Are immigrants happier in western countries?

We are all potential migrants

A thought experiment: which social order and which migration rules would we choose - before birth - if we did not know in which country we will live?

Imagine that every person is in a kind of waiting room before their birth. This hall is full of little human beings who will soon begin their stay on earth. Physically, they are in the condition of a future newborn, but mentally they are already in possession of the fully developed brain function of an adult human.

Those waiting have no information about the country or type of family they are growing up in, nor about the talents and skills they will bring with them. The door of the hall opens and they step (or jump) into the unknown. They have no idea where they are going to end up. Likewise, they do not know how to be received by those who are already living where they are going.

"Veil of ignorance"

The wondrous waiting room offers a perfect starting point for the radical questioning of our migration policy: Which ideal migration rules should we prenatal adults agree on, so that we all have the chance to be happy according to our own style?

This thought experiment, inspired by the Canadian philosopher Joseph Carens, pursues a clear political goal: namely to question the status quo of migration policy, which many accept as “normal” or “natural”. Most citizens of Western countries seem to take it for granted that migration should be prohibited in general and should only be allowed in certain cases. Migration is seen as a disruption of a world order in which sedentariness and well-orderedness appear normal. But this appearance could be deceptive.

The ideal of equality is hidden behind the experiment: the newborns are placed in a situation of radical equality. Without information about their personal situation in the future, each individual has only the choice of viewing himself as one among many - and thus the same as everyone else.

The justice theorist John Rawls introduced the idea and concept of a "veil of ignorance" into the philosophical discourse. Under a "veil of ignorance" are the people of a fictitious original state who can and must decide in which social order they want to live - without knowing which place they themselves will occupy in the new order.

Anyone who embarks on such a thought experiment approaches the question of immigration not only as a Swiss or European, but as a potential Nigerian, Chinese or Peruvian. Behind a veil of ignorance, everyone can experience a political “transcendence” by first overriding their usual reflexes of thought and action.

Chance and arbitrariness

The first conclusion to be drawn is that the current global rules of migration - if one can speak of “rules” - are not fair. The place of birth and the color of the passport determine to a large extent what life people live. Quality of life thus becomes a question of happiness - and not of performance.

Even worse: Those who are born in the “wrong” place often have almost no chance of a better, good life. If those waiting in that fictional hall had the power to decide on a global migration regime, they would undoubtedly not choose such an arbitrary system. Nobody would have a reason to risk their life in this Russian roulette of migration.

The experiment in the waiting room also shows us what importance should be attached to the ideal of individual freedom, especially freedom of movement. Because freedom alone would allow people to escape the curse of an "unhappy" birth. This is especially true of course for people who are already on the run.