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The case for open borders

The discretionary control that states exercise over immigration is unjust. People should normally be free to cross borders and live wherever they choose.

Royal border bridge. Strep72/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Borders have guards and the guards have guns. This is an obvious fact of political life but one that is easily hidden from view—at least from the view of those of us who are citizens of affluent democracies. If we see the guards at all, we find them reassuring because we think of them as there to protect us rather than to keep us out. To Africans in small, leaky vessels seeking to avoid patrol boats while they cross the Mediterranean to southern Europe, or to Mexicans willing to risk death from heat and exposure in the Arizona desert to evade the fences and border patrols, it is quite different. To these people, the borders, guards, and guns are all too apparent, their goal of exclusion all too real. What justifies the use of force against such people? Perhaps borders and guards can be justified as a way of keeping out terrorists, armed invaders, or criminals. But most of those trying to get in are not like that. They are ordinary, peaceful people, seeking only the opportunity to build decent, secure lives for themselves and their families. On what moral grounds can we deny entry to these sorts of people? What gives anyone the right to point guns at them?

To many people the answer to this question will seem obvious. The power to admit or exclude non-citizens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community that seeks to exercise self-determination. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise control over admissions in pursuit of its own national interest and the common good of the members of its community, even if that means denying entry to peaceful, needy foreigners. States may choose to be generous in admitting immigrants, but, in most cases at least, they are under no moral obligation to do so.

I want to challenge that view. In principle, borders should generally be open and people should normally be free to leave their country of origin and settle wherever they choose. This critique of exclusion has particular force with respect to restrictions on movement from developing states to Europe and North America, but it applies more generally.

In many ways, citizenship in Western democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal class privilege—an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances. To be born a citizen of a rich state in Europe or North America is like being born into the nobility (even though many of us belong to the lesser nobility). To be born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages (even if there are a few rich peasants and some peasants manage to gain entry to the nobility). Like feudal birthright privileges, contemporary social arrangements not only grant great advantages on the basis of birth but also entrench these advantages by legally restricting mobility, making it extremely difficult for those born into a socially disadvantaged position to overcome that disadvantage, no matter how talented they are or how hard they work. Like feudal practices, these contemporary social arrangements are hard to justify when one thinks about them closely.

Reformers in the late Middle Ages objected to the way feudalism restricted freedom, including the freedom of individuals to move from one place to another in search of a better life—a constraint that was crucial to the maintenance of the feudal system. Modern practices of state control over borders tie people to the land of their birth almost as effectively. Limiting entry to rich democratic states is a crucial mechanism for protecting a birthright privilege. If the feudal practices protecting birthright privileges were wrong, what justifies the modern ones?

The case for open borders

The analogy I have just drawn with feudalism is designed to give readers pause about the conventional view that restrictions on immigration by democratic states are normally justified. Now let me outline the positive case for open borders. I start from three basic interrelated assumptions. First, there is no natural social order. The institutions and practices that govern human beings are ones that human beings have created and can change, at least in principle. Second, in evaluating the moral status of alternative forms of political and social organisation, we must start from the premise that all human beings are of equal moral worth. Third, restrictions on the freedom of human beings require a moral justification. These three assumptions are not just my views. They undergird the claim to moral legitimacy of every contemporary democratic regime.

The assumption that all human beings are of equal moral worth does not mean that no legal distinctions can be drawn among different groups of people, nor does the requirement that restrictions on freedom be justified mean that coercion is never defensible. But these two assumptions, together with the assumption that the social order is not naturally given, mean that we have to give reasons for our institutions and practices and that those reasons must take a certain form. It is never enough to justify a set of social arrangements governing human beings by saying that these arrangements are good for us, whoever the ‘us’ may be, without regard for others. We have to appeal to principles and arguments that take everyone’s interests into account or that explain why the social arrangements are reasonable and fair to everyone who is subject to them.

Given these three assumptions there is at least a prima facie case that borders should be open, for, again, three interrelated reasons. First, state control over immigration limits freedom of movement. The right to go where you want is an important human freedom in itself. It is precisely this freedom, and all that this freedom makes possible, that is taken away by imprisonment. Freedom of movement is also a prerequisite to many other freedoms. If people are to be free to live their lives as they choose, so long as this does not interfere with the legitimate claims of others, they have to be free to move where they want. Thus freedom of movement contributes to individual autonomy both directly and indirectly. Open borders would enhance this freedom.

Of course, freedom of movement cannot be an unqualified right, if only for reasons like traffic control and other requirements of public order, But restrictions require a moral justification, i.e., some argument as to why the restriction is in the interest of, and fair to, all those who are subject to it. Since state control over immigration restricts human freedom of movement, it requires a justification. This justification must take into account the interests of those excluded as well as the interests of those already inside. It must make the case that the restrictions on immigration are fair to all human beings. There are restrictions on border crossing that meet this standard of justification (e.g. limiting the entry of terrorists and invading armies), but granting states a right to exercise discretionary control over immigration does not.

The second reason why borders should normally be open is that freedom of movement is essential for equality of opportunity. Within democratic states we all recognise, at least in principle, that access to social positions should be determined by an individual's actual talents and effort, and not on the basis of birth-related characteristics such as class, race, or gender that are not relevant to the capacity to perform well in the position. This ideal of equal opportunity is intimately linked to the view that all human beings are of equal moral worth, that there are no natural hierarchies of birth that entitle people to advantageous social positions. But you have to be able to move to where the opportunities are in order to take advantage of them. So, freedom of movement is an essential prerequisite for equality of opportunity.

It is in the linkage between freedom of movement and equality of opportunity that the analogy with feudalism cuts most deeply. Under feudalism, there was no commitment to equal opportunity. The social circumstances of one’s birth largely determined one’s opportunities, and restrictions on freedom of movement were an essential element in maintaining the limitations on the opportunities of those with talent and motivation but the wrong class background. (Gender was another pervasive constraint.) In the modern world, we have created a social order in which there is a commitment to equality of opportunity for people within democratic states (at least to some extent), but no pretence of, or even aspiration to, equality of opportunity for people _across _states. Because of the state’s discretionary control over immigration, the opportunities for people in one state are simply closed to those from another (for the most part). Since the range of opportunities varies so greatly among states, this means that in our world, as in feudalism, the social circumstances of one’s birth largely determine one’s opportunities. It also means that restrictions on freedom of movement are an essential element in maintaining this arrangement, i.e., in limiting the opportunities of people with talents and motivations but the wrong social circumstances of birth. Again, the challenge for those who would defend restrictions on immigration is to justify the resulting inequalities of opportunity. That is hard to do.

A third, closely related point is that a commitment to equal moral worth entails some commitment to economic, social, and political equality, partly as a means of realising equal freedom and equal opportunity and partly as a desirable end in itself. Freedom of movement would contribute to a reduction of existing political, social, and economic inequalities. There are millions of people in poor states today who long for the freedom and economic opportunity they could find in Europe or North America. Many of them take great risks to come. If the borders were open, millions more would move. The exclusion of so many poor and desperate people seems hard to justify from a perspective that takes seriously the claims of all individuals as free and equal moral persons.

This essay is a slight adaptation of the opening pages of chapter 11 in my book The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013) which were in turn largely drawn from an earlier essay: “Aliens and Citizens: the Case for Open Borders,” Review of Politics Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring): 251-273.

About the author

Joseph H. Carens is Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice at Australian Catholic University.

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