[embedded content] In In Defense of Openness, Bas and I respond to supposedly “left-wing” opposition to open borders. Leftist opposition to open borders is especially puzzling. It usually begins with the controversial empirical claim that open borders would benefit the world’s very poor (true), but this benefit would come at the expense of the low-skilled workers in developed countries (controversial). The thought is that low-skilled foreign workers are substitutes for low-skilled domestic workers; open borders will therefore raise the wages of the former but lower the wages of the latter. (In the short run, that might be true; in the long-run, no.) Now, even on the most pessimistic empirical paper out there, the gains to the poor immigrants would in the short run far exceed the
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In In Defense of Openness, Bas and I respond to supposedly “left-wing” opposition to open borders.
Leftist opposition to open borders is especially puzzling. It usually begins with the controversial empirical claim that open borders would benefit the world’s very poor (true), but this benefit would come at the expense of the low-skilled workers in developed countries (controversial). The thought is that low-skilled foreign workers are substitutes for low-skilled domestic workers; open borders will therefore raise the wages of the former but lower the wages of the latter. (In the short run, that might be true; in the long-run, no.)
Now, even on the most pessimistic empirical paper out there, the gains to the poor immigrants would in the short run far exceed the losses to domestic workers. (Therefore the change is Kaldor-Hicks superior and we can pay off the losers.) Most papers are more rosy than that.
But suppose this is all wrong. Would that be a reason to forbid immigration? There’s something odd about supposedly leftist views, where the position ends up being, “I want to protect the wages of people at the top 15% of world income at the expense of people at the bottom 50%, because the former are my co-nationals and the latter are foreigners.” Smells rather right-wing to me.
Anyway, here’s an excerpt from the book where we deal with some more sophisticated arguments for this position:
A third attempt at justifying immigration restrictions focuses on the purported special relations that exist between co-citizens. On one version, defended by Stephen Macedo, borders can be closed because of special obligations of distributive justice that hold primarily among fellow citizens.[i] Working within a Rawsian framework, Macedo argues that these obligations hold mostly within societies, and not across them, because co-citizens stand in a special moral relationship of collective self-governance.[ii] This can justify closing borders in order to protect the least well off in rich societies:
[I]f high levels of immigration have a detrimental impact on our least well-off citizens, that is reason to limit immigration, even if those who seek admission seem to be poorer than our own poor whose condition is worsened by their entry. Citizens have special obligations to one another: we have special reason to be concerned with the distribution of wealth and opportunities among citizens. The comparative standing of citizens matters in some ways that the comparative standing of citizens and non-citizens does not.[iii]
There is something very odd about those who claim to care about distributive justice[iv]worrying more inequality among people in rich societies, all of whom may be in the top decile of world income, and the far greater inequality between those people and the rest of the world, who live in much greater poverty. But let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Macedo is right and distributive justice holds primarily among citizens of the same nation-state. Would this justify restricting immigration?
It’s hard to see how it could. Even if democratic states ought to prioritize the welfare of their own worst-off, this doesn’t license doing just anything. When we carry out our duties of mutual aid, reciprocity, or beneficence, we must respect the rights and claims of others. We must comply with the claims that others have against us. While we are morally permitted to prioritize the welfare of our children over others’, and buy birthday presents for our kids but not yours, we cannot actively interfere with the lives of your kids in order to get presents for our own.
Similarly, when wealthy countries restrict immigration, they do more than simply prioritize their citizens over foreigners. They are not merely distributing resources. Rather, as we have seen, they’re imposing restrictions on others that actively and forcibly interfere with their liberty, lives, and well-being. They are actively imposing harm. The question, then, is whether the relations of priority to which Macedo points can justify these harms – or whether such harms pose a limit to the ways in which states can prioritize their own citizens.
Domestically, of course, such priority relations do not justify restrictions on freedom of movement. Consider an example. Suppose (contrary to fact) that it turned out that internal restrictions on labor mobility somehow tended to maximize the welfare of the least advantaged workers. Perhaps forbidding citizens who live in rural areas from taking jobs in cities or more populous states within the same country would somehow stop some (imaginary) race to the bottom. We doubt that anyone would think that this would justify laws preventing people from moving from a town to the city. Rawls certainly would not–freedom of movement takes priority over concerns of distributive justice. If we really had to choose between liberty and distributive justice in this way, people have a right to move where they want, even if that comes at the expense of promoting certain goals of distributive justice.
If claims of distributive justice do not justify restricting the freedom of movement of co-citizens, why are things different for foreigners? One answer, suggested by Michael Blake, is to say that governments owe a guarantee of freedom to their own citizens, but not to foreigners. According to Blake, the difference between the freedom of movement of citizens and foreigners is that the former, but not the latter, is part of a bundle of rights and protections the state must offer its subjects in order to be legitimate. Any legitimate state must offer its citizens the freedom to move. But this does not mean it must offer non-citizens the same freedom. Since they are not subject to its rule, they need not be accorded the same kind of concern.[v]
The is a very strange view. For one, it confuses a sufficient condition with a necessary condition. What’s plausible about the Rawlsian position is that in order for the state to justifiably subject people to its coercive power, the state must guarantee those people certain liberties. But Blake suggests a quite different position: that people must be guaranteed certain liberties only if they are subjected to the state.[vi] This latter idea, that our rights and freedoms need to be given to us, things to be granted only after first being coerced by some state institution, is extremely implausible.
Indeed, this line of thinking threatens the very starting point of the kind of Rawlsian theory it desires to express. The idea here is that basic freedoms are afforded to people as a condition of state legitimacy, not fundamental moral requirements that people might claim against the state. But if that is true, it becomes obscure why state coercion needs to be justified in the first place (by offering these protections). If there is no fundamental presumption against coercion, a presumption that precedes the creation and coercion by the state, then why would the creation and coercion of the state require justification?
Arguments like this only get going if we first assume that people–being autonomous, free, equal, or what have you–cannot without justification be subjected to this kind of coercion. But that stipulation, of course, is just to assert that there’s exactly the kind of presumption against coercion that makes immigration restrictions morally problematic. If the state as such needs justification, then, it follows that closing its borders for outsiders needs justification, too.
Coercion as such does not distinguish between citizens and outsiders. And this should be obvious. When a state restricts outsiders from entering, it plainly does exercise coercion against them. To this extent, it rules over them. Certainly, they are required to comply (and madeto comply) with its laws. If a necessary condition for a state imposing coercion is that it must respect and guarantee certain basic liberties, then on its face this should apply to everyone the state coerces, including the would-be immigrants who are forced to stay away (as well as its own citizens, who are coercively prevented from making voluntary and mutually beneficial trades with would-be immigrants).
Again, what we need is an account that shows that the (supposedly unprotected) freedom to immigrate into a particular country is categorically different from other (clearly protected) freedoms. The argument from priority for co-nationals works only if we already presume that immigration restrictions do not count as coercive infringement of people’s liberty or as coercively-imposed harms. There is no reason to grant this assumption, and so Macedo’s argument fails.