All posts by Paul Crider

The illusion of self-determination

The right of a people to determine its own fate—national self-determination—is one of pillars of the Westphalian model of world political order holding nation-state sovereignty as its core principle. It also underpins most philosophical defenses of the right of nation to control who moves across its borders and who can join its citizenry.

Here at the outset I’d like to submit that, provisionally, the principle of national self-determination makes a fair bit of sense. The principle was included in the Westphalian model in order to minimize war (capably discussed by my co-blogger in this post). It proscribes invasions of foreign lands for causes like defending or advancing a religion or ideology, for instance. After all, the birth of Protestantism was the proximate cause of the Thirty Years War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia and the principle of national self-determination.

But the presumption in favor of national self-determination can be overridden in certain circumstances. I take it as mostly uncontroversial to say that if a genocide is underway within a nation’s borders, national sovereignty carries insufficient moral weight to prevent a humanitarian intervention (even if, say, military intervention is ruled out for pragmatic reasons, it isn’t respect for sovereignty that restrains those who would intervene). More importantly (and less dramatically), I’d like to suggest that the principle of self-determination loses coherence when it strays too far from its primary task of protecting a population against external threats of violence.

To bring this to migration, national self-determination is often appealed to in order to justify the right of a state to limit its membership. Michael Walzer, the distinguished communitarian philosopher, has argued in his book, Spheres of Justice, that the authority to limit membership of the national community is fundamental to national independence.

Admission and exclusion are at the core of communal independence. They suggest the deepest meaning of self-determination. Without them, there could not be communities of character, historically ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life.

In his essay, Immigration: the Case for Limits (found in this book), David Miller has also defended the right of the citizens of a nation to exclude migrants at the border on the basis of cultural continuity:

[T]he public culture of their country is something that people have an interest in controlling: they want to be able to shape the way that their nation develops, including the values that are contained in the public culture. They may not of course succeed: valued cultural features can be eroded by economic and other forces that evade political control. But they may certainly have good reason to try, and in particular to try to maintain cultural continuity over time, so that they can see themselves as the bearers of an identifiable cultural tradition that stretches backward historically.

The ability to preserve culture is fundamental to self-determination-based defenses of controlled borders. “The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure. … If this distinctiveness is a value … then closure must be permitted somewhere.” (Walzer again) Given the persevering cultural distinctiveness that can be observed among the several states of the USA and among nations within the European Schengen area of porous borders, for a couple examples, it seems like this concern may be overwrought. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness can even be observed among various neighborhoods within individual multicultural metropolises around the world. Nonetheless, the preservation of national cultural distinctiveness has a strong and intuitive appeal. In Migration and Morality: a Liberal Egalitarian Perspective (found in this anthology), Joseph Carens—a friend of liberal migration if ever there was one—sketches out a case for limiting immigration for the sake of preserving culture as one of the few acceptable—in principle—justifications for limiting migration. He argues that Japanese culture, for example, would be worth preserving even to the inconvenience of would-be immigrants. This argument can only go so far, however, for he concludes that this cultural preservation can’t overcome the claims of migrants whose basic needs are not being met.

[M]ost people in Japan share a common culture, tradition and history to a much greater extent than people do in countries like Canada and the United States. It seems reasonable to suppose that many Japanese cherish their distinctive way of life, that they want to preserve it and pass it on to their children because they find that it gives meaning and depth to their lives. They cannot pass it on unchanged, to be sure, because no way of life remains entirely unchanged, but they can hope to do so in a form that retains both its vitality and its continuity with the past. In these ways many Japanese may have a vital interest in the preservation of a distinctive Japanese culture; they may regard it as crucial to their life projects. From a liberal egalitarian perspective this concern for preserving Japanese culture counts as a legitimate interest, assuming (as I do) that this culture is compatible with respect for all human beings as free and equal moral persons.

It also seems reasonable to suppose that this distinctive culture and way of life would be profoundly transformed if a significant number of immigrants came to live in Japan. A multicultural Japan would be a very different place. So, limits on new entrants would be necessary to preserve the culture if any significant number of people wanted to immigrate.

Carens anticipates the most obvious counter that restricting immigration limits real individual freedoms for the sake of what is essentially a “by-product of uncoordinated individual actions” that does not itself violate any individual’s rights.

