether good or bad – is that the economic arguments against immigration are just not that interesting. There are few areas where just about all economists of all stripes who’ve studied an issue come to a strong consensus, and, well, this area is one of them. Immigration, it turns out, is just about always a net economic good for everyone involved. So, I think my read was that there was less to talk about there than in an area that might be more conceptually interesting, like the idea that immigrants threaten the culture.

      1. I know that the economists’ consensus, but I no longer trust economists’ consensus until I learn more about it.

        For example, I’ve heard that not having open borders is like leaving a trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk, but all the economists seem to assume that there’s no good reason to believe that mass migration would ever change the economic, political, or cultural norms of a society that experiences mass migration. I once asked Jason Brennan for evidence that mass migration doesn’t change a culture’s norms, and he referred me to some mid-90s paper about how lots of Russian Jews migrating to Israel didn’t change Israel’s norms in any worrisome ways.

        A. I don’t know whether even that is true, but B., I really don’t think it’s a great idea to generalize from that one study to all other cultures in all times and places. But, I think the fact that I believe B shows I’d be a bad economist!

        1. I think I latched on to he criticism of strict immigration laws as enforced within a country rather than simply at its borders. I have no problems with border enforcement as a thing. But I get bristly when it comes to things like ICE raids and other internal enforcement mechanisms.

          I would also be a bad economist! Very much agree that it sounds sorta weak to imply that the findings of an immigration study conducted in Israel would be easily applicable to the U.S.

      2. I don’t think there is such a consensus at all especially when we posit unregulated immigration and countries that are not strongly free market.

        Just for example, in the US the numbers can be manipulated quite a bit because anyone born here is considered a US citizen. So if an illegal immigrant comes here and has a child that child is a citizen. So if we pay for that child some studies say that cost is actually for US citizens and then argue that the cost of US citizens is higher than illegals.

        But, of course, there is at least an argument that this sort of statistic doesn’t actually capture the costs of illegal immigration in the sense that “but for” the illegal immigration we wouldn’t have to pay as much out in benefits. So other studies will show that illegal immigrants do lead to a net loss.

        1. From what I know of NAFTA, the case its proponents made was that the losers could be compensated by the winners. Except, from what I know, (a) nothing was ever done to do that [which suggests it’s hard to simply institute such a policy], and (b) it may not be all that easy to compensate a 50-year textile worker who loses his job. Like, how would you do it? Give him an equal salary for the rest of his life? Teach him how to code?

          Anyway, the case I hear favoring open borders feels similarly abstract: (1) All migrants come from the same country, viz., “Immigrantland.” (2) The people of Immigrantland are all the same, i.e., they are all willing to take big risks or pay high costs to go to the country they’re going to. (3) Consequently, we have good reason to believe that migrants would all work extremely hard and be quite culturally attached to the country they’re moving to. The only problem, if there even is a problem, is that (4) the people in home country are xenophobic. But what possible harm could a bunch of xenophobes do if they sense that a bunch of newcomers are going to their country? Just pass the policy and once they see all the good that the people of Immigrantland do, they’ll be happy.

          To be fair, the above summary is unfair. But *how* unfair?

    1. I think when we talk about no more borders we do naturally need to talk about a single world government. I am somewhat horrified that Massimo Pigliucci said he would like a single world government.

      “There also is the economic cost, the consequences of which are and will continue to be catastrophic. When globalization is combined with (largely unbridled) capitalism, the result is capital chasing labor to its cheapest sources, the result of which has been the de-industrialization of entire regions in many countries (the American Rust Belt, the English Midlands and North, etc.) and the endgame of which is the de-industrialization not of regions but of each and every country as a whole, as the cheapest labor will be that performed by machines.”

      I am surprised that your are concerned a world government (perhaps you are no longer talking about a world government) would be combined with capitalism. It is the combination a single world government with socialism that would be catastrophic. Perhaps America has regions that have de-industrialized but unemployment has not permanently gone up. I think people have and will always find ways to do things others will value and pay for.

    2. This was helpful in understanding where you’re coming from. For myself there’s a big difference between the country as an idea and the interests that govern the country. I’d consider myself pretty patriotic, at least in the sense of the Steve van Zandt song, but I have no abiding sense of loyalty to the government – especially the federal government. But neither am I a raging libertarian who hates the government. It’s just a power worth keeping a skeptical eye on. So it’s usually a good idea not to give the guy with the biggest guns more excuses to use them. In addition, I have the previously mentioned concerns about how stritct internal immigration enforcement may harm the ability of American citizens to exercise virtue. I hope that helps understanding where I’m coming from in my appreciation for the point Kukathas and Kevin made about immigration enforcement.

      I highly recommend the book American Nations by Colin Woodard. I mentioned it in a previous comment and don’t want to give the impression it “has all the answers” but I think some of our disagreement can be partially explained by it. Reading your linked post I was struck by how philosophically informed and rigorous it is. Woodard would say this is to be expected of someone from “New Netherland”, especially a professional intellectual. My understanding of concepts like freedom and patriotism and cosmopolitanism have very much not been informed in that manner (I first encountered the word cosmopolitan in my grandfather’s copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and didn’t see it again until it was on a bar menu). As the descendant of Dutch, German, and Polish farmers in what Woodard calls “the Midlands” (north central Indiana in my case) my understanding of those things has included *some* formal reading and philosophy but for the most part is rather nebulous and subjective – rooted in local “folksy” understanding of these things. I get why dealing with someone like me might be annoying for you! I’m trying to understand better – which is why I took advantage of being currently home-bound due to surgery to start posting here. I’m appreciative of any patience I can get!

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