Phillip Cole’s classic summary of the moral case for open borders

Phillip Cole is a professor of ethics at the University of Wales, Newport and recently wrote half of a book arguing that modern egalitarian liberal ideals demand open borders (the other half, written by another ethicist, took the opposite position that states have extremely broad powers to exclude whomever they desire from entering their territory). In December of 2012, he delivered a lecture summarising the ethical arguments for open borders. I urge you to read it in full, even though if you are familiar with the contents of Open Borders: The Case, not much in Cole’s talk should surprise you.

Cole starts by defining open borders, noting that this is not synonymous with “no borders”:

…the right to cross borders is embodied in international law, but only in one direction. Everyone has the right to leave any state including their own. This is a right that can only be over-ridden by states in extreme circumstances, some kind of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. What we have is an asymmetry between immigration and emigration, where states have to meet highly stringent tests to justify any degree of control over emigration, but aren’t required to justify their control over immigration at all.

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality. This is far from a picture of borderless, lawless anarchy.

Cole builds the ethical argument for open borders on 3 pillars. The first is human agency: as human beings with dignity of our own, we are the captains of our own lives. Those who would prevent us from “authoring our own life story,” as he so eloquently puts it, need to meet stringent tests in order to do so:

Human rights constitute a framework that supplies the conditions people need to become empowered to achieve their own humanity on their own terms.

If we place the right to mobility in this context, we see it as an essential component of human agency, such that it is a crucial part of people’s ability to become free and equal choosers, doers and participators in their communities, including the international community.

An illustration of the power of this idea is how unacceptable we would find it if our right to freedom of movement, including the right to settle, was restricted at the national level. It seems surprising to find how easily people accept the idea that it is alright to block people’s freedom of movement at the international level.

Cole’s second pillar rests on global Rawlsianism (the moral argument I typically find most compelling), and he quite unforgivingly tears apart conventional liberal norms that certain moral rights stop at the water’s edge:

I take it that a central commitment within liberal political morality is the moral equality of persons – not citizens, but persons. This is the universalist and egalitarian ethics that has made liberal political thought so dynamic, yet it’s a universalist and egalitarian ethics which some think stops at the national border…

We can’t exclude anybody from the scope of our moral principles unless there’s a morally relevant difference that justifies us in doing so… And yet we don’t seem to consider that the determination of life prospects by the randomness of birth to be rare and exceptional at all –we just accept it as morally legitimate. But how bizarre is that?

His third pillar is that there are no “common sense” arguments for immigration restrictions; you need to build extremely sophisticated ethical arguments in order to do so. He takes on some very sensible and pragmatic objections (the feasibility of maintaining a welfare state, the overriding importance of citizenist principles, the lost sense of community concomitant with rising immigration levels, the risk of a “swamping” catastrophe, etc.) directly and shows how they are impossible to reconcile with modern moral norms. Rather than quote a third of the lecture to you, I urge you to read Cole’s lecture itself.

In closing, Cole turns to some broader questions, and notes that his analysis is troubling for conventional ideas about citizenship. It’s worth noting that one possible reading of Cole is that all barriers to acquisition of citizenship anywhere are unjust (though Cole never makes this claim himself); this claim I would not find convincing. Cole quite wisely devotes most of his lecture to stressing the immorality of existing barriers to movement.

I am in awe of this lecture, primarily because of how well it summarises the moral case for open borders. Cole unpacks a whole host of arguments in a fairly compact amount of time. In a single bracketed throwaway paragraph, for instance, Cole unleashes the novel (at least to me) argument that citizenist policies are ironically only justifiable in a world with open borders:

[Which side of the border you are born on is clearly arbitrary from a moral point of view, and so this can’t be used to justify the moral priority of insider-rights over out-sider rights. The only way location could be used to justify ethical priority is through freedom of choice– if people have freely chosen to be here rather than there. And so the only way an egalitarian liberal can claim that members’ rights have moral priority over the rights of outsiders is if the members have freely chosen to be members and outsiders have freely chosen to be outsiders – in other words, under conditions of freedom of movement. Ironically, it seems that the only thing that can justify the morality of special rights between co-nationals which over-ride rights of non-nationals is, in fact, complete freedom of international movement.]

Michael Clemens’s lecture “The Biggest Idea in Development that No One Really Tried” is to me the classic summation of the economic case for open borders (though it makes a fairly compelling moral case too). Cole’s lecture is, I daresay, a worthy moral case counterpart to Clemens’s.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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