Open borders versus no borders: my take

The Open Borders site has a page on the distinction between open borders and no borders. The main proponent of “no borders” that I know of is Robert Higgs, who explicitly says:

I will say, in case anybody cares, that despite permitting my name to appear on the letter, it does not represent my own views accurately. I am not for (or against) open (or closed) borders; I am against borders and the organized criminal gangs who draw them in the dirt and then threaten with violence anyone who crosses the line. Of course, my ideal world is not about the erupt.

In various blog posts, my co-blogger John Lee has tangentially alluded to open borders as a moderate position compared to the radical idea of no borders. Probably unlike John and possibly also unlike my other co-blogger Nathan (see the note at the end), I self-identify as a philosophical anarchist, though I’m agnostic about the feasibility of anarchism.

Quick summary of the distinction: a philosophical anarchist is somebody who rejects the idea of the legitimacy of the nation-state. A political anarchist advocates for anarchism as a superior alternative to the nation-state. One can be a philosophical anarchist — in the sense of not viewing the state as morally legitimate — while still not being a political anarchist in the sense of believing that anarchism is necessarily an alternative worth expending effort to work towards or an alternative that will necessarily produce superior outcomes.

Note also that political anarchism comes in two flavors: “anarcho-capitalism” and “anarcho-socialism.” For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll stick to anarcho-capitalism, which is the philosophical stance of open borders advocates such as Bryan Caplan (see here) and Michael Huemer (see his book The Problem of Political Authority).

My personal take: I’m far from sure about the potential for anarchist orders that will perform a lot better than nation-states holding the quality of people roughly constant. I think it’s plausible, but I’d like to see a lot more evidence of anarchism in action at a small scale before I can sign on to political anarchism. Incidentally, Michael Huemer’s book The Problem of Political Authority (see also Bryan Caplan’s book review) offers an excellent case for the long-term potential of anarchism and a description of how the world could feasibly move towards anarchism. I think it’s a great case, and the main reason I’m not convinced is that it’s too far ahead for me to even trust my intuition as to how it might work out. It’s for roughly the same reason as the reason I approach claims about the technological singularity and its aftermath with skepticism.

But, where I differ from John is in the implicit stance that seems to be reflected in his writing that open borders is the moderate, sane position compared to anarchism, which is a crazy, straw-man position. Even if I don’t sign on to anarchism yet (for lack of evidence about it and for the very long time period that would be needed to bring it to fruition) I don’t think it’s an idea that deserves to be scoffed at or thrown out of the room. If for no other reason, because many forms of political organization (such as representative democracy with universal adult franchise) have passed from heresy and scoff-worthy curiosity to entrenched dogma.

Rhetorically, putting open borders as a “middle” position between the status quo on the one hand and “no borders” anarchism (of the sort espoused by people like Robert Higgs) on the other, will appeal to people on account of the Overton window phenomenon. Nonetheless, I think that this approach is mistaken for two reasons.

  1. Even if you are a moderate nation-statist of the sort that John is (and I believe Nathan is), anarchist theory of the sort offered by Huemer offers a number of insights into the flaws in the arguments typically used to justify the nation-state which I think you will tend to agree with. Perhaps anarchists like Huemer (and others who are less intellectually rigorous than Huemer) exaggerate the problems with the case for the nation-state. Still, given how little attention people pay to anarchism and how much attention they pay to citizenistic and nationalistic ideas, I suspect that even people such as John, Nathan, and me who land in or near the middle have much to learn from the likes of Huemer, simply because we get to hear the pro-nation-state side so much more and the anarchist side so little. I’m not saying we should take every armchair anarchist seriously. But we should be careful not to dismiss the best anarchist arguments. As a factual matter, I haven’t found anarchists any less insightful about social matters than their more mainstream counterparts. If anything, it’s the opposite: Bryan Caplan is one of the most insightful bloggers on social matters, and he self-identifies as an anarcho-capitalist.
  2. The more important reason is that there is a non-negligible probability that the anarchist case is basically correct. In this case, as Huemer suggests, over the next few centuries, the world will gradually transition to a more anarchist framework. Functions commonly associate with the nation-state, such as police, defense, and arbitration, will be increasingly taken on by private parties through (broadly) voluntary agreements. The status of legislation is more ambiguous, and Huemer offers a plausible scenario where explicit legislation essentially disappears, with common law (case law) taking its place. Most Anglican law (which forms the basis of most modern laws worldwide) was developed as case law, so this is not impossible to imagine.

