Nations and Borders

22 January 2016


What gives nations the right to control who can cross their borders? That’s the question we’re addressing in this week’s show. After all, in some sense we’re all citizens of this planet with an equal right to its bounty, so shouldn’t we all be able to live and work wherever we want?

Strictly speaking, of course, people are citizens of nations, and nations determine who can come into their territory and what they can do once they get there. But those are just the facts. What we’re interested in is the normative question: Should nations be able to prevent anybody from crossing their borders? And if so, why?

Here’s one argument in favor of the rights of nations to control their borders: Governments have a responsibility to provide security, along with economic and social stability for their citizens. Without border control, there would be mass immigration, which would lead to major job losses and economic instability, as well as excessive burdens on the state’s infrastructure and public services. In other words, without border control, there would be chaos.

This seems like a strong argument in favor of border control, but it doesn’t fully answer the question we started with. It presupposes the legitimacy of nations and then presents pragmatic reasons for protecting such entities, whereas the legitimacy of nations is exactly what we’re questioning. After all, if we examine at the history of most nations, what we’ll find are stories of war, conquest, theft, occupation, genocide, and expulsion. It’s not a pretty picture. If we’re interested in justice and not just domination, then we have to question the legitimacy of claims made by these arbitrarily formed entities we call nations, and thus their right to control the lines in the sand they call their borders.

Now, we might grant that nations have histories that are dark and messy and still want to defend their right to determine who can enter their territory. While there are certainly many borders and territories in dispute today, for most stable countries, it could be argued, that dark history is very much in the past. The actions that led to nations being formed, however illegitimate they were at the time, happened long ago, and those responsible for any injustices that were committed have been dead for generations. The current citizens of a country can’t be made to pay in perpetuity for those past injustices. If a person was born in a country, if they pay their taxes and obey the laws, then aren’t they entitled to certain rights and privileges not afforded to non-citizens?

I’m not sure I find this line of argumentation convincing. Consider an analogy. Imagine my great-grandfather stole an important piece of art many, many years ago and that it has been in my family for several generations. While it would be strange and unfair to hold me either morally or legally responsible for my great-grandfather’s crimes, which were committed long before I was even born, I don’t think it follows that I’m now entitled to keep this work of art just because it has been in my family for a few generations. The art rightfully belongs to someone else. Even if I was not the person to steal it in the first place, it doesn’t mean that it belongs to me or that I have any right to say what should happen to this work of art.

Similarly, just because I personally did not steal anyone’s territory, it doesn’t follow that I have any special claim on the territory that was stolen by my ancestors. I’m not to blame for what others did, but it’s not clear that I have any legitimate claim to territory that was forcefully taken either.

Of course, the history of territories is much more complicated and messy than the art analogy suggests. The world does not already come with works of art—they must be brought into existence, they must be created by someone—whereas land is just there to be discovered. If we go back far enough in the history of any particular land, at some point someone just claimed it as their own. And then some group invaded, took the land away, until another war happened, and then maybe the land became part of some empire thousands of miles away, until another war happened, and another war, and eventually a new state declared itself, and expelled and displaced one particular ethnic group that had maybe been there for centuries before, and so it goes. In these messy histories, how do we ever determine which group has the ultimate claim to the territory? It seems like at some point we just have to accept the arbitrariness of the lines that delineate one territory from another. 

So, what follows from this arbitrariness? Does it mean no one has any ultimate right to govern territories? I don’t think so, but it does mean that these rights must have a different source of justification. I will leave that question aside to return to the specific question of border control. Even if we accept that the people living together in a particular region have some rights of self-determination (e.g. by legislating certain kinds of behavior within the territory), do those rights extend to determining who can and can’t enter their territory? And other than the pragmatic considerations we started with, how might we justify a state’s right to control their historically-messy and arbitrarily drawn borders? 

A second set of questions we should ask concerns the rights of non-citizens once they have crossed the border. As a law-abiding non-citizen living in a foreign land, what should you be entitled to? Public education, health care, emergency services? What about the right to vote, either in local or national elections? If we exclude non-citizens from these institutions, on what basis do we do that, particularly considering how so many undocumented workers pay taxes and social security without ever benefiting from their contributions, and they often hold up regional economies by doing a lot of back-breaking work that citizens would never do? 

Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

Comments (13)

mirugai's picture


Saturday, June 22, 2013 -- 5:00 PM


Nations are fictions designed by those with power over others by a number of means. Nations are the fictions; power is the reality. And the ?power-over-status? serves only the goals of those in power, though there may be benefits to those not in power. The issue is not: where I live, or where I was born; but who or what has the power to control certain matters of my life and convert some of them from private to public. ?Nations can have moral significances,? says the guest; the question is who defines the ?significances? as ?moral,? and why. The attachment of ?moral? is a way to not have to discuss whether it is moral or not.
The new global community created by the internet (which doesn?t get any mention in the show!) is redefining political power completely, just as the internet is redefining everything. Believe it: those in power must (and many do) fear the internet more than any other political movement ? and they ought to. And so should all those who have a stake in the maintaining of pre-internet powers.

MJA's picture


Monday, June 24, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Freedom has no walls, and

Freedom has no walls, and equal is the light of the promised land.
I can't take you there because we are there, all we have to do is be it.
Be true,
"Free at last..."

Guest's picture


Monday, June 24, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

One of the problems a manager

One of the problems a manager can except to deal with is the conflicts between workers who demand precise boundaries and those who view boundaries as fuzzy constructs. There is a place for both viewpoints, which points to the difficulty of establishing a global village except in a communications context (and even there, there is the problem of implementing a universal language).
A classic problem of Socialism, is that as soon as Socialism raise people out of abject poverty they begin to favor private ownership (and lower taxes).
Ancient Athens might serve as a model for preventing chaos in a borderless society, if such were possible. They had not yet invented the concept of citizenship (which was a much later invention of the Roman Republic). Athens encouraged immigration but one had to be at least a third generation resident of Athens to participate in politics.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Monday, June 24, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Arvo, Not sure what you mean

Arvo, Not sure what you mean by "citizenship" but Ancient Athens certainly did have this concept. Both Plato and Aristotle wrote about citizenship. Check out The Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Ancient Political Philosophy here:

Guest's picture


Tuesday, June 25, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Laura. As I understand it, references to Athenian citizenship, Babylonian citizenship, etc. are merely convenient anachronisms. The right to participate in Athenian politics emerged from residency; a man had to be at least a third generation resident of Athens (as well as being at least the age of 35 and freeborn). These criteria were relaxed at times, such as when greater manpower was needed for war, but there was as yet no concept of being born into citizenship or of being naturalized.
It was the genius of Rome that it was able to spread its influence securely over the Italian peninsula by offering the various tribes "citizenship" with the rights it entailed in exchange for payment of taxes and for military service.
As I say, I am not an expert and will gladly accept correction if I am misinformed.

Guest's picture


Saturday, June 29, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Philosphy Talk for Who...

Philosphy Talk for Who....Grade Schoolers - please find a better way to spend my public radio membership support - far from enlightened discussion - In Good Health and Mind, Gerard

Guest's picture


Monday, July 1, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I read somewhere, somewhen,

I read somewhere, somewhen, that nationhood is a concept first posited by Mohammed. This may or may not be true, but if we look at the discontent fomenting in Islamic countries these days, we must ask questions about the expediency of the concept. Come to that, the notion is not working well in non-Muslim countries either. The world-federalist movement may still be viable, but, I have heard little from them in the last thirty years or so. Just saying...

Mark Caplan's picture

Mark Caplan

Saturday, July 6, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Where does the state get the

Where does the state get the right to turn back migrants at the border? Is that really such a conundrum that the two hosts and the guest expert couldn't provide a satisfactory answer? Where does the state get the right to put convicted murderers in prison? Where does the state get the right to require pharmacists to be licensed? The American state gets its rights from the Constitution and legally passed statutes and legally issued executive orders.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, July 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Let me tell you a story. My

Let me tell you a story. My brother left the USA, at a time when many others were doing so. Later (shortly), I did the same. The Viet Nam debacle ranks high on the list of, uh, mistakes perpetrated by freely elected American government. It might be #1, but that is not for me to say. Brother became successful, raised a family, and has at least one grandchild. I was not so well-driven, and came back to the USA when Jimmy Carter said I could do so---on parole. Borders were important when we made our decisions. We could not be extradited for our "crimes." There are a few thousands of exiles in various countries because of the war many want to forget, There are 57,000+ who died whose family and friends cannot and will not forget. Nations and borders have advantages. My brother and I got second chances, those many years ago. But, I have no country, while he is just where he wanted to be.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, January 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

