Arguments from the Left

“More than marking the difference between people, therefore, borders make the difference—imaginary lines fissuring families, cultures, and ecosystems.”

John Washington; What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like? (The Nation)

In “What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?,” John Washington lays out the main ethical, environmental and economic justifications for the complete eradication of borders and the nation state.

Washington points out that from a humanitarian perspective, getting rid of borders could save thousands of lives. 60,000 migrants have died or gone missing since 2014 worldwide.

Increased border enforcement has been shown by various studies to be unsuccessful at reducing the amount of migrants entering a country, however it does make the journey more deadly.

The idea that whether a person is born on one side or the other of a line drawn by imperial conquest determines what access to opportunity and what proximity to violence that person will have for the rest of their life is archaic and sickening and philosopher Joseph Carens argues, akin to feudal class privileges.

Washington outlines another ethical approach to viewing open borders, as reparations. The US is responsible for interventionist actions that have directly and indirectly planted the seeds of violence and instability in countries all over the world. Vassar professor Joseph Nevins uses the term “imperial debt” to describe the relationship that the United States has to Honduras in his book Open Borders.

“The goal of the open borders argument is to challenge complacency, to make us aware of how routine democratic practices in immigration deny freedom and help to maintain unjust inequality.”

Joseph Carens- The Ethics of Immigration

As Washington mentions, there is also an environmental reason to support open borders. Borders negatively affect ecosystems, and create a framework that is conducive to wasteful resource extraction that lies at the heart of climate change. The recent environmental report by “IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, highlights the importance of global interconnectivity in effectively addressing climate change.

“a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.”

“IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”,

The report, released in May 2019 has been deemed the most comprehensive environmental report ever created by the UN. The report finds that global goals for conservancy and sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories and advocates for “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

“With accelerated displacement projected across the globe, hardened borders make no sense [and] free movement will be imperative as more places become uninhabitable…. That also goes for cross-border cooperation, solidarity, organizing, and ecological restoration. Climate change needs a movement and organizing that is transnational, not hindered.”

Todd Miller- Storming the Wall

One of the most common and compelling reasons that people get behind the idea of open borders is the economic benefit. Economic benefits of open borders have been supported by the research of both conservative and liberal economists. However activist scholars from the left such as Natasha King and Harsha Walia have used the open borders debate to take a critical eye to the conception of the nation state itself. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian puts it in an article for The Nation “The problem has never been globalization in and of itself, but that the globalization we have had puts the well-being of capital and capitalists over that of ordinary men, women, and children.” The very conception of the nation state is founded in the exploitation, and erasure of indigenous peoples and cultures.

“The bottom line is that if even one in 20 people currently in poorer countries could work in richer countries, that would add more value to the world economy overall than removing every remaining policy barrier to goods-and-services trade—every tariff, every quota.”

Michael Clemens: senior fellow at the Center for Global Development

End of Poverty

Ending absolute poverty has been a Holy Grail for development economists, and many others, for the past half century. However, it has been difficult to identify specific policy programs which governments can pursue to end human poverty. One policy program which some development researchers believe would contribute greatly to ending global poverty is more liberal migration laws allowing greater freedom of movement across international borders.

Those who argue that migration can play a large role in ending poverty base this on a few key pieces of evidence:

  • There is a place premium: The same person, without any change in skills or in the number of hours worked, can earn a considerably higher income in some countries than in others. Thus, migration is almost a “free lunch” for these workers and the richer economies they can work in. The causes for the place premium are complex, but they are believed to be some combination of economic systems, legal systems, and culture/social structure than enable better use of a person’s talents.
  • A significant fraction of people from poor countries have escaped poverty through migration. For instance, among those born in Haiti who are today not in poverty, 82% escaped poverty by leaving Haiti. For more on this research by Michael Clemens and others at the Center for Global Development, see income per natural and the linked research.
  • When there is freedom of movement between countries, there is rapid convergence between the incomes earned by people in comparable jobs. Migration plays an important role in this, both directly and via remittances and by creating a more interconnected world.

There is a philosophical case for open borders that builds on the philosophy of John Rawls, particularly the veil of ignorance argument, which Rawls borrowed from John Harsanyi. According to Wikipedia:

It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g. slavery) based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society. The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him/her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions and resources in their society. As Rawls put it,

“…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

The idea then, is to render moot those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

 Rawls himself was interested in confining his moral analysis within nation-states. However Joseph Carens attempts to appropriate the Rawlsian framework to determine the morality of open borders in Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders;

Like a number of other commentators, I want to claim that many of the reasons that make the original position useful in thinking about questions of justice within a given society also make it useful for thinking about justice across different societies.[7] Cases like migration and trade, where people interact across governmental boundaries, raise questions about whether the background conditions of the interactions are fair. Moreover, anyone who wants to be moral will feel obliged to justify the use of force against other human beings, whether they are members of the same society or not. In thinking about these matters we don’t want to be biased by self-interested or partisan considerations, and we don’t want existing injustices (if any) to warp our reflections. Moreover, we can take it as a basic presupposition that we should treat all human beings, not just members of our own society, as free and equal moral persons.[8]

The original position offers a strategy of moral reasoning that helps to address these concerns. The purpose of the “veil of ignorance” is “to nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds” because natural and social contingencies are “arbitrary from a moral point of view” and therefore are factors which ought not to influence the choice of principles of justice.[9] Whether one is a citizen of a rich nation or a poor one, whether one is already a citizen of a particular state or an alien who wishes to become a citizen—this is the sort of specific contingency that could set people at odds. A fair procedure for choosing principles of justice must therefore exclude knowledge of these circumstances, just as it excludes knowledge of one’s race or sex or social class. We should therefore take a global, not a national, view of the original position.

Equal Opportunity

Immigration restrictions arbitrarily discriminate against people based on their place of birth, and enforce these restrictions coercively. They deny people living in countries with dysfunctional political and economic systems the opportunity to prove their worth in other countries. They deny these people the opportunity to improve their living standards and secure a better future for their children.

There are many debates surrounding the question of equal opportunity. On the one hand, there are people who say that governments are not obliged to make active efforts to secure equal opportunity for all, but rather, should focus on equal opportunity in access to public services and equality before the law. These people argue that government enforcement of equal opportunity through mandating affirmative action, or passing restrictions on hiring practices, are an infringement of the free association rights of private parties. Also, it is argued that such measures often have negative unintended consequences.

Others argue that governments need to play an active role in securing equal opportunity by restricting or outlawing discriminatory practices in employment. Some argue for mandating affirmative action in private employment. Some argue for means-tested welfare programs to level the playing field for poor children so that they can compete fairly with their more privileged counterparts.

These are difficult issues with many competing interests (liberty/freedom of association versus egalitarian goals) as well as uncertainty about unintended consequences.

On the other hand, people on both sides of the issue can agree that laws that forbid free association and deny equal opportunities to those already underprivileged are unambiguously bad.

The case of immigration restrictions is a clear example where both equality of opportunity and freedom of association are denied. Thus, it should be a no-brainer for people on both sides of the equal opportunity versus free association divide to join hands on this issue.

Global Apartheid

Immigration restrictions are similar both in nature and consequences to unjust intra-state restrictions on labor mobility that have been repealed in recent times:

  • Apartheid in South Africa (repealed around 1997)
  • Jim Crow laws in the United States (major repeal with the Civil Rights Act of 1964)

Immigration restrictions are similar to apartheid and Jim Crow laws, but their main criterion of discrimination is not race but place of birth/origin.