Open Borders II: No Demos, No Democracy

A functioning society needs its members to have a shared history and vision of the good. Unlimited immigration makes these impossible to sustain.

Read Part I first and Part III next.


This article is the second in a series of six, offering arguments for and against “open borders” migration policies. – according to which borders should only limit movement of people for the sake of catching criminals. The first part argued that control over migration is necessary if the economy of a country is going to be subject to democratic control, which is the goal of democratic socialism.

This article is going to show how open borders migration policies are incompatible with a more ancient political theory – one which runs from Aristotle through Aquinas, Burke, and Disraeli. For the sake of convenience I’m going to call it “communitarianism”.

Political theory examines high-level answers to two perennial questions. Firstly, what makes political authority legitimate? Secondly, what kind of constitutional framework leads to good government?

A long tradition originating in the late 17th Century, ‘social contract theory’, answers the first question by saying “consent of the governed”. But the big problem with this answer is that if actual consent were meant, no existing governments would be legitimate. A slightly better answer is that hypothetical consent makes governments legitimate. But the problem with modern democracies is that their inhabitants are extremely intellectually diverse. People argue about the constitution all the time – many of them are on record expressing attitudes which indicate pretty strongly that they wouldn’t consent to be governed by their government if they had the chance. So modern democracies don’t have the hypothetical consent of those they govern: by the standards of contractarian theories, they aren’t legitimate!

Communitarianism flips the script of social contract theory to solve this problem: it says that a government’s legitimacy doesn’t originate in a hypothetical signing of a contract between strangers for mutual benefit. Rather, governments are more like rules a family comes up with to arrange its own affairs. People find themselves living in the same place. They grow to care about each other and their interests become shared – as do their attitudes and principles and deeper goals. There are problems that each individual family can’t solve on its own, like caring for the poor or protecting the weak. So they put together arrangements of the kind we call ‘governments’. They don’t ‘agree’ to live by these: they must. But since these are their arrangements, the government is legitimate.

Because the society raises the next generation to have those same attitudes and principles and goals, new members who weren’t there for the ‘settling in’ would, in fact, hypothetically consent. The constitution of the state reflects the values of those governed by it. So the problem of legitimacy is solved.

The other question concerns what arrangements will lead to good government. A hoary old argument for liberal democracies is that people know what’s best for themselves, better than a manager, bureaucrat or aristocrat. But there are two versions of the claim “people know what’s best for themselves”. The first is “for every individual, they know what’s best for theirself”. The second is “a people knows what’s best for itself”.

The first claim is not plausible. As it turns out, strangers know you better than you know yourself. If those strangers knew what was good in general, if they had an accurate vision of ‘the good’, then they would know what’s good for you better than you do. But there’s no reason to think Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Bannon has a more accurate vision of the good than anyone else.

The second claim is more plausible in the following two ways.

Firstly: we worry about Mark and Steve having influence over us because they have could easily have a different  vision of the good from us. There’s a kind of violation of our moral integrity going on there. But more importantly, the more inaccurate the vision of the good, and the more influential the decision-maker, the worse government will be.

But if the powerful shared our vision of the good – our attitudes, principles, ‘deep’ goals – then these worries would be much weaker. On the one hand, they wouldn’t be violating our integrity by using their wisdom and information to help pursue goods for us. On the other hand, even if they happened to be wrong about the ‘big questions’, they would be wrong in the same way as us. Society could be badly governed, but we wouldn’t know about it: it would look well governed. And that’s probably the best a constitutional craftsman can plan for!

The members of ‘a people’ don’t disagree about the goals of policy: they only disagree about which policies are the best way to achieve those goals. Elections are an accountability mechanic, not factional warfare by bloodless means.

Secondly: it takes time to get to know people. Over the course of your life, you can get to know someone ‘better than they know theirself’, and help them make important decisions with their good in mind. What helps this process even more is if the two of you have grown up together so that your characters and attitudes are similar in various ways. If a people’s members have inherited and shared the same habits and worldview, then these features will be true of all the joint-decision makers in the democracy. They’ll understand one another.

Communitarians might say that ‘a people’ isn’t really ‘a people’ unless the above features are true of it: so a democracy which is constituted by ‘a people’, or ‘demos’ in Greek, will govern more legitimately and more effectively than a state which, sure, lets its subjects vote, but which is really just a physical space in which lots of individuals happen to live and rub along together.

The problem with open borders policies, then, is that a nation with open borders becomes just this: not a country inhabited by a people who have constituted a government out of themselves, but merely a geographical space in which individuals happen to live and rub along together. And someone with the most guns who keeps the peace.

Of course, when individual families move to another country to build a new life, pursuing private goods like a larger paycheck or better public services, they can, in fact, become members of the people who inhabit the country they move to. Their habits and worldview can alter in the necessary way.

But this takes time, and effort, and commitment: and the community they move into has to already be functioning in the way we’ve described above. This assimilation is only possible if migration occurs at a limited place. But open borders policies reject any such limits.

Hotels, doss houses, shopping malls and trading posts are not welcoming places. Humans who inhabit them don’t flourish like those who live in real homes. In order to welcome new arrivals, a nation needs to be a genuine home.


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

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

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