The best books on migration rights and democracy

Ilya Somin Author Of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom
By Ilya Somin

Who am I?

Ilya Somin is a Professor of Law at George Mason University. He is the author of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, and The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London, and the Limits of Eminent Domain. Somin has also published articles in a variety of popular press outlets, including The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and USA Today. He is a regular contributor to the popular Volokh Conspiracy law and politics blog, affiliated with Reason.

I wrote...

Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

By Ilya Somin,

Book cover of Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom

What is my book about?

Ballot box voting is often considered the essence of political freedom. But it has two major shortcomings: individual voters have little chance of making a difference, and they face strong incentives to remain ignorant about the issues at stake. Foot voting avoids both pitfalls.

Free to Move explains how broadening opportunities for foot voting can liberate millions of people around the world. People can vote with their feet through international migration, choosing where to live within a federal system, and making choices in the private sector. Ilya Somin addresses numerous objections to expanded migration rights, including claims that governments have a right to exclude, and that migration must be restricted to forestall harmful side effects, such as overburdening the welfare state and weakening political institutions.

The books I picked & why

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The Ethics of Immigration

By Joseph H. Carens,

Book cover of The Ethics of Immigration

Why this book?

This is the single best book on the political philosophy of immigration. Canadian political philosopher Joseph Carens makes a wide-ranging philosophical defense of  “open borders” migration rights – not just from the standpoint of some one particular political theory, but from that of many. Whether you are a free-market libertarian, an egalitarian liberal, or a moderate, Carens has a case to make to you. He also has compelling responses to a variety of objections. A key strength of the book is that Carens defends his seemingly radical conclusion based on relatively uncontroversial premises of liberty and equality that are widely accepted by supporters of liberal democracy around the world.

Wretched Refuse?: The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions

By Alex Nowrasteh, Benjamin Powell,

Book cover of Wretched Refuse?: The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions

Why this book?

Perhaps the strongest argument against expanded migration rights is the fear that too many of the “wrong” kind of immigrants might kill the goose the laid the golden egg that makes a country attractive to migrants in the first place. If immigrants have harmful cultural values, vote for dangerous political leaders, or otherwise undermine the political and economic system, they could degrade the host nation’s institutions. In the extreme case, they might even replicate the same awful conditions that led them to flee their country of origin. Wretched Refuse is the most thorough analysis and refutation of such concerns. Nowrasteh and Powell use both historical and modern evidence to show that institutional concerns about immigration are largely misplaced and that migrants strengthen liberal democracy far more than they undermine it.

Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

By Bryan Caplan, Zach Weinersmith (illustrator),

Book cover of Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration

Why this book?

Before reading this book, I would never have believed that you can effectively address an important political issue by writing a… graphic novel. But economist Bryan Caplan did just that. Whereas Carens’ book makes a philosophical case for open borders, Caplan excels at addressing a variety of practical policy issues. With a combination of eloquent words and powerful images, he shows how immigration can greatly expand freedom and prosperity for migrants and natives alike. He also effectively goes over a wide range of potential downsides of immigration, such as overburdening the welfare state, environmental damage, and much else. 

Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration

By David Miller,

Book cover of Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration

Why this book?

I don’t agree with most of this book. But nonetheless it's a must-read for anyone who wants a great overview and defense of standard arguments to the effect that nation-state governments should enjoy broad power to exclude potential migrants. Miller puts the case well, and it’s easily grasped by experts and laypeople alike.

Immigration and Democracy

By Sarah Song,

Book cover of Immigration and Democracy

Why this book?

Another book I don’t agree with, that is nonetheless invaluable. Traditional defenses of migration restrictions assert either that the right to exclude belongs to a specific ethnic or cultural group or that nations are entitled to exclusion rights analogous to those enjoyed by homeowners or members of private clubs. Song takes a very different tack, by arguing that exclusion is inherent in the nature of democratic “self-determination,” regardless of whether current voters are an ethnically or culturally distinct group or not. I think she’s wrong and explain why in my own book, Free to Move. But hers is an important contribution to the debate.

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