Why immigration policy needs more enlightened nationalism

To finally move forward on immigration, national governments on both the left and right should minimize their value disagreements over the proper role of national interest and instead focus on identifying policies that explicitly and straightforwardly benefit their citizens. 

The political conflict over international migration has many sides, including disagreements over whom to admit, how best to integrate new arrivals, or how to deal with unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers. Despite this complexity, however, a lot of these disagreements have increasingly come down to the clash of two major political values: nationalism and cosmopolitanism

Nationalists believe their government ought to restrict immigration to protect the safety and interests of their fellow citizens. Cosmopolitans demand a more open immigration system that is mindful of vulnerable migrants. Ostensibly, these disparate viewpoints are polar opposites, but there are known ways to reap the benefits of immigration for the sake of national interest, while respecting the basic rights of non-citizens. 

Economic research has repeatedly demonstrated that most forms of immigration are positive for the receiving countries in the long run. A smarter form of nationalism would recognize this and require governments to embrace select immigration policies that can clearly benefit their own citizens. I call this enlightened nationalism.

In this essay, I argue that enlightened nationalism, which seeks to advance national interest over the long term, is a more effective and humane guiding principle of immigration policy than its alternatives. Enlightened nationalism implies that governments don’t need to reconcile the differences between nationalist and cosmopolitan outlooks to move forward on immigration. 

Under this principle, governments would take these conflicting value differences out of the immigration debate and focus on the actual evidence of immigration costs and benefits to their country. It is a principle that both anti- and pro-immigration advocates can and should embrace. 

Immigration stakeholders would stop pairing symbolic patriotic-sounding or immigrant-friendly rhetoric with predefined policy conclusions. Instead, they would focus on what regulations are materially advancing national interest in the long run. Cosmopolitan-minded supporters of immigration would acknowledge that democratic governments have special obligations to their citizens and thus some selection of immigrants is unavoidable. Patriotism-driven immigration skeptics would recognize that prioritizing citizens does not imply that foreign livelihoods have no value or that the related opportunity costs of restrictions can be ignored. 

Understood this way, it is possible that a more open immigration system may in fact be more nationalist relative to other values currently guiding immigration policy (tradition, partisanship, empathy, or antipathy for select groups). In line with this idea, my research shows that, despite their apparent staunch skepticism of immigration, most voters are willing to support alternative policies increasing immigration when these policies straightforwardly benefit their country.

Nationalism vs cosmopolitanism in immigration policy

Nationalism is notoriously hard to define. The general idea is that citizens of any given country should be able to rule their own government in the interest of each other (usually through democratically elected representatives). In this sense, we are all nationalists living in a world of nation-states. 

This is true regardless of whether a nationalist emphasizes their genuine altruistic commitments to fellow citizens in the form of patriotism or succumbs to the chauvinism of explicitly denigrating foreigners. Nationalism, especially when combined with liberal democracy, arguably remains the only currently viable ideology on which to base effective governance both within and even between countries.

One of the most widely accepted nationalist principles is that sovereign national governments have a right to restrict immigration as they see fit. Over the past century most rich democratic governments have extensively exercised this right. They’ve increasingly adopted restrictive immigration regulations, effectively banning most of the world’s willing workers from moving to their countries.

Cosmopolitanism challenges nationalism by asserting the moral equality of all people around the world regardless of their birth circumstances. Although pure cosmopolitanism among voters or their representatives is rare, many people do have an explicit sense of belonging to humanity as a whole. This has become increasingly prevalent among left-leaning educated urbanites. Cosmopolitans tend to be suspicious of national borders as arbitrary political divisions that perpetuate global inequities. Thus, they are generally opposed to most immigration restrictions (or at least their enforcement). 

Enlightened nationalism

If there is anything cosmopolitan and nationalist thinkers seem to agree on, it’s this: There has always been a tension between governments’ nationalistic commitments to their citizens and open immigration. My research demonstrates that this tension diminishes when nationalism is enlightened

Since Adam Smith, economists have recognized the power of enlightened self-interest.  Individuals prioritize their long-term goals over short-term desires by helping and cooperating with others in an informed way. Similarly, enlightened nationalism advances national interest over longer time spans by recognizing common human concerns. These concerns may often demand extensive and well-thought international cooperation among national governments and their citizens. For instance, it is clearly in the national interest of the United States to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent future global pandemics, even if this implies significant increases in the immediate foreign assistance. 

