This is a guest post by Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Huemer’s webpage is here. His paper Is There A Right To Immigrate? has been referenced at many places on the Open Borders site, particularly on the starving Marvin page. Huemer’s most recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, argues against political authority and for the proposition that anarcho-capitalism is a superior and feasible alternative to the status quo of nation-states. It received a rave review from fellow anarcho-capitalist and open borders advocate Bryan Caplan.
Vipul Naik invited me to contribute a post, and he suggested (among other possible topics) addressing the citizenist argument against open borders. As most readers probably know, this argument claims that the state is justified in closing its borders to foreigners because the state has special duties to promote the interests of its own current citizens, duties that it does not owe toward anyone who is not presently a citizen.
This citizenist argument has three main problems. First, it’s unclear why we should think the government has these special duties. Second, even if the government has special duties to its citizens, the citizenist argument requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Third, even if we ignore the previous two problems, the citizenist argument doesn’t work because one’s having special duties toward certain people does not make it permissible to violate the rights of other people.
I. Does the State Have a Duty to Benefit Citizens?
To begin with, then, why do citizenists believe that the government has special duties to its current citizens? Some just assert this without argument (see, e.g., Steve Sailer). Others appeal to the social contract theory (see, e.g., Sonic Charmer): maybe the social contract requires the government to serve the interests of its own citizens.
Sonic Charmer also pointed out the most obvious problem with this argument (though it doesn’t stop Sonic from embracing the argument anyway):
[A]ll Smart People think the ‘social contract’ is nonsense and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone with a brain believing in it. The whole idea that the basis and legitimacy of a government comes from anything resembling a ‘social contract’ is totally out of favor, and indeed is considered to have been long ago fully and definitively discredited by (whoever … some professor I think).
I could not have said it better. I know of no living person who works on political authority and thinks that we actually have a valid social contract. And I say that after having just written a book on political authority that contains 359 references.
Very briefly, contracts, in any other context, satisfy at least the following four principles: (i) all parties to a contract must have a reasonable way of opting out (without being forced to give up things of great value that belong to them), (ii) explicit, up front statements of non-agreement should generally be recognized as a way of not accepting a contract, (iii) an action cannot be interpreted as signaling agreement, if the terms of the contract would have been imposed on the agent regardless of whether they performed that action or not, and (iv) contracts generally require both parties to undertake enforceable obligations to each other, and if one party repudiates or simply fails to uphold its obligations under the contract, the other party is no longer bound to hold up their end either. The “social contract” violates all of these principles, and blatantly so. This is discussed at length in my recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, chapter 2. This is why I say that the “social contract” bears no resemblance to real contracts, as understood in any other context. If you took someone to court for an alleged “breach of contract”, no court in the world would recognize a claim of contractual obligation if you had nothing better than the sort of arguments that social contract theorists have relied upon.
But let’s say you don’t care what those annoying egghead intellectuals say. They’re always trying to convince us of ridiculous things, like that the Earth is round and that we came from monkeys. There’s a social contract, arguments to the contrary be damned! Okay, but what does the contract require? Here are two views:
- The contract requires the government to promote our interests, in general, in any manner it can think of. Now, even when the social contract theory was popular, I don’t think anyone held this view of it. Usually, when you make a contract with someone, you contract for some reasonably specific service, not a completely general “promotion of your interests.” Citizenists like to compare the government’s duties to fiduciary duties, for example, the duty that a lawyer might owe to a client. But while a lawyer is required to serve his client’s interests, he is required to do this only in certain ways, within a certain domain – roughly, speaking, the legal domain. Your lawyer isn’t supposed to make sure you eat right, or smooth things over with your girlfriend, or get you a promotion at your workplace. Similarly, the social contract theorists, back when the theory was taken seriously, thought that we hired the government to provide a relatively specific service – protection from rights-violators. And there is a good reason for thus restricting the government’s mandate: to authorize the government to “promote society’s interests in any manner” is a prescription for totalitarianism. There is essentially nothing that the government wouldn’t claim to be covered by that mandate (whatever they do, they always claim that they’re serving society’s interests).
- Thus, we return to what the social contract theorists actually thought: the contract requires the government to protect the rights of individuals against both domestic aggressors (criminals) and foreign aggressors (invaders). In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that it was “to secure these rights” (namely, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that “governments are instituted among men.” How could this lead to the conclusion that the social contract requires the government to restrict immigration? Steve Sailer writes:
[O]ur politicians have a moral obligation to the current citizens and their descendents to preserve the scarcity value of their right to live in America. […] Uncontrolled immigration, […] by driving up the supply of labor and the demand for housing is importing Latin American levels of inequality into immigrant-inundated states such as California.
But the mandate to protect our rights says nothing about the government being required to try to keep your wages high. It doesn’t say that the government has to make sure you get a job. It doesn’t say the government has to keep real estate prices low, or try to preserve the kind of culture that you like. Nor do the majority of immigration proponents think that those things are the government’s job in general.
I can’t catalog all the reasons that someone might offer for immigration restriction, but let’s just say that the most commonly offered reasons obviously fall flat, even if you accept a social contract theory, on the most common traditional understanding of the terms of the social contract. It would be the burden of the citizenist to explain how the social contract authorizes immigration restriction – a burden they have thus far not discharged.
