Open Borders, Luck Egalitarianism, and the Common Ownership of the Earth

This is a guest post by Filip Spagnoli. Spagnoli maintains a blog-cum-website on human rights here. His writings on open borders on his website are here.

The post by Spagnoli builds on the Rawlsian veil of ignorance argument for open borders by making the case for open borders in terms of luck egalitarianism, a version of egalitarianism inspired by Rawls. It also makes some of the arguments on the drowning child page of this website, but from a different perspective.

Luck egalitarianism is a school of thought in moral philosophy that argues in favor of interventions in people’s lives aimed at eliminating as far as possible the impact of luck. If you have the bad luck of being born into a poor family, your prospects in life should not be harmed by this and society should intervene in order to correct for it.

I’m not going to endorse luck egalitarianism because it’s a theory that suffers from some serious defects. However, the basic intuition seems sound to me and can be used to argue against immigration restrictions. Your country of birth is also a matter of luck, good luck or bad luck, depending on the country. It’s either good luck or bad luck because the place where you are born has a profound impact on your life prospects. The mere fact of having been born in Bolivia rather than the U.S. makes it statistically more likely that you will be poor, uneducated and unhealthy. Since no one chooses to be born somewhere, no one can be said to deserve the advantages or disadvantages that come with being born somewhere.

Hence, if Americans for example are just lucky to have been born in the U.S. and didn’t do anything to deserve being born there, what right do they have closing their borders and allowing access only to a chosen few selected according to criteria that they have unilaterally decided and that mainly serve their own interests? None whatsoever. In claiming that right they make it impossible for others to do something about the misfortune of having been born in a poor country. Hence, they double other people’s disadvantage.

As Joseph Carens has put it, immigration restrictions are the modern equivalent of feudal privilege, inherited status, birthrights and class rule. In our current, so-called modern and Enlightened societies, the good luck of being born in a wealthy country supposedly gives you the right to exclude others, just as in the olden days the fact of having been born in the class of nobles or aristocrats gave you the right to condemn others to the class of paupers. The lottery of birth yields unfair advantages in both cases.

One may claim that none of this necessarily argues in favor of open borders. The fortunate of this earth could compensate for their good luck by other means. For example, they could have a duty, not to open their borders, but to transfer money and resources to those who have had the bad luck of being born in the wrong country.

Contra Bryan Caplan, I think that assistance is a moral duty, but I fail to see how the fulfillment of this duty could grant you the right to close your borders. Those who argue that assistance is enough often use a domestic analogy. Consider Hugh Hefner, for example. The point is not that he probably wouldn’t have had the wealth he has now if he hadn’t been born in a country (or granted access to a country) where the average citizen is wealthy enough to spend large amounts of money on soft porn. The point is that there are millions of other people in the U.S. who, through no fault of their own, are burdened with bad luck, a lack of talent or a lack of education opportunities making it difficult or impossible for them to collect a Hefnerian amount of wealth, or even just a fraction of it. These people don’t deserve their lack of talent etc., just as poor Zimbabweans don’t deserve to have been born in Zimbabwe. Should Hefner therefore open the doors of Playboy Mansion? Or is it enough that he pays taxes to fund the welfare state? Most would choose the latter option.

What’s the difference between this domestic situation and the international one? If Hefner doesn’t have to welcome thousands of unfortunate U.S. citizens to his Playboy Mansion, why should the whole of the U.S. citizenry have to welcome millions of immigrants onto their territory? Well, because it’s not their territory, at least not in the way Playboy Mansion is Hefner’s property. People don’t have property rights to a part of the surface of the earth like they may have property rights to things. I have a long argument here in favor of the common ownership of the earth, and I invite you to click the link and read it. It’s too long to repeat it here, but suffice it to say that it leads to a strong presumption in favor of open borders without destroying the possibility of having borders and states in the first place.

8 thoughts on “Open Borders, Luck Egalitarianism, and the Common Ownership of the Earth”

  1. ” I have a long argument here in favor of the common ownership of the earth, and I invite you to click the link and read it.”

    I think that talk about land is a bit of a red herring: it’s not the land and territory or natural resources of the rich countries that attract migrants: it’s the people who live there and the institutions that they sustain. If the populations of Africa and the United States switched geographic locations, the Africans would not have their lots in life greatly improved, nor would the Americans be much worse off.

    I see a stronger moral case for international redistribution of natural resource wealth, than redistribution of people to ensure that bad neighbors are evenly distributed among good neighbors, especially if bad neighbors have diminishing marginal effect as their proportion in a region approaches 100%. You can still make a luck egalitarian argument, but it is a weaker one.

  2. It may not be the land and territory – or even the natural resources of the land – that would-be immigrants are after, but I do think that some notion of “this is our land” motivates opponents of immigration. Questionning this notion is relatively easy on moral grounds, I believe, and removes at least part of the rational for immigration restrictions. Of course, it may not weaken other parts, such as those based on cultural identity, labor competition, etc. Those arguments against immigration have to be – and can be – attacked on other grounds.

