Monday, September 29, 2014

My Family, My Country, My Self

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

The Open Borders movement, which seeks to remove all barriers to immigration, has recently been working hard to gain attention and credibility.  Consider this argument from economist Bryan Caplan:

What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else? So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?

He’s saying, of course, that denying someone a job because they’re from another country is as unjustifiable as rejecting them because of their race, gender, religion or orientation.  At first glance, it almost seems plausible.  There are plenty of practical arguments in favor of increased immigration – for example, that it would raise both American and world GDP – and some seem persuasive, though some are controversial.  But what’s fascinating about Caplan’s pitch – and what makes it representative of much Open Border thought – is that it makes a moral case against restricting the flow of individuals across borders: it calls any such restriction unjustifiable coercion.  The University of Colorado's Michael Huemer claims that border control clearly violates every would-be immigrant’s human rights; it represents the violent power of the state infringing the right to sell one’s labor wherever there’s an employer willing to pay for it.  According to Caplan, Huemer and others, no country anywhere on Earth has the right to restrict immigration at all.  It sounds quite implausible, even ridiculous, right?  It completely violates our normal intuitions about the nature of sovereign states.  Well, in this case, intuition is correct.

Imagine an extended family that, through a somewhat unusual set of events, includes both whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, men and women (of course), straights and gays.  Now imagine the rich patriarch of this family is a terrible bigot and distributes his largesse (in gifts, in cash, in jobs, etc.) only to the straight, white, Christian men of the family.   Obviously, he’s being unfair to the others.  It’s immoral to discriminate against anyone simply because they’re black, Jewish, female, or gay.  Now imagine the patriarch has a change of heart, discards his bigotry and gives freely to everyone in the family, regardless of race, religion, gender or orientation.  Yea, fairness is achieved!  Oh, but he never gives to anyone outside the family.  Is that immoral?  It might be a little stingy, a little ungenerous, but is he violating the rights of non-family-members?  Clearly not.  Here’s the point: there’s nothing wrong with favoring those with whom you have a special bond.  Being outside the family is different than being black, Jewish, female or gay.  You’re allowed to love and nurture family members more than non-family members.  You’re not just allowed to love them more, of course, you’re required to.  Isn’t that the point of a family?  To love everyone the same is to not really love anyone.  Generosity can be global, but commitment must be local.

And what applies to families applies to countries, too.  Imagine a remote, undeveloped country, call it Aggressia, ruled by a belligerent tyrant who invades and terrorizes his small, poor, defenseless neighbor, Miseria.  Let’s stipulate that the invasion will not affect the rest of the world in any substantial way: neither country has any important natural resource, there’s every reason to believe that the tyrant won’t invade any other countries, etc.  Would you advocate sending the American military to kick Aggressia out of Miseria?  Almost certainly not.  You would feel terrible for the people of Miseria, you would probably applaud if America sanctioned the invaders or isolated them diplomatically, but you would strenuously resist placing Americans in harm’s way for sake of Miseria.  The world is a messy place and we can’t fix every problem (neo-conservatism notwithstanding).

Now imagine that Aggressia hasn’t invaded Miseria but instead manages somehow to invade and occupy the state of Maine.  But you live in Arizona, and let’s stipulate that the occupation of Maine doesn’t affect you or anyone you know in any material way; we have good reason to believe they won’t invade any other states or hurt the United States in any other way.  Let’s say you’ve never been to Maine or ever even met anyone from Maine.  From your point of view the invasion might as well not have happened.  Now, in this scenario would you advocate American military action to expel the invaders?  Hell, yes!  You might even grab your firearms (you do live in Arizona) and drive to Maine as quickly as possible to join in the fight!  But why?  Why would you be willing to risk your life for Maine but not for Miseria?

The answer is obvious: you love your country, and you love it more than other countries.  You are committed to it in a way you’re not committed to any other.  It’s yours.  The people in Maine matter more to you than the people in Miseria.  Your concern, your tax money, and your protectiveness flow to your fellow Americans more generously than they do to those in other countries.  There’s nothing immoral about that.  Some people take it too far, of course.  They turn patriotism into chauvinism or jingoism or nativism.  They consider America politically and morally superior to other countries in some essential way.  They care about foreigners very little or not at all.  Such people give patriotism a bad name.  But you can be a patriot and still be a generous humanitarian, just as you can love your family more without loving humanity less. You can care about all your fellow humans, you can feel you owe all of them your sympathy and your material help (when practical), but still feel a special bond and obligation toward America and Americans.  Despite what cosmopolitans and pacifists think, patriotism is not a species of immorality.  How can you call that Arizonan immoral when he’s rushing off to Maine to fight for strangers?

But the Open Borderers ask:  If there’s nothing wrong with being choosy with one’s loyalties then why was it wrong in the bad old days for white employers to favor white workers over black ones?  Why are patriotic special considerations justifiable when racial ones are not?  Here’s Huemer again:

We do not cringe to hear that American businesses should hire native-born Americans rather than immigrants, any more than Americans three generations ago would have cringed to hear that white-owned businesses should hire white people in preference to blacks. Naturally, nationalists may attempt to devise explanations for why nationality is different from race, and why nationalism is really justified. This is not the place to attempt to argue that point. I would like simply to put forward for consideration the thought that perhaps we have no right to feel ashamed of our ancestors, and that our descendants may feel about us the way we feel about our ancestors.

