What do governments owe non-citizens?

A common intuitive response to the case for open borders is, “What do I owe someone I’ve never met, who shares no creed, affiliation, or allegiance with me? What does my government owe someone who isn’t even a citizen?” Co-blogger Nathan has already addressed this line of thought in his own way, but I would like to further grapple with the assumptions underlying this citizenist logic.

The problem I see with this intuition about immigration is it totally denies the existence of any human rights. It presumes that all rights must flow from the existence of a nation-state, and that without the state, one would have no rights. From a law enforcement perspective, this is trivially true: the state is the instrument by which human beings mutually guarantee our rights. But from a moral standpoint, it hardly follows that states only owe anything to their constituents, and owe nothing to anyone else.

Suppose it is true that governments’ only role and mandate is to maximise the welfare of their citizens. Would that justify the hostile annexation of a neighbouring state? Would that justify permitting the theft of non-citizens’ property, or assault against non-citizens? Clearly not.

One can argue that the reason modern states prohibit crimes against foreigners is because of the threat of retaliation from foreign states. Does that imply that it would be fine for any one of us to rob, rape, or kill a stateless person, since we have no retaliatory threat to fear?

You could argue then that this would still be a net welfare loss for the nation, because other states might refuse to protect my nation’s citizens in their jurisdictions, unless they see that my nation too upholds the sanctity of human rights. Precisely! Many rights do not flow from the state; they flow from the innate worth and dignity of every human being.

When the topic of open borders comes up, skeptics are quick to say: “But we can’t let everyone in! What do we owe foreigners? We can’t afford to give everyone welfare! And look, not everyone is entitled to be a citizen of my country.” But welfare, suffrage, the privileges of citizenship — those are all political rights, which obviously and by necessity flow only from a state. Beyond political rights, there are fundamental human rights, which the international community and all reasonable human beings recognise derive from no earthly governing body.

Defenders of the status quo love to say “the law is the law; it must be followed” when it comes to immigration. When asked to defend the law on its merits, they insist there is no need to, because every sovereign nation is entitled to its own immigration policy. That may be true, but every human being is entitled to rights of their own too.

We accept that governments have the right to kill people. We accept that they have the right to coerce people. But we would not take it lying down if tomorrow our government told us “I’m going to kill 5,000 people, because I feel like it.” Americans would not be happy if their government said “I’m going to reinstate the draft, because I have the right to do that.” Even the most hardcore restrictionist would probably be unsure about defending the merits of an immigration policy that executes all illegal border-crossers on sight — even though illegal immigrants supposedly have no rights which a foreign state is bound to respect.

None of this is to say that human rights dictate that sovereign governments have no right to an immigration policy, any more than most understandings of international trade would suggest that sovereign governments have no right to a trade policy. But human rights create a strong presumption that governments must rebut before implementing policies that restrict human rights. If a government wants to conscript its residents, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.” And if a government wants to tear families apart, or prevent people from looking for gainful employment, it needs to have a better justification than “Because I can.”

When government policies destroy families and destroy jobs, there is a clear obligation to justify these policies. You can argue that the benefits of denying certain rights outweigh the costs. But you cannot suggest that the costs are irrelevant. It is amply evident that every human being has rights, and yet that all these rights can be infringed as long as nation states exist. But we must be clear about why we make the difficult choice to declare some human beings’ rights not worth respecting.

Were the UK and US right to deny visas to Jews fleeing the Holocaust? Is it right for the UK or US to prevent a native-born child from living with his mother, because she is an unauthorised immigrant? Maybe — there’s a plausible argument that what these governments did and do here is right. But it is not an easy, slam dunk argument to make. The conventional response is that there is no need to make such an argument: governments have no obligations to foreigners; foreigners have no rights or dignity as human beings that are worth respecting. I think this conventional response does not actually make the difficult questions around these policy decisions go away.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


7 thoughts on “What do governments owe non-citizens?”

  1. One point I would like to make is the tension between many restrictionists’ citizenist reasoning and their defense of collective property rights and the fact that they are uncomfortable rejecting universalism definitively. Your comment thread discussion with Sonic Charmer on his I, Citizenist blog post is one example, but an even more striking one is a comment on Bryan Caplan’s post:

    I am probably more familiar with Dennis’ work than you are, and for you to suggest that he trades the humanity of immigrants at a discount by using selective quotation and a logical hyperleap of wormhole proportions is beneath your talents. You’re cleverer than that.

    It seems that some people who make a host of citizenist arguments are uncomfortable with the underlying moral logic of citizenism and accuse others of accusing them of subscribing to that underlying moral logic. Of course, there are others, like Sailer, who are willing to swallow citizenism wholesale, but Sailer is probably at the leading edge and a minority individual in this regard.

    1. “the underlying moral logic of citizenism”

      This looks like act-omission distinction, or side-constraints, to me. People say murder is wrong but don’t give away all their money for vaccinations, spending on self and family. Not naive consequentialist, but normal: thinking charity or opening a community to new entrants are superogatory.

