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Immigration, Migration, and the Naiveté of Nativism

What’s wrong with the “fix your own government” argument opposing immigration?

By guest author Lawrence McQuillan
August 23, 2020

One argument against foreign migration into the United States, often voiced by self-identified conservatives, is that “foreigners should stay in their home country and fix their governments rather than come to America.”

President Donald Trump expressed this view when he tweeted to four Democratic members of Congress “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” that they should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came.”

The “fix your own government” argument has always struck me as especially naive and morally reprehensible.

In a recent Cato Institute online book forum, Ilya Somin, a professor of law at George Mason University, did a masterful job at countering the “fix your own government” argument. Professor Somin is the author of the 2020 book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom (Oxford University Press), which was the subject of the forum.

Somin provided four arguments against the “fix your own government” position:

  1. It would invalidate the history of the United States, Canada, and other countries founded by immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, who left their home country rather than trying to fix its problems.
  2. It suggests that people are somehow owned by their home governments or home societies and have an unchosen duty to stay with them, which is a burden contrary to notions of human freedom generally (and, I would add, contrary to natural law).
  3. It assumes that these immigrants had the power to fix their home governments, which is rarely true especially of migrant groups who typically are not politically well-connected or wield great political power.
  4. It ignores the truth that migration can often pressure home governments to enact beneficial reforms because migration drains tax revenue and talent; sparks communication of liberalizing ideas back home; and generates remittances to family and friends in the home country that can make some people less dependent on their government and more willing to speak out against it.

The goal, Somin concluded, should not be to fix particular governments, but rather to “increase the number of people who live in greater freedom, and happiness, and prosperity, and the fastest way to do that for the largest number of people is, in fact, by allowing freer migration.”

Nobody has a moral responsibility to risk their safety or their life, or the lives of their family members, by trying to reform their home country’s government. Nor should anyone be condemned to a life of poverty and despair—trapped by an accident of birth—in the slim hope that they someday would help reform or overthrow an oppressive government.

The old chestnut “living well is the best revenge” applies to many things, including escaping government oppressors through freer migration.

Watch the video below as Professor Somin presents the case against the “fix your own government” perspective (about a three-minute response to a question). His book Free to Move develops his arguments in more detail.

This piece originally appeared under the title, What’s Wrong With the “Fix Your Own Government” Argument Opposing Immigration? on The Beacon