The problem with this sort of response (which clearly does fit with some strains in the liberal tradition and even with some forms of liberal egalitarianism) is that it uses too narrow a definition of freedom. It excludes by fiat any concern for the cumulative, if unintended, consequences of individual actions. A richer concept of freedom will pay attention to the context of choice, to the extent to which background conditions make it possible for people to realize their most important goals and pursue their most important life projects. That is precisely the sort of approach that permits us to see the ways in which particular cultures can provide valuable resources for people and the costs associated with the loss of a culture, while still permitting a critical assessment of the consequences of the culture both for those who participate in it and for those who do not.

The problem with Carens’s “richer concept of freedom”—which I acknowledge is real and worthy of consideration—is that it is difficult to conceive of a legitimate ownership of it. Who decides which aspects of “traditional” society are worth preserving (at the cost of more focused and observable individual freedoms, let’s not forget) and which aspects are merely parts of inevitable cultural evolution? The “by-products of uncoordinated individual actions” can presumably manifest as cultural improvements, and not just “erosion”, as Miller seems to assume. Some things (Islam, manga comics, or capitalism, for a few examples) that may represent cultural decay to some will be embraced by others as beneficial innovation, and it’s difficult to say who would be right in such a contest of values. Should a committee of bureaucrats be set up to decide which foreign influences are acceptable cultural adaptations, the way the French have circled their wagons around the integrity of their language? Even if such a committee were popularly elected, it’s difficult to see how that democratic mechanism would achieve any greater legitimacy than uncoordinated individual actions.

The larger point I want to make is that restricting immigration for the sake of cultural preservation is ineffective to the point of quixotic. There are other influences that will impact culture, influences that cultural preservationists are less willing to stifle by coercion. Indeed in the quotes above Carens and Miller both recognize that culture evolves in ways that “evade political control”. The first of these purely internal. Culture, including language, social values, artistic (literary, musical, etc) expression, and political values can and do all change as a result of younger generations challenging the ideas and practices of their forebears. This process of change over generations may be exacerbated by outside influences, but it would be hard to deny that at its core it is a natural phenomenon at work even in closed societies. I think the relatively recent and rapid expansion of the gay rights movement in America is a good example of this. It has seemed primarily domestic in origin (the fact that some other countries have possibly made greater strides in gay rights hasn’t been particularly influential), and the level of acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is famously starkly divided between young and old folks. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s can likewise not be said to be imported, as the legal and cultural legacy of southern slavery and the long reign of Jim Crow were peculiar to American history. Less politically, musical innovations like rock & roll, entertainment innovations like video games, and linguistic innovations like African American Vernacular English have not needed outside influences to sprout and evoke consternation among parents and other squares.

It isn’t even clear that anyone notices the difference between cultural innovation by natives and that by outsiders. Invention from the outside can “go native” as well as a person can. Carens’s example of Japan gave me an excuse to read about the history of manga, an art form I think I can safely describe as distinctively Japanese. Five minutes of research unearthed a surprisingly mongrel history, including its inspiration by a nineteenth century British cartoonist and “U.S. cultural influences, including U.S. comics (brought to Japan by the GIs) and images and themes from U.S. television, film, and cartoons (especially Disney).” The desire to protect a national culture from outside influences seems to ignore the ability of those same cultures to ingest, adapt, and own inputs from the outside, all in bottom-up fashion without need for supervision from any cultural defenders at the top.

Technological innovation can radically change the contours of a society and isn’t intrinsically related to immigration. The Industrial Revolution destroyed old occupations and enabled people to leave rural life en masse. Widespread rail networks and the adoption of the automobile made the world a smaller place, even within nations. Electrification, radio, television, the airplane, the printing press, the integrated circuit, and the Internet have all profoundly changed human life and the ways individuals relate to each other and wider society. The birth control pill empowered women to control their own sexual and reproductive lives and enabled them to pursue opportunities in the world outside the home (occupational, educational, political, etc). All these innovations have arguably changed national cultures on a scale greater than anything widespread immigration could likely achieve.

