The progress of freedom

This will be a bold claim, but I think that much of the history of the progress of freedom is summarized in three general patterns:

  1. Accountability vs. sovereignty.
  2. Separation of solidarity from violence.
  3. Rights flow from insiders to outsiders.

Clearly these need some explication.

  1. Accountability vs. sovereignty. By sovereignty, I mean the separation of rulers from the ruled, the claim of certain persons or organizations to be above the law, not answerable for following the moral rules that most people expect one another to abide by. Sovereignty appears to be primordial: at the dawn of history, we see the absolutist phaorohs elevating themselves to divine status and commandeering the labor of Egypt to build them spectacular tombs. The opposite principle, accountability, means people having to render an account, and the hearers of the account being placed, in some way and degree, in a position to judge the adequacy of the account. Accountability is subjection to the moral law. The slogan “a government of laws not men” is one way of putting the struggle of sovereignty vs. accountability. Under sovereignty, accountability consists in the subject being accountable to the sovereign, not the other way around. To make the sovereign accountable creates logical difficulties and a danger of an infinite regress, which is why thinkers like Thomas Hobbes are contemptuous of it, but in fact roundabout, tangled-up, ambiguous, confusing systems of accountability make the framework of freedom in which civilization flourishes. Senate, House of Representatives, Supreme Court, states, Federal Reserve, common law… Who’s in charge here?! There’s no answer, and that’s the point. Nowadays, democracy is taken to be the touchstone of legitimacy, and perhaps the dimly understood yet potent reason for this is that democratic accountability gives the regress somewhere to stop. “Who’s in charge here? The people,” says the democrat. But in truth, elections can’t and shouldn’t be the whole story of accountability: can’t, because of all the logical problems with democratic decision-making noted by (among many others) Buchanan and Tullock (1962) and Arrow (1951/1970); and shouldn’t, because when “the people” do agree, they might agree on doing something very bad, like segregation or slavery or electing Hitler. It’s good if the power of the people to get what they want is hedged about and constrained by courts that protect individual rights and economic technocrats to manage the money supply and international treaties that protect foreigners from the whims of domestic majorities and churches and civil disobedience movements that appeal to higher laws and stand ready to defy the democratic state when it is in the wrong.
  2. Separation of solidarity from violence. The word “solidarity” is not part of an economist’s usual vocabulary, and I don’t find it easy to define, but I think it’s historically important. Solidarity is people working together in pursuit of a common goal. Solidarity is people bonding, forming a group, a shared identity. Solidarity is fans rooting for the local sports team, friends helping one another move house, wearing the school colors or waving the flag or singing the family’s favorite song. An economist, habituated to methodological individualism, or a libertarian, adhering to an individualistic ideology, might want to dispense with it, with the practice, with the concept. It’s a part of human nature and human history. It’s also necessary to achieve all sorts of good ends– even including the cohesion of profit-seeking firms. Miller (1993) painstakingly shows how it’s impossible to arrange incentives within a firm so that the interests of all the individuals who comprise the firm coincide with those of the firm as a whole (in whatever sense). Doubtless, firms are shot through with misaligned incentives and conflicts of interest and operate inefficiently for that reason, but surely there is also a good deal of genuine team spirit and corporate loyalty and forgetfulness of self-interest, in short, solidarity, in firms, that makes them run better than they otherwise could. Of course, this applies more obviously to ideological groupings in civil society– Cato Institute fundraisers doubtless appeal to solidarity when asking donors for cash– as well as churches, nations, and so on. Of course, solidarity is not at all an unmitigated good. It is often a great evil, or at least a means to great, evil ends: the solidarity of white southerners against black civil rights; or the solidarity of the Germans under Hitler against the Jews. Now, at the dawn of history, it seems that solidarity was usually bound up with violence, in two senses: (a) it was in the crucible of war that solidarity was chiefly formed, and (b) the maintenance of solidarity was typically backed up by threats of violence. Of course, this is true even today: the solidarity of the Anglo-American alliance, a crucial historical force in the 20th century, owes much to their fighting two world wars together; the solidarity of the United States itself owes much to various wars going starting with the Revolution, and was also sealed in the Civil War, which set a precedent that perhaps deters would-be secessionists even today by a threat of violence. But as civilization advances more and more forms of solidarity arise that are independent of violence: the Christian church (perhaps ultimately the fountainhead of them all); the monastic orders of the Middle Ages; the “associations” whose abundance Tocqueville celebrated when he visited America in the 1830s; the teeming NGOs of today. Most striking of all, perhaps, are the great civil disobedience movements: Gandhi’s satyagraha campaigns; Martin Luther King’s marchers; and Polish Solidarity, which brought about the fall of communism. But also schools and political parties and sports clubs and, as I said, firms. As freedom progresses, more and more of the groups with which we identify ourselves are consensual. Some institutions, like families, largely retain their form but become more consensual in character, while others, like feudal suzerain-vassal hierarchies or ethnic tribes, vanish, and new, more consensual institutions appear.
  3. Rights flow from insiders to outsiders. Societies entirely lacking in justice and rights seem rare in history, though perhaps that’s only because they don’t produce much that’s worth remembering. Stalin’s Soviet Union, where even, or especially, top Communist leaders were routinely liquidated, might be an example of a society from which every vestige or simulacrum of justice had been utterly erased. Perhaps phaoronic Egypt was like that, I don’t know. But more often, some clique or set around the centers of power enjoys rights and conduct within it is shared by some norms or standards of justice, only no one thinks these norms apply to outsiders. In The Iliad, the Greek heroes appear to have no scruples about seizing women as sexual prizes and raping the wives of the Trojans, yet they do have some sense of justice among themselves, and Agamemnon, when he seizes a girl whom the army had allotted to Achilles, is definitely thought to be in the wrong. The progress of freedom often consists in the extension of rights established among themselves by some clique or inner circle to more and more of those outside the circle. The impressive freedom of speech which existed among the Greek heroes in The Iliad, but which did not extend to the ranks of common soldiers, was later, in the democratic revolution in Athens, extended to the whole people. Early 19th-century Americans prided themselves on their freedom, but did not grant the same freedom to black slaves or Indians. Later on, these freedoms were extended to all Americans. Constitutional government in England began with the Magna Carta, when the barons demanded and won recognition of their rights from the king, but as time passed, the liberties of the English, from habeas corpus to (much later) the vote, were extended to all Englishmen.

