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Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 August 2009


Many poor and oppressed people wish to leave their countries of origin in the third world to come to affluent Western societies. This essay argues that there is little justification for keeping them out. The essay draws on three contemporary approaches to political theory — the Rawlsian, the Nozickean, and the utilitarian — to construct arguments for open borders. The fact that all three theories converge upon the same results on this issue, despite their significant disagreements on others, strengthens the case for open borders and reveals its roots in our deep commitment to respect all human beings as free and equal moral persons. The final part of the essay considers communitarian objections to this conclusion, especially those of Michael Walzer.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 1987

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1 The conventional assumption is captured by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy: “Our policy — while providing opportunity to a portion of the world's population — must be guided by the basic national interests of the people of the United States.” From U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest: The Final Report and Recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy to the Congress and the President of the United States (1 03 1981)Google Scholar. The best theoretical defense of the conventional assumption (with some modifications) is Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983), pp. 3163Google Scholar. A few theorists have challenged the conventional assumption. See Ackerman, Bruce, Social Justice in the Liberal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 8995Google Scholar; Lichtenberg, Judith, “National Boundaries and Moral Boundaries: A Cosmopolitan View” in Boundaries: National Autonomy and Its Limits, ed. Brown, Peter G. and Shue, Henry (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981), pp. 79100Google Scholar, and Nett, Roger, “The Civil Right We Are Not Ready For: The Right of Free Movement of People on the Face of the Earth,” Ethics 81:212–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Frederick Whelan has also explored these issues in two interesting unpublished papers.

2 Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 1025, 88119.Google Scholar

3 Ibid., pp. 108–113. Citizens, in Nozick's view, are simply consumers purchasing impartial, efficient protection of preexisting natural rights. Nozick uses the terms “citizen,” “client” and “customer” interchangeably.

4 Nozick interprets the Lockean proviso as implying that property rights in land may not so restrict an individual's freedom of movement as to deny him effective liberty. This further limits the possibility of excluding aliens. See p. 55.

5 Ibid., pp. 320–23.

6 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 6065, 136–42, 243–48.Google Scholar

7 Ibid., pp. 8–9, 244–48.

8 The argument for a global view of the original position has been developed most fully in Beitz, Charles, Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 125–76, especially 129–36 and 143–53Google Scholar. For earlier criticisms of Rawls along the same lines, see Barry, Brian, The Liberal Theory of Justice (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 128–33Google Scholar and Scanlon, Thomas M., “Rawls's Theory of Justice,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 121, no. 5 (05 1973): 1066–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For more recent discussions, see Richards, David A. J., “International Distributive Justice,” in Ethics, Economics, and the Law, eds. Pennock, J. Roland and Chapman, John (New York: New York University Press, 1982), pp. 275–99Google Scholar and Beitz, Charles, “Cosmopolitan Ideals and National Sentiments,” The Journal of Philosophy 80, no. 10 (10 1983): 591600CrossRefGoogle Scholar. None of these discussions fully explores the implications of a global view of the original position for the issue of immigration, although the recent essay by Beitz touches on the topic.

9 Respecting others as free and equal moral persons does not imply that one cannot distinguish friends from strangers or citizens from aliens. See the conclusion for an elaboration.

10 Rawh, , Justice, pp. 136, 72.Google Scholar

11 Rawls, John, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” The Journal of Philosophy 77, no. 9 (09 1980): 515–72.Google Scholar

12 Ibid. See also Rawls, John, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (Summer 1985): 223–51.Google Scholar

13 Beitz, Compare, Political Theory, p. 183.Google Scholar

14 For more on the comparison of mobility within a country and mobility across countries, see Carens, Joseph H., “Migration and the Welfare State” in Democracy and the Welfare State, ed. Gutmann, Amy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).Google Scholar

15 Rawls, , Justice, pp. 212–13.Google Scholar

16 Ibid., p. 213.

17 For statistics on current and projected levels of immigration to the U.S., see Teitelbaum, Michael S., “Right Versus Right: Immigration and Refugee Policy in the United States,” Foreign Affairs 59 (1980): 2159.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

18 For the deep roots of the right to emigrate in the liberal tradition, see Whelan, Frederick, “Citizenship and the Right to Leave,” American Political Science Review 75, no. 3 (09 1981): 636–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

19 Rawls, , Justice, pp. 325–32.Google Scholar

20 For recent discussions of utilitarianism, see Brandt, Richard, A Theory of the Good and the Right (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Sen, Amartya and Williams, Bernard, eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 For recent communitarian critiques of liberalism, see MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981)Google Scholar and Sandel, Michael, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982)Google Scholar. For a critique of the critics, see Gutmann, Amy, “Communitarian Critics of Liberalism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14 (Summer 1985): 308322.Google Scholar

22 Walzer, , Spheres, p. 61.Google Scholar

23 Ibid., p. 5.

24 Ibid., pp. 33, 45–48, 55–61, 42–44.

25 Ibid., pp. 36–39.

26 Ibid., pp. 39–41.

27 Ibid., pp. 129–64.

28 I am not arguing that the changes in treatment of women, blacks, and workers were brought about by the inner logic of liberalism. These changes resulted from changes in social conditions and from political struggles, including ideological struggles in which arguments about the implications of liberal principles played some role, though not necessarily a decisive one. But from a philosophical perspective, it is important to understand where principles lead, even if one does not assume that people's actions in the world will always be governed by the principles they espouse.

29 Compare Walzer's claim that the caste system would be just if accepted by the villages affected (ibid., pp. 313–15).

30 Ibid., pp. 39–40.

31 Ibid., p. 38.