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National Borders

An eight-year-old Iranian boy has been released after spending nearly two months in Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre ( Child M, as he’s known, has been given body searches and now, unsurprisingly, seems to have various physical and psychiatric problems. His case is an especially clear example of the effects of national borders, and border controls, on people’s lives.

A nation – or a nation’s territory – can be seen as like any other piece of property. A certain group of individuals stakes a claim to a certain area, and force is used to prevent others from using that property. Property rights are, philosophically speaking, notoriously difficult to justify. The most famous attempt to do so was by John Locke, the great English philosopher of the seventeenth century. According to Locke, property rights emerge through the ‘mixing’ of a person’s labour with the world. So – as in the story of the Little Red Hen – if I clear the field, plough it, plant it, and harvest it, then I own the corn I produce and perhaps even the field itself, if I’ve left enough of the world there for others to exploit in the same way.

The notion of ‘mixing’ is metaphysically rather mysterious. But there is a more fundamental problem with Locke’s argument. As Jerry Cohen has ably pointed out, the argument relies for its plausibility on the idea that each of us has rights of ‘self-ownership’, over our own bodies, talents, and so on. So, on the face of it, it would be wrong for five people, in need of organs, to kill me and harvest my organs to save their own lives. But one can accept that there are rights of self-ownership without believing that such rights can be extended in any obvious ways to rights of world-ownership. Who says that the world is originally unowned? Perhaps, for example, it is jointly owned, so the Little Red Hen should have checked with the other animals before getting to work (and of course if they’d had any sense they would have demanded some corn in return for giving her permission).

And when it comes to property rights now, things get even trickier. Even if it’s true that some of our ancestors successfully acquired property rights in the world, we now would have such rights only if the various items they acquired had been justly transferred, through exchange, gift, sale, inheritance, or whatever, until the present day. One doesn’t need a doctorate in history to see that it’s almost inconceivable that this has happened.

Property rights are, however, extremely useful. They provide security of use (so I know my bike will be outside waiting when I want to go home), and incentives (if I’m not going to be paid, I’ll leave right now). This is their only justification. This means that distributions of property that patently do not benefit humanity as a whole cannot be justified as they stand. The current huge inequalities between rich and poor in the world, for example, are immoral, not just a regrettable side-effect of acceptable acquisition and transfer of property.

To return to Child M. What about nations? Like other items of property, they are also very useful, providing a basis for security, culture, personal relationships, social identity, and so on. But when their effects as a whole are clearly less good overall than they might be, they lack justification in their present form. At present, national border controls are shoring up, as well as the material inequality I have already mentioned, great political inequality. This is not to say that the UK, for example, should just give them up. As I have said, nations are useful, and nations at present depend on border controls. But there is really no justification for making those controls anywhere near as heartlessly strict as they are at present.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Your piece goes in the direction of reducing the value and moral quality of the territorial state. Their significance should depend on their utility with respect to matters such as security. Does this carry over to the significance of the state? For example, how would you handle such matters as loyalty to the state and duty to defend the state against its enemies (domestic and foreign), etc?


  2. Thanks, Dennis. In fact I’m suggesting ways in which states could be of *more* value and hence have a higher ‘moral quality’. Given the way the world is currently arranged, I do think that loyalty and patriotism should in many cases have an important place in the morality we live by. But we have to recognize that we should not allow significantly less important interests of our fellow citizens to trump the important interests of non-citizens. And, in fact, if we were to do that (if, for example, in the UK we were to operate a considerably more humane asylum policy), we ourselves would be safer and more secure in the longer term.

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