There is an article over at The American Conservative by Bradley Birzer which attempts to make a conservative case for open borders. Birzer doesn't hold back in the type of language he uses:
As a professor of the western canon, the Great Ideas of the West, and the western tradition, I find it nearly impossible to claim that there is a long tradition of excluding those who “aren’t us.” Even the most cursory examination of the issue reveals that the best of western thinkers have considered political borders a form of selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person. The free movement of peoples has not only been seen as a natural right throughout much of the western tradition, but it has also been seen as a sacred one.
Fighting words. Birzer claims that it is "selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person" to oppose the "free movement of peoples."
I'll get to the historical evidence in a moment. What I'd like to focus on first is the lack of seriousness of a politics that claims that open borders will do anything for the dignity of Western individuals.
Look around. We see a rainbow coalition formed in opposition to white men. The politics of the rainbow coalition is based on the idea that white men exist to oppress others to uphold an unearned privilege. Therefore, the rainbow coalition holds that the culture and historic institutions created by white men are racist and need to be torn down. The future role of white men is not to advance opinions of their own, but to quietly validate the experience of others, even when this experience claims that white men are the source of evil in the world.
This rainbow coalition grows through open borders and it is not that far from seizing power permanently in the U.S. If it does seize power permanently then you can forget about upholding "the western canon, the Great Ideas of the West, and the western tradition" - these will be condemned as racist artifacts that must be deconstructed to create a safer space for the new majority in power. Nor will there be much "dignity of the human person" for white men in this new society created by open borders. Vilified as racist oppressors; expected to obsequiously follow the dictates of those now in power; not permitted to speak freely from their own point of view, faced with a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation in trying to win an accepted place in the new order, white men will most likely want to flee - but to where?
South Africa is another example of the loss of individual dignity that occurs when one group becomes a minority and then loses state power. There is now an employment system in South Africa that puts white men at the bottom, leading to the emergence of significant poverty among groups of white South Africans. Thousands of white farmers have been murdered, sometimes tortured in the process; one recent disturbing photo appears to show military equipment being used during a farm attack. There are South African politicians who have advocated "killing the Boer."
Is it really wise to wish to become a minority and to lose state power? Does this really extend your dignity as an individual? I don't think the serious answer is the "yes" that Birzer claims. If it were, I doubt if hundreds of thousands of white South Africans would have chosen emigration (exile) as a solution to their conditions of life.
One final point before delving into history. Birzer is wrong too about the relationship between the individual and his place within an ethnic collective. If you wish to support the individual (and his dignity), then you need also to uphold the existence of his "ethny" - which means establishing borders. Why?
An ethny is a group of people to whom the individual is closely related in terms of ancestry, culture, religion, language, history, manners and mores, and way of life. It is through membership of an ethny that the individual derives a deeper sense of identity; of belonging; of love of and attachment to a particular place (connectedness to land and landscape); deeper and more stable family commitments; a connection to both the past and the future (to the generations that went before and a sense of responsiblity to coming generations); and a determination to uphold the best of his own tradition, whether this be in terms of moral standards, of masculinity (or femininity), or of the arts and architecture. In short, an ethny is the vehicle by which an individual attempts to reproduce the best of himself and his tradition; by which he finds the deepest social commitments; and by which he finds himself connected across time and in place to something meaningful. A deracinated individual, in contrast, loses the larger setting in which he might most deeply complete himself. To be careless with borders does not, therefore, add to the dignity or flourishing of the individual.
I can't in a post like this reply at length to Birzer's claims about past attitudes to open borders. I can, though, show that things are not as straightforward as Birzer claims them to be.
Here is Birzer on Ancient Greece:
The Athenians, during the tumultuous fifth century before Christ, prided themselves on allowing not just the stranger into their communities, but also their very enemies in.