It could be argued that the American examples above do not actually serve my cause since America is so famously and fundamentally shaped by immigration. And it could be argued that the technological innovations I mentioned and the ways they undoubtedly transformed societies are nonetheless irrelevant to the present discussion: technological changes affecting the whole world can be adapted to different national cultures in unique ways and so perhaps the point is more that each national culture must be allowed to express itself through technological advancement in its own way. Technological change is, of course, not all homegrown, but it spreads through international avenues other than migration, avenues which most immigration restrictionists would not attempt to close.

Ideas are spread through trade between nations, through travel and tourism, through international communications and media, and through common international gatherings like professional conferences and sporting events. Good ideas (and bad ones), will find ways to spread whether there are appreciable levels of migration or not. International migration will surely speed up cultural change, but it’s not the only driver of change, or even the most important one. Yet the focus of the argument for national self-determination is always on preserving the right of a nation’s sovereign authority to restrict entry of new members, and little ink is spilled advocating closing off these other pathways of social change. Given the long odds of meaningfully preserving national culture (however it is defined), and the apparent lack of enthusiasm for protecting it from equally powerful mechanisms of change,  it is fair to ask, Why does immigration warrant such special treatment?

Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously

Post by Paul Crider (regular blogger for the site, joined June 2013 as an occasional blogger, promoted to regular blogger July 2013). See:

The clamoring for intervention in the Syrian bloodbath has given Matt Yglesias an excuse to discuss the impressive cost-effectiveness of distributing mosquito-proof bed nets as a form of humanitarian foreign aid. He argues that if the unfortunate plight of foreigners really tugs on our heartstrings, the bed nets are a better deal than bombs by a couple orders of magnitude.

Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO at the time, and James Stavridis, NATO’s top military officer at the time, bragged in Foreign Affairs about the extraordinary success of [the Libya] operation:

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost—$1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall—that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

That is extremely impressive. What about the Against Malaria Foundation? What they do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

A similar argument can be made in favor of facilitating voluntary migration of refugees from the Syrian conflict to destinations of their choice in areas of the world where the risk of death or dismemberment by military violence is less, such as developed countries. (The more general argument has been made on this blog before.) This would be approximately free if the refugees were allowed to work and pay taxes in their newly chosen countries. While it probably wouldn’t be as cost-effective as insecticidal bed nets in terms of lives saved, those lives would be potentially radically improved in terms of expanded human capabilities. Of course bed nets and open borders don’t have to compete. It’s possible that open borders could even magnify the beneficial effects of bed nets in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.

This may seem like a facetious argument, or an impolitic way of roping a serious humanitarian crisis into the service of yet another argument for open borders. But just as my esteemed co-blogger recently argued with the case of sweatshops, if we want to take our humanitarian concerns seriously, liberalizing the immigration policies of the rich world needs to be part of the discussion. Collapsing factories and wars, like natural disasters, act as rare reminders that foreigners are human beings just like us, so these tragic events are the perfect time to press for policies that can do significant good in the world. A couple years ago on my personal blog, I suggested that another thing these events have in common is that their victims have done nothing to deserve their fates aside from running afoul of luck.

I claim that natural disasters and catastrophic misgovernance are morally indistinguishable. If a disaster strikes your country or you happen to be born in North Korea, both events are best described by luck. Unless you’re a Calvinist, you probably agree that bad luck has nothing to do with culpability or just deserts. Then if you accept the premise (perhaps a big if*) that we in rich countries owe some kind of aid to people in nations struck by disaster and that emigration is an optimal kind of aid, then I think it follows that we also owe similar aid to people fleeing grossly incompetent or malevolent governments.

* It’s a big if that a reader will accept the premise, but it’s interesting to note that natural disasters do tend to tug our heartstrings, empirically. You see this in the sudden, worldwide spike in donations to aid organizations and relief efforts when big tsunamis or earthquakes occur.

My asterisked comment is important. We humans seem to be a jumble of contradictions when it comes to recognizing the humanity of others living far away. We are often completely numb to the fates of foreigners when they even partially seem to obstruct our goals. Consider the bored way we skim over collateral damage reports, or the stubborn way we cling to our agricultural subsidies which directly harm the world’s poor. Yet we do appreciate the tragedies of natural disasters and atrocities of war. And it should be noted that even in as militarily adventurous a nation as the USA, wars and bombing campaigns are always presented to the public at least partially as acts of liberation or prevention of even greater violence.

