Does the idea of a welfare state fundamentally conflict with an open immigration policy?



Progressives and liberals in the US (myself included) typically support two ideas:

  • That immigration should be open so that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay and provided a so-called "path to citizenship".
  • That at least some form of state welfare (Universal health care, unemployment income or guaranteed universal income, pensions and retirement income, free public education and university education, etc...) are good and necessary for the well being of society as a whole.

But it struck me recently that these two objectives might be contradictory: If a society (through its state) guarantees a certain amount of welfare to its members, doesn't it have to have some sort of membership criteria? It can't simply provide this welfare to anyone who asks for it. Consider this analogy with the adult in a family: I am responsible for providing for my own biological children, and for my adopted children, and eventually for my nieces and nephews or grandchildren, and maybe for my neighbor's children and those of my very good friend who is unable to provide for his children, etc....but I shouldn't be expected to provide for each and every child around, it would be impossible to do so. At some point some criteria for my responsibility over children has to be established, otherwise I would be stretched too thin.

In the same way, a state can't indefinitely commit to providing welfare to anyone who needs it, at some point it has to establish a boundary between those it is responsible for and those it isn't responsible for. But if we have an open immigration policy were anyone who arrives in the country can stay and benefit from the services of the country, doesn't that abolish that boundary?

How can one reconcile the goal of welfare states with an open immigration policy?

Is this the reason that Marx made communism an international movement?

Alexander S King

Posted 2016-08-31T20:58:16.557

Reputation: 25 810

I thought this was Politics so I tried to close it as a duplicate, but it wouldn't let me.

– Chloe – 2019-01-11T15:34:47.570

This will present a particularly lucid perspective, but no (practical) solutions

– Chloe – 2019-01-11T15:40:43.927

1This, outlining the obvious problem with the sort of "open borders" philosophy that has become de rigeur (because, as Rawls poined out long ago, there is no "moral basis" for distinguishing folk on the basis of national "borders"), along with your equally priceless feminist/trans query (the one that got edited out from under you), both posted, as I recall, within a year of one another, back when you were allowing yourself to ask interesting, salient questions, should be revisited today. We have come/devolved a long way in half a decade. – gonzo – 2020-10-13T03:09:44.837

The pragmatic answer in effect today is that 1) the 'path' can become longer and more arduous as needed, (it has sometimes, historically, been a vertical slope, scalable only by the highly intelligent or very well supported) and 2) immigrants get second-call on public services and get excluded from underfunded programs (even in Democratic bastions like Chicago.) During periods of relative hardship, this dissuades immigrants, and they go home (as Hispanics did in large numbers during the recent recession). Deportation has never been our primary way of reducing illegal immigration. – None – 2016-08-31T21:55:09.067

The right to emigrate is usually not a problem (but see Soviet era Russia), its the right to immigrate that usually is; Kant suggested that states should be hospitable to each other, so a 'stranger should not be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another'. – Mozibur Ullah – 2016-08-31T22:00:16.577

So in theory they conflict, but with the modifiers you already include, they really don't have to. But that reduces this from a philosophy question to one of history. – None – 2016-08-31T22:01:03.853

Milton Friedman famously made the point that open borders are incompatible with a welfare state.

– user4894 – 2016-08-31T22:28:07.950

4I think you hint at the right answer in your last sentence. There is a third idea many liberally minded people are sympathetic to, although they might be careful in defending it for tactical and practical reasons. And it reconciles the first two perfectly: no borders and global welfare state. In the end, what can the separation into nation-states be than a residual of our tribal past, etc, etc. An interesting question that remains is how, given the practical remoteness of the ideal solution, should a progressive prioritize in current conditions. But that's more tactics than philosophy. – Conifold – 2016-09-01T00:50:24.730


the following article by the SEP might prove useful - particularly the section on state benefits, and on open borders; they allude to your argument in the preamble.

– Mozibur Ullah – 2016-09-01T02:07:05.473

This question is mixing theory with practice, or what is practical. If by open immigration you mean that someone can come here legally and enter at will, despite our overall labor and societal needs, well no. That is not practical and for obvious reasons. Yes, they are mutually excludable, that is open immigration and welfare provisions. – None – 2016-09-07T17:52:55.227

is this a philosophical question? – None – 2016-09-07T19:33:48.020

@MATHEMETICIAN is that a serious question? – Alexander S King – 2016-09-07T19:52:52.877

sure, neither being facetious nor sarcastic. read to me like a question about political policy. hope my answer is an ok fit @AlexanderSKing – None – 2016-09-07T19:53:49.317

@MATHEMETICIAN fair enough. It's just that it seemed to fall squarely within the subject matter addressed by John Rawls and Robert Nozick, so it's 'philosophiness' didn't seem doubtful. – Alexander S King – 2016-09-07T19:56:12.993

OK. likewise, fair enough :) – None – 2016-09-07T19:57:06.103

Milton Friedman famously made that point.

