The Moral Claims of Non-Citizens

So…, James Poulos had said:

The big problem with Gerson’s ‘moral internationalism’ is not that it has a big heart or a goofy smile. The big problem is that it’s inimical to citizenship. Gerson and his ilk long for the day that Americans don’t get a better shake in life just because they’re Americans.

I was a bit confused by the possibility of a decent person denying the fundamental moral equality of human beings, so I asked in comments:

Just to be clear, you think Americans ought to get a better shake in life just because they’re Americans?

In the comments, James ends up endorsing this view, from J.A.:

Whether you subscribe to the notion that America’s prosperity and stability are undeserved accidents of a less-than-honorable history, or, alternatively, happy results of the Constitution and better than average leadership — or, in fact, if you believe neither or a combination of these — do other peoples, less fortunate in their circumstances, have legitimate moral claims on us for access to them? If you take as a given that America is, comparatively speaking, a really good place to live, work, and raise a family — which I think is obviously a true statement — then the question is not whether Americans should get a better shake in life; they do get a better shake in life by virtue of being citizens in a “really good place to live, work and raise a family.” The question isn’t even one of just deserts. The question is, what moral claims can non-citizens make on American citizens given the fact of American prosperity and stability?

Yes, Americans get a better shake in life than most people in the world in virtue of having had the good sense to get born in the United States, which does have relatively excellent institutions. Yes, those institutions are a main reason so many people come to live and work here. But I cannot make sense of the concluding question. Does J.A. think that the fact Americans are so rich weakens the obligations of Americans to non-citizens? I guess that would be an… interesting thing to think.

There is no need for confusion about the question at hand, which is clear enough: What justifies state-imposed limits on the human rights to movement and free association?

A country is not a big plot of land owned by its citizens. It is a jurisdiction of government within which there are many free people and many pieces of privately-owned property — at least if the government is decent. But suppose one is simple and thinks citizens own countries in much the way a family can own a farm. What then?

First, back up to the question of the justification of a system of private property. The division of the commons into parcels, and the use of government coercion to enforce private claims over these parcels — which include the right to exclude — requires a justification. Dave Schmidtz provides that justification here [doc]. In short, dividing the commons leaves each with more than had it remained open. The right to exclude enables general prosperity.

So, think of the Earth as a big commons, and imagine borders as fences. Can we justify the system of nation-states and its migration controls in the same way? Evidently not. The welfare gains that would come from even a mild decrease in coercive limits on travel and free association are awesomely huge, which of course implies that the status quo system of limits does not leave most people better off than they would be in a feasible alternative system. And this suggests that the global-level system of division and exclusion lacks moral justification.

Citizens may have stronger claims on one another than they have on non-citizens. And they may have stronger claims one another than non-citizens have on them, because they share the burdens and benefits of a set of common institutions. But everyone, no matter who printed their passport, has equal claim to the respect of their basic rights. Citizens are under a strict obligation not to harm or violate the rights of non-citizens. The status quo system, which limits the freedom to travel and cooperation without benefiting most of those whose freedom is limited, amounts to both a substantive and moral harm; it denies some basic conditions for human flourishing and a thereby constitutes a violation of basic rights. What non-citizens have coming to them, is the recognition of their rights, moral respect as persons.

Limiting basic rights to travel and associate may be justified if it is necessary to maintain the integrity and stability of instutitions that tend to make people better off overall. The United States economy and its supporting institutions are hugely beneficial not only to those who live and work within them, but more broadly. I am open to serious, empirically-minded arguments about the location of the point at which additional openness to migration leads to diminishing benefits. But, I’m afraid, one sees very little of this.

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