Open Borders I: People, Not Profit!

In the first of a six part series, Hugh Burling shows the inconsistency between democratic socialism and the fashionable extremism of open borders migration policies. The second is here.


This article is the first in a series of arguments against the view that countries should have ‘open borders’: that borders should only limit movement of people for the sake of catching criminals.

Each argument will be made at the level of a different political theory. But each political theory also privileges certain concrete political goals, so you’ll have very practical arguments, too. There will be six – three arguments for having migration policies, and three about common arguments for open borders, exposing their simplistic assumptions.

The series needs justifying in two ways. Firstly, why devote a whole series to this issue? Secondly, why are the arguments framed in terms of theories, rather than immediate policy goals?

Migration is what professional propagandists call a ‘wedge issue’. It divides progressives and conservatives fairly cleanly. Typically, opening someone’s mind about a wedge issue helps them to re-think the meaning of their principles and their attitudes to a whole range of other issues. It’s the real-life equivalent of sending someone an instruction to follow their neighbour’s white rabbit tattoo.

People tend to justify their position on a wedge issue by appealing to a moral or political principle so abstract that anyone has to be evil to deny it. When this happens, we won’t move each other with ‘evidence’. We need to talk about those principles. When a principle sounds so obviously good and true that anyone who questions its consequences must be evil, listeners should smell a rat. Until principles get their content from theories, they are just slogans. Most of us inherit our political theories by hearing and reading politicians and journalists applying principles to cases. All the filling in of the principles, by the theories, happens by implication.

This series makes things explicit. Get advice from your parentals before proceeding.

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Be warned: this is not the same thing as “social justice”.

There are many ways of deciding how migration should be managed.

To advocate for open borders is to reject all of them.

But now this position has become the progressive fall-back, used to squash anyone’s concerns about the effects of historically unprecedented migration trends.

We’re told that free movement of people is implied by ‘human rights’; your position reduces free movement; so your position is evil, off the table. Our conversation about migration sets up the options so that the most extreme among them – open borders – occupies at least half of the space of morally conceivable possibilities.

But as soon as you give up open borders, you are free!

Free, that is, to really think with an open mind about the effects that different kinds of migration can have on different countries. (Both those where immigration might outpace infrastructure growth, and those suffering from brain drains.) And free to consider all the serious arguments for different policy responses to different kinds of migration.

Some defenders of open borders policies are honestly libertarian or something-anarchist or anarcho-something, but many regard themselves as social democrats. Does social democracy imply open borders?

No. To understand why not – to understand why a state without borders cannot succeed as a social democracy – we need to remind ourselves what democratic socialism is really about.

What social democrats want is to secure, for we governed, the full fruits of our industry. And we want our government to manage our economy so as to bring about the most equitable possible distribution of those fruits. What differentiates us from those other socialists is that we’re committed to doing this by the peaceful and fair means of the ballot box.

What unites us with other kinds of socialists, however, is that we want as many levers of the economy as possible in the hands of (democratically accountable) government, rather than in the hands of investors, who are accountable only to their greed and relative cunning.

Once those levers are in our hands, how we manage the economy is a question of wise policy: nationalising this industry might be a good idea, but that one a bad idea; shrinking the reserve labour pool by expanding the public sector might be a good way to drive up wages, or perhaps increasing jobseekers’ allowance will help more. Whether we need to increase or decrease a certain tax in order to get the revenue we need to fund such policies depends on the local economic facts.

If our calls for open borders are only a rhetorical ploy to browbeat those arguing for specific controls we disagree with, so that we can get our preferred border controls, then we are being dishonest and our consciences will bid us fall silent.

But as social democrats, we can’t honestly call for open borders. Actual open borders would make democratic socialism impossible. Here’s why.

One of the levers of economic control we want the government to have is the size and the shape of the workforce – both generally, and sector by sector. Government can help fund training for, delay entrance into, or increase turnover in, different sectors of the workforce, or the workforce as a whole. This is one of the functions of state subsidies for higher and further education; but also of legislation concerning retirement and the minimum wage.

Actual open borders make this kind of planning impossible, and so take this lever out of the control of the electorate. With open borders, the size and shape of the workforce would depend not on the desires of the electorate, but on the accidents of migration patterns. Controls on migration, therefore, are part of any government’s control over the size and shape of the workforce.

Indirectly, open borders also deprive governments of the ability to channel capital into industries whose success the electorate most want or need. Under open borders regimes, the legal owners of capital effectively become global citizens (hiss!) answerable only to a non-existent global government.

The scale, manner and quality of the provision of public goods and services should also be accountable to the electorate.

Now, it’s possible – in the sense of ‘wouldn’t violate the laws of physics’ – that a state could have open borders and eternally ‘luck out’ with its migration patterns so that public goods and services could still be delivered in the way the electorate asked. And it’s likewise ‘possible’ that even if that state didn’t ‘get lucky’, its tax base, tax regime and means of delivering goods and service could be so tip-top that mass immigration or emigration wouldn’t adversely affect service provision. But when someone calls for open borders, they are explicitly not calling for “open borders if and when it is on-balance wise”. They are defending an absolute principle. They want to build a wicker roof both for sun and for storms.

Perhaps these three problems can be dealt with by international government. But real democratic accountability only happens in states up to certain sizes. Let’s look at the imperial and world governments we have today. Running continent-sized states, we have the United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and the European Union. Running the world, we have the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Tell me that any of these organisations make the levers of economies accountable to their electorates and I will tell you that you are a social ‘democrat’ in name only.


Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Enjoyed this article? Subscribe to the Quad. Featured photo by Elliot Killingbeck, used under Creative Commons Share-alike 3.0 Unported.

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