Open borders are not undemocratic, but maybe they should be

There is a vital difference between the appropriate procedure for making a decision and the substance of that decision. Yet this distinction is often overlooked. Suppose we are deciding what type of pizza to get for dinner. You might say, ‘we should put it to a vote’. That is your opinion on the best procedure, ruling out alternatives like letting the birthday boy decide, or playing roulette with a pizza menu. But if we agree to a vote, and it is your turn to vote, you cannot say again, ‘we should put it to a vote’. The group is looking to you to adjudicate on pepperoni, cheese and tomato and mushroom etc. The vote is for canvassing your opinion on the substance of the issue.

Martin Wolf makes a similar error when he says that open borders are

incompatible with the organisation of our politics into self-governing territorial jurisdictions. It is incompatible, too, with the right of citizens to decide who may share the benefits of living alongside them

Why are open borders and the democratic self-determination of immigration criteria inconsistent? According to Wolf, “If countries are entitled to control immigration, the criterion for immigration becomes the benefits to existing citizens and their descendants”. This does not follow. If countries are entitled to control immigration, the criterion for immigration can be anything. That is the point of democracy – you can vote for whatever you want, for whatever reason. Democratic self-determination is a process for determining immigration restrictions. It does not imply any substance.

Wolf presumes that people only vote in their own self-interest. Even if this were true, which is somewhat implausible, it is not necessarily true. We can easily imagine a community where the political debate around immigration is driven by compassion and altruism. And in that community, the citizens may decide to share the benefits of living alongside them with anybody who wants them.

Wolf doesn’t challenge the presumption that states have the right to restrict immigration – reasonably enough, given this is the common sense view. But there are at least two ways in which we might think that states do not have these rights. Most democracies have certain fundamental individual rights which cannot be overturned by the popular vote. For example, the US government cannot pass a law that contradicts the Bill of Rights. We might think that there is an analogous situation with immigration, if we believe that there is a fundamental right to migration, as some have argued. Alternatively, it could be argued that democratic norms make it illegitimate to make decisions that severely affect people without involving them in the decision process. This implies that it is undemocratic to hold people subject to immigration laws that they were not consulted on. Consequently, national democratic processes are inappropriate for determining immigration restrictions.

I’m not sure if either of these arguments work. But even if, like Wolf, you believe nations have the right to control their borders, you don’t have to reject open borders.


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