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 tell us who belongs to a society. 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

Walzer does not exactly have a theory in the way that the other philosophers we have read have theories. He relies on analogies to make his points instead. This is a bit of a refreshing break, as most of us use analogies to try to think things through rather than grand theories. But it does make his arguments hard to pin down.

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).

What is so great about countries? One thing is that they have cultural characteristics that their members value. I think the idea is that culturally distinct countries have to be free to find the way of organizing their social lives that fits them best. The argument sounds a lot like Mill’s contention that people are different and so individuals have to be free to find the way of living that is best for them.

Another thing that Walzer values about countries is that he thinks they are the most open social unit that is possible. If borders were opened, people would cluster in ethnic neighborhoods and close the borders to outsiders. The most open political-social unit, then, 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).

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, this was one of the central topics in the presidential election. 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 idea is that a country with non-citizens doing its work is like a family with servants. (This is, obviously, a quite specific understanding of what a family is; many cultures now and in the past do not regard live-in servants as inappropriate.)

I find his other argument more compelling. It 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).

And, of course, we ran out of time at this point. I will try to return to it next time so we can give it the discussion it deserves.


There is a very good essay reviewing the philosophical discussions of immigration and citizenship in the New Yorker. It discusses our next author, Carens, but not Walzer.

Walzer insists on full citizenship or nothing: guest worker programs are undemocratic, in his opinion. Branko Milanovich has the opposite opinion. He 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. This might be an interesting proposal to consider when thinking about Carens, who is focused primarily on the economic benefits of immigration to immigrants.

For facts about immigration, I relied on the Pew Research Center. Specifically, I used the quickie article “5 Facts About Illegal Immigration in the US” and the longer report “Size of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Workforce Stable After the Great Recession”. Here are two paragraphs from the latter.

The nation’s 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants made up 26% of the nation’s 43.6 million foreign-born residents in 2014. The U.S. foreign-born population also included 19 million naturalized citizens, 11.7 million lawful permanent residents and 1.7 million lawful residents with temporary status (such as students, diplomats and “guest workers” in the technology sector). In total, immigrants represented 13.6% of the U.S. population in 2014.

In 2014, the nation’s civilian labor force consisted of about 133 million U.S.-born workers (83% of the total), 19.5 million lawful immigrant workers (12%) and 8 million unauthorized immigrant workers (5%). The numbers of U.S.-born members of the workforce and lawful immigrant members of the workforce increased from 2009 to 2014, while the number of unauthorized immigrant workers did not.

There is an article in Vox that puts recent trends in immigration into some historical perspective. For instance, the largest immigrant cohort in 2000, from Mexico, exceeded the size of the largest immigrant cohort in 1950, from Italy, by 7.5 million people (in a much larger population). Also, more than 13% the population in the US was born in another country. By contrast, less than 5% of the population was born in another country in 1970. Since 1850, the last time the percentage of the population born in another country was this high was right before World War I.

One thing that the Pew Research Center fact sheet notes is that unauthorized immigrants are staying in the US longer than they used to.

A rising share of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade. About two-thirds (66%) of adults in 2014 had been in the U.S. at least that long, compared with 41% in 2005. A declining share of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the U.S. for less than five years – 14% of adults in 2014, compared with 31% in 2005.

A plausible reason why is that the law changed in the 1990s in ways that make deportation more likely and legalization less likely. So people who used to cross the border to work and then return home started staying in the US to avoid being deported at the border.

Getting tough doesn’t always work the way you expect it to.

On that note, it appears that Donald Trump did slightly better than Mitt Romney with Hispanic voters. This is based on exit polls and we have seen how accurate polls can be. Still, I am surprised that it is even close. Data always beats common sense, though.