Accordingly, the most important immigration question, according to enlightened nationalism, is whether significantly restricting immigration is in fact a prudent thing to do. Does it actually benefit national interest to prohibit (most) foreigners from willingly joining our country? 

As any other human activity, international movement has winners and losers. Immigration and its restrictions are harmful to some people and beneficial to others. The general intention of immigration restrictions is to protect and improve the well-being of the nation’s citizens. Unfortunately, however, not only do these restrictions directly impose substantial costs on global productivity and harm potential migrants, they often come at a price to the national economy and freedoms of natives.

There is a common and erroneous belief that all benefits from immigration go to the immigrants and the big businesses that employ them. In fact, those benefits are widely distributed across society. This is even clearer over the long term.

All things considered, human mobility between countries is neither good nor bad. It is what governments and their policies make of it. This can be well-illustrated, for instance, by the divergent impacts of immigration on crime in the United States and Europe.

Instead of debating whether immigration is inherently good or bad or whether it should be increased or decreased in the abstract, policymakers should identify concrete ways to improve immigration for their countries and citizens. My research suggests this would not just be good policy. It would also be good politics. Surprisingly few voters—even those who are more conservative or less educated—dislike immigration for its own sake.

What voters really want from immigration

One may still wonder how politically realistic such a vision of enlightened nationalism is in the context of such a deeply contentious issue as immigration. Despite the enormous potential benefits of immigration to both receiving and sending countries, national polls across most high-income countries report that most voters do not want to increase immigration. Accordingly, elected officials tend to dismiss any possibility of relaxing restrictions as politically unfeasible. While the public’s general skepticism of immigration is well-documented, it is still unclear whether people dislike the idea of more immigration per se or because they believe such policies have negative impacts on their home countries. 

To figure this out and examine under what conditions (if any) most voters in rich democracies would accept more open immigration policies, I conducted an original experimental study of voters in the US and the UK. My research looks beyond the common stereotype of prejudiced voters. It considers the role of nationalism in the form of genuine altruism toward compatriots as a central driver of public attitudes toward immigration. 

Conventional wisdom would suggest that altruism (motivation to help others at a personal cost) should drive people to resist harsh restrictions that harm the opportunities of potential migrants, many of whom are the most impoverished people in the world. Nonetheless, in a world of democratic nation-states, people may also feel especially compassionate toward fellow citizens and may resist immigration due to the potential harm they believe it can do to their country. 

My research tests this hypothesis in an experiment with real money at stake and reveals that many people are in fact altruistic nationalists—they are willing to incur a personal cost to help others, but they prioritize helping their fellow citizens. As a result, most voters, especially those who are more altruistic, tend to oppose immigration when they believe it threatens the well-being of their compatriots. But immigration is not an inevitable threat to natives. It can be—and often is—an opportunity. The same widespread altruistic sentiments toward compatriots that currently make people wary of immigration can also lead them to embrace it under alternative policies

For example, my analysis shows that only a small percentage (12%) of respondents are willing to relax existing immigration restrictions in principle, but most (58%) say that they are willing to do it for those immigrants who would contribute to the national economy. In line with these results, I also find that most voters would support a new policy significantly increasing immigration if it is explicitly designed to benefit average citizens through greater selection and taxation of immigrants. These nationally beneficial policies also yield especially high support from the otherwise more restrictionist nationalist voters. 

At the same time, while freer immigration is expectedly much more popular among altruistic cosmopolitans, people willing to incur a personal cost to help the world at large are in the minority (<10% in the UK). In other words, the popular support for freer immigration cannot be sustained on humanitarian impulses alone in a modern democracy. 

Acknowledging the empirical reality of widespread altruistic nationalism (and the rarity of genuine cosmopolitanism) among voters can inform the design of more effective and popularly acceptable immigration policies. But why would voters ever believe that increasing immigration is in their national interest? 

Various attempts to challenge people’s anti-immigration attitudes by providing facts have proven unsuccessful. In line with this, Dillon Laaker, Cassidy Reller, and I have found that most people in Western countries rarely change their outlook toward immigration, even in the times of economic or refugee crises. 

So how do policymakers gain support for increasing immigration? Change the policy environment. If my research on altruistic nationalists is correct and the current widespread opposition to immigration is not just rooted in prejudice, voters should be willing to compromise their anti-immigration sentiments and support alternative pro-immigration policies when they are confident those policies have favorable national consequences. This is not just a matter of framing or rhetoric—the presumed national benefits of certain immigration policies have to be demonstrated by policymakers and be straightforward enough to be understood by voters. 

