The citizenist case for open borders

The term “citizenism” is not exactly a household word, but it seems to be becoming more current, at least among the EconLog/Open Borders circle of discussants. Good! I am certainly no citizenist myself. In fact, for purposes of the present post, I’d rather not admit what my attitude to citizenism as a meta-ethics is, because it would set quite the wrong tone. However, I feel I have to mention it in passing, because if I were to write a post on citizenism without mentioning it, I might seem to convey, implicitly, an attitude of moral tolerance for what ought not to be morally tolerated. So I’ll say it: I believe, for the record, that a thorough-going, principled citizenism is appallingly wicked, and diametrically opposed to Christianity, and that practitioners of a citizenist meta-ethics are in danger of hellfire. You see why, if I’m right, I felt the need to warn you. But never mind, forget about that. It’s not the topic of this post. Establishing the term ‘citizenism’ (a) promotes clear thinking, (b) may be useful in provoking some people to think ‘That can’t be right!’ and (c) can serve as a platform from which to advocate open borders! For what I realized is that, without being a citizenist myself, I’ve been making the citizenist case for open borders for years.

But let me back up.

These reflections were provoked by a post by Sonic Charmer, who writes:

In case you were wondering here is a website apparently attempting to pull together and categorize arguments for and against open borders. I know this because apparently a bullet-point in a link roundup post of mine is being cited as the canonical an example of ‘citizenism‘. The idea being, I think, that my opposition to open borders comes from a belief the US government should be primarily concerned with the well-being of (per Sailer) US citizens – ‘nationalism without romance’.

Fair enough. Guilty as charged.

Sonic Charmer goes on to justify citizenism in social contract terms.

But this strikes me as a two-dimensional characterization of my views. I think what’s being missed in labeling my view ‘citizenism’ is the ‘social-contract’ component for my thinking on this (like many other) subjects.

See, it’s not just that the US government should be primarily concerned with US citizens because that’s what my ‘intuition’ tells me, in a way that I have never examined. It’s because that’s what the founding document of the US government – which set it up, described its purpose, and provides the (only!) raison d’etre for its existence and the power that it wields – actually says it should concern itself with.

Is this true? The preamble to the US constitution– the most relevant part because it states the purpose of the Constitution– says “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Perhaps it sounds like hair-splitting, but this does not specify that the Constitution is meant to secure the well-being of the people of the United States, but, more specifically, “justice… domestic tranquillity… and the blessings of liberty.” It does not say that the Constitution is for purposes of, say, maximizing average wealth or income. If “ourselves and our posterity” is taken literally, it’s more and less restrictive than citizenism, for it would include emigrant descendants of the Founders, but exclude all immigrants and their descendants, even those who were citizens. Perhaps you could interpret “posterity” as US citizens, but even then, the fact that only justice, tranquillity, and liberty are to be promoted is important. The preamble to the Constitution would seem to offer no basis for restricting peaceful immigration as long as it did not threaten the liberty of natives, even if it could be done justly, still less if one has to resort to injustice to restrict peaceful immigration, as I, and arguably most of the Founders, would contend. It certainly seems to provide no basis for condoning the restriction of immigration merely to prevent suppression of wages of natives. Interestingly, Sonic Charmer waxes indignant at a hypothetical US government that does not pursue citizenist ends:

If (due to whatever philosophical sophistry) the US government has gotten to a point that it isn’t primarily concerned with the well-being of US citizens, then I not-so-humbly suggest we don’t need or want it anymore, and all those people working for what we call the ‘US government’ need to go home, immediately, stop wielding the power that they wield, stop cashing the paychecks that they cash, and think about what they have done.