– user4894 – 2017-01-01T19:36:07.727



Of course it depends on what framework you are asking about.

For Marxists, the proletariat is an international entity, so its struggle with the bourgeoisie is likewise.

Equally, you can google your favourte liberal philosopher's take on nationality.

It seems to me though that you are trying to derive your political philosophy from ethical principles. The fact that something is practically impossible surely doesn't mean we have absolutely no duty toward it. Isn't that the nature of Kant's imperfect duties, that they cannot be entirely fulfilled?

Liekwise, moral dilemmas admit of the messiness of practical morality.

Ethicists as diverse as Kant (1971/1797), Mill (1979/1861), and Ross (1930, 1939) have assumed that an adequate moral theory should not allow for the possibility of genuine moral dilemmas. Only recently—in the last sixty years or so—have philosophers begun to challenge that assumption. And the challenge can take at least two different forms. Some will argue that it is not possible to preclude genuine moral dilemmas. Others will argue that even if it were possible, it is not desirable to do so.

In conclusion: the difficulty of the issue in the question surely won't imply, on its own, anything about what is morally right.


Posted 2016-08-31T20:58:16.557



Great question!

No. A welfare system and an open immigration system are not necessarily contradictory, though you touch on an excellent issue, i.e. limits in the availability of resources. It is all a matter of the specific designs each program adopts. Adopting either policy does not require a full, unregulated implementation. Thresholds, qualifying events and/or circumstances, and even bureaucracy are all methods to control dispensation.

Hence, you can have a path to citizenship that takes several years to complete and a welfare state that has certain economic or special event criteria requirements; minimum wage, social security, unemployment and Medicaid - all of which have separate criteria that an individual person has to meet before receiving benefits.

Currently, however, welfare is not provided strictly domestically. There are numerous events where foreign governments provide aid to other countries. This is in the form of government and economic protectorate policies, foreign disaster aid, etc. There are also less humanitarian endeavors such as military aid and armament. Pair these two and add in the international web of trade and finance and you see that the expectation of a government to only provide for it's own people becomes more difficult to stick to.

To address your question of the International Communist Movement, I interpret this - in Marx's argument - as more a necessity to liberate the Proletariat, who exists in all societies. The need for this has multiple reasons:

  • Communism is a populous movement brought about the collective power that exists in the mass size of the Proletariat work force. By them binding together to reclaim the value of their labor, they can lift themselves out of their limited and exploited situation.

  • Communism requires a unified front. The Proletariat do not own the "Means of Production". If the Proletariats aren't unified, then the Capitalist can replace their labor with new workers.

  • Marx believed their was a certain need for communism to advance society forward. Marx and other "Young Hegelians" believed that the purpose of life was progress towards perfection and to epitomize "Reason" and "Freedom". And that these prevailing goals would cause radical changes to society as a whole. Therefore, the communist movements should be widely implemented across all of the civilized world as a step forward.


Posted 2016-08-31T20:58:16.557

Reputation: 671


Yes. One cannot have (feasibly fund) both open borders and universal entitlements: free health care, public tertiary education, housing, etc., etc. Once upon a time this was obvious to anyone who reasonably considered it.

I post this answer not because I can solve the puzzle. But simply because I wanted to disinter the thing. Expose the 2016 query to the 2020 ethos.


Posted 2016-08-31T20:58:16.557

Reputation: 1 666

That is a pragmatic limitation in today's world, it is not an issue of ethics or moral philosophy. – Guy Inchbald – 2020-10-14T15:42:37.593

1The 20th Century, @Guy Inchbald, is fraught with ideological movements which sought to overcome these practical/pragmatic limitations [limitations upon what, exactly, “proper” [re]distribution of wealth, pesky ineradicable elements of human nature; of animal-human beingness?] in the name of their preferred moral/ethical standards. All of them turned out badly. Dismal failures. Often barbaric. Primarily owing to the means deployed to overcome those “limitations.” – gonzo – 2020-10-14T17:20:44.430

Funding is a pragmatic issue, not an ideological or moral one. ideology has nothing to do with that fact and cannot change it, yours or anybody else's. – Guy Inchbald – 2020-10-14T17:52:18.187

Except that, @ @Guy Inchbald, "funding," unpacked, entails the funneling by the state of wealth created by individuals. That is, it is a function of the authority of the state to confiscate and [re]distribute wealth, to a lesser or greater extent warranted/justified by the reasonableness of one or another set of ethical and moral considerations. So the distinction you make is nowhere near as clear/simple as you suggest it is. – gonzo – 2020-10-14T20:52:24.887

