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Open Borders and Self-Determination

Summary:
One of the main philosophical arguments against free immigration that Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan seek to rebut in their excellent In Defense of Openness is an argument offered by Christopher Wellman. (pp.48-52) Here I want to offer a simple and friendly substitute for their complex rebuttal of Wellman.  My substitute moves much more quickly to the core of the matter and avoids the surprisingly statist tone and terminology of the authors’ rebuttal. As the authors explain, Wellman’s argument depends on the contentions that states have rights of self-determination and that one aspect or implication of a state possessing such a right is that it possesses a right of freedom of association.  Moreover, if a state possesses such a right of freedom of association, it is

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One of the main philosophical arguments against free immigration that Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan seek to rebut in their excellent In Defense of Openness is an argument offered by Christopher Wellman. (pp.48-52) Here I want to offer a simple and friendly substitute for their complex rebuttal of Wellman.  My substitute moves much more quickly to the core of the matter and avoids the surprisingly statist tone and terminology of the authors’ rebuttal.

As the authors explain, Wellman’s argument depends on the contentions that states have rights of self-determination and that one aspect or implication of a state possessing such a right is that it possesses a right of freedom of association.  Moreover, if a state possesses such a right of freedom of association, it is morally at liberty to decline to associate with any individual who wishes to initiate association with it.  When this state closes its borders to some aspiring immigrant it is merely exercising this right to enter into or eschew associations as it sees fit.

van der Vossen and Brennan formulate Wellman’s argument as follows:

  1. The right to self-determination of states gives them the right to choose with whom they wish to associate.
  2. Immigrants associate with the state.
  3. Therefore, states with a right to self-determination have a right to choose whether or not to allow immigration.

The authors begin their rebuttal of Wellman by distinguishing between an individualist understanding and a collectivist understanding of a state’s right of self-determination (and its right to choose with whom it wishes to associate). (p.50)  Also, they point out that Wellman “has to rely on the collective understanding of self-determination.” (p.51) Hence, for premises 1 and 2 to link up, “we now have to read premise 2 in a collective sense, too.” (p.51)  On this collective reading, “immigrants seek to associate with the state as a collective.” (p.51) However, according to the authors, contrary to the collective reading of premise 2, immigrants are instead “looking to join the state, to become one among the many parts that make up its collective body.” (p.51)  “When immigration succeeds . . . [t]he natural thing to say is that we are now dealing with a single collective body that has gained a new member.” (p.51)  (Apparently, this counts as individualist association with the state.)  Thus, the authors conclude, the crucial flaw in Wellman’s argument is that premise 2 “in a collective sense” is false.

The authors’ rebuttal depends upon a subtle – and, I think it is fair to say, somewhat elusive – differentiation between the collectivist association of immigrants with the state into whose territory they seek to move and their individualist association with that state.  However, it seems that one can avoid this subtlety and elusiveness through a much more straight-forward rejection of premise 2.  Premise 2 is false because immigrants simply do not seek to associate with the state that exercises territorial control over the area which they seek to enter.  A bit more precisely, immigrants with the clearest right against being excluded from the territory they seek to enter are those who seek to associate with (certain of) the members of the society that exists within that territory and not with the state that controls that territory.  This is the crux of the matter. The paradigm evil of building the wall is not that individuals seeking the good (less bad?) individualist sort of association with the collectivity known as the state will be turned away.  Rather, the paradigm evil is that people will be turned away who are seeking a better life through voluntary interactions with other free agents and who, in their innocence, have no plans to associate with the state.

Near the beginning of their discussion of Wellman, the authors say that they do not want to rely upon their “skepticism of states.”  For that skepticism is “controversial” and “it would be disconcerting if the case for open borders would rest on it.” (p.49)  Perhaps this explains the authors’ saying that immigrants really do, in some way or other, want to associate with the state which controls the territory they seek to enter.  Yet, how deep does one’s skepticism of states have to be to affirm the common classical liberal theme that society and the state are not be identified and for that affirmation to remind one that the immigrants who most obviously have a right not to be turned away are those who are seeking entrance into our society, not those seeking to join our state?  (The authors, of course, say that immigrants want to associate with individual people.  Yet the state focus of their presentation leads to them to describe that motivation as wanting to associate with “individual people in the state” [p. 51])

Finally, note that a distinction between folks who want to join our society (our country) and folks who want to become associates of our state would fit nicely with the authors’ willingness to consider a system which would combine open borders with a policy of not providing to immigrants the (supposed) benefits offered by the welfare state.  Such a combination of openness to our society and non-association with the state would, as the authors put it, reflect the fact that it is better “to build walls around the welfare state, not walls around the country.” (p.35)

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