I have argued that the world’s poorest individuals are constantly in the equivalent of a state of disaster and that open borders could help to ease that ongoing disaster. But it seems to be inconsistent with human nature to keep this fixed in the foregrounds of our minds. This is unfortunate but there isn’t much to be done about human nature. Perhaps another approach worth considering is advocating the voluntary immigration of refugees as an effective policy option for those times when we are already psychologically primed for humanitarian action. Every time some bloody dictator catches the world’s attention afresh, there are people who oppose military intervention out of the (quite reasonable) fear that the unpredictable consequences of interference may prove to be worse than non-interference. It’s time for skeptics to start offering the concerned public an alternative policy response: open borders for victims of foreign wars.

Cosmopolitanism and open borders: a follow-up

After I wrote my post on the apparent lack of interest in open borders among cosmopolitans, I received some comments offering some contrary evidence. While, as an advocate of open borders, I remain disappointed with the book I referenced in that post (though more generally as a student of cosmopolitanism I happily recommend The Cosmopolitanism Reader), I believe I was premature in claiming cosmopolitans have unduly ignored migration.

First, even if most of the mentions of migration and border controls in the book are cursory, some of the contributors have substantively commented on migration elsewhere. Brian Barry, one of the contributors to the part titled “Cosmopolitan Global Justice” that focused so much on global distributive justice, mostly ignored movement across borders in his essay. Yet he also edited a book in 1992 titled Free Movement: Ethical Issues in the Transnational Migration of People and of Money (which I have not read fully).

Simon Caney, another contributor, has also discussed migration separately. In a 2006 paper he admirably brought the sometimes abstract discussions of global justice into the practical realm of policy by comparing a dozen (ostensibly) cosmopolitan policies, one of which was open borders. He proceeds by defending the policy against the charge that open borders would not actually benefit the world’s poor:

Maybe the upshot will simply be that talented and able-bodied people will migrate, leaving the most vulnerable behind and unprotected. This is no doubt a risk but two points should be made in reply. First, recent evidence from the World Bank and elsewhere does indicate that migration aids the global poor. It is important to recognize here that migration generates two distinct kinds of beneficial effects. First, it improves the standard of living of the migrants and, second, migrants send remittances to their family members who remain in the home country and so the latter too can benefit from migration. So the beneficiaries include not simply those who leave (who are likely to be able bodied and skilled) but also those who are not able to leave to seek work. In its 2006 report entitled Global Economic Prospects: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration, the World Bank found, for example, that the amount of money sent as remittances to developing countries was likely to be approximately $167 billion in 2005 and it has increased by 100% in five years […]. The report further adds that ‘remittances have been associated with declines in the poverty headcount ratio in several low-income countries—by 11 percentage points in Uganda, 6 in Bangladesh, and 5 in Ghana, for example. […]

Other cosmopolitan thinkers were also brought to my attention, including Phillip Cole, who has written two books on the ethics of immigration (or one and a half: the second was co-written with Christopher Heath Wellman, who argued for the right of states to restrict immigration. Phillip Cole has been discussed on this site previously here). I am not sure Cole considers himself a cosmopolitan, but he is certainly a fellow traveler, basing his arguments on the moral primacy of the individual and universalizing this primacy by applying it to every individual.

Likewise, Joseph Carens is an ethicist with whom I was already familiar (and who has been discussed on this blog previously), but I didn’t include him in the original post because I’ve never seen him adopt the cosmopolitan label. But focusing too much on labels can be unproductive. Carens has been writing about the ethics of migration for decades, with one classic essay, Migration and Morality: a Liberal Egalitarian Perspective, appearing in Barry’s book mentioned above. In this essay he stakes out the position, similar to that advanced by this site, that “Liberal egalitarianism entails a deep commitment to freedom of movement as both an important liberty in itself and a prerequisite for other freedoms. Thus the presumption is for free migration and anyone who would defend restrictions faces a heavy burden of proof.” Carens has continued his work in defending free migration to the present: Amazon tells us he has a book forthcoming on the subject in December.

