Tag Archives: egalitarianism

A succinct summary of the oppression of closed borders

Political philosopher Jason Brennan recently gave an interesting interview to 3:AM Magazine, focusing primarily on the ethics of voting and political participation. He has some interesting comments on libertarianism and liberalism as well, and this is where the interview becomes relevant to open borders, for Brennan makes this comment (I have made some formatting changes and added emphasis):

I think equality misses the point of social justice. The point isn’t to make people more equal. It’s to make sure first everyone has enough, and then that everyone has more. With that in mind, I find it bizarre that so many people focus on the plight of the least well-off in rich societies, and yet ignore the issue of immigration.

From my point of view, if you do not advocate open immigration, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense. When economists estimate the welfare losses from immigration restrictions, they tend to conclude that eliminating immigration restrictions would double world GDP. The poorest immigrants would see the largest gains. The families and friends they leave behind would see large gains.

Immigration restrictions expose the worlds’ poor to exploitation. If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

I do not think I could have said it any better myself. The conclusions in that final paragraph epitomise my personal journey to full support for open borders.

You can argue that open borders impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on many people as well. But strong claims require strong evidence. The evidence of the oppression of closed borders is staring us in the face. Every person who jumps a wall, swims a river, paddles an ocean, or dodges bullets in search of a better life is telling us just how much open borders is worth to them as an individual, and can be worth to us as a human race.

The economic evidence demanding open borders is compelling. But coupled with the fundamental immorality of oppressing the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth, there is absolutely no way to stomach the status quo. Closed borders are not just another example of governmental inefficiency: they are a graphic illustration of the evil things that humans can do to other people, and of the capacity we have for self-deception.

You can argue that now is not the right time to end immigration restrictions. That we’re not ready. That greater immigration levels bring all kinds of harms which we either absolutely cannot address, or simply cannot find the resources to address. All fair points; I might even agree with you on some of these (I am particularly sympathetic to the argument that a sudden influx of immigrants undermines a strong sense of community).

But these fair points only militate for gradually opening the borders. They demand experimentation with keyhole solutions — policies that mitigate the risks of opening the borders. We have a tendency to think that the status quo of closed borders is desirable. But if current immigration levels are desirable at all (a very dubious proposition), that is only because keeping them this low is a necessary evil — not a positive good. Brennan puts it so well that I can’t help but quote him again for emphasis:

If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

If we have to impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world — if we have to shoot Starving Marvin in the face for the greater good — let’s at least be honest about it. And let’s be absolutely sure that such barbarism for the sake of saving civilisation really is necessary — that we’ve optimised the cruelty of our immigration regimes. The feasibility of open borders may be an open question. But as long as people are dying because governments refuse to give them a legal way to move in search of a better life, the onus is on us to examine the immigration policies enforced in our name. If we must close our borders, close them only as much as we need to, and no more. Fundamental morality demands it.

Phillip Cole’s classic summary of the moral case for open borders

Phillip Cole is a professor of ethics at the University of Wales, Newport and recently wrote half of a book arguing that modern egalitarian liberal ideals demand open borders (the other half, written by another ethicist, took the opposite position that states have extremely broad powers to exclude whomever they desire from entering their territory). In December of 2012, he delivered a lecture summarising the ethical arguments for open borders. I urge you to read it in full, even though if you are familiar with the contents of Open Borders: The Case, not much in Cole’s talk should surprise you.

Cole starts by defining open borders, noting that this is not synonymous with “no borders”:

…the right to cross borders is embodied in international law, but only in one direction. Everyone has the right to leave any state including their own. This is a right that can only be over-ridden by states in extreme circumstances, some kind of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. What we have is an asymmetry between immigration and emigration, where states have to meet highly stringent tests to justify any degree of control over emigration, but aren’t required to justify their control over immigration at all.

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality. This is far from a picture of borderless, lawless anarchy.

Cole builds the ethical argument for open borders on 3 pillars. The first is human agency: as human beings with dignity of our own, we are the captains of our own lives. Those who would prevent us from “authoring our own life story,” as he so eloquently puts it, need to meet stringent tests in order to do so:

Human rights constitute a framework that supplies the conditions people need to become empowered to achieve their own humanity on their own terms.

If we place the right to mobility in this context, we see it as an essential component of human agency, such that it is a crucial part of people’s ability to become free and equal choosers, doers and participators in their communities, including the international community.

An illustration of the power of this idea is how unacceptable we would find it if our right to freedom of movement, including the right to settle, was restricted at the national level. It seems surprising to find how easily people accept the idea that it is alright to block people’s freedom of movement at the international level.

Cole’s second pillar rests on global Rawlsianism (the moral argument I typically find most compelling), and he quite unforgivingly tears apart conventional liberal norms that certain moral rights stop at the water’s edge:

I take it that a central commitment within liberal political morality is the moral equality of persons – not citizens, but persons. This is the universalist and egalitarian ethics that has made liberal political thought so dynamic, yet it’s a universalist and egalitarian ethics which some think stops at the national border…

We can’t exclude anybody from the scope of our moral principles unless there’s a morally relevant difference that justifies us in doing so… And yet we don’t seem to consider that the determination of life prospects by the randomness of birth to be rare and exceptional at all –we just accept it as morally legitimate. But how bizarre is that?

His third pillar is that there are no “common sense” arguments for immigration restrictions; you need to build extremely sophisticated ethical arguments in order to do so. He takes on some very sensible and pragmatic objections (the feasibility of maintaining a welfare state, the overriding importance of citizenist principles, the lost sense of community concomitant with rising immigration levels, the risk of a “swamping” catastrophe, etc.) directly and shows how they are impossible to reconcile with modern moral norms. Rather than quote a third of the lecture to you, I urge you to read Cole’s lecture itself.

In closing, Cole turns to some broader questions, and notes that his analysis is troubling for conventional ideas about citizenship. It’s worth noting that one possible reading of Cole is that all barriers to acquisition of citizenship anywhere are unjust (though Cole never makes this claim himself); this claim I would not find convincing. Cole quite wisely devotes most of his lecture to stressing the immorality of existing barriers to movement.

I am in awe of this lecture, primarily because of how well it summarises the moral case for open borders. Cole unpacks a whole host of arguments in a fairly compact amount of time. In a single bracketed throwaway paragraph, for instance, Cole unleashes the novel (at least to me) argument that citizenist policies are ironically only justifiable in a world with open borders:

[Which side of the border you are born on is clearly arbitrary from a moral point of view, and so this can’t be used to justify the moral priority of insider-rights over out-sider rights. The only way location could be used to justify ethical priority is through freedom of choice– if people have freely chosen to be here rather than there. And so the only way an egalitarian liberal can claim that members’ rights have moral priority over the rights of outsiders is if the members have freely chosen to be members and outsiders have freely chosen to be outsiders – in other words, under conditions of freedom of movement. Ironically, it seems that the only thing that can justify the morality of special rights between co-nationals which over-ride rights of non-nationals is, in fact, complete freedom of international movement.]

Michael Clemens’s lecture “The Biggest Idea in Development that No One Really Tried” is to me the classic summation of the economic case for open borders (though it makes a fairly compelling moral case too). Cole’s lecture is, I daresay, a worthy moral case counterpart to Clemens’s.