Are Open Borders Desirable and Viable?

| Philip Carl Salzman |

“Open borders” means that people may enter and leave at will with no control or obstruction. Open borders as a policy option for international borders is presently advocated by many people and circles who might accept the designation “progressive.”

There are many different reasons put forward to justify open international borders, reasons that are understandable and even admirable. Concerns about economic inequality, about oppression, and about racism often come to the fore. Other, practical issues, such as innovation and labour force, are also raised.  

The rationale for open international borders is based on a model of the world in which the rich and powerful oppress the poor and weak, and white people oppress people of color. This model is dignified by the label “postcolonial theory,” offering the argument that all the ills of the world are a result of Western, Euro-American, imperialism and colonialism. The model is also supported by the idea of “intersectionism,” which means both that various disadvantages combine in oppression, and that the oppressed of all categories should support one another.

Open international borders, the argument continues, would compensate for Western imperialism and exploitation, and racial oppression, by opening the doors of rich societies to the poor of the world off of whose backs the rich became rich, and to people of colour by whites who have abused them throughout history. Rich countries would thus become mixed, non-whites would outnumber whites, who would no longer be able to impose their racial superordination. Furthermore, it is alleged, vast numbers of immigrants would add to intelligence and labour power, and lead to economic advance for all.

This model of “postcolonialism,” and its implications for open borders, might be convincing, but only if one ignores the historical facts. Imperialism and colonialism are age-old and worldwide phenomena. The Persian Empire and other ancient empires, widespread Greek colonies, the Roman Empire, the Arab Muslim Empire, the Muslim Mogul Empire, and the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Aztec and Inca Empires, among many others, long ante-dated Western imperialism. Furthermore, various of these–the Arab Muslim Empire, Mongol Empire, and Ottoman Empire–occupied territories of the West, enslaved, cleansed or forcibly converted the population, and occupy some of these lands today. The Arab Empire conquered all of North Africa, previously occupied by the Christian West; the Ottoman Empire conquered and occupied Greek Byzantium, and the Turkish Republic ethnically cleansed the indigenous Greeks from what is now Turkey. By contrast, the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese Empires came late and were short-lived. The Russian and Soviet Empires, apparently given a free pass by “progressives,” were more widespread, and the Chinese Empire, ditto, has overrun the Mongols, the Tibetans, and the Turks of the great northern, western, and southern grasslands.

So too with the historical facts of race oppression. The “whites oppressed people of color” model leaves out quite a bit. Muslim enslavement of European whites paralleled Muslim enslavement of African blacks. 

Arab slave raiding from North Africa was the bane of any part of Europe reached by sea. 

Most Italian and Sardinian coastal settlements were up in the mountains, to provide protections against “Saracen” raids. The Sardinian flag shows four blacks with blindfolds, possibly captured from slave raiding parties or in warfare, and is called in Italian “I quattro mori,” the four Moors. Arab slave raiding all the way to Ireland continued into the 20th century. The Ottomans established an institution called the devshirme that required each Balkan family to send one of their sons to Istanbul, to the Porte, to be converted to Islam and raised to be slaves of the Sultan, some transformed into eunuchs by the removal of their sexual organs.

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The prevalence of empires and colonialism throughout history is easy to understand. The low levels of productivity in pre-industrial societies provided no surplus for the support of elites, art, architecture, etc. Surplus came from taking value from others who had produced it; this is why imperial expeditions were great robberies. Slavery, an integral goal of imperial expansion, was the theft of labour from uncompensated captives. Every pre-industrial state stole to support itself. Thus a strong military was necessary.

The simplistic dualisms of the postcolonial and intersectional model are refuted by well-known historical facts. Thus the political equations based on this model that support open international borders are without merit. Furthermore, while all ancient empires gained much of their wealth by theft, the same cannot be said for the European societies that invented the Enlightenment and the agricultural and industrial revolutions. These societies found a way, through science and technology, to high levels of production, and to surpluses that would support societal elites and institutions. Contemporary rich societies have become rich through high levels of production. They have become rich by earning that wealth. Poorer countries have failed to do this. But not all. One time poor countries have successfully adopted Western science and technology and worked their way to prosperity: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and latterly and partially China and India. To say that riches must be distributed among all ignores the basic fact that peoples who have innovated and worked for their wealth should be respected, not punished for their success.

The cathecting of equality above all other values is a common feature of progressive thought. It was under the banner of equality that the communist societies of the 20th century – the Soviet Union, Mao’s Communist China, North Korea, Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, and Cuba – imprisoned or murdered hundred of million of their citizens. One might have thought that vast cruelty and callous slaughter would give pause to ambitious reformers of society today; but, no, they persist in railing against capitalism and its inequality, demanding that the state distribute wealth, and that capitalism be replaced.

But the progressive quest for equality goes well beyond economic equality among individuals. The new collective thrust of progressive equality is among all categories of people: sex, age, class, ethnicity, religion, race, sexual preference, sexual identity, health and disability, and, who knows, perhaps height and weight will be added next week. Equality of category means that groups and institutions must be populated with equal numbers of men and women, young and old, whole and disabled, straight and gay, black, brown, white, yellow, red, and all mixes, Muslim, Buddhists, Christians (each distributed among their sectarian variations), Italians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Germans, etc. Today there are demands for inclusion in educational institutions of homeless, uneducated, and those with mental problems. What this means is that, in order to insure collective equality, recruitment of people to institutions would be on the basis of census categories rather than merit in the qualities relevant for the working of that institution. Diversity is meant to replace merit and functionality, in the name of collective equality.