Arash Abizadeh is a political philosopher at McGill University of a cosmopolitan bent who has defended open borders in a number of recent papers. In one especially novel paper (pdf), he defies the conventional wisdom that democratic principles and liberal egalitarian principles come to loggerheads on the issue of border control. He proposes that, because border control is coercive to individuals seeking to cross borders, democratic legitimacy requires that the migrants (those on the business end of coercion) must be given some democratic say in the matter.

According to the state sovereignty view–the dominant ideology of the contemporary interstate system–entry policy ought to be under the unilateral discretion of (the members of) the state itself, and whatever justification is required for a particular entry policy is simply owed to members: foreigners are owed no justification and so should have no control over a state’s entry policy. What I seek to demonstrate is that such a position is inconsistent with the democratic theory of political  legitimation domestically is thereby committed to rejecting the unilateral domestic right to control and close the state’s boundaries, whether boundaries in the civic sense (which regulate membership) or in the territorial sense (which regulate movement).

Obviously I cannot exhaustively cover all the cosmopolitan and cosmo-curious thinkers who have discussed the ethics of migration in this post. A brief dip in the literature has turned up more than I originally thought I would find based on my introductory text. I’d like to close with perhaps my most encouraging find. Gillian Brock, in her 2009 book Global Justice: a Cosmopolitan Account, devoted a whole chapter on immigration. An adapted excerpt of the chapter was published on openDemocracy. Brock is not opposed to increased migration per se, but she expresses skepticism that freer migration will advance global justice if unaccompanied by policies mitigating perceived adverse side effects of liberalized emigration from poor countries. Specifically, she contends brain drain effects on sending countries can outweigh the positive effects on host countries and the migrants themselves, especially in the case of health workers.

I plan to address Brock’s concern about the “brain drain” in another post, but for now I want to point to the attention her arguments received among other cosmopolitans. The journal Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric (mercifully ungated) hosted a special issue in 2011 to discuss her book. Two of the response essays focused on Brock’s treatment of migration, criticizing her skepticism of freer migration policies. The journal editors, perhaps sensing the wide interest in the topic, then devoted their 2012 issue to migration and its relationship to global justice. Even when cosmopolitans oppose unrestricted movement or hedge their arguments against it, they offer a refreshing point of view. In a debate where so often advocates of open borders struggle to get our interlocutors to acknowledge that the rights and preferences of would-be migrants warrant our consideration at all, skeptical cosmopolitans on the contrary fear that we may have insufficiently considered the effects on all of the relevant affected people. The coverage of migration by cosmopolitan philosophers is more substantive than I thought, and it’s heartening to see that, if anything, interest in the subject has deepened in recent years.

A reply to “Direct Economic Democracy”

Direct Economic Democracy has measured the open borders movement and found it wanting. I couldn’t find any biographical information on the blog other than that the author lives in the UK, so for now the author is just DED to me. Judging by the two posts, DED and I (and probably most advocates of open borders) have substantively different worldviews, but I think there is potentially some common ground. So in addressing our differences I’d like to keep an eye toward our shared aims as well. After all, DED’s tagline is “Everybody matters”, a statement probably every free migrationist would heartily endorse. We advocate open borders in most cases because we think it’s a good way to empower people in poor countries to escape poverty. Likewise, DED is not a committed adversary of open borders, but instead seems to think the world is not yet ready for open borders and demanding free migration too early may evade or worsen the fundamental causes of world poverty:

In principle I share the libertarian ideal of everyone being able to live wherever in the world they fancy. I think the way to go about realising that aim is to first address the issues that create the disparities between rich and poor countries. Once that is (even if only partially) achieved, then the vast bulk of people would no longer have any desire to migrate. A few people would because of personal reasons and for exchange of specialist expertise. However opening borders would then not be opening the floodgates to a torrent of people driven by macroeconomic forces. It is only the prospect of such a torrent that keeps the borders closed now. My total disagreement with the Open Borders campaign is that they advocate opening the borders to a torrent of migration as a first-line response to the disparities between rich and poor countries.

DED begins the (second) post by criticizing free migrationists for describing labor in the rich world as “more productive” than identical labor in the poor world.

To my mind it is grossly insulting to describe that as “less productive” than working in yet another New York restaurant where insufficient custom means the food largely ends up down the sluice. Yet, in terms of how much the workers earn, it is “less productive”. It is all down to the fact that diners in New York have massively more money to spend than diners in Dhaka.