      Similarly people find it offensive to be accused of murder for going on a family vacation instead of donating the money to pay for vaccinations. Murder implies very different character and other traits than simply not dedicating all one’s resources to extending lives. A general rule of not committing murder is in expectation to the benefit of almost everyone, while the charity/open borders rule predictably helps some and hurts others. Avoiding murder may be costly in a particular case, but accepting the rule against it in advance will be helpful for most people, and it makes sense as part of a mutually beneficial social contract.

      1. BK, the fact that people spend their money on personal recreation rather than donate to life-saving charity (or at least investigate the possibility) is prima facie evidence that they discount the humanity of others relative to their own. This is exactly what Mangan is doing with the citizen/non-citizen distinction rather than the self/other distinction. Then, why the outrage at having the assumption pointed out explicitly?

        Your analogy is interesting, but Caplan *wasn’t* accusing Mangan of supporting murder, but simply pointing out that Mangan was discounting the interests of foreigners relate to citizens. Caplan has raised mass murder in other related posts (including one linked to), but more to illustrate that even hardcore citizenists do oppose mass murder and acknowledge moral side-constraints, not to suggest that they endorse mass murder. He is using restrictionists’ opposition to mass murder as a starting point in trying to convince them toward his position.

  2. Citizenism is most compelling when it is plausibly aligned with long-term outcomes for humanity. I would distinguish those cases from weaker citizenist arguments which are not consistent with universalism.

    One example of the more compelling type of citizenist argument is any coherent case that long-term technological advancement is slowed down by too much low IQ immigration into the most creative countries. If that is true, I don’t see how one can be confident that the immediately visible welfare gains aren’t outweighed, possibly by a factor of 1000+, by the eventual losses.

  3. John,

    The problem I see with this intuition about immigration is it totally denies the existence of any human rights.

    Er, no. Someone living in, oh, Latvia has the right to life, liberty, and property just as I do, and what I/my government ‘owe’ to that person, or any other, is not to violate those rights. It’s just that my government placing conditions on when/whether they can immigrate to this country is no such violation. You only get the result that it is by speaking of *how much it would increase that person’s welfare if they could*, thereby eliding the difference between (a) violating a person’s rights and (b) *not taking some positive action* that might be thought/argued to increase a person’s welfare. Or, more generally, by confusing negative rights with positive ‘rights’. This may all seem like a huge dilemma or contradiction to you but it presents no problem to people such as myself (and, I would have thought, libertarians) to whom that negative/positive rights distinction is actually important if not crucial.

    Maybe — there’s a plausible argument that what these governments did and do here is right. But it is not an easy, slam dunk argument to make.

    You have front-loaded the argument to ridiculous extent here. Let me just agree with you that (in any given case for restriction) it is not likely to be an ‘easy, slam dunk argument’. But we are now a far, far cry from actually making a case FOR ‘open borders’. There is just a huge excluded middle between restrictionism arguments not being a ‘slam dunk’ and open borders therefore being the way to go.

    The conventional response is that there is no need to make such an argument: governments have no obligations to foreigners

    On the contrary, my presumption would be that (unless ‘open borders’ ideology were to prevail) this argument would be taking place all the time, via the political and bureaucratic processes in place for deciding such things! But that, of course, presupposes tacit agreement among everyone involved that it’s ok for governments to decide and argue over such things in the first place, i.e. that the government has the theoretical right to make borders rules. So, if it’s those arguments that you want, then great, you have conceded the possibility of anything resembling ‘open borders’ at the outset, and we have no real dispute.


    the fact that people spend their money on personal recreation rather than donate to life-saving charity (or at least investigate the possibility) is prima facie evidence that they discount the humanity of others relative to their own.

    No! Not at all! I reject this and think to say this is to use the phrase ‘discount the humanity of’ in a very, very idiosyncratic way. I ‘value the humanity of’ all individuals at 100% of par, for what it’s worth. But I would say this just doesn’t mean that I’m not going to feed and house my own kids preferentially. Why would it? The one thing has nothing to do with the other. Again, unless you use the phrase ‘value of the humanity of’ in a weird, loaded way, a way in which ‘valuing the humanity of’ someone is somehow *defined* to mean giving them some amount of money or whatever.

    So yes you are right to identify this as a sticking-point for ‘citizenists’ like me.


    Overall I still think the larger sticking-point between you vs. me is a failure to apprehend the ‘social compact’ theory of government (which is what I’d also think Sailer’s business-school example is getting at). What I would be interested in hearing from any of you would be your answers to questions like:

    Why does the U.S. government exist?
    Why is it allowed to wield power over people like me and take my money? More to the point: why are the individuals involved in it allowed to do that?
    Why are the members/employees of the U.S. government, as individuals, allowed to receive paychecks out of my money?
    Let alone, to tell me what to do?

    Normally I do not bother to ask myself these questions. But if/when I become convinced that they have taken to heart your ideas about how they have a moral obligation to take positive actions to increase the welfare of *other people* as against myself, my family, and the others who actually live under (and fund) them, I have to admit these are the questions that start to come to mind.


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