Update: that might indeed be wrong. Here is the Economist’s blogger S.N..1

the national exit poll commissioned by major media outlets shows that … Mrs Clinton won the Hispanic vote by only 65 to 29% … which means that Mr Trump improved on Mitt Romney's standings from four years ago. … But others, notably the polling firm Latino Decisions, say that the exit poll was just bad data. Its pre-election polls showed Mrs Clinton winning Hispanics by 79% to 18%. Indeed, it is hard to square the exit poll's findings with the actual results from November 9th. Mrs Clinton did well across the West, winning not just California and Nevada but slashing the Republican margin of victory in formerly deep-red Texas and Arizona.

Update to the update: yes indeed, that analysis of the exit polls appears to be very definitely wrong. A win for common sense!

Ever since the national exit poll reported that 29 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump, the accuracy of that number has been debated. In particular, some have questioned whether it is an overestimate, citing a separate survey of Latino voters by the polling firm Latino Decisions that reported that 18 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump. Now, analysis of precinct data from Texas and several other states suggests that, indeed, the exit poll overestimated how many Latinos voted for Trump.

… we estimate that Clinton won 77 percent of Hispanics [in Texas -mjg] and Trump won 18 percent.

These estimates strongly suggest that the exit poll estimates (61 percent to 34 percent) underestimate Clinton’s strength among Hispanics in Texas. The Latino Decisions exit poll in Texas — which reported that 80 percent of Latinos voted for Clinton and 16 percent for Trump — appears closer to the truth.

We find the same thing when we examine precinct data in other states. In Arizona, we estimate that Clinton won more than 80 percent of the Latino vote. In California, we estimate that more than 80 percent of Latinos voted for Clinton and that she won a higher percentage of the vote than Obama in nearly every Latino precinct. In Nevada, we estimate that Clinton won more than 80 percent of Latinos as well — even though the exit poll’s estimate is 60 percent.

I said that professionals work in some of the most protected areas of the economy while what we call the working class has been subjected the most to global competition. Here is an editorial by Dean Baker that makes the point.

And if you worry about so-called “identity politics,” you might find Matt Yglesias’s essay on the topic interesting. He makes two basic points. First, all politics is identity politics: it always has been and it always will be. Democracy is about electing people to represent your interests, after all, and our interests tend to cluster around our social identities. It’s OK. (See also Adam Gopnik in the the New Yorker.) Second, there really isn’t such a thing as “white” identity politics; regional differences are far more significant. (I suspect we will be saying the same thing about Hispanic voters in the not too distant future: it’s quite a diverse group!)

One final fact for you: illegal immigration makes a significant contribution to public insurance programs in the US. For example, they pay Social Security taxes but never collect. The Center for American Progress published a study that attempts to quantify this. It’s a lot of money!

The Social Security Administration has long identified the positive contributions undocumented immigrants have made to Social Security. Although undocumented immigrants are not legally allowed to work in the United States, roughly 3 million of the 8 million undocumented workers in the United States pay Social Security taxes. In 2010 alone the Social Security Administration estimates that a net $12 billion was paid in taxes on the earnings of undocumented workers.

These workers pay payroll taxes by either using someone else’s Social Security card or by using a false name and Social Security number. Often, the information a given worker uses does not match the Social Security Administration’s database of names and corresponding Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration needs to know who is paying how much in taxes in order to calculate the level of benefits a worker will receive upon retirement. When a mismatch occurs, the administration cannot credit these taxes to any worker, so it holds the information on the tax contribution in a separate file—called the Earnings Suspense File—until the discrepancy is resolved. To be clear, some of the information in this file is the result of contributions by legally authorized workers who end up drawing benefits. If a person gets married and changes his or her name but fails to notify the administration, for example, then there may be a mismatch in the system, and the taxes paid by this worker are not credited to him or her until the mismatch is rectified.

The Earnings Suspense File, while not actually a fund of money, represents in part how much undocumented immigrants have contributed over the years. But these same immigrants will never be credited for these contributions—nor receive benefits from them—since they are barred from receiving Social Security. It is estimated that the file contains information on roughly $1 trillion worth of tax contributions.

The authors also argue that legalizing these people would increase the amount going into the system, even though it would enable them to draw benefits down the road.

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.

  1. S.N.’s byline is Claremont. I wonder who it is!