I agree that “productivity” is an unfortunate phrase, especially among non-specialists. It’s important to note that productivity is value-neutral as a technical term. Discussions of productivity differences between rich and poor countries, or similarly between rural and urban environments, have nothing to do with moral character. Because of the potential for connotative misunderstanding though, I prefer not to discuss “worker productivity” but simply wages instead. The pertinent fact is that wages for similar labor and skill sets are higher, sometimes vastly so, in the rich world than in the poor world, and liberalizing migration is the quickest and most straightforward way to eliminate this form of wage discrimination, to the immediate benefit the global poor.

DED suggests this approach is misguided because it fails to address the root causes of global poverty and assumes that such poverty is the result of bad governance in poor countries.

It could be argued that those in the rich world have little capacity to eliminate poverty in foreign countries and so have a greater chance of benefiting the lives of poor people by opening borders to immigration. That argument hinges on the idea that poverty is due to bad governance abroad and that the only answer is for the population to vote with their feet and emigrate. Firstly, I don’t think it is actually true that the rich world is a mere passive observer of poverty abroad. From what I can see, much of the blame for that poverty lies with active policies conducted by the developed world.


Much of the Open Borders logic seems to stem from the idea that market finance already has an inbuilt characteristic that would always lead towards an optimal solution for the world’s problems if only meddling governments were to stand aside.

I agree that the rich world is not merely a passive observer, but actively enforces policies that inhibit effective development in much of the world. Such policies include the arbitrary borders imposed by Western colonialism, agricultural subsidies cosseting rich farmers and tariffs inflicted on poor farmers, and, I must include, the coercive restrictions on movement known as border controls. I do think that another culprit behind persistent poverty in the world is bad governance. It seems hard to deny that governance has at least some impact in a world that has supplied such natural experiments as the Korean peninsula and East/West Germany. Although too often even the fault of bad governance can be laid at Western feet: the governments of the rich world have exhibited a nasty habit of propping up authoritarian dictators who are friendly to Western interests, or at least the interests of insiders. Then again, it’s important to remember that the “natural state” of humanity is grim poverty and early graves.

My point is not to enumerate the causes of world poverty but only to demonstrate that advocating open borders is consistent with any number of causes of world poverty, including causes DED likely favors. DED rather unfairly implies that advocates of open borders believe that our favored policy is the one true Way to cure what ails the world. But nothing about our advocacy suggests that other complementary policies should not be pursued as well. “Complementary” here is, to some extent, to taste. DED and I will likely disagree on the most effective and most just package of policies to subdue world poverty, but I see no reason in principle why DED, who has no fundamental problem with the freedom to migrate, should not include the opening of borders among their favored policies. Simon Caney’s slate of proposals might be of interest to readers of DED’s ideological persuasion (unfortunately gated). If DED fears the effects of a “torrent” of immigrants, (see here and links therein for a discussion of how likely this is) then the appropriate response is to advocate a gradual opening of borders, rather than defending the status quo.

Even by DED’s own standards of wanting to “address the issues that create the disparities between rich and poor countries” and getting the money to go to where the people are, liberalizing migration is effective. Remittances sent by immigrants to their countries of origin move resources directly into the hands of the poor by magnitudes greater than current official aid from the rich world. Diasporas facilitate investment in the poor world by increasing information flows between agents in rich and poor countries and, importantly, providing economic links augmented by trust and long-term commitment that is absent from far-removed investors.

I have tried to be constructive and non-confrontational in this post because at the end of the day, someone with DED’s concerns and commitments is exactly whom I want to reach (I speak personally here, and not necessarily for my fellow bloggers). But I do want to address some distracting and unnecessary provocations in DED’s posts. Linking to a study relating migration to schizophrenia in a throwaway comment (first post) is insulting to migrants. Hopefully we can all agree that restricting the freedom of movement of people around the world is not an effective way to prevent schizophrenia. And the mention of the Highland Clearances was jarringly irrelevant. No advocate of open borders is proposing a forced relocation of anyone anywhere. It shouldn’t come as a shock that we would decry the Trail of Tears as a blight on American history as well. These were brutally coercive policies that have nothing to do with a liberal migration regime.