Creating immigration policy guided by enlightened nationalism

In line with this new evidence, governments and policymakers aiming for enlightened nationalism should:  

1. Figure out which immigration policies are actually better for their citizens. 

In a system of representative government, a truly enlightened nationalist immigration policy furthers national interest over the long term. It is important for every anti-immigration and pro-immigration stakeholder to concede that democratic immigration policy should constitute a national public good.

The principle that governments should prioritize their citizens while recognizing the legitimate interests of foreigners requires cost-benefit analysis. Since even nationalists can disagree over what constitutes national interest, this should involve considering the potential economic trade-offs of immigration and its restriction for the country. In other words, the national interest in limiting immigration cannot be assumed and has to be demonstrated. At the same time, while the adoption of more enlightened nationalism likely implies freer immigration in many developed countries, any specific policy recommendations should be contingent on the particular national context.

2. Don’t be sidetracked by isolated or short-term costs.

Cosmopolitans are often dismissive about any possible downsides of immigration, including its well-documented negative impacts on wages of similarly skilled natives. On the other hand, nationalists make the mistake of disproportionally focusing on the costs of immigration that occur to some natives some of the time, while ignoring the benefits that it also creates for others most of the time.

For example, while empirical research indicates that US immigrants are on average less prone to crime than natives, some nationalist skeptics acknowledge this statistic but argue that even one immigrant crime is too much (since it could have been prevented by even harsher restrictions). Unfortunately, such reasoning omits all the unrealized benefits missed by the natives due to the harsher restrictions, which is of utmost importance for evidence-based policymaking.

3. Be open to compromise. 

Enlightened nationalism implies that greater selection of immigrants should be considered among the legitimate policy tools of pro-immigration advocates. This is especially true when the selection criteria are transparent and attainable (such as language fluency), and the only politically feasible alternative is less immigration. 

It is worth noting, however, that while the national interest in high-skilled immigration is more straightforward and thus less controversial among voters, immigration of low-skilled or “fundamental” workers can be as valuable. The same applies to other pro-immigration policies with a likely greater popular appeal, such as those that increase pressures for immigrant integration or expand temporary immigration only. Enlightened nationalism should leave from for other values. A sole focus on how individual immigrants benefit the country would violate other societal ideals, such as personal autonomy.

4. Look under the hood of (seemingly restrictive) public opinion.

Cost-benefit analyses and subsequent policy changes must be done in the face of public opinion surveys that say most voters want to reduce immigration. Although many people are indeed skeptical about immigration when considered in isolation, my research shows that public preferences are nuanced. Few natives support reducing immigration no matter what.

Indeed, the majority’s view may better be described as wanting better immigration policies that economically benefit the average citizen, even when these policies lead to significant increases in immigration. Simply slowing down immigration to appease those who currently oppose it or vote for populist parties—an increasingly popular idea among the center-right—will not work without addressing the underlying concerns and public desires for better policies. 

5. Leave room for helping foreigners in crisis. 

While nationalism by definition demands prioritization of compatriots over foreigners, a more enlightened form of nationalism recognizes that such prioritization is never absolute. It also requires paying attention to the opportunities abroad that can often be used for national advantage. 

For example, enlightened nationalism leaves extensive room for humanitarian policies that aid refugees. According to my research, most people—including self-proclaimed nationalists—are not completely indifferent to the plight of foreigners and are ready to support certain humanitarian immigration policies. Of course, my research also suggests that such policies will be much more popular with the public when they are clearly beneficial to the country. The recent, rather striking post-Brexit decision by the conservative UK government to grant a path to citizenship to (disproportionately high-skilled) Hong Kong residents is one clear illustration.

Enlightened nationalism works

Given the enormous costs of current restrictions and the potential opportunities for national benefit, freer migration requires neither charity nor much cosmopolitanism. Freer migration requires enlightened nationalism. 

Immigration is contentious because of polarizing slogans like “America First” from nationalists and purist rejections of nationalism from cosmopolitans. This doesn’t have to be the norm. Canada, whose selective points-based immigration system is perhaps the most reminiscent of the enlightened nationalism principles listed here, has experienced little political conflict regarding immigration. This, despite having one of the largest labor and humanitarian immigration rates among Western democracies. Policymakers in Canada have maintained this successful immigration system for more than 50 years. 

Enlightened nationalism works. Governments must look after their own citizens first, and research has demonstrated that immigration is a useful tool for policymakers to improve conditions for both natives and immigrants. 

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.