The generally accepted idea that the institutions of countries and citizenship have considerable moral relevance has always struck me as bizarre. To me, it seems obvious, on the face of it, that where a person was born, or who a person’s parents are, are arbitrary matters (that said person has no influence over) and therefore cannot be relevant to such evaluative questions as whether that person has a right to rent property or accept a job in location X. (See John Lee’s post on Phillip Cole’s moral argument for open borders, which also relies on this point.) Likewise, where we have come to conventionally draw borders on maps seems to me a matter of historical circumstances that virtually nobody alive today has any responsibility in and that therefore can have little moral relevance in evaluating people’s actions. (While I think some compelling consequentialist arguments can be made along the lines that disrespecting existing borders might dangerously offset an equilibrium, I do not think this kind of argument can take you all that far. More on this in an upcoming post.)
Perhaps most people can at least relate to my prima facie attitude described in the previous paragraph, but I am clearly in a small minority in persisting in such a view in the face of common political discourse. Almost everybody treats the moral relevance of countries and citizenship as a given (often in the form of citizenism).
This renders discussions of the morality of migration restrictions difficult and unpromising for people with views similar to mine, as it seems that those who disagree with me reason from entirely different starting points and have very different ideas about who holds the burden of proof, compared to my views. Consider the last paragraph from a response by Sonic Charmer (aka The Crimson Reach) to Michael Huemer’s guest post on Open Borders:
Let’s just note that in this ridiculous construction, not allowing someone to permanently relocate to the United States has been equated with abusing them to one’s heart’s content. Is this a real argument? I don’t think so. Even if the intended point here were stated in a more sober and less straw-manny way, the problem is that there is simply no Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The United States Of America. Such a thing is, if anything, even more problematic and mythical than the concept of a literal ‘social contract’. But if the professor nevertheless thinks there is such a Universal Human Right, where did it come from? Why didn’t he include his actual argument for its existence in that (already very long) piece?
The idea, as I understand it, is that the onus is on Michael Huemer to establish the existence of a Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US. (Thomas Sowell expresses apparently the same view here.) This task seems hopeless, as the idea of a “Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US” seems ridiculous. I agree that it seems ridiculous, but not because I do not think that people are generally within their (moral) rights to move to the US. I also think it would seem ridiculous to posit a Universal Human Right To Ride A Bicycle On A Tuesday, even though people generally are well within their rights to do so. We simply do not normally talk of moral rights to actions with specific, morally irrelevant features. (Compare this point with the 9th amendment to the US Constitution; HT: Vipul.) Given that I see no good reason for considering countries morally relevant in such matters, I contend that all that is needed is a right to rent property and to accept a job, and that the burden of proof is on restrictionists to establish that the geographical location of the property or of the work environment nullifies this right.
When I say that I see no good reasons to overrule the prima facie moral irrelevance of countries I described above, I suspect that many people will diagnose me with outrageous naiveté and ignorance of strong arguments that “everybody knows” (even if they may not be able to properly articulate those arguments themselves, but then they might defer this task to figures of “obvious authority”). But while this puts me under some social pressure to pretend otherwise, the truth is that no arguments I have heard for the moral relevance of countries have seemed compelling, let alone sufficient to me.
If I were to attempt an Ideological Turing Test (i.e. to argue the position that countries are morally relevant as best I can), I might try a social contract angle, a “fragile political equilibrium” angle, a “collective property” angle, a social capital angle, a “brain drain” angle, a “differences in national IQ and personality factors averages” angle, or a “cultural differences” angle, and perhaps I would not fare much worse than many people who really hold that position – but I would find myself very unconvincing, especially because it seems to me that most of these arguments are compelling only if we’re already assuming that countries are morally relevant. (This is particularly true of the welfare state objection to open borders, as the moral relevance of countries seems essential to justifying a national welfare state as opposed to non-nation-bound welfare programs.)
Since it seems necessary to me to take such a “back to basics” approach, given the persistent disagreement about what the morally relevant starting points are, I hereby issue a bleg: What are the strongest arguments (both in objective terms and in terms of their appeal to the masses) for the moral relevance of countries – particularly concerning such questions as where one may rent property and work? (Not excluding arguments pertaining to one of the “angles” I’ve listed above – I do not claim to have conclusively laid the viability of any of these general lines of argument to rest.)
Afterthought: Although this is isn’t what I primarily have in mind, Vipul’s previous bleg about universalist defenses of citizenism might provide an interesting way of approaching this question, too.