Immigration and Liberty

In my previous post I poked a stick at the immigration issue. It’s easy to say what’s wrong (or at least to point out how silly the debate can occasionally get); it’s a bit more challenging to say something constructive about an issue as intractable as immigration. But since I poked a stick at the bear I figure I should at least take a shot at the subject. But rather than merely say I’m for it or against it, and why, I would like to put immigration into the context of liberty.

And not only liberty, but the ideas of place, limits, and liberty (three terms I borrowed from Front Porch Republic).

I am actually a big fan of limiting immigration and having everyone stay put unless they’ve got a very good reason to go somewhere else. This is the concept of “place.” As much as I’d like (in my imagination) to be one of those so-called “world citizens,” and just travel around from here to there and back again, I know that such an existence is untenable for a real human being. We are creatures of place. We need to be a part of community to fully become what we were meant to be. We need to have our identity planted in a locality in order to have the ability to become expansive. (The same principle applies in child rearing; give a child solid limits and that child then has the ability to grow far beyond the expectations of the parents. Give the child no limits, and he tends to become withdrawn and far less than what was possible.)

Open borders and unlimited immigration implies that “place” is unimportant. Furthermore, open borders and unlimited immigration results in a bland, cultureless society which is a hodge-podge of all that is. (Something that can hardly be called a “place.”) In that environment the genius of any one culture is lost in the competing variety of every other culture.

But while I’m a big fan of closed borders and strict immigration control, the reality is that such a position is untenable in an empire. Alas, the American empire requires porous borders and the free movement of both goods and the labor force. So my love of immigration control is strictly theoretical.

But I ought to define that idea of the American empire. America is not an empire in the same sense that Rome, Babylon, and Egypt were empires. The American empire actually transcends the nation. While it is rooted in America, it is driven by multinational corporations. But without a strong American military and cooperative interrelated governments (such as the European Union, the G8, NATO, SEATO, NAFTA, etc.), multinational corporations wouldn’t have the freedom to homogenize the world as they do. Conversely, without multinational corporations, there would be far less need for all the various treaty organizations. And the engine which continues to drive this interrelationship between government, commerce, and military might is the engine of the United States. It is in that very specific and rather narrow sense that it is proper to refer to an American empire.

But the empire comes at a great cost. The ability of multinational corporations to ship fresh food around the world means that there is an artificial demand for tomatoes in Missoula and Montreal during the winter. And this artificial demand results in huge tomato farms from Southern Baja to Sinaloa in Mexico. In turn these huge agricultural cooperatives, which cater to the multi-nationals, fundamentally change the local economies, inadvertently displacing Mexican workers.

Meanwhile another group of multinationals is buying and butchering beef, then shipping it around the world in quantities that the economy of Siouxland simply cannot support. So it is that Mexican workers, displaced in Southern Baja, migrate to Siouxland to work at factory jobs that the local economy (without this infusion of outside labor) simply can’t support. But arcane and contradictory immigration laws make it such that these factories need far more workers than can legally come to the United States to work. The result is a steady flow of illegal immigrants, which forces the wages which the multinational corporations must pay lower and keeps the prices of the final product lower. The simple fact is that while this system is unfair to some people caught up in it (in this case, the Mexican workers on both sides of the border), it brings the largest economic benefit to the greatest number of people. So it is tolerated.

In short, the modern world could not function without the sort of immigration which exists today. I would argue that the modern world could not function if immigration was made fully legal because of the likelihood of wage increases which would make the price of the final product high enough that it would bring the whole system to a grinding halt.

From a Libertarian perspective, this is all good precisely because it brings the largest economic benefit to the largest number of people. And this brings us from “place” to “liberty.” (We’ll get to “limits” in a moment.) The Libertarian understanding of “liberty” as liberty without limit is the standard definition of liberty today in American political debate. True liberty, in this contemporary American sense, is the liberty to have sex without consequences, the liberty to eat tomatoes in January in Missoula and Montreal without consequences, the liberty to drive from Nebraska to Mississippi and back again twice (with a possible trip from Mississippi to Arkansas to Mississippi again in the middle) without consequences. (I’m thinking ahead to my springtime plans and family obligations.)

Of course all of these things do have consequences. The fact that I’m able to pay for the consequences (an abortion, a dozen tanks of gas, $3 per pound for the tomatoes, $5 per pound for asparagus) is the very essence of American liberty in the world of the American empire (… the whole process oiled by international banking … but that’s another subject entirely).

But it’s not nearly as simple as this. My liberty to have sex, unlimited mileage, and fresh salsa to go on my BLT for Martin Luther King Day, impinges on the liberty of the aborted baby, the Saudi citizen oppressed by the House of Saud emboldened to oppress by an American government that does nothing for fear of losing a source of crude oil, and the Mexican migrant forced to come to Sioux City to work in a packing plant because of the tremendous agricultural disruption in Mexico.

I would therefore propose that liberty without limits is no liberty at all. This sort of liberty is the subjection or servitude (or in the case of the unborn baby, the death) of the invisible parties involved. One cannot have true liberty (in contrast to selfish liberty) without “limits.” But without “place,” “liberty” within the context of “limits” is rather meaningless. But in the context of the American empire, “place” has little or no meaning.

So as long as we live in the context of the American Empire, semi-open borders with purposeful confusion as to just how open they actually are, is absolutely essential. Citizens protecting their property from illegal aliens becomes a threat to the American ideal of liberty without limits. States like Alabama and Arizona, which have imposed strict immigration laws, are considered downright medieval, and people who barter for milk from an actual cow who was probably chewing her cud and watching you drive up the lane to pick up a gallon or two from the farmer, are considered illegal, highly dangerous, and just a little bit crazy.

So, call it crazy, but there is no liberty without place and without limits. Liberty is circumscribed while oppression has few limits.

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