In view of these patterns, open borders can be seen as a natural next step in the progress of freedom.

  1. My co-blogger John Lee, in posts like this and this, highlights the arbitrariness and lack of accountability in immigration enforcement. Discretionary exercise of consular authority to exclude and deport people is an anomalous bastion of unaccountable sovereignty, a bewildering and often shocking exception to “government by laws, not men.” But to abolish discretion would be to recognize some sort of right to migrate, which virtually implies open borders, at least in an attenuated form.
  2. In immigration restrictions, solidarity continues to express itself in the form of violence against outsiders. We are we, therefore they must go. The maintenance of our collective identity somehow depends on the expulsion by force of foreign-born persons, the separation of families, the splitting up of communities, etc. The long transition from violent to peaceful forms of solidarity suggests that history will tend to move away from this.
  3. Open borders consists of extending some of rights of citizens, won in part through political struggle but demanded ex ante and recognized ex post as the requirements of justice quite apart from historical contingencies, to the foreign-born.

I don’t mean to say that open borders are inevitable. Logically, I don’t see why the progress of freedom should be inevitable, and while history gives considerable reason for optimism, it also shows that vast backsliding is possible. The early modern period in most of Europe seems to have seen a major reversal of the progress of freedom that had been attained in the High Middle Ages. Slavery, which had largely disappeared in medieval Europe, began again in the New World. Absolutist sovereignty gained ground at the expense of medieval accountability, with its patchwork of customary and feudal rights, including the parliaments and Cortes and Estates-General and zemskiy sobor and so on, which were eviscerated or ceased to be summoned. This was true even in England to some extent before 1640. Again, a major reversal in the progress of freedom occurred in the early 20th century, from which in some respects we have yet to recover. But open borders is the sort of advance that the progress of freedom, when it happens, has historically tended to realize.   


Buchanan, James M., and Gordon Tullock. The calculus of consent: Logical foundations of constitutional democracy. Vol. 100. University of Michigan Press, 1962.
Arrow, Kenneth J. Social choice and individual values. Vol. 12. Yale university press, 1970.
Miller, Gary J. Managerial dilemmas: The political economy of hierarchy. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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