The worst argument for open borders ever made?

Jason Brennan links to a new paper. I have only
read Brennan's summary, so the paper may be much better than he depicts it (more
on that later), but anyway, here is how he summarizes its argument: 



“Freiman says to readers
(again, a paraphrase, not a real quotation): ‘Okay, so you believe it’s
permissible to prohibit foreigners from moving to your country (even when
there’s someone who wants to hire them or let them lease a house), but it’s not
permissible to deport current citizens. Fine. Give me some feature F that
citizens have, which non-citizens lack, that plausibly explains why it’s
permissible to exclude one but not to deport the other. Or give me some feature
G that non-citizens have, but citizens lack, that explains why it’s permissible
to exclude foreigners but not deport citizens. Let’s confine ourselves to cases
where the harm done to the foreigner by excluding him is equal to the harm done
to the citizen by deporting her. And, no, you can’t just say F = is a citizen
or is a member of the social contract, or that G = is a foreigner or is not a
member of the social contract, because that’s the very thing we’re asking
about. What is it about natively-born people that they count as having certain
rights while foreign-born people don’t?’” 



 This is a remarkable
argument. Firstly, it demands that we ignore the only relevant difference
between citizens and non-citizens: "And, no, you can’t just say F = is a
citizen or is a member of the social contract, or that G = is a foreigner or is
not a member of the social contract, because that’s the very thing we’re asking
about." 



 Or, to paraphrase: 



 "OK, so let me first
ban from consideration the very reason that one of these things is permissible
and the other not, and then see what those who want to make this distinction
have left to say!" 



 Secondly, the argument
fallaciously calls both failing to allow someone to move to one’s country and
kicking someone out of it as “harm”: But no, the first is simply not acting to
improve someone’s condition, while only in the second case is there harm being
done. To make this easier to see: If I throw my own young child out of my
house, I am harming her, since I have an obligation to house my child. But in
no way am I “harming” the millions of homeless children in the world but not
allowing all of them to come live with me: I am under no obligation to house
them. 



 Freiman shows up in
Brennan's comment section to dispel the hope that perhaps his paper is better
than Brennan's summary, writing: "what you don't want to say is that
citizens are morally special simply because they fall on one side of a line
(the border) rather than another" 



 The very phrasing
"simply because they fall on one side of a line (the border) rather than
another" essentially contains Freiman's whole argument. He begins by
denying that a nation is or should be any sort of community whose members have
special obligations to each other that they do not have to others simply by the
way he characterizes the relationship, and at the end he "reaches"
the conclusion that a nation is not any sort of community whose members have
special obligations to each other that they do not have to others. It is like
the joke recipe for sausage: to make a sausage, start with some sausage... 



 Then Freiman continues to
dig in deeper: "Think of it this way: suppose I am on a sidewalk and draw
a line with a piece of chalk. I then proceed to step across that line. Has my
moral status changed?" Well, yes, if we "think" of a political
community in this brain-addled way, we will reach very bad conclusions. Of
course, the analogy breaks apart on the very point where the similarity
supposedly lies: I don't cease being a member of the American political
community simply because I am in Montreal for a weekend, nor does a Canadian
cease to be Canadian if she drives to the Adirondacks. By analogy, if we define
a "family" simply as "some people who happen to live on the same
side of a house wall," then we will not find any reason I might have a
greater obligation to care for my sick son than for a sick child in California.



 
 It is a fact of earthly
existence, easily confirmed by a survey of our world, that every living entity,
whether we count them as individuals or groups (and recent biology has shown
that it is often hard to say which is which), must have some boundary where it
controls what passes through. Our immune systems are a perfect example of this,
or ant colonies that prevent incursions of “foreign” ants, or private business
firms, that certainly do not permit just anyone to wander around in their
offices, answering customer calls and placing orders for new computers.

On Facebook a friend
brought up the fact that many churches may feel an obligation to admit some
categories of outsiders as a counter-argument this proposition. But this
actually illustrates my point: a church may have obligations to admit some
people (and so may a political community, e.g. children of members) but also must have a right to exclude some from
membership (Satanists, for instance), or it will simply cease to exist as a
separate entity. His argument that a church has an obligation to admit certain
supplicants implies that it has a
right to admit or not: otherwise, no one would need to make an argument that people
fitting description X or Y ought to be admitted: they would just be in
automatically! 


So, similarly, if one
argues that the US ought to admit, say, Vietnamese refugees, given our role in
destroying their country (an argument I would be very sympathetic to, by the
way) presupposes that our political community has the right to decide who can
join, and we are attempting to persuade our fellows that in this case, it
should use that right by saying "yes." This request for
"symmetry" in approaching those inside some group and those outside
is fabricated just to create a “trap” (Brennan’s characterization of Freiman’s
argument) for those who will not agree to open borders: I can't think of a
single important relationship in human life where we regard kicking someone out
of the relationship as lightly as we do not letting them in in the first place.
If we don't want to marry someone, we can simply tell them, "I am not
interested." But if we are going to leave a marriage, decency (and perhaps
the law as well) demands a little more than that. And it is not necessary for
us to calculate if the “harm” done to the suitor we turned down: there is no
harm, as we have no obligation to marry anyone. We can decide not to have
children simply because we don't want children, but once we have them, we
cannot just send them out to live in the woods because we have changed our
minds. There are many cats roaming the streets of New York City that I have
failed to adopt, and without moral censure, but if I turn the cat I do have out
onto the street, I have earned both blame and legal penalties. Nowhere else do
we find this “symmetry” that is being demanded of political communities. 


4 comments:

  1. That the open-borders types resort to bogus moral arguments like this is an implicit admission that open borders are against the interests of the majority of the existing citizenry in developed countries. After all, if they could argue to the public that open borders will be good for you and your kids, presumably they would make that argument. And, I suppose, it's nice that they're not lying about what's in the audience's personal interests anymore; they're just fabricating a phony moral obligation to throw away one's children's future to benefit people from a foreign country to whom we owe nothing. Even ordinary people ought to be sophisticated enough to see through this. Sadly, this may not be the case.

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  2. 'Borders are just imaginary lines of no moral significance' is an odd line for a believer in private property to take.

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    1. Yes: I think I said something like this in Brennan's comment section.

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  3. His argument that a church has an obligation to admit certain supplicants implies that it has a right to admit or not: otherwise, no one would need to make an argument that people fitting description X or Y ought to be admitted: they would just be in automatically!

    This doesn't make sense. They are arguing against the idea that a political entity should be allowed to refuse entry to people. This may assume that it can to begin with, but this hardly seems relevant since that is what they are attacking.

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