Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship

Living in Canada is a privilege I enjoy by birthright, and which only exists as a privilege for me to the exclusion of others. How does this fact not squarely contradict my belief that all humans are equal?

The more I think about it, the more the concepts of citizenship and borders seem to be problematic ideas. At the philosophical level, establishing ‘self-determining states’ makes sense. Pragmatically speaking, resource management and geopolitical sovereignty seem to require power structures. But it feels like there is a disconnect between borders as a political necessity and borders as a morally justifiable tool of exclusion.

Once you accept the basic idea of universal human rights and the equality of all people, it becomes tedious and inconsistent to argue that some humans are ‘allowed’ to inhabit an arbitrary section of the earth that is forbidden to other humans. Ironically, often the very same people with the special privileges and permissions to occupy a particular piece of land simultaneously sing the praises of universal human equality. Living with this paradox requires some serious mental gymnastics and contortions of logic.

I live in Canada. I am a citizen. Canada is a wealthy, resource-rich nation that is desirable for many people at the moment. (Say, for example, families fleeing violence, corruption, or poverty elsewhere.) Why do I have the privilege to live behind these borders? My justification is nothing more than a birthright. I did nothing to earn the opportunity to settle in Canada as my homeland, any more than my ancestors possessed the moral authority to take this land from the people who were here first. I adopt this place as part of my identity out of sheer luck — an incredibly comfortable present delivered by a dark and bloody past.

I inherited the right to live here by a roll of the pedigree dice. I’m a bingo number in a genetic lottery. The privileges I possess are not historically random, but they are wholly unearned.

One does not hear kind words spoken about people who inherit privileged lives unwarranted but through parentage. But inherited privilege is the logic we must use to declare ourselves Canadian. What did I personally do to earn the right to live in this ecology and participate in this economy? Nothing. I am not speaking of nationalist exceptionalism or cultural superiority here, but rather of concrete material opportunities, protections, and privileges that are at my disposal by the simple fact that I was born here, relative to being born in some other places. For me to speak ill of anyone born into wealth is hypocritical, is it not?

Of course, many other people have indeed arrived here by other means. Some migrate here for work. Some immigrate for family ties. Some flee to this country as refugees. Citizenship is achieved by many, and there are many paths. We are a nation of immigrants, it is often observed. But the very plurality of these pathways only further emphasize the moral question at hand: by what moral authority is anyone granted or denied the right to set up their lives on this particular soil?

Statecraft, especially in the so-called ‘Western’ tradition, largely boils down to the process of keeping most people out and letting specific people in. Gatekeeping is executed under the pretext of security: to protect our population, we must hold the rest of the ravenous humanoids at bay. (And how could we possibly provide adequate healthcare to ‘our’ population if we opened our borders to everyone?) But the contradiction of the security discourse is that it implies being complacent (or non-interventionist) in the suffering of non-citizens while claiming the moral high ground and the rhetoric ‘universal equality’ for the rights of people who happen to hold passports. Fundamentally, the whole idea of guarded, militarized borders seems to clash with so many basic principles of universal human rights that we must wonder if liberal political dogma boils down to sheer self-contradiction.

I hear contemporary thinkers often ask how America — a nation supposedly founded on the principle that ‘all men are born free and equal’ — could have possibly enshrined slavery for so long? The incoherence is glaring, right? But how do we morally justify national borders while claiming adherence to doctrines of universal human equality and the supposed inherent rights of every individual? This is an awkward moral conundrum that liberals — even liberals who ramble on about the evils of overt nationalism — find suspiciously easy to ignore. Instead, we proudly congratulate ourselves for welcoming some arbitrary number of refugees in a crisis, which, by sheer logic, is as much about celebrating who we’ve kept out as much as it is about achieving some moral high road of humanitarianism.

However, borderlessness seems equally problematic. How could there be any guarantee or protection of human rights in a free-for-all, winner-takes-all, zero-accountability, libertarian world? Are not human rights themselves ultimately a product of state protection? A quick tour of the globe demonstrates all too well that the absence of government strongly correlates with massive human rights abuses. (And yes: governments themselves are often the perpetrators of such violence and violations, but their absence seems to almost be a guarantee of abuse.) What is a human right, anyway, if there is no authority to enforce it or hold perpetrators accountable? Borders, in this sense, seem to be the vehicles of human rights, even while they contradict the logic of the universalist rhetoric they preach comfortably from behind their walls.

Thus, the puzzle remains: national borders seem to be both an political and pragmatic necessity for the protection of human rights while they are simultaneously a contradiction of the equality and universalism advocated by liberal states. Can we reconcile this contradiction? Is there an alternative strategy for the liberal vision of equality that doesn’t amount to barricading ourselves into our national forts and sending out troops to assume the role of world police?

Thanks for reading and engaging. This is an on-going and unfinished thought project. I am eager for input, ideas, and critiques.

8 Replies to “Borders and Birthrights: The Moral Inconsistencies of Liberal Citizenship”

  1. I’ve occasionally used the phrase “birthplace discrimination” to reference the diminished protections afforded here to individuals not born in the United States, in some cases including even naturalized citizens.

    1. That is a compelling article – thanks for sharing. This particularly struck me on its resonance to this blog post: comparing “the global system of immigration restrictions to medieval feudalism, where privilege is a birthright and wealth and opportunity are more likely to be inherited than earned…If citizenship is no different than a private club with arcane rules for admission, how can we continue to allow the color of our passports to shape the fate of millions of children…?”

  2. I am not sure about the definition of human rights but perhaps we could stop worrying about how to achieve equality and accept inequality as a natural state.

    Article 29 of the Universal Declara- tion of Human Rights, Β»Everyone has duties to the community, in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.Β«

    Does that mean that I can’t have rights unless the community agrees? Does that mean that once I have my rights, I owe the community, and I can’t say β€œpiss off”.

    1. Humans rights do appear to only ‘exist’ to the extent that they are enforced by something, such as a state. And this raises the question as to the extent one can exercise a prerogative to be excluded from the protection of their rights, if they so choose.
      The distinction here for me seems to be between a normative and a descriptive view of equality. Descriptively speak, of course ‘equality’ does not exist, as there is evident and massive disparity between people in various aspects. But does the current state of things mean that we must accept inequality as ‘natural’? This seems highly problematic, morally speaking. If inequality is the ‘natural state’ of things, then why not feudalism? Why not tyrannical oppression of the ‘less equal’? Why not genocide? I hold equality consciously and intentionally as a normative vision. I do not suppose things are equal by any means, but I must commit myself as an individual to action that moves towards equality.

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