Tag Archives: social contract theory

Citizenism and open borders

This is a guest post by Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Huemer’s webpage is here. His paper Is There A Right To Immigrate? has been referenced at many places on the Open Borders site, particularly on the starving Marvin page. Huemer’s most recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, argues against political authority and for the proposition that anarcho-capitalism is a superior and feasible alternative to the status quo of nation-states. It received a rave review from fellow anarcho-capitalist and open borders advocate Bryan Caplan.


Vipul Naik invited me to contribute a post, and he suggested (among other possible topics) addressing the citizenist argument against open borders. As most readers probably know, this argument claims that the state is justified in closing its borders to foreigners because the state has special duties to promote the interests of its own current citizens, duties that it does not owe toward anyone who is not presently a citizen.

This citizenist argument has three main problems. First, it’s unclear why we should think the government has these special duties. Second, even if the government has special duties to its citizens, the citizenist argument requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Third, even if we ignore the previous two problems, the citizenist argument doesn’t work because one’s having special duties toward certain people does not make it permissible to violate the rights of other people.

I. Does the State Have a Duty to Benefit Citizens?

To begin with, then, why do citizenists believe that the government has special duties to its current citizens? Some just assert this without argument (see, e.g., Steve Sailer). Others appeal to the social contract theory (see, e.g., Sonic Charmer): maybe the social contract requires the government to serve the interests of its own citizens.

Sonic Charmer also pointed out the most obvious problem with this argument (though it doesn’t stop Sonic from embracing the argument anyway):

[A]ll Smart People think the ‘social contract’ is nonsense and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone with a brain believing in it. The whole idea that the basis and legitimacy of a government comes from anything resembling a ‘social contract’ is totally out of favor, and indeed is considered to have been long ago fully and definitively discredited by (whoever … some professor I think).

I could not have said it better. I know of no living person who works on political authority and thinks that we actually have a valid social contract. And I say that after having just written a book on political authority that contains 359 references.

Very briefly, contracts, in any other context, satisfy at least the following four principles: (i) all parties to a contract must have a reasonable way of opting out (without being forced to give up things of great value that belong to them), (ii) explicit, up front statements of non-agreement should generally be recognized as a way of not accepting a contract, (iii) an action cannot be interpreted as signaling agreement, if the terms of the contract would have been imposed on the agent regardless of whether they performed that action or not, and (iv) contracts generally require both parties to undertake enforceable obligations to each other, and if one party repudiates or simply fails to uphold its obligations under the contract, the other party is no longer bound to hold up their end either. The “social contract” violates all of these principles, and blatantly so. This is discussed at length in my recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, chapter 2. This is why I say that the “social contract” bears no resemblance to real contracts, as understood in any other context. If you took someone to court for an alleged “breach of contract”, no court in the world would recognize a claim of contractual obligation if you had nothing better than the sort of arguments that social contract theorists have relied upon.

But let’s say you don’t care what those annoying egghead intellectuals say. They’re always trying to convince us of ridiculous things, like that the Earth is round and that we came from monkeys. There’s a social contract, arguments to the contrary be damned! Okay, but what does the contract require? Here are two views: Continue reading Citizenism and open borders

Citizens versus non-citizens and citizens versus rulers

We at Open Borders have devoted lots of posts to critiquing citizenism, so one might suspect that we’d soon hit diminishing returns. But the theory of citizenism, in so far as it is the main normative ethical perspective that most restrictionists use to make their arguments, conceals a lot of assumptions behind a simple framing, and it’s worth picking these apart. In this blog post, I want to concentrate specifically on an argument that Steve Sailer and others have made: the constitutional/social contract origins of citizenism. The idea is that the constitutions and founding documents of the US and other countries explicitly attest that rulers must give primacy to the interests of citizens.

Co-blogger Chris Hendrix already considered some aspects of this in the context of the United States. Being less knowledgeable or curious about the specifics of history, and more interested in the common thread behind arguments across multiple nations, I wish to approach this issue from a different angle. To that end, I’ll quote Steve Sailer from his blog post, where he quotes the Preamble to the US Constitution:

It’s worth noting that the Preamble to the Constitution is rooted much more in my way of thinking than in Bryan’s:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Emphasis mine]

Sailer is a US-centric citizenist, but citizenists around the world could point to comparable statements in appropriate parts of their nation’s founding documents that affirm something to the effect of the following social contract:

  • The people vest authority in the government.
  • In return, the government promises to put the interests of the people above its own, i.e., instead of politicians working for their private benefit, they work to serve the citizenry who have vested trust in them.

The theory behind this kind of social contract is that the citizenry are ceding something — giving the government a monopoly on the use of violence — and in exchange, demanding that the government work for the interests of the citizenry. Give up something, get something in return. Sounds reasonable. (There are many objections to social contract theory, but this is not the place to go into them).

What alternative arrangements have historically competed with this “citizenistic” social contract? The divine right of kings is in some ways the polar opposite theory — it says that rulers basically have carte blanche to do what they want, because they derive their authority from God. My reading of the citizenistic social contract is thus that it is a contract that seeks to move away from a divine rights of kings framework to a framework where the rulers are bound by the citizenry. In other words, it is a claim about the mutual responsibilities of citizens and rulers.

Under this reading, then, non-citizens don’t enter the picture at all. Thus, the citizenistic framing of various founding documents across the globe cannot be construed as directly implying Sailer-style citizenism which is about favoring the interests of (current) citizens (and their descendants) relative to non-citizens. These two forms of “citizenism” are not inconsistent, but they are far from equivalent.

The hardcore natural rights argument for migration would be that if, prior to the social contract, the (prospective) citizenry did not have the moral right to restrict migration, then the social contract — whereby the citizenry cede some rights to a government — cannot confer on this government the moral right to restrict migration. If the citizens didn’t have the moral right to restrict migration of non-citizens, how could their government acquire a right to do so through a contract signed between the citizens and the government? Continue reading Citizens versus non-citizens and citizens versus rulers