II. Does Immigration Restriction Benefit Citizens?
But okay, let’s say you’re not convinced by that. You still think the government has to promote our interests in general, without restriction. The second problem with the citizenist argument is that it requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Because of course, some citizens (probably the majority) would benefit from increased immigration, while only some would suffer. Some employers want to hire immigrant labor. Some current citizens have family or friends in foreign countries and would like their family and friends to join them here. These are serious, rational interests. Furthermore, of course, consumers benefit from lower prices as a result of businesses’ ability to hire inexpensive immigrant labor. There are a few occupations – those into which immigrants are disproportionately likely to enter – where wages are slightly depressed as a result of immigration. If you are in one of those occupations, you are worse off because of immigration. But no one else is adversely affected, and almost everyone else in the country is made at least slightly better off.
I am not an economist, so I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing why that is true. Instead, I will rest with these remarks:
- The vast majority of economists agree that immigration helps the economy overall. For more, see the economist consensus page on the site, Caplan’s discussion in The Myth of the Rational Voter (58-9), and Julian Simon’s discussion in The Economic Consequences of Immigration (357-61).
- If you think that the community of economists is wrong about some question of economics, and especially if you think this while being ignorant of their reasons, then almost certainly you’re the one who is wrong.
But now you might say, “Okay, immigration benefits most citizens, and it helps the economy overall, but it’s harmful to some very poor people, and the poor take priority over the rest of society.” Now, I think this view is wrong. I think there are no good arguments for the claim that the poor should take precedence over the rest of society. (For what I think of Rawls’ arguments on this subject, see again my book, The Problem of Political Authority, this time chapter 3.) But let’s say that you still think the poor have to take precedence. Okay. But since immigration is overall beneficial to current citizens – with even larger net benefits if you include the benefits enjoyed by the immigrants themselves – that means that a wealth-redistribution should be possible such that everyone, including the very poor, winds up better off. In other words: the government should be able to just slightly increase taxes on everyone else (including the new immigrants), give the money to the poor, low-skilled workers, and everyone will be better off. There’s no need to keep the immigrants out. For more, see Nathanael Smith’s blog post and DRITI proposal.
III. Can Special Duties Override Other People’s Rights?
Okay, let’s say you haven’t bought any of my arguments so far. Somehow, you still think citizenism gives us a reason to restrict immigration. Let’s say I grant you everything I’ve disputed so far: There is a social contract. And it tells the government to promote our interests in general. The egghead economists are all wrong, and immigration somehow harms the economy overall.
This still doesn’t justify restricting immigration. Why not? Because having special duties to A does not cancel your ordinary duties to B. Let’s say you have special duties to your daughter. You have to provide for her needs in a way that you don’t have to provide for a stranger’s needs. This doesn’t mean that, when you have children, somehow your obligations to everyone else (or everyone to whom you don’t have some special relationship) are canceled. You can’t now abuse strangers to your heart’s content, just because they’re not your daughter. For example: if your daughter is cold, you should buy a jacket for her, before buying one for your neighbor’s daughter. But you may not steal a jacket from your neighbor’s daughter to give it to your own daughter.
Similarly, the state’s special duties to promote its own citizens’ interests, even if we believe there are such duties, do not negate the rights of non-citizens, nor do they mean that the state may abuse foreigners to its heart’s content as long as doing so serves the interests of citizens. For example, the government can not justly make war on another society to capture slaves and give them to its own citizens, even if the current citizens want slaves and would benefit from having them.
Now the chief argument for open borders, at least in my own work on the subject, is that immigration restrictions violate the rights of potential immigrants. Here is a simple statement of the argument:
- Individuals have a prima facie right to be free from harmful coercion.
Comment: Roughly speaking, you can’t use force to impose harms on someone else, without having a good reason. If you do, you’re violating that person’s rights. This seems to me to be about the least controversial rights claim that one could make (and pretty close to the least controversial moral claim in general).
- Immigration restrictions are harmful and coercive to potential immigrants.
Comment: Immigration restrictions are not merely polite requests (“we would prefer that you not migrate here”), nor are they mere passive refusals to assist someone. The government specifically hires armed guards to forcibly exclude people from the territory, to forcibly remove people from the territory, and to punish people who assist illegal immigrants.
- Therefore, prima facie, immigration restrictions violate the rights of potential immigrants.
I go on from there to explain why the traditional arguments for restriction fail to override the right to be free from harmful coercion. I won’t go into that here. For now, the important point is this: the citizenist view provides no response to my argument against immigration restrictions. The claim that the government has special duties to its citizens does nothing to counter either of the above premises, and it does nothing to explain why the government would be justified in violating the rights of non-citizens, just to secure small benefits for citizens.
We can extend the analogy of the parent-daughter relation a little farther: let’s say that your daughter is planning a trip to the local marketplace to buy some bread. You also know that Starving Marvin is about to go to the same marketplace to buy some bread. Marvin is much poorer and much hungrier than your daughter. Nevertheless, you decide that, because you have special duties to your daughter, it would be a good idea to forcibly stop Marvin from traveling to the marketplace, to prevent him from slightly bidding up the price of bread.
This action would clearly be wrong, notwithstanding your special duties to your daughter. Again, the reason is simply that those special duties do not take away the rights of everyone who isn’t your daughter.
To sum up, here is why the citizenist argument for immigration restriction fails:
- The social contract theory is wrong, so it can’t ground citizenism.
- Even if the social contract theory were true, the state wouldn’t have a general duty to benefit citizens, but only a specific duty to protect citizens from rights violations. This would not include restricting immigration.
- Immigration restrictions are harmful to most citizens, and harmful to the economy overall.
- Even if we give priority to the few citizens who are harmed by immigration, we could still make everyone better off without restricting immigration.
- Immigration restriction is a rights-violation, and special duties to some person or group do not justify one in violating the rights of other people.