Immigration and unicorn thinking

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There is a popular myth among some libertarians and many conservatives that restricting immigration is something that’s consistent with the ideals of small government. Immigration policy, they say, is about policing of the border and regulating foreigners, not about infringing on the property and individual rights of citizens. To the chagrin of some, I concede that this is a consistent belief for a libertarian to hold.

But it’s a belief based on “unicorn” policy, not reality. It’s akin to our friends on the left who believe in helping low-income people by raising the minimum wage. Consistent, but based on how they imagine it should work rather than on what both theory and experience suggest. The simple fact is that you can’t control immigration without controlling the citizens of a country.

Would you like to help that child you saw on a news report in Syria by bringing them to Canada? Even if you accomplish the colossal feat of finding the child and getting the permission of her family, you’ll need the government’s permission, and the answer is “No, that’s not how it works.”

Would you like to expand your business by hiring people from desperately poor countries in the same spirit as those selling fair trade or handmade goods? That business decision isn’t up to you. It’s up to the government.

Would you like to open your home to a family to give them a chance to find their footing in Canada? You need the government’s permission to use your home that way (and they’ve said, “Nah”).

Have you fallen in love with someone with the ill fortune to be born abroad? Unless you’re fine with living apart forever, your love is going to need a government stamp of approval.

Controlling immigration in Canada means controlling the property rights and deeply personal, moral decisions of Canadians. Chandran Kukathas, head of the London School of Economics’ Department of Government and author of The Liberal Archipelago, has been beating this drum on the speaking circuit and it’s the topic of his next book. (A transcript of a talk similar to the one below is here.)

Controlling the moral decisions and property of your fellow citizens is very popular. It would be wrong to say that calling for it is beyond the pale in mainstream policy discussion. But it’s silly nonsense to say your fundamental commitment is to the individual and economic freedom of Canadians while calling to further restrict those freedoms. Fanning the flames of support for restrictions is even worse.

If someone high profile and influential enough does it while claiming to speak for the defenders of Canadian liberty, those who care about Canadian liberty shouldn’t stay quiet. So they should point out that Maxime Bernier is peddling silly nonsense.

I blogged earlier this week about the bargain Bernier claims to think he can strike by treating immigration as an incidental issue to his core mission of smaller government and more freedom and why I think that even if he’s sincere he won’t be successful: Immigration is a defining issue of the new right.

Some of the PPC’s libertarian members have called Bernier’s bluff by starting a “People’s Party of Canada Open Borders Caucus”, since renamed to the “Pro-Immigration Caucus for PPC members“. (Meanwhile, someone has redirected to what CBC mildly terms “a controversial Reddit discussion group” (I should say!).) The battle over the soul of the nascent party is causing a bit of a ruckus. One Bernier wants to shut down.

He has already said that people who want to limit racism for xenophobic reasons have no place in the party (never mind that concerns about foreign culture are xenophobic, by the Oxford definition, not the pejorative sense). But he isn’t pulling his punches against those who hope that restricting immigration really is an incidental issue and not a core part of Bernier’s message.

This should put to rest any doubt that Bernier thinks of immigration as an incidental issue. He has clearly signalled that closing Canadians’ doors (for their own good, trust him) to foreign-born people and especially to the most desperate people in the world is a core part of his agenda.

Another reminder for Canada’s “consistent libertarians” that in the realignment there still won’t be an obvious side for you in the mainstream divide. The compromise is just shifting from which sphere of Canadian freedom should be protected to which issues are worth tossing it overboard.