My knee-jerk reaction to this is to find it chillingly amoral, but perhaps I am mistaken. First, let’s unpack it a bit, with the help of a distinction between the scope of altruism and moral side-constraints. In economics jargon, the scope of altruism is like a utility function, while moral side-constraints are like a budget constraint. Altruism defines your goal, what you want; side-constraints limit the set of courses of actions one will consider in pursuing it. Compare the following two individuals:

  1. A crony capitalist occasionally resorts to dishonest and illegal methods– bribes, blackmail, fraud– to shore up his family’s politically well-connected and serially monopolistic business empire. However, he is generous not only about his immediate family but to his ethnic community, and likes to donate to outside charities as well. All in all, there is a wide range of people for whom he acts as if their welfare is at least, say, 5-10% as important as his own.
  2. A scrupulous and efficient businessman is entirely focused on earning profits for himself and his family, and when choosing among various courses of action, he puts zero weight on the welfare of anyone but his own family. However, not only does he never break any laws, he also rejects courses of action which, though legal, would involve harming others by offering them deals which he knows would be bad for them or concealing information which would help someone else at his own expense. In general, he tries to rule out any behavior that harms anyone else at all (not counting indirect effects via prices/competition).

In short, unselfishness vs. scruples. Which of these people is better? Which will likely do more good in the world? Very likely person (2) will do more good even though he is completely selfish, since he rules out doing harm and will often find it in his interest to make money by providing value to others.

Now, if Sonic Charmer is suggesting that the US government should pursue citizenist ends with no moral side-constraints, then I think that is horrifying. But he probably isn’t, and Bryan Caplan’s post on the Vronsky syndrome is valuable partly because it compels us to recognize moral side-constraints. I suppose Sonic Charmer wouldn’t endorse using our military supremacy to conquer and enslave the rest of the world for the benefit of US citizens, even if experts could prove beyond any doubt that it would raise Americans’ living standards; still less would he claim that the Constitution mandated this. So, granted that there are moral side-constraints, what are they?

Part of the reason I support open borders is that I think the US and other democracies choose the wrong moral side-constraints. No, it is not OK to seize people by force and deport them from the country, least of all if they grew up here (but were born elsewhere). No, it is not OK to use force to block people from entering the country who never in any way consented to such a restriction of their freedom and who clearly have no plans for violence against Americans, but only intend to work. Obviously, it is not OK to invade and conquer other countries for profit (liberations of countries from totalitarianism followed by temporary occupation with scrupulous rules of engagement are a different story). On the other hand, I think it is OK, though perhaps most Americans would be surprised by the notion, to discriminate against immigrants via the tax code. If, within these moral side-constraints, you want the US government to “concern itself primarily with the well-being of US citizens,” fine.

Sonic Charmer takes a comic chip-on-the-shoulder pose with respect to the social contract…

I can understand that it’s probably hard for Smart People to parse someone’s views as sincerely rooted in belief in a ‘social contract’ however. That’s because all 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). So the possibility is just dismissed out of hand, and my views are read as some sort of inscrutable and unexamined belief in ‘citizenism’.

Actually, social contract ideas seem to be pretty influential in academia. John Rawls was a social contract theorist of sorts, and was probably the most influential political philosopher in the late 20th century. James Buchanan got the Nobel Prize, above all, for the social contract thinking of The Calculus of Consent. My own Principles of a Free Society comes close to making a social contract the only basis for just government, though I see it as a benchmark and an unattainable ideal rather than a historic fact. (And I would ask Sonic Charmer: I never signed a social contract, did you?) But the Lockean social contract involves delegating the right to private vengeance in return for state protection of one’s natural rights. It does not involve establishing a citizenist regime with no moral side-constraints. Foreigners are not bound by our social contract, nor does our social contract magically create territorial quasi-property rights in territories such as vacant land or public streets in which no one had exclusive property rights to begin with, nor does it make our individual property the property of the state, such that the government obtains a right to say whether I can employ foreigners to work on my own privately-held land (more at the right to migrate page).

