All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders

That’s a one-line summary of Joseph Carens’ article “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” first published in 1987. More exactly, Carens shows how three broad ethical theories– I prefer the term meta-ethics, but it’s an idiosyncratic term– namely, (1) Nozick’s, (2) Rawls’, and (3) utilitarianism, all imply a case for fully open borders or at least much more open immigration than rich countries permit today. That’s what I’ve always thought. At some point, I’d like to look through the 515 citations to see whether any counter-arguments have any strength. Carens’ job seems rather too easy, but it’s good that someone’s done it, and in a charming and easy to read style. Carens discusses, however, a “communitarian challenge” to the case for open borders, as argued by Michael Walzer.

Unlike Rawls and the others, Walzer treats the question of membership as central to his theory of justice, and he comes to the opposite conclusion about immigration from the one that I have defended: Across a considerable range of the decisions that are made, states are simply free to take strangers in (or not).[19]

Walzer differs from the other theorists I have considered not only in his conclusions but also in his basic approach. He eschews the search for universal principles and is concerned instead with “the particularism of history, culture, and membership.”[20] He thinks that questions of distributive justice should be addressed not from behind a “veil of ignorance” but from the perspective of membership in a political community in which people share a common culture and a common understanding about justice.

I cannot do full justice here to Walzer’s rich and subtle discussion of the problem of membership, but I can draw attention to the main points of his argument and to some of the areas of our disagreement. Walzer’s central claim is that exclusion is justified by the right of communities to self-determination.

Even Walzer makes enough concessions that one could use his theory as a platform for a case for much more open migration.

The right to exclude is constrained in three important ways, however. First, we have an obligation to provide aid to others who are in dire need, even if we have no established bonds with them, provided that we can do so without excessive cost to ourselves. So, we may be obliged to admit some needy strangers or at least to provide them with some of our resources and perhaps even territory.

But the notion that “communities have a right to self-determination” is a very dubious notion to begin with. First, what is a community? In fact, humanity does not consist of neatly separable communities, let alone communities that are neatly geographically separated. People have many identities and participate in many communities, and in varying degrees, but always to at least some extent, these communities overlap and interpenetrate one another geographically. Recent centuries have privileged national or citizen identity over other identities, sometimes with catastrophic results, but that is rather arbitrary. It fits patterns of human loyalty and efficient organization very poorly in some parts of the world. Anyway, even if communities are well-defined, who makes the decisions for the community– and to what extent may they use force to support them? The answers to such questions can only be vague and ad hoc at best, and they lend themselves very easily to the justification of limitless violence. Communities and communities need to be understood in the framework of individuals and individual rights, which are more real, more fundamental, and can be far more satisfactorily defined and understood.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

2 thoughts on “All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders”

  1. I find the very sudden rise and the eqlualy sudden fall to be very strange. I can understand the Civil War in 1861 dissuading more people from immigrating to America, but the sudden drop seems to be a few years previous. Maybe it was caused just by the growing tension between the North and the South? I also don’t know how to explain the rise. What happened around 1845 that would cause such a drastic rise in immigration?

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