A state cannot redistribute wealth that does not exist. Ideologies and morals will not create that wealth. Really, I have no more time for this nonsense. – Guy Inchbald – 2020-10-14T22:23:25.523

1I have absolutely no idea, @Guy Inchbald, what you mean by "A state cannot redistribute wealth that does not exist." Did I make a claim even remotely suggesting that to which claim would be responsive? And why would the wealth not exist? "Ideologies and morals will not create that wealth" Huh? I made no such claim. What I did say is that ideology will justify its confiscation and redistribution according to the whims of state ideologically driven actors. But go attend to all those important matters that vie for your attention. We are not likely to get anywhere here anyway. – gonzo – 2020-10-15T03:09:52.580


No, not fundamental, only practical.

The EU system of differing national welfare systems, and open borders between member states, is more complex than most people realise, even Europeans. For instance, in the UK access to welfare benefits like a state pension is limited to those with a certain minimum of payments into the national insurance system, which equates I think to around 30 years of full-time work, and gives a certain payment. There is a lower rate for people with some payments. A rate for a top up for a partner of someone with the pension. Those with neither can make a 'voluntary' payment to receive, or are I think expected to work, unless they have specific health conditions preventing that, in which case they can claim other support. EU citizens that moved to the UK had to work a minimum amount, 6 months I think, before being eligible for unemployment benefit. So that's one system, tiered access based on contributions.

Another model is citizen vs non-citizen, with associated 'member' benefits, and operating without consideration of borders (in Ancient Rome it had to be to be relocation to colonies of a certain status, where cituzen obligatiins coukd still be met). The 'cura anonnae' or grain dole of Ancient Rome is an under-recognised early form of welfare, estimated to have gone to as many as 200,000 of the million strong city's poor. In Athens citizenship was by birthright to 'autocthons', those considered to have 'sprung from the ground' there.

A third approach is practiced by various religions. Christian monasticism is probably the best known example in the West, for example with support open to all Christian pilgrims by Hospitalers, the 'original' hospitals. In the UK much of state provision of social care for the elderly and infirm, was inherited from parish church provisions supported by tithes. Sikhism preserves a similar practice with 'dasvand', meaning the donation of the 'tenth part' of each Sikhs income to services at their Gurdwara, which always include food for the poor, some provision of shelter, and basic dentistry and medical care at larger temples. The food hall at the Golden Temple in Amritsar is truly an amazing sight, and they will literally feed anyone and everyone who arrives, regardless of their religion. Islam has strict provisions toward supporting the Islamic community, and not hoarding wealth (early Christianity had these, but dispensed with rules against usury when loans became too crucial to winning wars).

So, to summarise. A values-based system can provide a basic safety-net to everyone, given a collective commitment to it. I found it distressing to see disabled homeless people living in mounds of rubbish in Fruit Vale just over the Bay from one of the US' biggest richest cities, you have a long way to go this. A tiered system of access including criteria for citizenship or contribution thresholds, can maintain the sense of fairness required to keep people comfortable with continuing to contribute.

Undoubtedly there is a tension between these approaches, with the first mainly provided by charities and religious organisations. I wonder if the USA not experiencing the very worst impacts of the industrial revolution, or after-affects of mass-participation wars, is part of why the welfare system there is stuck in the mode of the UK in the 1880s. I see it as a tragedy, that people like Bezos feel no moral requirement to provide a tithe toward the community even of his own workers who have become unable to work.

Perhaps the most critical case is mass refugee exodus. These cases can overwhelm what can be provided. Historically, the sources of these movements were often the basis for military intervention & still are occasionally, though increasingly this is seen as neo-colonialism. Climate refugee exoduses, like sparked the war in Syria, are going to be increasingly the norm, as whole areas become unlivable even with charity & government interventions. Currently the safety-net for many refugees is only food and shelter. Lack of effective schooling for refugees has been identified as contributing to a cycle of violence, with lack of opportunities and lack of educated critical thinking among the children who's education was disrupted, leading to more violence & disruption. Finding better solutions to support for refugees, rather than only separating out those rich, well-connected and educated enough to get out of or avoid refugee camps, is going to be a critical factor in reducing human misery in the future. Routes for refugees to access meaningful work, and education to support that, or too often left out.

I would identify this as possibly the most crucial issue facing the world, given the way wars that could start from new tensions will not stay limited to those regions. India is set to lose 50% of it's inter-monsoon irrigation water over the next century, because of lost glaciers. And have already been to war 3 times with their fellow-nuclear power neighbour Pakistan. Increasingly the wellbeing of all, will depend on the wellbeing of every. Practical and moral obligations converge.


Posted 2016-08-31T20:58:16.557

Reputation: 5 272