This overriding emphasis on collective equality prescribes open borders as a way of importing people in census minorities, so as to equalize the demography in society. Above all, they argue, we must destroy the white and Christian majorities in North America and Europe on behalf of the people of colour. Only a diversity of equal minorities can be considered righteous. Opposing open border is thus considered racist. As a member of a minority myself, with two visible minority children, I would argue that the “progressive” jihad against whites and Christians is obviously itself racist. But progressives regard reverse racism (and reverse sexism, etc.) as “good racism,” virtuous racism.

Part and parcel of the plea for open borders is neglect of the question of culture. It is not unknown that cultures from country to country and continent to continent vary markedly. Thus, in considering in-comers from other cultures, the question of compatibility arises. Not for progressives however, who tend to deny that Western countries have cultures. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has denied that there is any mainstream culture in Canada; rather, he argues, diversity is Canada’s strength. 

The former Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeld, is reported as arguing that “Swedes are uninteresting as an ethnic group and that it is instead the immigrants that creates the new Sweden. It is what they do in Sweden that is Sweden, he claimed.” Ingrid Lomfors, who works for the Swedish Government, argues that there is no such thing as a “native Swedish culture.” 

The Canadian public, however, believes that there is a Canadian mainstream culture. Furthermore, 68% of Canadians want minorities to conform to mainstream Canadian culture, rather than to maintain the languages, customs, and laws of their countries of origin. For Canadians, multiculturalism means that we welcome people from all across the world to come to Canada and become Canadians, but not to reproduce Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Fiji, India, or Syria in Canada. 

Furthermore, it is undeniable that Western countries have established laws and institutions. Any in-comers who do not wish to respect those laws and participate in those institutions are incompatible with that country’s culture. One reason to maintain border control is to exclude potential in-comers whose values and objectives are inconsistent with or hostile to established mainstream laws and institutions.

As we consider open international borders, let us examine the use of borders in our everyday lives. The place where I work, which happens to be a university, is similar to most business and government institutions in that it maintains a clear border between those who are part of the university, and those who are not. If one is hired to work at the university, or enrolled as a student, then one is a member of the university. Graduates have an auxiliary position, filled on a voluntary basis, as alumni. Other members of the public are not members of the university, cannot draw on its resources, may not attend classes, cannot expect to receive financial compensation or educational credentials from the university. The borders of the university, of each course and classroom, and of each office, are enforced by a security service, which can call on the municipal police service if needed. Each university course has official members, including the instructor who teaches it, and the students who are enrolled. Non-students and non-registered students may not enter without the permission of the professor, and cannot receive academic credit.

There are many practical reasons to maintain such boundaries. Each classroom can accommodate only so many students, and is restricted by fire ordinances to that number. If outsiders were to enter, there would not be adequate room for them. Furthermore, the work of the course in the classroom is carried out by the instructor and the registered students; outsiders would by their presence, and even more by any interventions, disrupt the educational process of the classroom. As well, the university received limited funds, and can support only so many courses and students with those funds. A flow of outsiders who had to be provided facilities and services would decrease the already modest per capita resources available per student, or increase the total operating cost, and lead the university into bankruptcy. Security risks of theft and violence by outsiders also require strong borders and their enforcement.

How many advocates of open international borders would care to implement an open border policy in regard to their homes? Is it desirable to have no restrictions on who enters and remains in one’s home? Not many people, I would guess, would be willing to admit anyone who cares to enter their home, draw on its space, food, and other assets, and have unimpeded access to anyone living there. Most people, even those who favour an open border policy for their country, have a closed border policy for their homes. They have locks on their doors and windows, and many have security systems that sound an alarm if outsiders enter. Nor would most people be willing to admit to their homes outsiders unknown to them. Most people prefer to minimize rather than maximize the risk of loss of property, of assault, and of loss of life. Keeping boundaries to one’s home, but rejecting them for one’s country, appears to be security for me but not for thee.

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Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. In recent years he has also served as Senior Fellow at the University of St. Andrews, Open Society International Scholar at the American University of Central Asia, Erasmus Mundus International Fellow at the University of Catania, and Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney. His extensive ethnographic field research in Baluchistan (Iran), Gujarat and Rajasthan (India), and Sardinia (Italy) provided the foundation for such publications as The Anthropology of Real Life: Events in Human Experience (1999), Black Tents of Baluchistan (2000), Understanding Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theory (2001), Pastoralists: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State (2004), and Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (2008). His latest book publication is Classic Comparative Anthropology: Studies from the Tradition (2012).

In public affairs, he was a member of Middle East Strategy at Harvard (2008-2010), a member of the Board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (2004-2012), and is currently a member of the Academic Council of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Studies (2008-), a Fellow of the Middle East Forum (2015-), and a member of the Board of Scholar for Peace in the Middle East (2016-). 

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Header Photo: Fei Fei Peng

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