It is true that the Athenians are known to have been the most cosmopolitan of the Ancient Greeks. But Birzer is giving a one-sided account of things here. For instance, it was during the very century mentioned by Birzer that the famous Athenian leader Pericles changed the citizenship laws. Previously, an Athenian man could marry a wealthy foreign wife and their children would be considered citizens. Pericles toughened the law in 451 B.C. so that both parents had to be Athenians for the children to have citizenship rights.
There were considerable numbers of foreigners living in Athens, called "metics", but they were not citizens. They came from other Greek speaking areas, and so were not as foreign as those from further abroad, but nonetheless they were not granted citizenship rights:
Regardless of how many generations of the family had lived in the city, metics did not become citizens unless the city chose to bestow citizenship on them as a gift. This was rarely done...
Metics typically shared the burdens of citizenship without any of its privileges. Like citizens, they had to perform military service and, if wealthy enough, were subject to the special tax contributions and tax services...They were not permitted to own real estate in Attica, whether farm or house, unless granted a special exemption. Neither could they contract with the state to work the silver mines, since the wealth beneath the earth was felt to belong to the political community. Metics were subject to a tax called the metoikion, assessed at twelve drachmas per year for metic men and their households, and six for independent metic women. In addition to the metoikion, non-Athenians wishing to sell goods in the agora, including metics, seem to have been liable to another tax known as the xenika.
The other class of foreigners living in Ancient Athens were slaves. In the fifth century before Christ, when Birzer portrays the Athenians as standing proudly for open borders, the Athenians invaded a Greek Island called Melos. The residents were told that "might is right" and that they were to be conquered. There was a one-sided battle, the Athenians won and afterwards they slaughtered the male residents of the island and took the women and the children as slaves.
It doesn't seem wise, therefore, for Birzer to portray the Athenians of this period as upholding "the dignity of the individual" via open borders. Athens was an imperial power, ignoring borders and taking slaves, who would then make up part of the foreign population living in Athens.
And the rest of Ancient Greece? In some places, there were most certainly borders:
In other Greek cities, foreign residents were few, with the exception of cosmopolitan Corinth, of which however we do not know their legal status. In Sparta and Crete, as a general rule with few exceptions, foreigners were not allowed to stay.
Birzer also cites the Magna Carta as evidence of a tradition of the free movement of peoples in the West. It is certainly true that there is a section of the Magna Carta that aims to guarantee the right of merchants, except in times of war, to freely travel between countries.
I am no expert in the history of the Magna Carta, but one historian has warned against interpreting this section as being motivated by a philosophical support for open borders:
The 1914 editor McKechnie warns modern readers not to read back into the past, political and economic ideas which they might hold in the present. In this case, free trade ideas which were still quite strong in Edwardian England. What seems to have happened with many clauses in Magna Carta, was that grants of privilege to specific individuals and groups were later broadened into more general “privileges” or what became known as “rights” to later generations. Here is what he said concerning clause 40: “It has been not unusual to credit the framers of Magna Carta with a policy of quite a modern flavour; they are made free–traders and credited with a knowledge of economic principles far in advance of their contemporaries. This is a misconception: Englishmen in the thirteenth century had formulated no far–reaching theories of the rights of the consumer, or the policy of the open door. The home traders were not consenting parties to this chapter, and would have bitterly resented any attempt to place foreigners on an equal footing with the protected guilds of the English boroughs. The barons acted on their own initiative and from purely selfish motives. Rich nobles, lay and ecclesiastic, desired that nothing should prevent the foreign merchants from importing wines and rich apparel that England could not produce. John, indeed, as a consumer of continental luxuries, partially shared their views, but his selfish policy threatened to strangle foreign trade by increasing the burdens attached to it, until it ceased to be remunerative. The barons, therefore, in their own interests, not in those of foreign merchants, still less in those of native traders, demanded that the customs duties should remain at their old fixed rates. In adopting this attitude, they showed their selfish indifference to the equally selfish claims of English traders, who desired a monopoly for themselves. Every favour shown to foreign merchants was an injury done to the guilds of the chartered boroughs. This chapter thus shows a lack of gratitude on the barons’ part for the great service rendered by their allies, the citizens of London.”
