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.





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