A Skeptic’s Movement: Open Borders and Mistrust of Authority

Open Borders is a skeptic’s movement. Advocates claim that one of the world’s most important, and fairly popular, public policies is immoral, inhumane, and inefficient. For some, even the concept of Open Borders is shocking. Aren’t governments supposed to control borders? Won’t Open Borders lead to chaos and disorder?

Open Borders is not the only movement to rely on mistrust of the state. For example, privacy advocates are concerned about the abuse of surveillance by law enforcement agencies. Not only should we be concerned that state officials might use surveillance for personal goals (tracking an ex-girlfriend, for example) but we should also be concerned with more systematic abuse. When state officials gain more access to our bank accounts, phone records, and emails, state repression is more likely.

Similarly, the recent anti-police movement in the United States expresses skepticism of government. These activists argue that police can’t be trusted to use force without supervision and that they should face consequences for their actions. While these activists wouldn’t identify themselves as anti-police, they do criticize the current US policy, which is that police officers are rarely sanctioned for use of force because the law makes it extremely difficult for prosecutors to show that police officers were not concerned about their safety.

An important question to consider about the skeptical movements is how Open Borders relates to mistrust in government as expressed by these other movements. To answer this question, it helps to distinguish between short term mistrust created by specific incidents and deeper distrust emerging from a more sustained criticism of policy.

Mistrust Emerging from Short Term Incidents

Sometimes, people become skeptical of government policy because of a specific incident or cluster of incidents. The reactions to the recent deaths of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and other young Black men in the United State are examples of mistrust driven by incidents. At the time of this writing, there does not appear to be a whole sale criticism of police or the laws that make it easy for police to commit these acts. Yet, a movement has sprung up that seeks punishment for specific police officers or reform in certain places.

Incident-driven skepticism of government can still be useful for movements. They bring attention to an issue, people provide resources, and so forth. An industrious activist can make the connection to broader issues, but this is often hard. Perhaps the most important outcome of these incidents is to challenge local conditions. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri might lead to change in that city, even if it does not result in national reform of the police.

For Open Borders, I suggest the following. There are incidents that can erode the public’s views on migration restrictions and they can be useful, but do not expect them to transform the movement. Instead, use them as short term opportunities to build a movement. Use them to bring people together who might not otherwise interact. They can also be used to gather the resources needed for more systematic action. When incidents occur, Open Borders advocates may provide the intellectual heft that can be used to bolster and support a sustained reform effort in specific places.

Cultivating Deeper Skepticism about Migration Control

In general, it is not clear to me that the distrust around issues like mass surveillance or police violence can be immediately tranferred to migration because policy evaluation seems to depend a lot how people bundle issues. Currently, people bundle issues according to political party, which political scientists call “polarization.” I do not think it is wise to turn open borders into a Democratic or Republican issue just to curry favor from people in one party who might be skeptical of police violence (Democrats) or mass surveillance (libertarian leaning Republicans). Thus, unless we turn open borders into, say, a Democratic issue, it would be hard to bring all the “skeptics” together.

What do I suggest instead? I might avoid thinking about mistrust altogether and focus on showing how open borders is not consistent with popular values. This is a strategy of creating wide scale cognitive dissonance. There are many ways to do this. Incidents that create negative impressions of closed borders can be used to bring people together. But so can educational efforts, court cases, and other forms of action. This is more valuable because it is an alliance that exists independently of parties and of specific incidents, which have short term impacts.

One popular value is human rights. Nearly all democratic governments will base their laws on some form of basic human rights. In the US, the constitution focuses on the rights of speech and due process. In other nations, people may have citizenship rights. Regardless, Open Borders activists may erode support for migration controls by simply pointing out that human beings have a right to peacefully move across national borders as they would internal borders. Open Borders is a natural extension of the belief that people should be left to do as they please as long as they do not harm others.


We often see events that bring existing policy into question. The NSA revelations did this for our nation’s security agencies. Recent police shooting have triggered a similar process for local police departments. But these have not yielded wide scale reform and the attention given to these issues can be ephemeral. Instead, open borders is a movement that shouldn’t be attached to one specific issue, but instead to arguments that can hold together a wide group of people outside of the party system.

Related reading

See also all our blog posts tagged open borders advocacy.

Fabio Rojas is a sociology professor at Indiana University as well as an active blogger. See also:

orgtheory.net, a group blog to which he contributes
Fabio Rojas’ personal academic webpage
Page about Fabio Rojas on Open Borders: The Case

4 thoughts on “A Skeptic’s Movement: Open Borders and Mistrust of Authority”

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure how much it helps to call open borders a “skeptic’s movement” because the word “skeptic” is so relative. Aren’t most of us skeptical of some things, and not of others? I might be skeptical about environmentalism but a true believer in human rights. Someone might be skeptical about market capitalism but a true believer in Darwinian evolution. I see open borders advocates as united, not so much by skepticism, as by belief, e.g. a belief that justice demands freedom of migration, a belief that the right to migrate can greatly expand human freedom and promote human flourishing, a belief in human rights and human dignity, and so forth.

    What does “skepticism” mean, anyway? I take it to mean doubt, abdication of knowledge claims. Is it “skepticism” if I firmly disbelieve in something? I would say no. Firm disbelief is a form of belief, not skepticism. Open borders advocates are not so much skeptical about government, as firm disbelievers in comprehensive migration control. But this need not be associated with skepticism about government in general.

    Rightly or wrongly, and without knowing much about it, I tend to be relaxed about police abuse of power. I tend to think, “Hey, there are tradeoffs in police work, between the risk of hurting innocent citizens, and of acting too late against dangerous criminals. Doubtless, this will sometimes lead to incidents where a policeman kills someone unnecessarily, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t striking the right balance. Probably they are, since crime is down and these incidents are pretty rare. Just act docile and respectful around cops, and you’ll almost certainly be fine.” Now, as I say, maybe I’m underestimating the problem here. But surely there isn’t any inconsistency between this trusting attitude towards the police, and a belief that government shouldn’t prevent people from migrating. I trust migration officials to do their jobs honestly too, for the most part. But while the policeman’s job ought to be done, the migration official’s job shouldn’t.

  2. I think the open borders movement may benefit from publicizing incidents, but not to promote “mistrust of authority”; rather, to awaken people’s intuitions about human rights. If I think you’re doing exactly what you say you’re doing because you believe it’s right, but I fiercely oppose you because I think what you’re doing is wrong, “mistrust” isn’t a good description of my attitude to you. Publicizing police abuse can also awaken intuitions about human rights. But it induces mistrust of authority, too, because everyone thinks the police force ought to catch and punish criminals while respecting the rights of the innocent, we just doubt whether they’re doing it well. In the case of migration control, though, we doubt that it should be done at all.

  3. In some respects, mistrust of authority might even get in the way of open borders advocacy. For example, suppose Person A thinks the police are highly effective in keeping crime down while respecting the rights of the innocent, while Person B things the police are highly ineffective in fighting crime and guilty of many rights violations. Person A might be an easier cover to open borders, because he expects that the police would largely prevent any surge in immigrant crime, while respecting rights. Person B might think open borders will lead to a crime wave, and that the police will be ineffective in stopping it but commit many rights abuses in their attempts to do so.

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