It has to be remembered, too, that the movement of people was generally limited at this time in history, so that it did not threaten the existence of established communities as it might do today. For instance, in 1440 the English parliament decided to place a special tax on foreigners and so created a register of all those born outside of England. There were about 20,000 such foreigners, about one percent of the population. Most of them were from nearby areas, such as Scotland, Ireland, Flanders, France and Germany.
In these conditions, stringent border controls may not have seemed necessary. Even so, there was no commitment to an absolute free movement of peoples. For instance, in 1290 King Edward I expelled all Jews from England, an edict which remained in place for the rest of the Middle Ages. In a later era, Queen Elizabeth I (with less effect) ordered all "blackamoores" to be deported from England.
Finally, Birzer also argues that medieval Europeans saw themselves as belonging to Christendom, to a Christian republic, and that this dissolved a sense of the differences between people.
I don't doubt that the notion of Christendom was important to medieval Europeans. It's a long stretch, though, to argue that medieval Europeans only had an abstracted Christian identity, rather than combining their Christianity with their sense of belonging to particular communities.
For instance, the English early on adopted and venerated national saints, in particular, Edmund and Edward:
Throughout the years 1100-1400 these English royal saints continued to be an expression of both royal and national identity...Depictions of Edward and Edmund in paintings, illuminated manuscripts and other media were common. Their Englishness was no bar to their veneration by Norman and Angevin rulers whose horizons and ancestry were largely French. Henry III of England (1216-72), whose four grandparents had all been born in France, nevertheless had a deep devotion to St Edward the Confessor, rebuilding the abbey church of Westminster around his shrine, translating his bones to a grand new shrine and naming his eldest son Edward (and his second son Edmund). In this way these Anglo-Saxon personal names, which had been eclipsed after the Norman Conquest, re-entered the lexicon of high-status names.
England thus had revered and long-established native saints.
Similarly, the Christian knight was supposed to defend both the Church and his homeland. Peter of Blois, a twelfth century cleric, wrote a letter describing the knightly ideal as follows:
In former days, the knights pledged themselves by the bond of oath to stand up for public order, not to flee in battle, and to give their life for the common good. Even today the knights receive their swords from the altar in order to pledge that they are sons of the church, and that they have received the sword for the honour of the priests, the protection of the poor, the punishment of the evildoers, and the liberation of the homeland.
I doubt that Birzer is really motivated by what happened in history. He seems to be stuck on the idea that America itself is defined by the idea of the free movement of peoples, so that if you give up on open borders you lose your national identity.
That's a very unfortunate way to define a national identity, because it means that you identify with a process of dissolution and disempowerment. It means too that you are identifying with an idea or proposition, rather than with a concrete, organic, particular community. You are inhabiting a belief rather than a distinctive community with a shared history, culture and way of life.
In other words, there are two problems with holding to "Americanism" as a belief system rather than "America" as a distinctive national community. First, the specific ideal of "Americanism" is a dissolving one that cannot hold over time. The emotional warmth comes from a belief in the moral good of open borders, but open borders are ultimately corrosive of stable forms of community life, so that it forces the individual back in on himself - it strips him down until the psychological benefit of attaching nation to idea no longer functions. Birzer is still a believer, it still works for him, but clearly for many Americans it does not.
Second, it deprives the individual of the benefits of participating in a nation that is envisaged as a real community, with natural forms of loyalty and shared identity, rather than as an idea or proposition or belief system. It seems to me that there is a lazy individualism at the heart of Americanism, one in which you don't really need to commit to real relationships with others, because your sense of nation exists mostly as an idea inside your own mind. Maybe that is part of its appeal, that you aren't really challenged to relate to others in a practical way as part of an enduring community, because your see the connection between people only as an idea that applies to everyone equally wherever they are.