It’s reasonable to highlight the abuses that can occur when people migrate to places with minimal standards for human rights protections, as in DED’s link to the story of indentured labourers in Dubai. But I see this as an argument for nations more committed to human rights to open their borders to provide more and better options for the world’s inevitable migrants. This story “underlines a wider phenomenon of migrant workers being in a less assertive position to ensure that they receive a fair level of pay”, something advocates of open borders seek to correct by bringing migration into the formal, regulated economies of democratic societies.

I’ll just close by urging Direct Economic Democracy and their readers to reconsider open borders, or at least reform in that direction, as a policy that could bring substantial benefit to millions of people, even as other systemic maladies of our imperfect world continue to demand solutions.

Cosmopolitanism: global redistribution versus open borders?

As a personal project, I’ve embarked on a self-led course in the ethics of cosmopolitanism. I’ve been calling myself a cosmopolitan for a long time and I thought it was time to see what the professionals had to say on the matter. And of course I’ve been interested in learning more about the relationship between cosmopolitanism and open borders. In particular, to what extent does cosmopolitanism imply open borders and to what extent does the open borders position imply cosmopolitanism?

My initial venture into this field has been The Cosmopolitanism Reader, edited by Garrett Wallace Brown and David Held. I haven’t yet finished the book, which is a collection of essays by cosmopolitan political philosophers, but after a dozen essays I’ve tentatively concluded that self-described cosmopolitan philosophers are for the most part uninterested in open borders. The overwhelming focus is instead on global distributive justice. Issues like climate change are mentioned more often than immigration. And it doesn’t appear to be a peculiarity of this book. A couple other books I’ve glanced through or have lined up to read barely mention migration (or its derivatives) in their indices, if at all.

This isn’t because I misunderstood the definition of cosmopolitanism. From the introduction of the Cosmopolitan Reader:

In its most basic form, cosmopolitanism maintains that there are moral obligations owed to all human beings based solely on our humanity alone, without reference to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, state citizenship, or other communal particularities. […] From this basic ethical orientation, cosmopolitanism as a political theory generally posits three corresponding moral and normative commitments. First, cosmopolitans believe that the primary units of moral concern are individual human beings, not states or other forms of communitarian or political association. Although this does not rule out localized obligations, or render states “meaningless,” cosmopolitanism does insist that there are universal commitments to respect the moral worth of individuals everywhere. Second, cosmopolitans maintain that this moral concern for individual should be equally applied, where “the status of ultimate concern attaches to every living human equally.” […] Third, as the etymology of the word suggests, cosmopolitanism is universal in its scope, maintaining that all humans are equal in their moral standing and that this moral standing applies to everyone everywhere, as if we are all citizens of the world.

Emphasis in original. Individualism, egalitarianism, and universalism. There might be some quibbling over what is supposed to be equal in “egalitarianism”, but this definition seems straightforwardly compatible with open borders, and given my beliefs about the real world economic and distributional effects of a liberal migration regime, I think the definition directly points to open borders. So perhaps the enthusiasm gap has something to do with differences of opinion about the real world effects. One of the few mentions of international migration exceeding a few sentences I have come across in the book (at ~50%) came from Onora O’Neill, who makes the case for cosmopolitanism and global distributive justice by way of Kantian obligations as opposed to appeals to human rights (think ethical supply side rather than demand side). In this section, O’Neill doesn’t come out against open borders so much as she just waves the notion aside. The context of the following is a critique of the limited libertarian view of human rights.

Despite there embargo on redistribution, libertarians could hold positions that have powerful and perhaps helpful implications for the poor of the Third World. Since they base their thought on respect for individuals and their rights, and judge any but minimal states unjust, libertarians view actual states, none of which is minimal, as exceeding their just powers. In particular, libertarian [sic] and other liberals may hold that all interferences with individuals’ movement, work and trade violate liberty. On an obvious reading this suggests that those who are willing to work for less have the right not to be excluded by residence and trades union restrictions and that protective trade polices violate liberties. Libertarians are known for advocating free trade, but not for advocating the dismantling of immigration laws. This may be because their stress on property rights entails an attrition of public space that eats into the freedom of movement and rights of abode of the unpropertied, even within national jurisdictions.

