Immigration and American Identity

The machinery of modern states sometimes makes things harder, not easier.

Coming to a proper solution for the immigration question is one example of this.  A variety of sources and polls indicate that most Americans favor allowing more legal immigration and have for years.  Back in simpler times one could enter a land, ask the king to stay, usually he said “yes,” with not much fuss. Perhaps one took an oath of fealty to his person.  Now, we have a whole mess of courts, paperwork, etc., etc. that make coming legally quite difficult.  The good intentions of most Americans gets lost in the morass of modern civilization.

Incremental reform of the system seems unlikely to lead to dramatically different results, so I have great sympathy for the argument made by Prof. Bryan Caplan.  As a libertarian Caplan believes in limiting government as much as possible, but his stance on immigration comes from a strongly moral place.  He would like to essentially eliminate the morass but eliminating almost every test that could prevent someone from working and living in the U.S.  He argues that

  • No one chooses to be born in a particular place, and almost always the best way to get out of poverty in a poor country is to move to a rich country, where your labor has a much greater value.
  • Those in the rich country benefit from their birthplace, which they also did not choose.  They have no moral right to deny someone something they did not earn or choose themselves.
  • As long as 1) An employer consents to have someone work for them, and 2) A worker consents to work for that same person, then no good moral reason exists for denying both people the right to hire/work.

Caplan breaks his argument down into even simpler terms:

  • Someone wants to come in my house, but I do not want them to.  Ok, then, they cannot come in.
  • Someone invites someone in, but they don’t want to come.  Ok, they can certainly refuse to come.
  • Someone invites someone into their house, and they accept, but a 3rd party–i.e., the Government–tells them that this cannot happen.  This, Caplan argues, makes no moral sense and yet this perfectly encapsulates our current immigration policy.

He made these points quite well in this debate below:

As well as Caplan argued (and we can note the contrast between the more intense, east coast, suit-wearing Caplan, and the laid-back Californian Wellman), I found myself siding with his opponent.  Their debate has the added bonus of illuminating much about our identity as a nation and our past.

The title of the debate, “Is Immigration a Human Right” might slip past us but the very idea of human rights as opposed to “A Right of Americans” represents a fairly radical shift in thinking.  We see this same shift in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  When colonists protested the Stamp Act in 1765 they talked of their rights as British subjects.  By the time we get to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson argues that King George III has violated their human rights, that “all men are created equal.”  On the one hand, because we believe that God has created all mankind in His image, the clarity of Jefferson’s Enlightenment inspired prose makes perfect sense.  But it also makes things muddier—for incarnating this idea politically means different things to different people.  Treating all people equally from different political communities makes the whole concept of political communities irrelevant, aside from posing many other questions.

Even within a family, parents will love all their children equally but treat them differently as their circumstances require.  And when Joey argues that Billy’s parents let him stay up late, every parent knows the classic retort, “Well, you are not in Billy’s family.”

Interestingly, both Caplan and Wellman agree that societies do not exist via consent and that governments do not therefore derive their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed” per se.  This slips by without much discussion but I find it a crucial point.  The fact that the colonists failed to consent to certain British measures inspired many to revolt.  But even a moment’s thought about the concept of consent regarding the whole of society renders it a bit silly.  We “consent” to very little that shapes our lives.  We do not choose to be born, we do not choose our families, our gender, our personalities, or our looks.  We receive them, just as we do not consent to where we are born.  Nor did any of us in America today “consent” to our system of government. Imagine the chaos if everyone had to consent to their governments in some kind of purely rational vacuum.  Even the most die-hard supporters of consent would likely not want continual plebiscites to determine whether or not we should be governed by our Constitution, or a king, or an oligarchy.

The question then remains as to whether or not the fact that we do not really consent to our society supports Caplan or Wellman’s position.  For Caplan, the fact no one chooses where they are born and how they are governed means that everyone should have the freedom to go where they please and pick a place where they actually do consent to a particular society.

