The virtues of borders

Much of the philosophical discussion of open borders focuses on the rights of the parties involved. Is there a presumptive right to freedom of movement? Does the state have a presumptive right to restrict, via freedom of association or some other avenue? Rights, in either direction, probably attract the most attention because each side would like to head the other off at the pass and avoid the murkiness of empirical facts and conflicting values. If some right is established, it will foreclose a lot of argumentation.

But perhaps it’s useful to remember there’s still a discussion to be had whichever way the rights question is decided. And just because one might believe a nation has a right to restrict entrance, it hardly follows that exercising that right is the best option, either ethically or economically. Christopher Heath Wellman, author of one of the most well-regarded essays defending the right of a nation to restrict immigration, himself actually favored more liberal immigration rules.

[I] doubt that any one-size-fits-all immigration policy exists, and I, qua philosopher, have no special qualification to comment on the empirical information that would be relevant to fashioning the best policy for any given state. However, if anything, I am personally inclined toward more open borders. My parents were born and raised in different countries, so I would not even be here to write this article if people were not free to cross political borders. What is more, my family and I have profited enormously from having lived and worked in several different countries, so it should come as no surprise that I believe that, just as few individuals flourish in personal isolation, open borders are typically (and within limits) best for political communities and their constituents. Still, just as one might defend the right to divorce without believing that many couples should in fact separate, I defend a legitimate state’s right to control its borders without suggesting that strict limits on immigration would necessarily maximize the interests of either the state’s constituents or humanity as a whole.

With this post I’d like to suggest we ponder what a virtuous approach to migration policy would be, setting aside the important question of rights. This approach risks immediately running aground. Does it even make sense to talk about “virtuous policy”? Can virtue only be discussed in terms of individual behavior? Maybe. But I suspect questions of virtue come up in policy considerations whether it’s appropriate or not. Consider Adam Gurri’s recent thoughts on courage and security.

Everyone, as either a driver or a pedestrian, or both, has had a moment where things could have gone a little differently and ended in severe injury or death. It does not take a great deal of experience with the roads of most metropolitan areas to have such moments. Yet we do not hide in our homes, we do not give up on driving. After feeling the risks acutely, we go on with our lives as before.

We certainly do not demand that the state step in and enact a set of intrusive, byzantine measures to make us feel safer. We simply find the courage in ourselves and continue with our lives.

Whether it’s airport security or mass surveillance, we have sacrificed a great deal of not only liberty, but dignity, for uncertain and unquantifiable gain. The citizens of this country need to find the courage to take that liberty and that dignity back. This does not seem too much to ask of a people who find such courage every single day, when they step into a car.

Ben Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The motivation for this pronouncement of desert is that such a people want for courage. Can we make similar observations about borders?

The empirical cases for and against open borders often implicitly rely on prudential reasoning, as does much economic argumentation. Prudence is here conceived as no-nonsense self-interest. So advocates of open borders point to the massive economic gains to be had by liberalizing migration while restrictionists point to those who might lose out, whether they are unskilled natives in the host country or those rural poor left behind in the sending country.

Solidarity (an instance of faith or loyalty) matters here. The restrictionist may be unimpressed with the prudential calculations of the mobilitarian who downplays the importance of communal solidarity. The unskilled poor natives of the host country may not be as poor as those in the Global South, but they are our poor, and it’s our obligation to look after them. The restrictionist concerned about the poorest of the poor, left behind in remote villages, likewise condemns the relatively well-off emigrants who fail to uphold their obligations of solidarity to their poorer fellow nationals. (I’m leaving to the side for now any discussion of the empirical reality of these concerns.)

The mobilitarian might respond that solidarity is well and good but it is grossly disproportionate to the scale of justice at issue. It is unjust that the citizens of rich countries are privileged by right of birth to enjoy successful institutions that they played no part in creating. Injustice is visited upon the poor of the world when they are forcefully imprisoned in their countries for no other reason than that they were born there.

As to the question of whether emigrants fail in some solidaritous duty to their poorer fellow nationals, one might respond that the individual should have some choice in choosing her identities, where her duties of solidarity lie, and further that this is a matter better left to the emigrant and her co-nationals, rather than outsiders. Certainly chaining an individual to her country of birth for any reason seems to diminish her autonomy, and thus disrespects her dignity.

Speaking of successful institutions, the restrictionist has another appeal to prudence: the institutions of the rich world must be protected, and exposing these institutions to foreigners with very different cultures is simply too risky. This is the familiar Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs critique, which I have considered previously. Like Gurri’s approach to terrorism, the mobilitarian can counter this fear of institutional degradation with an appeal to courage. Are the institutions of the rich world really so fragile that they will fall apart if we open them to the world’s huddled masses, yearning, as they do, to breathe free? One can’t know for certain, but ours is a world of uncertainty, and it’s against precisely this reality of uncertain danger that we gird ourselves with courage.

One can sense between the lines an exhortation to courage in the great Frederick Douglass’s criticism of anti-Chinese sentiment among his compatriots (my emphasis):

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

The question of whether borders should be closed or open would likely not inspire such controversy if it weren’t for the desperate conditions of much of the world. Those favoring open borders often do so out of compassion and, indeed, love for humanity. Such a bleeding heart appeal might risk a kind of macho scoffing retort from those adhering to a politics of toughness. But surely love and compassion play some role in our policy making, lest social welfare programs could never get off the ground. It’s helpful to remember, as always, that opening borders does not impose charitable obligations on anyone, but instead removes barriers standing in the way of migrants bettering their own lots.

Virtues must be balanced against one another. So courage without prudence and temperance is just machismo or foolhardiness. Compassion without prudence is a recipe for exploitation. And justice without temperance and love might give us a Tarantino revenge fantasy. From a virtue perspective, closed borders is all solidarity and jealous prudence, unbalanced by any sense of universal justice or compassion for the stranger; it lacks courage, and maybe even faith in supposedly hallowed institutions. The open borders position is better balanced atop multiple virtues, exhibiting justice and compassion in spades, plus a little faith and courage for good measure, and–if the economists are to be believed–ample prudence in the form of trillion dollar bills waiting to be picked up off the sidewalk. Regardless of whether it is obligated to do so or not, a nation that opens its borders does the virtuous thing, the right thing. And the citizens of such a nation would have reason to take pride in that.

End note: While I found no excuse to reference it in the post, I have only begun to think seriously about virtue ethics since I started reading the Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, by Deirdre McCloskey. I have drawn from it here.

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