(Actually, no one today would defend hiring a native over a legal immigrant, but Huemer seems to mean that no one objects to favoring American workers and products over foreign ones.)   To Huemer, attaching one’s primary social loyalty to one’s country is arbitrary.  How is it any better than attaching it to one’s town, or one’s profession, or one’s race?  Wouldn’t it be much better if we attached it to humanity as a whole and avoided all this petty squabbling?

The answer is that some distinctions between people are arbitrary and some are not.  If a group of people share the same physical and social space with a dominant majority, are citizens of the same state, are part of the same national culture, but differ only in skin color, then it’s not morally justifiable to discriminate against them.  Racial differences are not relevant to loyalty.  National ones are, mostly for practical reasons.  Democracy, individual liberty and broad affluence need something like a culturally homogenous modern polity to nurture them.  Modern individualism requires state protection.  Moderation of capitalist excess requires a reasonably robust regulatory and social insurance state.  Modern capitalism itself requires a reliably enforced legal framework.  And modern politics demands national loyalty, as does the common defense.  Part of the problem with those old-time racists was that they wanted it both ways: they expected blacks to fight equally in war for a country that didn’t otherwise treat them equally.  They embraced patriotism when it benefitted themselves but not when it benefitted the racial other.  Eventually America expanded patriotic blessings to include blacks; that seems a happier ending then if they had abandoned patriotism and group loyalty altogether.

But all of this is fairly obvious.  So why don’t the Open Borderers see it?  Mostly, it seems, because of their general animosity toward the sovereign state.  They tend to be extreme libertarians and anarcho-capitalists; they oppose almost every intrusion of the state into economic affairs, or any affairs.  To them, borders between sovereign states are merely artificial constrictions on the flow of goods and labor.  If a poor man from Tijuana wants to work in San Diego for wages lower than the American minimum wage but higher than his wages at home, then stopping him at the border is a cruel deprivation of his human rights.  And if more immigration brings down the wages of some Americans (how much is unclear) then that’s too bad, that’s just how the free market works:

The Americans who lose from immigration are those who are very low-skilled, who also don’t speak very good English to begin with, and also don’t own real estate. It's a quite small group. If you’re a real nationalist who cares about all Americans, then you should favor immigration because only like 5 or 10 percent of Americans are losing.

Oh well, only 15 to 30 million Americans would be screwed by open borders; that’s OK because they’re the poorest and least educated, so we shouldn’t feel so bad.  It’s not like we as a people have any responsibility to them.  Besides, the state has no collective authority; state regulation of the marketplace is no different than inhuman barbarism:

If we rely on the analogy between states and clubs, then the state could require citizens to cut off their left arms, refrain from expressing political opinions, refrain from voting if they are female, and so on. Whatever the law requires, one could propose that abiding by that law is a condition on membership in the civil society. Thus, the state may demand that anyone who wishes to retain their citizenship should follow these laws.

That’s right, there’s no philosophical middle ground between stateless freedom and abject totalitarianism.  The Open Borderers do get points for ideological consistency; they drive their libertarian principles to the farthest logical conclusions, undisturbed by pragmatism, charity, or any other apparent consideration.  Put another way, they’re fanatics. Only under the strain of such ideological extremism is imposing a minimum wage equal to forced amputation and a nation protecting its demographic integrity equal to immoral coercion.

Such a radical stance makes the Open Borders movement a natural ally for the Global Citizen movement, which seeks to neuter or abolish the sovereign state altogether. Both groups make dubious arguments against patriotism, and both would radically weaken the state (though some Open Borderers do maintain some minimal commitment to the state).  And both groups think of citizenship as little more than an easily acquired and easily surrendered legal contract; here’s Nathan Smith of

As for “the view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent,” this isn’t so much a “view” as a plain fact. I’m a US citizen because, by accident of birth, I was born a US citizen.

Actually no, that’s wrong.  Citizenship is a legal status, of course, and therefore can be changed; but it’s a superficiality, a technical legal expression of an existential fact.  Smith is an American, not because he was a person who could have been born anywhere but just happened to be born here; he is an American because he is the person that America created.  America forged Smith.  To confuse citizenship with national identity is to confuse a marriage license with a marriage.  Post-modern life sees all social relationships as incidental choices, but such a view leaves no room for real connection. But we are all born with commitments, connections and obligations and these are not so easily abandoned or absolved, nor so easily acquired.  It is this unavoidable condition of human existence – that we are products of unchosen social contexts – that is the source and justification for all group loyalty, for better or worse.  I love my country because I love myself.

But the constricted ideology of the Open Borders movement essentially misunderstands the sovereign state and its constituents; it sees patriotism as meaningless, economic regulation as totalitarian, and national belonging as just one of many contingent, arbitrary choices one may tenuously adopt.  To be honest, though, there is definite appeal to that libertarian vision of a world without borders or states.  In many ways it’s a world to be devoutly hoped for.  It would presumably have no widespread wars, less poverty, more education, less irrational hatred.  Imagine there’s no countries.  But it doesn’t withstand closer scrutiny.  A world where countries have been replaced by many diffuse loyalties is one without any real commitment or sense of community.  It’s a world without any protection against capitalist exploitation.  It’s a world with no protections for workers, consumers or the environment.  It’s a world where cultural and local and individual distinction all blur into the broad materialist, consumerist haze.  And it’s quite possibly the world toward which we are heading.  You may rejoice in its arrival or you may grieve, or both.  But what you cannot do is deny the right of nations to resist its dull triumph.