But Wellman has a powerful counter to Caplan’s “house” analogy mentioned above.  He poses a scenario of him leaving for a week and returning home to ask his wife what happened during his absence.  “Well, let’s see,” Wellman imagines his wife replying, “On Wednesday, I went to yoga class. On Thursday I met Carol for lunch.  And on Friday, I adopted a young man named Bob into our family.  Here he is, meet your new son.”  Wellman goes on to ask rhetorically whether or not she and Bob, as consenting individuals have the right to do this.  Caplan’s house analogy, he argues, needs more nuance.  Caplan’s argument above has a fair amount of moral force, but it would also overthrow our entire conception of the state as a community.  Unwittingly or not, Wellman’s analogy hearkens to the older Aristotelian idea of the state-as-family analogy, hence the notion that the king served as a “father” to his people.  One cannot simply alter the composition of the family at will, nor make unilateral decisions as “sovereign,” consenting individuals apart from the family at large.

Here we see how truly radical the American Revolution was and glimpse why it had such an impact on the world.  The notion that the state in fact was not a family perhaps finished off Aristotle’s formal influence in the modern world, a process begun in the Scientific Revolution.

And here we see something else–why the immigration issue poses such a difficulty for us.  If any nation could apply Caplan’s form of the “house” analogy, it is the United States.  As a “nation of immigrants” our belief in universal rights is woven into our DNA, however poorly we have applied it at times.  But pushed as Caplan wishes to push it, the idea becomes non-sensical. His vision of the state primarily as a conglomeration of free-floating individuals renders the idea of “society” almost meaningless.

The same Enlightenment ideas that inspired the idea of “human rights” also led to the creation of modern democracies.  The irony, perhaps even the tragic irony, with this issue, is that cutting red tape and making legal immigration much simpler could be achieved much more easily with a monarch than our federated democracy, with its attendant slowness, interest groups, and the like.  We might even reflect that minorities and outsiders (i.e. African-Americans and Native Americans) fared somewhat worse in the aftermath of our victory in the American Revolution.

 

Dave

 

A Leopard Cannot Change His Spots

I originally write this in January 2013, so don’t be too puzzled by the very dated football playoff reference!

********************

It’s playoff time in the NFL, and many talking heads now say that Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan has “made the leap” by engineering a late game comeback against the Seahawks this past Sunday.  Having won the “big game,” Ryan can now join the club of “clutch” quarterbacks.

But if Matt Bryant had missed the field goal, we would be having a different conversation, one that focused on Ryan’s crucial 4th quarter interception that helped lead to a Seahawks comeback.  I agree with Grantland’s Bill Barnwell.  A lot depends on context.  After the Falcons lost to the 49ers, thanks in part to a Matt Ryan fumble, Barnwell wrote amusing follow-up here.

What is the stuff of leadership?

Any visitor to a library can get stuffed to the gills with theories of leadership, and while I admit to judging these books by their covers, I don’t think I buy any particular “theory” of leadership.

Of course all good leaders demonstrate the same basic characteristics.  They show firmness at the right time, or flexibility at the right time, or the willingness to listen and adapt at the right time, or to maintain the strength of their convictions at the right time, and so on, and so on.  But anyone can write this without any special talent.  Add to that, much leadership theory presupposes that people can fundamentally change who they are, that “type B” leaders can become “type A” leaders whenever the situation arises.  I doubt this happens much.  The same firmness and clarity of vision from Winston Churchill that helped save Europe in W.W. II also led him to be nearly all wrong on the Indian question throughout the 1930’s.

Bernard Bailyn’s book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson demonstrates that people who might be great leaders in certain circumstances are utter failures in others.

Bailyn begins his book by revisiting the worst of the riots over the Stamp Act of 1765.  A variety of British officials received threats and intimidation, but none received the level of concentrated violence as Thomas Hutchinson, the Lt. Governor of Massachussets and also the Supreme Court justice.  Looters ransacked his house methodically for three days straight, taking several thousand dollars in cash and valuables, while causing another few thousand dollars damage to his house.

