Justifying Borders

For my last discussion with the Merrimack Valley H.S. Ethics & Economics Challenge students, I brought up the issue of borders. We started our discussion with a little bit of improv theatre. I played a foreigner trying to get into the United States without documentation. Students volunteered to play a border guard trying to keep me out. Between us lay an invisible line, the border. I engaged them in a conversation about the moral justification of keeping me out. I have to say the students folded rather quickly! They brought up the fact that U.S. law forbade me from coming in without documentation, but when I questioned why U.S. law should apply to me, a foreigner, they conceded rather quickly.

Vassal doing homage

Borders: the new feudalism? (Source: Adrian Wong)

I wasn’t satisfied with that. Even though the students seemed to be pro-open borders by default, I wanted to talk about why immigration barriers might be unjust. So we picked up Joseph Carens’ article, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” Carens argues that citizenship in the developed West is a kind of unfair “birthright privilege.” He compares immigration restrictions to feudalism, the medieval system under which the rights, duties, and privileges of each individual were assigned on the basis of that person’s class of birth. Poor people around the world don’t deserve their fate, locked into countries with abusive rulers and poor economic prospects. Western governments therefore have a duty not to force these people to stay away.

The students seemed pretty persuaded by this argument, but then, they were already favorable to the open-borders case. So I tried to challenge them from the other side. What if a bunch of Communists, Nazis, or Islamic extremists tried to move to the United States all at once in order to influence the political system? Could the government legitimately keep them out? The students seemed skeptical: we already have big differences between Democrats and Republicans, one of them said, and it doesn’t seem right to determine citizenship on the basis of political beliefs. I pointed out the distinction between immigration and citizenship: perhaps it would be OK to let them live and work here, but without having the right to vote? Singapore, Switzerland, and the UAE have policies that let in lots of people but don’t give them citizenship. I also brought up the case of Israel: should Israel unilaterally adopt open borders? If so, the character of the country would likely change radically within a few years, given the ethnic and ideological makeup of neighboring populations.

Finally, keeping out invading armies, violent criminals, and those with serious contagious diseases seems justified. These people would likely be a net harm to those already here. If we can keep out thieves, though, why not keep out totalitarians who plan to vote their preferences? After all, a totalitarian government can take away a lot more than your property. For that reason, in a country like the U.S. with birthright citizenship constitutionally guaranteed, I favor modifying the open-borders position to exclude not just the three aforementioned categories of undesirables, but also those who favor a more expansive and abusive government.


  • I don’t believe in mandated open borders as a libertarian concept.
    I don’t believe in closed borders as a libertarian concept.

    I do believe that it is a thoroughly discretionary decision as determined collectively by the nation’s citizens.

    Domestic Libertarian law does not apply legally to international law.

    The nation sovereign has no legal constraints to adhere to libertarian precepts in dealing with other countries (or citizens thereof) — even if we can be guided by libertarian philosophy, international relations are fundamentally anarchistic.

    As an entity sovereign nation we can stand as a cohesive unit, and treat our sovereign jurisdiction as a collectivistly owned property, by the citizens of that nation, or not as we may see fit collectively. Just like a privately owned community.

    I would love to have been there and sparred with the professor.

    • The problem with that perspective is that the U.S. isn’t a private community. If the U.S. chooses to enforce border restrictions, in practice that means the government is using coercion against employers and landlords within the borders of the U.S. who have never consented to the legal procedures used to authorize that coercion. So immigration restrictions violate the rights not just of foreigners who have never consented to U.S. laws, but also of Americans who want to do business peacefully with foreigners.

      • Those would be the default laws presuming no private sponsorship of the immigrant by a US citizen. Because libertarian law prevents infringement of citizen’s right to his own property and prevents infringement on his rights to association, any citizen can choose to host a visiting immigrant.
        Any citizen’s decision to sponsor an immigrant would enable them to enter the US on the individual’s sovereign authority and recognizance. However that citizen has an ongoing duty to be legally responsible for the immigrant, and his sponsorship is revocable.
        Furthermore, non-citizens’ rights are not violated by restrictions against their immigration into the US.
        Non-citizens do not need to consent to US law, for such laws to be effective.
        If the citizens want open borders they are free to make such laws, but obversely they are not required to have them, hence the practical expression of sovereignty.
        Domestic libertarian law has a scope that applies to the nation’s jurisdictional area, and to its citizens.
        International relations are fundamentally anarchistic .

        • OK, but you realize that’s not how immigration law works now, right? Currently, even if you want to sponsor an immigrant, (s)he’s not allowed to come here without going through lots of hoops, and may be turned down even if (s)he tries to go through them all.

          Furthermore, I don’t see why an immigrant from Mexico should need sponsorship in New Hampshire any more than an immigrant from Massachusetts. To argue otherwise seems to concede an implicit nationalist bias. Why shouldn’t the roads be open to all who pay for them?