Political Philosophy Spring 2018

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.


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.


The utilitarian case for open borders is similarly straightforward. Generally speaking, people immigrate from places where they are less well off to places where they will be better off. For example, workers in wealthy countries are typically more productive than they are in poorer countries. So for the same amount of time and effort a worker can make more stuff. That makes everyone better off: consumers have more stuff to buy and workers get paid more for their time.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. There are all sorts of costs of immigration, particularly when it happens rapidly and on a large scale. But utilitarians are very good at this sort of thing. They can begin with the theoretical case for open borders and then alter it to avoid problems. Utilitarians, unlike libertarians, are not committed to the thought that people have a right to go where they want to. They think that everyone’s rights are defined by the policies that would promote the greatest overall good. 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 and Nozick 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 theories of justice seem to lack.

Rawls’s Egalitarianism

We spent most of our time talking about Rawls.

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.

Now, at this point you might be thinking “we are really talking about what an ideal world would be like; what does this have to do with ours?”

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.

At the end of the class, I raised a question about 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.

I think it’s also worth keeping something Gigi said in mind here. She pointed out that all of the characters on the stage, the libertarians, Rawlsian egalitarians, and the utilitarians, are describing their ideals rather than real politics. The US isn’t going to realize the difference principle, the entitlement conception of justice, or the utilitarian principle any time soon, after all. The interesting question is whether there is a difference in kind between Carens’s thinking about global justice and open borders and the other theorists’ thinking about social justice. If you think that it’s OK to think about possibly far off goals for a society, why can’t Carens do the same for the world? Conversely, if you think that idealistic accounts of a just world are too out there, maybe you should think the same of idealistic accounts of a just society.

Our discussion

Our discussion ranged over a number of issues about immigration but tended to circle around questions about culture.

James started us off by asking why Rawls excludes cultural values from the things the parties in the original position are told to secure. If actual people sometimes put more value on culture than they do on money (and the other primary social goods), they aren’t well represented by parties who do not know this fact. It’s a fair question. Rawls’s standard answer is that including information like that would compromise the fairness of the decision by the parties in the original position. If they knew that a lot of them belong to one particular church, for instance, they might be tempted to have a state religion or discriminate against non-believers.

In addition, I think Rawls thinks like Mill about the relationship between the society and the individual. Remember the point that Adrian singled out last time: Rawls thinks that individual development is very important and that individuals need to be left free to pursue their own lives if they are to develop. This argument doesn’t have anything in particular to do with the original position, of course; he could make the point without referring to the original position at all. But it’s something that Rawls clearly believes and it might have some bearing on his reluctance to include culture in the things that a just society should protect.

Anyway, the conversation turned from James’s narrow point about culture and Rawls to broader discussions about the nature and value of culture and the effects of immigration on culture. I have to confess that I did not always follow all the details, but I figured that was OK because we would return to the topic in our discussion of Miller. When we did, one thing that struck me was that our discussion was much more muted than it was this time. Sometimes having a concrete, written proposal on the table takes the heat out of a controversial topic. There’s a lesson in that.

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. Small-d democrats, that is, people who care about democracy as a form of government as opposed to those who belong to the political party, are a bit of a wild card. They think that the members of a society have the right to make decisions about the society. According to them, immigration, like everything other than basic human rights and the form of government, should be up for a vote. That’s the position that Miller takes.

Main points

These are the things you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  1. The case for open borders on libertarian, Rawlsian egalitarian, and utilitarian grounds.
  2. Are thinkers who insist on justice and rights, like Rawls and Nozick, allowed to talk about intermediate policies that approach the goal of justice or is that kind of flexibility reserved for utilitarianism?

Extra: facts!

These are the facts about immigration that I began with. As a general rule, I try to avoid citing any factual assertion about immigration by someone who is advocating for a position. It’s difficult to come up with hard numbers about immigration and I’m worried about getting burned by a misleading presentation from an advocate. So while I read people who have a variety of opinions about immigration, for factual assertions I rely on minimally partisan sources such as academics, the Pew Research Fund, and the Brookings Institution.

With that said, first, immigration levels in the US are quite high.

“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.” Pew Research, Nov. 2016

Second, the population of the country under 18 is expected to be majority minority in 2020.

the population under age 10 has become minority white (white non-Hispanic) as the Hispanic, Asian, black, and other racial minority populations continue to rise up the age structure. Brookings, June 2017

By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration. Pew March 2016

I know nothing about immigration in countries other than the US. But I do know a little about the US and what I know is worth sharing. In thinking about immigration in the US, I think it helps to consider history; in doing so, I’m drawing on an article by Nicole Hemmer, a professor at the University of Virginia. (Nothing here is terribly controversial.)

The US had a quota system based on national origins until 1965. The quota for Asian countries, for instance, was zero or very low and relatively high for European countries. An exception was made for North America, primarily because of the demand for labor from Mexico in the western states.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated the quotas and gave greater priority to uniting families and skills. Why? Well, racial quotas were awkward after World War II and in the middle of the civil rights movement. Here’s Hemmer.

President Lyndon B. Johnson said it [the old quota system] had “violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.” The new immigration regime restored that principle, knocking down “the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”

Incidentally, the 1965 law also capped immigration from the Western Hemisphere. That messed up the system for the western states and Mexico. As the US did more to police the border, workers would cross with their families and stay so as to avoid the risk of being unable to make it back across to find work. Consequently, there are now about eleven million undocumented people who live in the US full time. So the US has a significant gap between being a member of the society and having legal status with protection of the law, the ability to vote, and so on.

That is the origin of the debate about the so-called Dreamers that you might have heard about. Here is a synopsis of work on this by Douglas Massey, a professor of Sociology at Princeton University.1 (Massey clearly has opinions about policy, but I’m bending my rule because I regard him as an unusually qualified source.)

“Rather than stopping undocumented Mexicans from coming to the U.S., greater enforcement stopped them from going home,” said Douglas Massey, one of the researchers and the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton.

Advocated by bureaucrats, politicians and pundits, the militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico transformed undocumented Mexican migration from a circular flow of predominantly male workers going to a few states into a settled population of about 11 million in all 50 states, Massey said. From 1986 to 2010, the United States spent $35 billion on border enforcement and the net rate of undocumented population growth doubled, he said.

“By the 1990s border enforcement had become a self-sustaining cycle in which rising apprehensions provided proof of the ongoing ‘illegal invasion’ to justify more resources allocated to border enforcement, which produced more apprehensions, even though the actual number of undocumented migrants seeking entry was not increasing,” Massey said.

In fact, according to Massey, there will be far less immigration from Mexico for the simple reason that the demography of Mexico has changed.

“Mass immigration from Mexico has ended and won’t be coming back owing to the decline of Mexican fertility from 6.5 children per woman in the 1960s to around 2.2 children per woman today, roughly replacement level,” Massey said. “Labor force growth in Mexico has dropped sharply and Mexico is now becoming an aging society in which fewer and fewer people are in the migration-prone ages of 15-30, so the pressure is off in a demographic sense.”

Most migration now is legal, Massey said, a situation that will continue so long as temporary work visas are matched with U.S. labor needs.

“The greatest need now is a path to legal status for the 11 million undocumented residents who are already here, who mostly have been here now for 15 years or more and increasingly have U.S. citizen children,” he said. “If we were to grant these people permanent legal status, many would actually return home, secure in the knowledge they could re-enter whenever they want.”

The path of immigration policy is never straight.


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

  1. This is a press release about an article, “Why Border Enforcement Backfired” published in the American Journal of Sociology.