With this in mind, we would naturally make many assumptions about the man.  He probably gave loud and hearty support to the Stamp Act.   He probably displayed a haughty character.  Maybe he was even not native to the land, but a British import.  Probably he lived ostentatiously and lorded it over his fellow men.

But nearly all of our natural assumptions about him would be wrong.  His portrait reveals a man of some reserve with the pleasant “Smile of Reason” the Enlightenment philosophes had down pat.   His house was nice, but not over the top.  He was born and bred in the colonies, and even wrote what is considered to be the best contemporary history of the Massachusetts  Colony.  He never published it. He commented to a few friends that it had too many flaws.

Thomas Hutchinson

The Hutchinson HouseAdd to that, he opposed the Stamp Act!  As Chief Justice he commented that he thought the Stamp Act bad policy and sure to fail.  He earnestly hoped that the British would see reason and cease their plans for the doomed tax.

But he, more than any other, received the laser-like focus of wrath from the Sons of Liberty.  John Adams, along with James Otis, vilified him in print year after year, and Hutchinson, perhaps totally flummoxed, never seems to have responded in kind.  How did this happen?  Why did such a mild-mannered man as Hutchinson cause so much anger and resentment?

John Adams rarely passed up an opportunity to call Hutchinson a “courtier” — someone of no account who fawned his way to the top of society.  True, the marriages within his family aided his cause, but this form of social climbing was hardly unknown even in the colonies, and certainly known in England.  For what it’s worth, Hutchinson appeared to have a very good marriage, and he grieved long and hard for his wife who died in childbirth.

Others point to the fact that in 1765 Hutchinson held two offices, Lt. Governor and Chief Justice, and thus ran afoul of the emerging doctrine of the separation of powers that would make itself manifest in the Constitution.  But Hutchinson never sought a position on the court.  The governor nominated him, and he initially refused, claiming that he “had not the necessary legal mind” for the job.  He took it only reluctantly after repeated entreaties from the governor himself.

But Bailyn holds that the main cause of Hutchinson’s singular failure lie in his personality.  His love of careful compromise, his lifelong aversion to stirring the pot unnecessarily, made him singularly unsuited to leadership in a revolutionary age.  Indeed, had Hutchinson held power in England, we might very well be reading about how his careful, compromising leadership helped King George avoid war with the colonies.  But in America, that shoe did not fit.

We get an idea of the temper of the times when colonists criticized Hutchinson not for being for the Stamp Act, but for being against it for the wrong reasons.  Where people like Adams and Otis saw deep-seated principle at stake, Hutchinson saw misguided policy, and this attitude led to Hutchinson’s most unfortunate and damaging mistake.  Bostonians drew up  an eloquent and passionate objection to the Stamp Act to send to Parliament, but Hutchinson put on the brakes.  He argued, tinkered and pleaded for a month to change much of the tone and some of the substance of their entreaty, while still sharing their objections to the tax.  In the interval, other colonies gained fame and glory by publishing their own heated objections, making Boston look weak and tepid.  Between their first headstrong and final lukewarm drafts, England settled their minds and began the road to enforcing the Act.

Boston was not amused.  They vented all their considerable anger directly at Hutchinson.  Many of them suspected him (erroneously) of merely stalling for time and not really being against the Act at all.

If the revolution had never happened, who’s to say that the colonies would not in time have developed their essential independence along the lines of Canada? Such a smooth, uneventful and gradual transition would have tickled Hutchinson pink.

What Hutchinson never saw, however, was how his own mindset and personality had been shaped by a revolution 75-100 years prior — the intellectual paradigm shift known as the Enlightenment.   All that calm reasonableness would not have fit within the late 16th century any more than it did in late 18th century North America.

Alas for Thomas Hutchinson, a good and decent man, but one decidedly not of his time — a leopard who could not change his spots.