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.

10 thoughts on “Cosmopolitanism: global redistribution versus open borders?”

  1. This is very interesting. I found this quote rather disturbing:

    ” Libertarians are known for advocating free trade, but not for advocating the dismantling of immigration laws.”

    Is this changing? Or has the Tea Party movement made it more true than ever?

  2. For context, I think Onora O’Neill’s essay was originally published in 1991. I’m not sure what her most recent thoughts on the varieties of libertarianism are, or her thoughts on immigration, for that matter.

  3. A few years ago I read Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah and your well written article made me go back and look at it again. Appiah assumed that people in a decent world should be able to move around more. He spends a large part of the book trying to define the obligation we have to strangers and how it differs from the obligation we have to those in our inner circle. Perhaps the relationship of cosmopolitanism to open borders is that people are going to have to become more cosmopolitan before they start to accept open borders. The book is a very good introduction to cosmopolitanism and is quite readable.

  4. ” 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… From the perspective of proponents of open borders, cosmopolitans favoring global redistribution should, in principle, be low-hanging fruit for conversion efforts.”

    Seems right.

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