  3. Filip: Great post, and it’s an honor to have a guest post from you. I wish I could respond to this at more length, it’s so interesting, but I have a tough week with many exams to grade. I wrestled with these same themes in *Principles of a Free Society.* I took a sort of Locke/Coase position, accepting the Lockean view of appropriation from the commons through mixing one’s labor with it as “plausible,” then bringing in Coasean efficiency arguments for showing how to align individual and social incentives via property rights, and arguing that they’re (a) philosophically incompatible at a deep level, yet (b) very effective allies of convenience at a practical level.

    I’m not sure I would accept the idea of common OWNERSHIP of the earth. Perhaps there’s some sense in which that might be true, but it’s so remote from the usual meaning of ownership as to be rather ineffable. Locke actually asserts something like that as a jumping-off point (on Biblical authority) but quickly leaves it behind, since after all, to own something is to control it and to be able to use it, and if we have to get permission from all mankind, we couldn’t use or control anything.

    However, in *Principles of a Free Society,* I develop a theory of streets, basically that in addition to ownership of land that comes from mixing one’s labor with it, e.g. ploughing it, there’s a kind of ownership that comes from using a bit of land for *transit.* If I habitually go from A to B via path C, it’s wrong for others to appropriate path C and do something else with it, e.g., plant crops. BUT this kind of property right is NOT EXCLUSIVE, since your use of the path doesn’t interfere with my use of it (setting aside cases of congestion for the moment). I think we really do own our fields and houses and lawns etc., there’s no “theft” here. But streets and open spaces are public, no one has rights to them which include the right to exclude others, and the citizen/non-citizen distinction is irrelevant here.

    1. Interesting thoughts Nathan. Locke’s account of property is interesting, but in my view ultimately unsuccessful (see my argument – short version – here: ). I also believe that we better not look at property’s origins in order to justify our right to property, but rather at property’s functions and beneficial consequences (see here: )

      Btw, I’ll try to get a hold of a copy of your book. Sounds good.

  4. Also, thanks for the term “luck egalitarianism.” I don’t think I subscribe to it, but I think a lot of people have this intuition, and it’s good to have a label for it.

  5. “I’m not going to endorse luck egalitarianism because it’s a theory that suffers from some serious defects.”

    Then I’m going to go on and endorse it anyway in an instance that I personally like.

    When are we introducing luck egalitarianism that taxes people for having high SAT scores (you were born smart, you lucky devil)? Oh yeah, luck egalitarianism is only used when its a kind of luck you don’t like (often, don’t benefit from personally) and is ignored when its a kind of luck you do like (often benefit from).

  6. One can reasonably endorse an intuition that lies at the basis of a moral theory without fully endorsing the theory itself. E.g. you can believe that the consequences of an action should count in the moral evaluation of the action without having to become a consequentialist. I’m not doing anything different here.

  7. There’s clearly a difference between saying that the consequences of an act should count in its moral evaluation and that ONLY the consequences of an act should count in its moral evaluation. However, I don’t think this example shows what you think it shows – that ‘one can endorse an intuition that lies at the basis of a moral theory without fully endorsing the theory itself’. The intuition that lies at the basis of consequentialism IS that ONLY consequences of an action should count in its moral evaluation. This has implications for your endorsement of the moral intuition that lies at the basis of luck egalitarianism as you characterise it – you can’t endorse the intuition that ONLY luck egalitarian concerns should count in a conception of distributive justice and then not endorse the theory (which as a value monist conception of distributive justice would make the same claim as the intuition). You can deny this and say that the ‘real’ base intuition which supports luck egalitarianism is something like ‘the effects of brute luck ought to be equalised across persons’ – but if you characterise luck egalitarianism as a value monist conception this isn’t true, because under a value monist conception the intuition would also necessarily have to say ‘and equalising for the effects of brute luck is all that matters in a conception of distributive justice’. The value monism must apply to the underlying moral intuition if it is to apply to the conception of distributive justice it supports.

    I’m not entirely sure whether you see luck egalitarian concerns as being compatible with value pluralism or not (in a conception of distributive justice). Either way, I think your view about being able to endorse the intuition but not the theory is problematic. On the one hand, if luck egalitarianism IS compatible with value pluralism, then why not endorse the theory? It doesn’t create any more problems than your endorsing the intuition (without the value monist addition I outlined earlier) because other values can come in and ‘temper’ luck egalitarian claims. Furthermore, if this is the case, you cannot make the claim that we must have open borders without considering other values – you appear to do this unreservedly. On the other hand, if luck egalitarianism is NOT compatible with value pluralism in a conception of distributive justice, then your claim that the underlying intuition of luck egalitarianism is that ‘we should equalise for the effects of brute luck’ is incorrect, because it omits the ‘value monist addition’ to the intuition which is necessary for that intuition to ground a value monist luck egalitarian conception of distributive justice; so you do not endorse the underlying intuition or the theory itself, either.

    Still, I enjoyed the post. Thanks.

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