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.


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. Would a libertarian state have the power to ban “capitalist acts among consenting adults” from different societies? It is hard to see how.

As Tristan noted, libertarianism would be indifferent between people who wish to immigrate into a country because they are refugees from war or oppression and those who wish to immigrate for economic reasons. At least in Nozick’s version of the theory, libertarianism makes no distinctions between other people’s needs and their economic interests. You are permitted to ignore both or admit only workers so long as you are not violating a side constraint.

Rawls’s Egalitarianism

As Berto noted, Rawls cannot use the original position to settle questions about membership in a society. The original position is made up of people who represent the members of a society. So in order to know who is represented, we have to know who belongs to the society.

That said, there are plenty of arguments in Rawls’s book that seem to bear on the question of membership even if they are not part of his main theory that the principles of justice are chosen by the parties in the original position.

For example, when we discussed Rawls’s reasons for rejecting libertarianism (a.k.a. the “system of natural liberty”), we saw that he thinks it is unfair that some people should do better than others as a result of natural and social forces that are, in his opinion, arbitrary from the moral point of view. Social institutions, according to Rawls, should seek to reduce the influence of these forces or, when that is impossible, mitigate their consequences. 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 do 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. If they required all of Rawls’s 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.

I believe that Carens thinks of immigration as a kind of interim step on the path to this ultimate, very distant, goal of global justice. Even open borders would have to be treated as a kind of goal that actual policy can only approximate, given the political realities of democracies.

One question we have not asked is how to think about the relationship between ideal theorizing about justice and the non-ideal world. Justice is not flexible: it is about right and wrong. You would think that if enforcing the border means violating people’s rights, then the state should stop doing it tomorrow. I do not have the sense that Carens thinks that would be the right thing to do, given the chaos that would result, to say nothing of the inevitable backlash that would reverse the whole project. That sounds sensible to me. I just don’t understand how someone who thinks that borders are unjust can consistently say it. On the face of it, to say something like that you need a more flexible moral theory such as utilitarianism.

Politics in the Real World

In the real world, politicians who care about the goal of global justice think it takes second place to the goal of social justice. They typically worry that attempts to achieve the former will come at the expense of the latter. Here, for example, is democratic socialist Bernie Sanders reacting with horror to the proposal for open borders.

Last year, as his insurgent candidacy began to gain momentum, Bernie Sanders sat for an interview with Ezra Klein, the editor of the Web site Vox. The political world was still figuring out what to make of Trump’s immigration rhetoric, and Klein wondered whether Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, might have a more internationalist perspective. Did he support admitting vastly more immigrants, perhaps even embracing a policy of “open borders”?

Sanders interrupted, looking even more alarmed than usual. “Open borders?” he said. “That’s a right-wing proposal.” He said that it would “make everybody in America poorer,” and added that we should focus, instead, on helping “poor people” — meaning, of course, poor people in America.

Sanders’s characterization of open borders as “right wing” wasn’t without basis. In 1984, as President Reagan was pushing for immigration reform, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal called for a five-word amendment to the Constitution: “There shall be open borders.” This is the rallying cry of the open-borders movement, which combines faith in free enterprise with a relative lack of compatriot partiality. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues that it is immoral to condemn countless would-be immigrants to lives of hardship in an effort to nudge up wages for Americans who didn’t graduate from high school. He says that we should think of “low-skilled” American workers as one more “special interest” demanding favors from a complaisant bureaucracy.

Immigration is a topic that shakes up our familiar categories. On the one hand, both free-market libertarians and egalitarians who care about global justice favor open borders. On the other hand, open borders are opposed by those on the left who worry about domestic inequality and those on the right who worry about cultural change.

Carens is an egalitarian who cares about global justice. He will be joined by libertarians and opposed by egalitarians who care about social equality and conservatives who care about social change.


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.

Utilitarians enjoy a great deal of flexibility in setting up their immigration policies. If too much immigration would provoke a backlash, they won’t allow it to go that high. They do not make sweeping claims about the moral imperative of open borders that they have to awkwardly take back in the face of political reality. Whatever produces the best results in the circumstances we inhabit is what we ought to do, according to utilitarians.

Rawls beat utilitarians over the head for being insufficiently rigid about matters of right and wrong. They are so flexible that they could allow all sorts of horrible things, including slavery! So it’s only fair to allow the utilitarians to use this to their advantage when it comes to immigration policy. Utilitarians have a framework for making compromises that those who insist on justice seem to lack.

Carens’s criticisms of Walzer

Carens criticizes what I called Walzer’s communitarian methodological thesis. This holds 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. Carens’s main point is that all of his arguments for open borders are drawn from the history and customs of a particular political community: our own.

That seems fair enough to me and I don’t think that Walzer would put too much effort into disagreeing. When I read Walzer, I get the feeling that he stakes more of his position on two substantive propositions rather than the methodological point. One proposition concerns the value of national communities and the other concerns the nature of democratic government.

Walzer thinks it is desirable to preserve the customs and values of historically defined political communities. The idea is that different societies could legitimately have different ways of organizing their collective lives. That is hard to deny and it 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 point about democracy comes at the end of Walzer’s chapter, when he discusses guest worker programs.

In an oligarchy, as Isocrates wrote, even the citizens are really resident aliens, and so the issue of political rights doesn’t arise in the same way. But as soon as some residents are citizens in fact, all must be so. No democratic state can tolerate the establishment of a fixed status between citizen and foreigner …. Men and women are either subject to the state’s authority or they are not; and if they are subject, they must be given a say, and ultimately an equal say, in what that authority does. Democratic citizens, then, have a choice: if they want to bring in new workers, they must be prepared to enlarge their own membership; if they are unwilling to accept new members, they must find ways within the limits of the domestic labor market to get socially necessary work done. (Walzer 1983, 61)

Here, Walzer’s point is directed at admitting outsiders: he thinks that non-citizens who live and work inside a democratic society have to be admitted as full members. But the other side of the coin is that the members of a democracy have the authority to limit membership too. Part of being a sovereign democratic state is giving the citizens the right to decide who to admit. Without the ability to determine membership, according to Walzer, a democracy would not be a sovereign political unit.

For Carens, by contrast, giving the citizens of a democracy the right to make decisions about membership is like giving them the right to turn some people into second-class citizens. Everyone is equal and no one can be deprived of their rights by majority vote.

To illustrate the difference, consider a proposal by Branko Milanovich. Milanovich thinks the way to go is for rich countries to admit large numbers of immigrants without full citizenship. People from poor countries get the economic benefits of working in rich countries while the citizens of rich countries do not have to worry about political and cultural changes that permanent immigration would bring about. He wants to extend the economic benefits of immigration without the political ones. Walzer thinks that cannot be done and that a society partly composed of non-citizen workers cannot operate as a democracy.

One way to put this is to say that Walzer values democracy more than global justice while, in their different ways, Carens and Milanovich value global justice more than democracy. Carens thinks democracies do not have the ability to control their membership because the demands of global justice take precedence. Milanovich is willing to leave that power in the hands of the voters, but he thinks a democracy can function even if many workers do not have a vote. Walzer disagrees with both.

Key concepts

  1. The case for open borders on libertarian, Rawlsian egalitarian, and utilitarian grounds.
  2. The case against open borders based on the value of community.
  3. The case against open borders based on democracy.


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

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