Nations and Borders

Sunday, January 24, 2016
First Aired: 
Sunday, June 23, 2013

What Is It

One’s country of birth has a profound effect on life prospects. It's often best to go elsewhere. But moving is not always so easy. Borders and immigration laws restrict people from going where they want to pursue a better life. On the one hand there is the state’s need for security, self-determination, and a functioning economy. But why should arbitrary boundaries, based on past thefts of territory, limit a person's opportunities? Are borders essential to nationhood, or do they form an exclusive club that unfairly keeps certain people from pursuing a better life? John and Ken lift the gate for UC Berkeley Law Professor Sarah Song, author of Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism. This program was recorded live at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco.

Listening Notes

John opens the show by posing the following questions: shouldn’t everyone who is a citizen of this planet be able to move wherever they wish? What gives nations the right to control who can cross their borders? Ken is puzzled by John’s idea of planetary citizenship - people are citizens of nations, and nations have the right to control who crosses their borders. But John is not convinced, and wonders where and why nations acquired this right. Ken insists that without this right of nations, chaos would ensue, as mass immigration would occur, threatening the security and economic stability of various countries. Furthermore, Ken wonders why, if he works in this country, pays his taxes here, and obeys the laws, an arbitrary non-citizen should have the same rights as him. John insists that everyone who is born on Earth has the right to the planet’s bounty, and that there are individuals who may not be citizens of a country but contribute just as much and therefore deserve to have equal protection under the law. Ken concludes by recognizing that determining the rights and liberties of individuals by the arbitrary borders of nations is a complicated matter.

Ken and John are joined by Sarah Song, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Berkeley and author of author of Justice, Gender, and the Politics of Multiculturalism. John first asks Sarah whether her interest in topics related to nations and borders arose from her personal experience, given that Sarah’s family immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was six years old. She says it did, and explains her interest in the arbitrariness of being born in a particular place or other, to a richer or poorer family, and how strongly these factors determine our prospects in life. Sarah agrees that nations are formed through wars, ethnic cleansing, and other acts committed by dominant powers. Nations and borders are created through force and fraught, she says. However, this does not minimize the significance of national boundaries, as they allow for the provision of fundamental goods, including security and the opportunity for collective self-government.

Ken asks Sarah to comment on John’s view that the people of one nation should not have the right to control movement of other people into their country, to which Sarah says she believes John is moving too fast. We should instead ask the question of who has the right to control borders, and Sarah says she believes citizens should. John provides the example of individuals living in South Texas, bordering Mexico, as an example of an archaic, unnatural border. Still, Ken insists that a nation is more than a chunk of land, that it is more defined by people cooperating in that land, that there is an attachment or loyalty to nations that cannot merely be described by physical borders.

Questions regarding safety as a consideration when it comes to policing borders, the criteria for discussing nations currently under dispute, and the economic considerations of establishing borders are discussed when Ken and John invite audience participation. The show concludes with John at a crossroads between the two views.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 5:31): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Caitlin Esch talks to Sergio Garcia, who moved to the United States from Mexico at a young age. Garcia provides his personal story and explores the struggles of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 49:15): Ian Shoales explores the necessity of establishing borders, looking at renowned examples of boundaries such as the Mason-Dixon line and the Oregon boundary dispute of 1844.