“The Right of a Nation to Exist”

Open borders is sometimes attacked as a threat to “the right of a nation to exist.” I seem to remember this phrase from various arguments, but I don’t recall any linkable example off the top of my head, however, a critic of Bryan Caplan quoted in Vipul’s recent post says something close to it: “You have to be a special kind of genius to fail to understand basic points like: nation-states exist, and have borders, and have a fundamental interest in controlling those borders, meaning, ideally, via law enforcement.” Of course, an interest is not the same thing as a right– I may have an interest in taking your car, but not a right to do so– so this commenter isn’t articulating the notion of a “right of a nation to exist” which I wish here to critique. However, he seems to implicitly assume this. After all, if it is not presumed that nations have a right to control their borders, to assert that they have an interest in doing so is irrelevant.

Now, I would assert that rights belong only to individuals, or at least that they belong most fundamentally to individuals, and the rights of collective entities such as nations are derived from individual rights. I won’t attempt to prove that in this post. Rather, I will point out some problems with the notion of “the right of a nation to exist.”

Suppose that 99% of the residents of Germany express an intention to emigrate to friendly countries, say Britain, France, and the USA, which agree to accept them as immigrants. Suppose further that the 1% of the German population which will be left behind is too small to sustain national life. To sustain basic services and cultivate the land, they will have to let in English-speaking immigrants, and the German language will soon become nearly useless and probably extinct in a couple of generations. Does this decision by individual Germans violate the right of the German nation to exist? Could Germany justly prohibit the emigration of these people, in order to secure the continuance of its national life?

Or suppose that a new Germanophile cultural fad sweeps the United States. Americans learn German and begin speaking it at home and in public, read German authors, listen to German music, adopt German habits of order and cleanliness and deference to authority (or whatever), and become scornful of American national heroes like George Washington or Michael Jordan. They root for German football teams, those Americans with German ancestries boast of their genealogies, and in short, they turn into Germans. Does the US government have a right to stop this cultural change by coercive action, on the grounds that it constitutes a threat to the right of the American nation to exist? Could it justly prohibit the speaking of German in public? Could it justly execute, or exile, leading promoters of Germanization? Would individual American Germanophiles be guilty of wrongdoing for violating their birth nation’s right to exist?

Consider another case. Nations often live all mixed up together, and did so much more often before the 20th century, which– this is important!– is politically distinctive in that it made the nation-state model normative, at a massive cost in war, racism, ethnic cleansing, and ongoing inter-communal tensions and geopolitical anomalies. It is less common today to have different nationalities living alongside each other, because national minorities have in many places been expelled, or simply killed. But it’s still fairly common. So, suppose two nations, the Greens and the Blues, live all intermingled, and intermarriage and other cultural interactions are blurring the distinction between the two, and threatening the long-run viability of one or both nations. Can one of these nations expel the other from its midst, in order to secure its “right to exist as a nation?” Can Blue and Green leaders make an agreement to segregate themselves peacefully, and then impose this on the Blue and Green populations by force?

I do not exactly wish to deny that a nation can have a right to exist. Such a right can exist in a sense. But it is not fundamental. What is fundamental is the rights of the individuals who comprise that nation. A nation’s right to exist may arise from the rights of the individuals comprising it: from their right to inhabit properties which happen to be adjacent, from their right to frequent certain streets and squares where custom and need give them overlapping rights to certain kinds of use, from their rights to interact with other fellow-nationals conditional on the willingness of their fellow-nationals to do so, sometimes from a right to expect certain fellow-nationals to continue to interact with them based on long-term explicit or implicit agreements, etc. As long as all these interactions which comprise the life of a nation continue to flourish and to be desired by its members, no external force could put to a stop to them without violating the rights of many individuals, and to substitute for these the phrase “the rights of the nation” may be a convenient, albeit somewhat vague, way to summarize these rights.

Applying this principle, a nation such as the United States would certainly have a right to defend itself if a foreign military force invaded, because that force will with near-certainty violate many rights of US citizens. But stopping a large peaceful migration is a totally different story. Some curtailment or regulation of such a migration might possibly be justified if it comprised a clear threat to public order, though it is hard to say how this could be verified or how it could be implemented without injustice to individuals. People often talk as if it were self-evident that the mere presence of foreigners on US soil without specific government authorization somehow impairs “community.” Not only is this not self-evident, it requires some cleverness to propose any defense of the claim, even an inadequate one. If I want to meet my friend, or attend a family reunion, or go to a high school football game, or create a hobby club, or erect a statue to a national hero, the presence of foreigners on US soil has no tendency to prevent or impede any of these things. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example, even a far-fetched one, of how (setting aside the issue of possible immigrant crime, which is a matter of individual rights) the presence of immigrants could get in the way of any activity that could be proposed as part of what comprises the life of the American community. Readers, feel free to help me out.

What is more, the very recognition that the rights of individuals can extend beyond the immediate person and property of the individual to include participation in communities, which is precisely what was needed to esetablish a valid though vague idea of the “rights of the nation,” strongly reinforces the case for open borders. National immigration restrictions don’t just violate the rights of foreigners; they violate the rights of natives to interact with foreigners. If I wish, if it is part of my flourishing, to invite a foreign houseguest, or employee, or tutor, to stay with me, the government of the territory where I reside violates my rights if it deprives me by force of this opportunity for interaction.

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

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