    Restrictionists often scoff at open borders arguing that open borders undermine sovereignty and undermine the foundations of the nation-state. Both Nathan and John have pointed out that this is not necessarily the case: open borders can co-exist with a robust and strong nation-state. In the short run, I believe they are right: open borders are fairly consistent with both strong and weak nation-states. In the longer run, things are unclear. One could make a Huemerian case that open borders will play a crucial role in speeding up the gradual move from what we might roughly call democratic capitalism-cum-socialism to anarcho-capitalism. This may happen, for instance, by increasing the speed with which people can move around between jurisdictions to experiment with the creation of new communities. It may happen simply because open borders increase people’s overall wealth, knowledge, and entrepreneurship. If, in fact, anarchism is the right way to go morally, and if, in fact, it is what the very long run has in store for us, I think it’s quite likely that open borders will accelerate the march towards anarchism.

I will close by noting where I agree with John, and where I think the anarchists and the mainstreamers can agree in general. “Open borders” of the sort we advocate and consider on this site is, in relative terms, less radical, and more plausible to achieve in the short term, than “no borders” of the Robert Higgs variety. It is also therefore easier to speculate on their consequences with more of a hope of being at least within the ballpark of the truth. Thus, it makes sense to advocate for open borders in the short run, even as we disagree about the desirability of (and relatedly, the inevitability of) an anarcho-capitalistic order in the long run. Indeed, this is why anarcho-capitalists like Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer make the case for open borders within the nation-state framework, though in the process of making that case, they (secretly) borrow many of their own tools from their case for anarcho-capitalism.

NOTE: My understanding of Nathan’s position (based on his book Principles of a Free Society, — buy here) is that he rejects the idea of “sovereignty” which one can think of as blank check political authority. Rejection of blank check political authority could coexist with belief in the legitimacy of some forms of nation-states operating under some types of constraints, and Nathan provides a minarchist justification of the nation-state in his book (as far as I understand). Philosophical anarchism is a somewhat more radical position, namely that just because a nation-state promises to protect your rights does not entitle it to legitimacy. Nonetheless, even philosophical anarchism (a position I subscribe to) is consistent with the view that the nation-state, despite its illegitimacy, does end up doing a better job than the alternatives. The main practical implication of philosophical anarchism is that a philosophical anarchist does not feel morally obliged to obey even the “reasonable” injunctions of the nation-state, and obeys them only if required to or desirous to do so for other reasons, or out of fear of punishment.

6 thoughts on “Open borders versus no borders: my take”

  1. I think this is a really excellent discussion of philosophical and political anarchism – which may not be what readers would expect from the title 🙂
    Do you think we should be concerned, then, that if open borders are likely to move the world in a more anarchist direction, this makes the job of persuading people of the open borders position much more difficult? Presumably, most people are much less inclined to be convinced of anarchism than of open borders, and most people assume that the disappearance of governments would have disastrous consequences, much more so than mere large scale migration.

    1. I think that the argument that open borders will move the world in an anarchist direction is closely linked to, and conditional to, the argument that anarchism is a feasible and superior alternative. In other words, in my view, either both positions are true or both positions are false. Those who reject the latter should also reject the former. Thus, I’m not too worried about open borders leading to anarchism being an argument that reduces the persuasiveness of open borders.

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