My paper “Open borders with migration taxes are the optimal policy” (see also my blog post on the subject) could almost be re-titled “The citizenist case for open borders.” By “open borders,” what I mean is that anyone can come, and work, but subject to special taxes. Of course, as in all theoretical economics papers, there are many assumptions and simplifications. The intuition, however, isn’t too hard to grasp. Migration restrictions are not only unfair but highly inefficient, because they force people to stay in places where they are not very productive. Allowing them to move to the US generates large surpluses, some of which can be taxed away and redistributed to natives so as to hold the latter harmless. Open borders with migration taxes are Pareto-superior to closed borders: properly structured, they benefit both immigrants and all natives. Taxing migrants who are already poorer than natives seems a bit unfair, but nowhere near as unfair as shutting migrants out altogether. Now, I don’t believe in citizenism myself, as I said. What motivates me in advocating open borders is that it’s by far the best thing we can do for many, many people who are far worse off than virtually anyone in America. However, I can concede the meta-ethical point and make the case for open borders within that framework. Citizenists: Any responses to this?

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

22 thoughts on “The citizenist case for open borders”

  1. I think I’ve made the mistake of inadvertently picking a fight with a blog I didn’t realize, till just yesterday, was actually (a) a team blog of (b) bloggers who are almost as verbose as they are well-spoken 🙂 I warn in advance I probably won’t be able to keep up…

    Re: Preamble, the key passage to me is ‘ourselves and our Posterity’. Who are *they*, I wonder? Sure, we may wonder where the boundary is, whether that should include post-1789 immigrants and their descendents, but it seems pretty obvious it *doesn’t* include *citizens of all other countries too*, i.e., the entire world. Or you disagree?

    You are right that it does not specify that the government should maximize wealth, or any other specific utility function. Neither did I. Which ‘blessings of liberty’ need securing and how best to secure them are surely open to debate, i.e. it’s a *political issue*, but that all presupposes everyone acknowledging and conceding that the government is meant to even do so – for ‘ourselves and our Posterity’ – in the first place. This is precisely what, all too often, open borders advocates deny, hence where they lose me.

    Also there are other places to look than the Preamble for American ideas on government. Why are governments formed among men? From whence do they derive their just powers? American middle schoolers learn ‘the’ answers to these questions. Then, of course, those answers are promptly forgotten. But they too point in a ‘citizenist’ direction in a way that seems unacknowledged by Smart People.

    On the ‘amoral’/’no side-constraint’ charge, well you yourself acknowledge that you’re mostly arguing against a position that you don’t really suppose me to hold. I don’t have all the lingo about constraints etc. you do but suffice it to say that as a ‘citizenist’ (if that’s what I am) I’d prefer the government make choices among those that are *within its purview*, not a violation of others’ rights, etc., with a view towards what’s best for its citizens. To me, controlling borders and making rules about who may immigrate *obviously* qualify (in a way that ‘conquer and enslave the rest of the world’ obviously does not). But this is precisely what I perceive (most, not all?) open-borders folks – because they couch their advocacy in a language of rights and morality and ‘freedom of movement’ – to be denying, and so, that’s what I’m arguing against. Hope that clarifies,


  2. An argument that depends on claiming as “obvious” something which one’s interlocutors does not acknowledge to be either obvious or even true is inherently weak. That “controlling borders and making rules about who may immigrate… qualify” as “within [a state’s] purview, not a violation of others’ rights, etc.” is not at all obvious to me, and was not obvious to the founders of the United States, or to Abraham Lincoln ( And even a certain *prima facie* obviousness that the proposition may have to unreflective persons who simply accept as necessary whatever laws happen to be in force in the time and place where they happen to live breaks down when one looks at borderline cases, such as stateless persons ( Is it “obvious” that it was “within the purview” of the US government, “not a violation of others’ rights” to order the MS St. Louis to return to Germany, condemning many of its Jewish passengers ultimately to death in the Holocaust ( Is it “obvious” that children who were born abroad but grew up here, speak English fluently, have friends, social networks, careers, homes, dreams and loyalties here in the US– such as journalist Jose Antonio Vargas– can be sent back to countries they hardly know without violating their rights? Surely not, and that brings me back to the question I posed in the post: given that there are moral side-constraints, WHAT ARE THEY?

    When a claim is not self-evident, yet one takes it to be “obvious,” one should be able to offer a defense of it, which goes back ultimately to evidence and logic. Can you do so? How would you defend your belief that the state can decide on an arbitrary basis who gets in and who doesn’t? I believe that all defenses of this claim fail, and that the position is false.

