May 22, 2011


What If Justice Demands Open Borders?: Why do we cling to the myth that anyone can get in line and come to America? Mostly because our values demand it. (Nathan Smith, May 13, 2011, American)

Why do we cling to this myth that anyone can get in line and come to America? Mostly because our values demand it. We aspire to be a country of “liberty and justice for all.” To accept frankly that some people are excluded from America for life because of their place of birth would make nonsense of this claim. So we try to forget about them.

President Obama, and most Americans, want to find a happy medium. We want to be a place where “anyone can write the next chapter in our history;” and yet we want to accept only the “best and brightest.” We want to be humane to those already here illegally, without creating incentives for more to come. But that happy medium doesn’t exist.

We can persist with the present muddle, in which people break the laws on a large scale because they benefit by doing so. Or we could try to close the borders and do whatever it takes—abandoning all scruples about inalienable rights and liberty and justice for all— and figure out some way to redefine what it is to be American that does not depend on our historic ideals.

Or we could try a third option: resolutely examine what those ideals really demand of us, and do that, even if means changing a lot of bad habits and taking a few risks. [...]

One lesson to take from the Lockean tradition is the imperative for freedom of migration. A country must not prevent peaceful migration by force, because migrants are not violating natural law. They are violating no one’s natural rights. They have committed no violence against persons or property. They are pursuing happiness, without threatening the lives or liberties of others. Coercion against them has no justification if governments are instituted among men to secure inalienable natural rights.

In the 19th century, before the liberal tradition of Locke and Jefferson was partially eclipsed by relatively illiberal political philosophies, the open borders policy implied by these basic ethical facts was actually practiced, for the most part, in the United States and Western Europe. As historian Harold James recalls:

Above all, people moved. They did not need passports. There were hardly any debates about citizenship. In a search for freedom, security, and prosperity… the peoples of Europe and Asia left their homes and took often uncomfortable journeys by rail and by ship, often as part of gigantic human treks. Between 1871 and 1915, 36 million people left Europe.1

World War I and the age of fascism and communism put an end to 19th-century freedom of mobility, but the way politicians talk about immigration, and the way a decent society treats illegal immigrants, show that we still know right from wrong. We don’t want our politicians to tell us that most human beings born into this world are permanently excluded from our country.

Most Americans seem to have more qualms about reporting illegal immigrants to the police, especially those with families or who came here as children, than about doing business or making friends with them. Our immigration laws are like the Prohibition laws of the 1920s. They are a scandal, not only because they are widely disobeyed, but because they are widely disobeyed by normal, decent people. And that is because they have no basis in natural law.

Advocates of immigration restrictions tacitly borrow from another political tradition, from the 17th-century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, spokesman for arbitrary and absolute power. Hobbes, long dead, is still with us in disguise. He has taken the form of a word, sovereignty, the uses of which encapsulates his philosophy and sustains his influence. Hobbes and the contemporary proponents of sovereignty relegate natural law to the background, or simply ignore or deny it.

The Hobbesian tradition tells people to obey sovereign governments, no matter what. By contrast, the Lockean tradition affirms that sometimes governments ought to be resisted. As one representative of the Lockean tradition, Martin Luther King Jr., argued:

One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality… Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court [desegregating the schools], for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

We have treated King in the usual manner of prophets, honoring him after he is killed, but often ignoring what he said. Yet his words are directly applicable to immigration. Laws against migration, unlike laws against murder or theft, are not rooted in eternal and natural law, and they do not uplift personality. [...]

From the perspective of economic theory, the effect of immigration on employment and wages is ambiguous, but the effect on housing prices is clear. The supply of land is fixed. While developers can convert farmland to suburban land, the territory of a given city center is a fundamentally scarce resource. Since immigrants need to live somewhere, immigration increases demand for housing and raises prices. Immigration reform will help housing prices recover. A house price recovery would help people with underwater mortgages get out of debt and would encourage consumer spending.

If a depressed housing sector is one of the country’s biggest short-run problems, its big long-run problem is that the government is broke. Projected revenues fall far short of covering projected costs. Open borders would mean more taxpayers to help pay for America’s debts, mitigating uncertainty about where the future tax burden will fall.

...which is why three-quarters of us support them provided you dress them up with a comforting name like "path to citizenship."

Posted by at May 22, 2011 8:24 AM

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