Open borders advocates sometimes claim that Rawlsian ethics imply support for open borders. If this is an implication of Rawls’ theory of justice, however, it’s one that Rawls himself does not acknowledge, for reasons he mentions in passing in his book The Law of Peoples:
Concerning the second problem, immigration, in #4.3 I argue that an important role of government, however arbitrary a society’s boundaries may appear from a historical point of view, is to be the effective agent of a people as they take responsibility for their territory and the size of their population, as well as for maintaining the land’s environmental integrity. Unless a definite agent is given responsibility for maintaining an asset and bears the responsibility and loss for not doing so, that asset tends to deteriorate. On my account the role of the institution of property is to prevent this deterioration from occurring. In the present case, the asset is the people’s territory and its potential capacity to support them in perpetuity; and the agent is the people itself as politically organized. The perpetuity condition is crucial. People must recognize that they cannot make up for failing to regulate their numbers or to care for their land by conquest in war, or by migrating into another people’s territory without their consent.
How convincing is this argument?
Rawls’ suggestion that a people should be concerned about their land’s ability to “support them in perpetuity” exhibits a strange neglect of international trade. Almost no country today is economically autarkic. In that sense, no country’s land “supports” its people. Some countries, like the United States, could probably get by without international trade, albeit with a lower standard of living. Others, certainly including Hong Kong and Singapore, but probably Japan too, and many others, could not do so, or only with tremendous difficulty. But that’s not a problem, because they don’t need to. They can buy what they lack from foreigners. A primitive Malthusian notion of carrying capacity seems to be at work in Rawls’ mind, but Malthus has been wrong, most of the time, concerning human populations in the last 200 years. Moreover, if a country were really on the verge of a Malthusian nightmare of mass starvation, it would not be an attractive destination for immigrants. It seems safe to say that there is no country in the world today where existing migration restrictions could be plausibly justified by an argument from limited carrying capacity. Continue reading Rawls’ highly unpersuasive attempt to evade the open borders ramifications of his own theory