Open Borders

Carens states his thesis right up front.

To most people … the power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. … I want to challenge that view. … I will argue that borders should generally be open and that people should normally be free to leave their country of origin and settle in another, subject only to the sorts of constraints that bind current citizens in their new country (Carens 1987, 251).

He makes his case by arguing that each of the three major views in contemporary political theory support it: libertarianism, Rawlsian egalitarianism, and utilitarianism. Then he rebuts Walzer’s arguments in defense of the more commonly held view.

I added a section on Carens’s criticisms of Walzer on May 3.


Where would the libertarian state get the right to stop people at a border? It would have to be through a mechanism like the one that Locke described: all the people within a territory agreed to put their property under the state’s dominion and the state enforces the boundaries of that territory.

But as Carens pointed out, employers in the libertarian state would surely be interested in hiring foreign labor from time to time.

And, as Kamyab noted, Carens’s most fundamental point would remain intact. That is that there is no difference between the restrictions on movement within the state and across different states. In the case of libertarianism, private property rights are what restrict the freedom of movement: I can’t cross your property without your permission. This is true for movement within the state and movement across state borders. In other words, there is nothing special about state borders on the libertarian theory.

Rawls’s egalitarianism

As I noted last time, Rawls cannot use the original position to settle questions about membership in a society. However, there are plenty of arguments in his book that seem to bear on that question even if they are not arguments made within the original position.

As Josh pointed out, Rawls believes that it is unfair that the course of our lives should determined by natural and social causes that are, in his opinion, arbitrary from the moral point of view. Social institutions, according to Rawls, should seek to reduce these influences or mitigate their consequences. That is the essence of Rawls’s argument against libertarianism (a.k.a. the “system of natural liberty”). Well, what could be more arbitrary than where you are born?

Furthermore, the thrust of Rawls’s theory is that the way to settle questions about justice is to ask what the representatives of everyone concerned would say, provided they did not know who they represent (among other things). A natural development of this idea is to have everyone in the world represented in an original position whose members are charged with determining standards for the world, including the rules about who can move across which boundaries.

Carens reasons that if this were to happen, the parties in the global original position would decide that nations are not allowed to restrict movement across their borders.

Of course, the parties in a global original position would surely overturn a lot of things. As Rosie pointed out, if they required Rawls’s three principles (equal basic liberties, equal opportunity, and the difference principle) on a global scale, there would be a lot less pressure for immigration. If life is good at home, you will not have compelling reasons to want to migrate to another country.

Most of our discussion centered around the idea that Carens’s open borders proposal could be considered a kind of ideal theory. It is the sort of thing that we can hold up as a goal. But in the interim, the most we are required to do is to take small steps towards achieving the goal.

One interesting proposal I read recently along these lines turns Walzer upside down. While Walzer insisted on full citizenship or nothing, Branko Milanovich apparently thinks the way to go is for rich countries to admit large numbers of immigrants without full citizenship. The idea, as I understand it, is to mitigate the cultural concerns of the host countries while giving migrants the economic benefits of working in them.


I think the utilitarian case for opening the borders is pretty clear. An easy way of relieving poverty is to give poor people access to labor markets in wealthy countries. There will always be complications; utilitarianism is like that. But it would be hard to overcome that fact.

Carens’s criticisms of Walzer

Carens begins his section on Walzer with the following summary of Walzer’s views.

He [Walzer] eschews the search for universal principles and is concerned instead with “the particularism of history, culture, and membership.” He thinks that questions of distributive justice should be addressed not from behind a “veil of ignorance” but from the perspective of membership in a political community in which people share a common culture and a common understanding about justice (Carens 1987, 266).

I would like to do more to explain what that means than I did in class.

Walzer has what is called a communitarian political theory. Two communitarian theses are especially important for our purposes.

  1. A methodological thesis that the values and concepts used in political philosophy only make sense if they are drawn from the history and customs of a particular political community. This thesis usually goes along with an assumption that different political communities have different histories and customs; otherwise, there would not be much point to the methodological thesis.

  2. A thesis about the value of community which holds that it is desirable to preserve the customs and values of historically defined political communities. As with the methodological thesis, this makes no sense without an additional assumption about the diversity of actual political communities.

The second thesis is generally accepted in a qualified form. The qualifications are obvious. Some communities have wicked values: pick your favorite example of a violently intolerant society. And most of us are reluctant to uncritically accept all of any community’s historical customs and values: the role of women, for instance, is almost always ripe for reexamination. However, even taking these points into account, the idea that different societies could legitimately have different ways of organizing their collective lives is hard to dispute. That sets up a case for communal self-determination similar to the one that Mill made for individual liberty. Mill argued that there are different, equally valid, ways of living some of which suit some people better than others. Consequently, he believed, individuals should be left free to find the ways of living that suit them best. The communitarian position is similar: societies should be free to find the way of living that suits them best.

The methodological thesis is more controversial. If it were true, then it seems that the case for communal discretion in determining membership would follow as a matter of logic. There would not be a coherent way of evaluating any given society’s decisions about who to admit since the criteria for making the decision would have to come from the history and values of the community as its members understand them.

Carens disputes the methodological thesis in two ways.

  1. He argues that his conclusions would follow even if the methodological thesis were true. Why? He maintains that the values of this particular culture favor open borders. Which particular culture? Most of his examples concern the US, but I think he means to refer to a broader collection of European societies and their descendants.
  2. He notes that most of Walzer’s chapter uses arguments that apply to all communities, regardless of their particular histories and values. So Walzer himself clearly does not believe that it is incoherent to evaluate a society’s decisions about membership.

Carens disputes the second thesis, about the value of community, by denying that it has enough weight to override the arguments in favor of open borders. For instance, he denies that communities within a society have the right to restrict membership at the expense of individual rights (libertarianism), equal opportunity and favoring the worst off class (Rawlsian egalitarianism), or maximizing utility (utilitarianism). (Walzer himself does not accept any of those theories, it should be said.)

While Walzer does assert the methodological thesis, I suspect that, at the end of the day, he would agree that this is where the debate has to be carried out: is the value of community important enough to override the case for open borders?

Key concepts

  1. The case for open borders on libertarian, Rawlsian egalitarian, and utilitarian grounds.


Carens, Joseph H. 1987. “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” The Review of Politics 49 (2): 251–73.