Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.


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