Someone should write A History of Borders

A task for the industrious, or perhaps for us here at Open Borders, only we would need a lot of help: write a history of borders. When did the concept of a border appear? How has it evolved? What did borders mean at different times in history? My/Bryan Caplan’s/Steve Camarota’s Huffington Post TV interview last week (also see here and here) featured this exchange:

STEVE CAMAROTA: Well right, I mean, obviously, the fraction of the American people or even public officials who think we don’t have a right to control our borders and regulate our borders and control who comes in is trivially small, it’s a marginalized position. From that perspective, but in academia, and among a lot of the groups that pressure for high levels of immigration, this is a kind of mainstream perspective, that people have a right to come into our country. The only way you could do that would be to push it down the throats of the American people. All societies, all sovereign states throughout all history have always had the idea that they can regulate who comes into their society–

NATHAN SMITH (interrupting): Well, that’s not really accurate, but–

Here’s what I would like to know, and am not enough of a historian to say for sure: is Steve Camarota more like 70% wrong, or more like 90% wrong, setting to one side the issue of armed invasion? Unfortunately, “setting to one side the issue of armed invasion” is not so easy, because Camarota and other restrictionists tend to try to confuse the obviously different issues of how one deals with hostile armies intending to kill and plunder by superior strength, and peaceful migrants asking nothing but to be left alone or to be allowed to offer their wares or their skills. Of course, if the mistake has been made often before, Camarota’s claim would still be true. I’m pretty sure it’s not generally true, but just how often past societies have dealt out to peaceful migrants treatment appropriate to armed invaders would be an interesting historical question to answer. Again, has the right to emigrate, or the right to invite, been widely recognized? What of hospitality, the obligation of hosts to guests? What is the history of that? What made a person a guest? I’ve been reading The Odyssey, and one of the most persistent moral themes in it is hospitality. The good characters are invariably distinguished by their kindness to guests, not simply invited guests by any means but even and especially wayfarers, wanderers and beggars such as Odysseus is in most of the places he goes throughout most of the epic. The bad characters are marked, above all, by their harshness and violence against the same. Was this peculiar to the Greeks or is it universal? Walls have occasionally been built: the Great Wall of China, or Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, but of course they are more often not built. How have borders been guarded? How often have they been unguarded? How often have they been undefined? When they are defined and guarded, what kind of traffic has been stopped, and what allowed through? And in the shadowy background of all this, perhaps never very well-defined even to the actors in history let alone in written records that can be discovered later, what ideas about borders existed in people’s minds? To what extent did they feel that they, or their rulers, had a right to control who entered and who exited the territory associated with this or that polity? What motives were appropriate for such regulation, and what were the limits of it?

The project would require a lot of assistance from historians, but from other specialists, too, for historians tend to be good with documents and dates but can’t be relied on to think through the issues carefully and abstractly. Historical studies often help people to escape the ideological parochialism of their own times, but in a patchy and idiosyncratic fashion. Social science abstractions such as the concepts of economics can blind their adherents in certain ways, but can also enable them to overleap the narrow certainties of a particular time or country or class. I suspect that the result would be quite useful to the open borders cause, because it would reveal that something like open borders– not precisely in the sense advocated by myself or the other bloggers here, of course, but still– has been the norm in human history, while the Passport Age (1914-present, roughly speaking) is an aberration. But if it did turn out that the Passport Age is less distinctive than I thought, that probably wouldn’t affect my support for open borders much, nor, if open borders were the historic norm, would that necessarily force the restrictionists could back down. They could argue that immigration restrictionism (it’s too bad the phrase world apartheid sounds polemical: it seems like a more cogent and specific description of today’s migration regime) is a novel invention indeed, but a beneficent one. But, advocacy impact aside, I’d simply like to know.

UPDATE: More resources: a quick summary post by Vipul, my devastating takedown of the claim that Rome fell because of open immigration (that one’s worth reading!), this post, my post on metics in ancient Greece, and my long Old Testament post. Also see our page on the “alien invasion” metaphor; Vipul’s post on why immigration was freer in the 19th century, and Bryan Caplan on “The Golden Age of Immigration.”

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

5 thoughts on “Someone should write A History of Borders”

  1. This would certainly be an interesting enterprise (and an ambition one to go beyond any particular civilization or region with this). I suspect one limitation here is the relatively limited mobility of most average people in the pre-modern world. There are some tantalizing hints of more things going on, such as laws in feudal Europe banning serfs from moving off the land they were born to which was probably done primarily to prevent medieval lords from having to put up with early forms of Tiebout migration. Given the fluidity of what constituted a “nation” in those days, even moving across the holdings of different lords could almost be analogous to moving to a new country (at least until Early Modern monarchs began solidifying their rule over unruly and independent nobles).

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