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Western borders of liberalism

Let in immigrants, but have them keep their end of the cosmopolitan bargain

 By Alan Wolfe

  When it comes to whether and how to regulate the economy, Western societies have a history of liberal theory upon which to rely. But when it comes to immigration, there is not much in the liberal tradition to which they can turn. As a result, much of the debate over immigration is dominated by illiberal voices, the most insistent belonging to politicians who promise to protect the cultural integrity of the homeland against the presumed degeneracy of the alien.

Xenophobia is an illiberal response to immigration from the right, but multiculturalism is much the same thing from the left. Many multiculturalists, although committed to openness toward immigrants, are not committed to the openness of immigrants to their new home. For them, newcomers need to preserve their cultural practices, even if some of those practices—for example, arranged marriages and religious indoctrination—conflict with liberalism.

One way to maintain a commitment to openness when addressing the vexing question of national borders is to recognize that cosmopolitanism is a two-way street. Immanuel Kant teaches us that the circumstances in which we find ourselves must always be judged against the circumstances in which, but for chance, we might have found ourselves. Thus, it is unfair that someone who happens to be born in the US is likely to live longer and better than someone born in Kenya. An American should recognize the advantages he may have over a Kenyan on account of an accident of birth rather than merit, and the least he can do is to welcome some immigration from Africa.

But embracing cosmopolitanism also means that once a society admits new members, those members are obliged to open themselves to their new society. Multiculturalists are reluctant to endorse this part of the bargain, but liberals must.

One can understand why some immigrants opt to close themselves off, and some host countries—France, for example—may be too hasty in demanding that immigrants accept new ways of life. But attempting to live a closed life in an open society is bound to be self-defeating.

A liberal society will allow people in and make exceptions for conditions under which they must be kept out, rather than keeping people out and making exceptions for when they should be allowed in

An instructive example of the cosmopolitanism bargain came in 2006, when Great Britain’s former foreign minister, Jack Straw, raised concerns about the hijab, the full-head covering worn by some Muslim women. Straw defended women’s right to wear less intrusive headscarves; yet he also argued that something is wrong when one cannot engage in face-to-face interaction with another person. Straw was not making a xenophobic argument that Muslims do not belong in the UK, or a multiculturalist argument that Muslims should be allowed to wear whatever traditional garb they believe best expresses their sensibilities. Some argued that, in suggesting to Muslim women what they should wear, Straw was interfering with religious freedom. In fact, liberal values sometimes contradict each other. Islam, for example, has historically permitted certain forms of polygamy, but no liberal society is obliged to extend religious freedom in ways that undermine its commitment to gender equality.

Fortunately, Straw’s example does not pose such a sharp dilemma. As he pointed out, wearing the hijab is not commanded by the Koran and represents a cultural choice, not a religious duty. So long as other ways are available to cover heads, not wearing the hijab is a way of signifying one’s membership in a liberal society at minimal cost to one’s religious commitments.

A liberal society will allow people in and make exceptions for conditions under which they must be kept out, rather than keeping people out and making exceptions for when they should be allowed in.

Alan Wolfe is Professor of Political Science at Boston College.

© Project Syndicate, 2007



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