Who Is a Member?

Rawls’s theory maintains that questions about justice are decided by the parties in the original position. But the theory cannot answer at least one question: who is a full member of a society? This is so because the parties in the original position represent the members of a society. So the question about membership has to be answered before we can even ask what the parties in the original position would choose.

Our next two authors, Walzer and Carens, try to answer questions about membership. Today, we talked about Walzer. He tries to occupy a middle position between two extreme positions: (1) completely open borders and (2) unlimited discretion for the current members of a society.

Walzer’s arguments against open borders

Plato thought that in order to understand justice in the individual soul, we have to look at something larger first, namely, the city. Walzer thinks that in order to understand the justice of limiting membership in a society we have to look smaller things, namely, neighborhoods, clubs, and families.

Walzer thinks neighborhoods are a bad analogy for countries. Neighborhoods have open borders: anyone can enter or leave. But if countries opened their borders, they would lose the cultural characteristics that their members value. So we should not think of countries like neighborhoods (Walzer 1983, 36–37).

When you hear that argument, you may think something like this. “But people in neighborhoods have tried to close their borders. That is what racial segregation is all about, after all. The only reason why they cannot completely close them is that they are forbidden to do so by laws passed on the national level. And it is a good thing too: ‘we want to preserve our neighborhood’s culture’ is just a euphemistic way of saying ‘we discriminate against people on the basis of race, class, religion, or whatever.’ We are much better off without that.”

Walzer has thought of this. His answer is that neighborhoods are kept open because national borders are (mostly) closed. If borders were opened, people would cluster in neighborhoods filled with others like them and really close the borders to outsiders. The most open political-social unit, according to Walzer, is the country or nation. If we opened the international borders and eliminated the country or nation as a significant unit, we would lose the degree of openness that we have (Walzer 1983, 37–39).

Will thought the two points are in tension with one another. Is social openness a goal or not? If it is a good thing for national groups to have the ability to preserve their culture by excluding outsiders, why wouldn’t it also be a good thing for neighborhoods to have the same ability? Conversely, if it is undesirable for neighborhoods to try to control their membership in the name of preserving their culture, then it should be similarly undesirable for national groups to do so.

Another way to put the point is to say that Walzer seems to say two different things.

Sometimes Walzer seems to be saying that a closed national community is desirable all by itself. Those who belong to a national community have the right to maintain their group, pretty much like individuals have the right to determine what they will do with their lives. Neither kind of right rests on serving a higher goal of a broader group.

Other times, he seems to be saying that a closed national community is a second-best option because it is the largest possible open social unit. If there were a way of having an open world society, that would be the best but national communities are what we have to settle for.

I think his own opinion lies with the first option, but a lot of what he says suggests the second.

In any event, instead of thinking of countries as neighborhoods, Walzer believes we should think of them as being like clubs or families. They are like clubs in that the current members can decide on the rules for admitting additional members. They are like families in that they must recognize their national or ethnic “relatives” as members, whether they want to or not (Walzer 1983, 40–42).

Walzer’s arguments against unlimited discretion

Walzer believes that countries are have discretion about who to admit as members, but he does not believe this discretion is unlimited. He argues for three limits.

  1. Non-members who live in the national territory cannot be expelled (Walzer 1983, 42–44).
  2. Needy people, such as the poor or refugees, have to be given either territory, wealth, or, if they are related to the present members in some way, membership (Walzer 1983, 46–51).
  3. People who are members of the society in all but name, such as so-called guest workers, must be offered full membership (Walzer 1983, 58–61).

The last point is the most significant for us, as the US has lots of people who live as members of the society without having formal citizenship. Indeed, the presidential election is being driven largely by disagreements about what to do about this class of people. Walzer’s position is that people who live and work in the society should be made citizens or they should not have been admitted at all. Since it is too late to revisit the question of admission, full citizenship is the only available alternative, according to him.

It seems to me that Walzer has two arguments for his position. One is that a society made up of citizens and non-citizens does not fit the model of a family. His earlier argument was supposed to establish that we should think of countries as like clubs and families and so, presumably, we should reject policies that do not fit the model. The other argument is that it is especially inconsistent for a democracy to govern some people who are not citizens and so do not have rights to participate in the government. By contrast, this would not be a problem under a monarchy in which no one but the king had a right to participate in the government. Since the US is a democracy, it cannot have a significant non-citizen population (Walzer 1983, 58–61).


I referred to the fate of the California Republican party to make two points. First, I wanted to add some recent history behind our current debate about immigration. The California Republican party effectively collapsed after an attempt in 1994 to deny state services to undocumented immigrants. Clearly, a lot of voters in California care about the fate of non-citizens living among them.

Second, I wanted to flag this example for national politics. The national Republican party appears to be headed down the same path that the California Republican party took. Obviously there are plenty of national Republican voters who feel strongly enough that they are willing to take the risk of becoming like the California party. So feelings are running high on both sides of this debate.

As it happens, Matthew Yglesias wrote a very useful background piece on California making just those points. It is worth reading to fill in the details in my potted history of California politics.

Key concepts

  1. Walzer’s arguments against open borders.
  2. Walzer’s arguments against guest worker programs.


Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice. New York: Basic Books.