It is hard to see the global import of such radically cosmopolitan libertarianism. Presumably such policies would greatly weaken the position of the relatively poor within rich economies, by undercutting their bargaining power. Ostensibly “perfected” global markets might spread resources more and more evenly across the world’s population: in practice it is doubtful whether a removal of restrictions on movement, abode and trade would achieve this. In an era of automated production, the poor might no longer have anything marketable to sell: even their labour power may lack market value. Concentrations of economic power have been able to form and survive in relatively “free” internal markets: international economic powers could presumably ride the waves of wider competition equally successfully.

Emphases in original. O’Neill seems open to the possibility that free movement across borders could help the global poor in principle, but doubts this would occur in practice. I am on record as doubting how fruitful it is to keep banging on about the economic argument for open borders, suggesting instead that it’s not that people don’t understand the economics (whether they do or not), it’s that they morally disregard the foreigner. O’Neill appears to be a fairly stark counterexample.

I want to stress that I have only begun to get my feet wet in this literature, but if it is the case that self-described cosmopolitans are mostly unconcerned with the status quo regime of controlled migration, then it would be interesting to know why. There are a few possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive.

A cosmopolitan may be unaware of the potential distributional benefits associated with more liberal migration regimes. This reminds me of the Bloggingheads diavlog between the economist Tyler Cowen and the renowned utilitarian Peter Singer (to my knowledge not not a self-identified cosmopolitan, but easily a fellow traveler). In the diavlog, Singer appeared not to have given the matter of international migration much thought.

Cosmopolitans have considered the distributional impact of open borders to some extent but are unimpressed. The cosmopolitan/liberal egalitarian Thomas Pogge has acknowledged* that a global regime more permissive to migration would indeed help to alleviate global poverty, but that open borders could not on its own eliminate poverty and that international migration could only help the relatively better off among the global poor.

[O]ther things being equal, those who accept a weighty moral responsibility toward needy foreigners should devote their time, energy, and resources not to the struggle to get more of them admitted into the rich countries, but rather to the struggle to institute an effective programme of global poverty eradication.
[T]he admission of needy foreigners into the rich countries cannot possibly protect all who now live under dreadful conditions and would want to come. One reason for this is that the number of needy persons in the world […] is simply out of all proportion to the number of needy foreingers which the rich countries admit or could admit. […] For every person we can persuade some rich country to admit, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, left in desperate need.

Pogge’s emphases. This seems like a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, though I should add I haven’t read the full piece due to its unavailability. It is unclear there should be a feeling of either/or between global redistribution and global free migration. In any case the principal difference between cosmopolitans of this flavor and those of us who advocate open borders for the sake of the global poor essentially reduces to an empirical question of which strategy will benefit the poor the most. The moral values of the two camps are aligned, at least on the question of borders (global institutions and redistribution schemes may be a different matter).

My own novice hypothesis is that there may be some ideological self-selection to cosmopolitan identification. Those modern philosophers committed to global wealth redistribution have called themselves cosmopolitans, while others equally committed to the three principles of cosmopolitanism described above but perhaps skeptical of redistribution schemes have avoided the moniker, possibly for that very reason. This could be as basic as a distinction between egalitarians and libertarians: two roads diverged in a wood and the egalitarian took the path of redistribution while the libertarian took the path of open borders.

It’s worth noting that many advocates of open borders discussed on this website have some form of libertarian worldview, as do many of the writers of this website. If there is any truth to this hypothesis, it invites the question of whether this divide is substantive or, more hopefully, permeable. That is, can egalitarian cosmopolitans be persuaded on the merits of open borders? Contrary to Pogge’s assessment, I think the egalitarian could well afford to advocate open borders, even while keeping a commitment to global redistribution. From the perspective of proponents of open borders, cosmopolitans favoring global redistribution should, in principle, be low-hanging fruit for conversion efforts. I maintain that the hardest part of selling open borders is acknowledging the moral worth of the foreigner as a full human being, and that economic arguments are often fig leaves for disregarding the legitimate demands of justice concerning the foreigner. With cosmopolitans, this hardest part of persuasion is already done.

*This argument appeared in an essay titled “Migration and Poverty” in an out-of-print book called “Citizenship and Exclusion“, edited by Veit Bader.