A timely re-visitation of

A timely re-visitation of this issue, Ms. Maguire. I think you nailed it in the third paragraph of your post. Chaos is not conducive to, among other things, economic stability. Europe has definitely grabbed the tiger by the tail here and I feel trepidation for dear old Germany in particular. The notion of us all being citizens of the world was certainly altruistic at one time. Alas, the world is not the same place it once may have been, and the bad actors (Assad, ISIS/ISIL, and all of the other wannabees) just seem to keep popping up like moles from holes. Lately, I have coined a couple of new phrases in attempting to briefly describe some of the problem areas we have gotten ourselves (and others) into. 1) Complexity compounds chaos: If we look at many of the effects of progress in this 21st century, we see more and more of the negative aspects of our ceaseless drive to do and be, well, more and more. Our children, for example, are given less and less time to be children. They are alienated from such nonsense at an ever decreasing age. And, often then, they become alienated from most everything else. It is all about progress, success and the treadmill of competition. It simply will not do for them to fall behind because although "winning" may not be everything, "losing" is nothing at all. 2) Complexity is nuclear, feeding upon itself. Or, in other more ominous terms, we have reached critical mass sociologically. I firmly believe this and that we should be very afraid. 3) Simplicity supports serenity. This was an axiom of an earlier age and is only now practiced by a faithful few (ascetics, regressives and the like). We cannot stop the train. Moreover, we cannot see any compelling need to do so.
It is too bad we have come so far in so many ways and one must wonder, I think: Where are we going now?
Warmest Regards,

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, January 24, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Arvo, pace Laura, was quite

Arvo, pace Laura, was quite right. The issue is problematic because, for one thing, national boundaries are not a national authority, they are all determined by bi-national or international agreement. It is odd, I suppose, that no one is calling for fences around our shorelines, or of removing the "dry-foot, wet foot" distinction, or ceasing the preferential status of Cuban immigrants. It is also difficult because the terms 'nation' and 'state' are confused. Poli-sci tries to clarify by defining 'nation' as a people, and 'state' as the apparatus of government. This gets obscured by the relation in the US between state and federal authority.
Here's an interesting thought, a close reading of William Bradford's history of Plymouth shows that the Pilgrims did not want to settle in the region their 'patent' permitted, because it, 'Virginia', anywhere from the Carolina's to northern New Jersey, were under the authority of the Church of England, which they wanted to avoid. They had hoped that somewhere near the Dutch in what would become New York would allow them the freedom they craved, but they did not want to be assimilated to Dutch language or customs. It is obvious, reading-in only a little, that some of the group intended Cape Cod all along. The intent being to settle outside their legal title. To settle, as it were, illegally, or "undocumented". Crossing a border without permission is not a crime, it is only a misdemeanor, and cannot be punished as a felony. Besides, people come here, for the most part, to live under our laws. It is because they prefer our laws that they violate the border. It seems perverse to punish people for loving our laws. Anyway, most immigrants now stay for a while and leave, and America is actually under net emigration. And, the very idea of border controls is very new. In fact, it may be the result of a disastrous policy of Woodrow Wilson to divide Europe on nationalist lines, hence the term "nationalism", which Hitler embraced to such infamy.
Another correction, it is not the Constitution that is the basis of American lawful authority, it is the consent of the governed. It is dangerous to lose that distinction. The Constitution was never properly ratified by the people. It was passed only on the promise of a bill of rights, which is not exactly as promised, but merely, barely, good enough. It is not holy writ. As I tried to explain in another topic, fixing law in writing is not the liberating exercise many suppose, the earliest written law was intended to enslave, including the code of Hammurabi, and the law of Moses, at least as reported by the Babylonian 'captives' on their 'return' to Israel.

MJA's picture


Sunday, January 24, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Just beyond the border is

Just beyond the border is another border, and then another and another, and once we cross them all surely there is freedom, the light that follows the day, the promised land, free at last! I'll wait for you here. Be One, =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, February 4, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Call me "snarky", but:

Call me "snarky", but:
The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies?
   Such a carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
   The moment one looked in his face!
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.
"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   "They are merely conventional signs!
"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we've got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best?
   A perfect and absolute blank!"
This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out
   That the Captain they trusted so well
Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,
   And that was to tingle his bell.