Eric Giunta
"Open borders" and the conservative tradition -- Part I: The Salamanca Scholastics
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By Eric Giunta
September 14, 2019


"By natural law and the law of nations everyone has the freedom to move wherever they wish, as long as they are not enemies or causing harm." {Domingo de Soto}

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent order, permitting the Trump administration to enforce its new rules preventing many Central American immigrants from seeking asylum in the United States, is an opportune moment to address an angle of the immigration debate which has received remarkably little commentary in conservative and Christian circles: namely, the historical, and eminently traditionalist, provenance of what is often derisively referred to as "open borders," i.e., a strong moral presumption that every person has a natural right to leave or enter whatever nation he chooses, in much the same way that subjects of non-totalitarian polities enjoy a strong presumptive right to migrate between various jurisdictions within a state.

The series of essays inaugurated by the present entry is not directly concerned with the moral, practical, or other cases for open borders, or with addressing common arguments against the same. Rather, it is concerned with sharing the author's impressions of the history of the concept and practice. The author makes no pretense to originality in what follows. He simply wishes to bring what is already well-known to specialists to a more popular appreciation, the better to enrich mainstream conservative commentary on the immigration debate.

In short, these essays will demonstrate that, whatever its merits, the modern Western regime of border controls is not a traditional "conservative" approach to immigration at all. From antiquity until well into the nineteenth century, every nation worthy of the name "civilized" enjoyed open borders with its neighbors. Ancient, medieval, and early modern Western polities did not have "immigration and naturalization services": people were free to peacefully come and go between sovereign nations as they pleased, so long as they did not threaten to disturb the peace and were willing to obey the laws of whatever nation they resided in at a particular moment. The much-vaunted walls that surrounded many ancient and medieval cities were never constructed to control immigration, but to defend communities against literal invading armies. It was only in the nineteenth century that left-progressivist regimes began imposing border controls, inspired by varying combinations of eugenics and junk protectionist economics (and, in the United States, anti-Catholicism). Leftism being the world's most successful religious ideology, its assumptions about the human person being a creature of the state have come to inform almost all mainstream discussion of public policy, even as the political Left, for varied tactical reasons, has adopted open borders advocacy in many nations today.

Our review of this history will begin with the father of modern international law, the great Rev. Francisco de Vitoria, the founder of Salamancan Scholasticism, the early modern Iberian philosophical school that nearly single-handedly restored the tradition of Aristotelian-Thomistic realism to Catholic philosophy, dealing the death knell to late medieval nominalism and exerting influence on later thinkers, including Protestants from Hugo Grotius (via the Flemish Jesuit Leonardus Lessius) and Adam Smith (via the German Samuel von Pufendorf).

Vitoria is, to this author's knowledge, the first philosopher to have defended open borders in terms of a subjective natural right to immigrate, and this formulation was, naturally enough, not devised in an intellectual vacuum. Rather, his concern was to defend Spanish exploration and colonization of the New World while simultaneously defending the rights of natives to exercise political dominium and own property, their relative barbarism notwithstanding. . . .

Catch the rest of the story over at Eric Giunta's blog, Laboravi Sustinens!

© Eric Giunta

 

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