    Remember that in their respective heydays, monarchy, aristocracy, slavery, and racism all seemed every bit as “obvious” as the right of states to total control of entry and exit seems to many people today.

    1. I understand full well it’s not obvious to you.

      Please do not misunderstand my intent as being to convince you, or the other bloggers here who have responded to me on this, of anything. Rather, my intent was to locate more accurately where we disagree. I actually do not expect to convince you of anything. I do have hopes, however, of identifying where we disagree more precisely than ‘because I’m a citizenist’, and thus where (I believe, though of course you do not) open(er)-borders folks go wrong. Then others can make up their minds in the context of an accurate airing of what the open(er)-borders case rests on.

      Which usually – as you’ve just exemplified – boils ultimately down to a denial of the idea that it’s within the purview of nation-state governments to control their borders and make rules about who may immigrate. You don’t. I do.

      You clearly have at the ready several examples of abuses/injustices arising around controlling borders, as if these support your view, but they actually don’t convince me that governments can’t/shouldn’t control borders anymore than ‘an innocent man gets arrested/tried/convicted for murder’ convinces me of the principle that government shouldn’t outlaw murder. Similarly, my answer to Jose Antonio Vargas is ‘fine, don’t deport Jose Antonio Vargas’ but N of these cases do not add up to the principle ‘therefore government shouldn’t control its borders or have immigration laws’ for me. Why do you think they should?

  3. Given that we’re talking about the use of force here, the burden of proof definitely rests on the nativist to justify it. You used the example of an innocent man being convicted for murder. Suppose someone argued that we shouldn’t jail murderers because sometimes we make mistakes and punish innocent people. If I wanted to reject this, I would have a burden of proof to discharge, namely, I would have to show why murderers ought to be punished. I would start with retribution and the idea of justice, and then add rehabilitation, prevention, and other arguments. Given that (a) what I’m proposing to do (punishing murderers) involves the use of force and there has to be a presumption against the use of force, and (b) punishing murderers admittedly involves deplorable miscarriages of justice on occasion since we sometimes err, it would be very inadequate merely to say “You have a different view than I do.”

    Now, the cases that you’re classifying as abuses/injustices are not really exceptional. There are millions in more or less the same position as Vargas; they are what the DREAM Act is all about. The separation of families is routine, as is the trapping of people in dire poverty by denying the opportunity to immigrate. But even when the human toll of migration restrictions is not so terrible, they still need some justification. Someone is being prevented from achieving some human end, from getting a better job or living in a place they like, from studying or doing scientific research or taking a vacation in a place they’ve always wanted to see. Why? How do you justify the harm done? My book, Principles of a Free Society, lays out a theory of justice and government and the social contract ( I justify what can be justified. I have not seen any convincing arguments which would explain why the violence used to restrict immigration is justified or legitimate. That leaves it on a moral plane with ordinary assault and kidnapping, even if the false beliefs of practitioners of this sort of violence that their actions are legitimate presumably does something to mitigate their guilt.

    1. So what you’re saying is, I should be required to explain from first principles why a government has the prerogative to control its borders and determine who may immigrate for the same reason that a murder-should-be-illegal defender should be required to explain why a government has the prerogative to have laws against murder and to enforce said laws.

      I think what I’m saying, meanwhile, is that I shouldn’t be required to explain from first principles why a government has the prerogative to control its borders etc. because that would be as absurd as having to explain from first principles why a government has the prerogative to have laws against murder and to enforce said laws.

      I know, you don’t think that’s absurd. In fact, that’s my point.

  4. The point. to simplify slightly, is that:

    1. Laws against murder CAN be justified from first principles;

    2. Laws restricting migration CANNOT be justified from first principles.

    To put the same thing another way, migration restrictions are unjust.

    A basic human duty is ACCOUNTABILITY, being prepared to render an account of one’s actions and beliefs. By simply repeating “absurd, absurd, absurd,” you are failing to fulfill this basic human duty.

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