State responsibility thesis

The state responsibility thesis is a thesis discussed by many critics of open borders, including David Miller, as a general moral argument against open borders that draws on both deontological and consequentialist considerations. It is closely related to citizenism, territorialism, and collective property rights, but deals with the issue at a somewhat different conceptual level.

The most detailed articulation of this thesis is in David Miller’s 2007 book National Responsibility and Global Justice published by Oxford University Press. The thesis, and Miller’s use of it to draw anti-open borders conclusions, has been critiqued by Joseph Carens in Chapter 12 of his book The Ethics of Immigration. Carens addresses this as one of many general philosophical arguments against open borders.

Summary of the state responsibility thesis

Carens provides the following summary of the general state responsibility thesis:

Some defenders of discretionary control over immigration have tried to address this challenge directly, offering both a justification for inequalities between states and an account of why states must be morally free to restrict immigration. They argue that significant inequalities between states can be a legitimate outcome of collective self-determination.

Carens, Joseph (2013-09-19). The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford Political Theory) (p. 262). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

He then summarizes Miller’s case as below:

Miller invites us to imagine two contrasting societies named Affluenza and Ecologia. These societies start out from an equal resource base, but Affluenza uses up its resources in immediate consumption while Ecologia devotes its resources to sustainable development. Over time, as a result of their different policies, Ecologia has higher per capita resource levels than Affluenza. Miller argues that it would be wrong to redistribute resources from Ecologia to Affluenza to bring these societies (and hence their members) back to a position of resource equality. First , he says, redistribution would create perverse incentives, rewarding profligacy (Affluenza) rather than responsibility (Ecologia). Second, he contends, redistribution would be unfair because the citizens of Ecologia made sacrifices for the sake of the long term. Their later advantages, and the disadvantages of Affluenza, are a direct product of the choices made by each society. So, the inequalities must be left in place for reasons of efficiency and fairness. Having established that self-determination will give rise to legitimate resource differences, Miller says that giving people the right to move from poorer societies to better endowed ones “would also undermine self -determination, in any world that we can realistically envisage.”

In sum, on Miller’s account, it would be a mistake to think that a just world would necessarily be one in which there were no significant economic inequalities between states and no significant differences between the life chances of people born in different states. Justice requires community self-determination, and the different choices that states make may give rise to inequalities and make them morally legitimate . Discretionary state control over immigration is morally legitimate even in an ideal world, according to Miller, because it is a necessary corollary of these legitimate inequalities between states.

Carens, Joseph (2013-09-19). The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford Political Theory) (pp. 262-263). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

Arguments against the state responsibility thesis

Carens lists three arguments critiquing the state responsibility thesis:

  1. It exaggerates the connection between self-determination and inequality: While choices made by national governments are partly responsible for their situation, other factors also play a role.
  2. It misses the ongoing importance of the connection between equal starting points and responsibility: Even if decisions made by governments in previous generations were responsible for the differences today, people living today are not morally responsible for those choices.
  3. it subsumes the moral claims of human beings under the claims of the community into which they are born and gives participation in a self-determining community a moral weight that it cannot bear: Individuals rarely have enough influence on their communities for them to be considered morally responsible for its actions and choices, and punishing them by denying them the right to migrate implicitly assigns a lot of responsibility to them.

Vipul Naik has written the following in unpublished work in relation to point (3) by Carens:

The premise that institutions and policies of national governments play a significant role in explaining wage differentials across nations is well-grounded. The problem arises when individual members of underperforming nations are held personally responsible for the institutions of their governments, to the extent that their freedom of movement is curtailed as punishment for this. Many of these people live in dictatorships or corrupt democracies that wouldn’t listen to them even if they had strong ideas for improving institutions. Even in properly functioning democracies, individuals have little influence on the decisions made by governments because a single vote counts for so little, therefore it stands to reason that they have little moral responsibility as well. For what it’s worth, bureaucrats at the highest levels in the UN, World Bank, IMF or US government have more per capita power to influence the policies of these countries than their median residents. That said, it is probably true that the residents of these countries may not understand what policies or institutions are most likely to promote prosperity, and therefore, when given a chance to vote, may vote in ways inimical to their own interests. But so what? Most of us don’t know how to fly planes – that doesn’t mean that we should be forbidden from riding on planes. Even in advanced prosperous democracies, public opinion often supports policies inimical to prosperity, and constitutional gridlock is one of the ways that policies do not slide in the direction the public wants. To the extent that this is a problem, it is a problem of too much power being vested in democratic mechanisms, rather than with migration.

Relationship with other arguments

The state responsibility thesis is closely related to general arguments about how migration causes harms to immigrant-receiving countries. But the state responsibility thesis is an argument about deontological morality rather than a purely consequentialist argument.

The state responsibility thesis is also closely related to citizenism, territorialism, collective property rights, and other attempts to clarify the moral responsibilities and obligations of nation-states and their governments. However, it differs in focus from these in the following sense: the state responsibility considers the role of states in relation to each other and the people in the states. Citizenism and territorialism are more about the relation between an individual state and the people in it and out of it, without bringing the relationship with other states explicitly into the picture.

Creative Commons License State responsibility thesis is licensed by Vipul Naik under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.