Politics & Policy

Libertarianism in One Country

On the Brink and beyond.

Brink Lindsey’s “Liberaltarian” piece in The New Republic is getting commented on all over. Here at NR/NRO, Ramesh has already taken a swing at it on The Corner, with a response from Lindsey posted here. Jonah is working up an article on it, I believe. I’m going to leave these heavyweights to take on Lindsey’s piece in the round. Here I’m just going to pass comment on one aspect of liberaltarianism.

#ad#Before reading through Brink’s piece, I did a find on “immigr,” and came up with the following sentences:

‐ Just look at the causes that have been generating the real energy in the conservative movement of late: building walls to keep out immigrants, amending the Constitution to keep gays from marrying, and imposing sectarian beliefs on medical researchers and families struggling with end-of-life decisions.

‐ Most obviously, many of the great libertarian breakthroughs of the [past half century] — the fall of Jim Crow, the end of censorship, the legalization of abortion, the liberalization of divorce laws, the increased protection of the rights of the accused, the reopening of immigration — were championed by the political left.

‐ Both [liberals and libertarians] generally support a more open immigration policy. 

Let me mention once, then leave aside, the sneaky little sleights of hand that we have now come to expect in anything written by those opposed to enforcement of immigration laws. The purpose of the wall in that first quote is not, as Lindsey claims, to keep out immigrants, but to keep out illegal immigrants. And if, by “the reopening of immigration” in that second sentence, Lindsey means the 1965 Immigration Act, well, no mention of that legislation should be allowed to pass without a note on the staggering differences between the promises made by the act’s sponsors, and its actual consequences. Those differences are thoroughly described in any honest book that deals with the topic, e.g. Pat Buchanan’s recent bestseller, Chapter 12.

Lindsey is surely right that both liberals and libertarians “generally support a more open immigration policy.” The difference is that liberals are, from their standpoint, correct to do so, while libertarians are, from their standpoint, nuts to do so. Let me explain.

* * * * *

A liberal, in the current sense of the term, is a person who favors a massive welfare state, expansive and intrusive government, high taxation, preferential allocation of social goods to designated “victim” groups, and deference to international bureaucracies in matters of foreign policy.

It is not difficult to see why such a person would favor lax policies towards both legal and illegal immigration. Immigration, legal or otherwise, concerns the crossing of borders, and a liberal regards borders, along with all other manifestations of the nation-state, with distaste. “International” trumps “national” in every context. The preferences a citizen might have for his own countrymen over foreigners, for his own language over other tongues, for his own traditions and folkways over imported ones, are all, in the minds of a modern liberal, manifestations of ugly, primitive, and outdated notions — nativism, xenophobia, racism. The liberal proudly declares himself a citizen of the world, and looks with scorn and contempt on those narrow souls who limit their citizenly affections to just one nation.

And in the realities of the world today, immigrants to the United States are mostly people of color, who can be recruited into those cohorts of designated “victims” that form such a key legion in the modern liberal alliance. This is especially the case with illegal immigrants, who come overwhelmingly from the Amerindian- and mestizo-peasant underclasses of Mexico and Central America. Any expression of unhappiness with mass illegal immigration can therefore easily be construed as racism, the most shameful of all sins in the liberal lexicon — a form of mental illness, according to some.

Further, modern liberals have come to an understanding with capitalism. The modern liberal is not a socialist. He understands perfectly well that common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange is a total no-hoper. The lavish government programs he favors need to be financed, and socialism is not capable of financing them — the 20th century proved that a hundred times over. Only a thriving capitalism can fund all the programs, all the departments, all the bureaucrats that modern liberalism wants.

How, then, can capitalism thrive in such a way as to necessitate a huge welfare establishment? Simple: Privatize profits, socialize costs.

Private profit is of course the essence of capitalism; but how to socialize costs? The cost of your labor force is their remuneration, which ought to be sufficient to allow them to pay for their housing, health care, children’s education, and so on. To the degree that your workers’ remuneration is not sufficient for those things, you are throwing your workers on the mercy of the welfare state — socializing your costs. Thus, in an odd historical reversal, liberals are keen on a capitalism that pays the lowest possible wages. To its everlasting shame, the labor movement, dominated nowadays by public-sector and welfare-state unions, is similarly inclined. The political Left is now the party of low wages kept down by endless mass immigration. Samuel Gompers (“America must not be overwhelmed…”) must be turning in his grave.

* * * * *

The affection of liberals for mass immigration, both legal and illegal, is thus very easy to understand. Why, though, do libertarians favor it? And why do I think they are nuts to do so?

So far as the first of those questions is concerned, I confess myself baffled. I think that what is going on here is just a sort of ideological overshoot. Suspicion of state power is of course at the center of classical libertarianism. If the state is making and enforcing decisions about who may settle in territories under the state’s jurisdiction, that is certainly a manifestation of state power, and therefore comes under libertarian suspicion. Just why libertarians consider it an obnoxious manifestation — well, that’s where my bafflement begins. (That some exercises of state power are necessary and un-obnoxious is conceded by nearly all libertarians.)

Perhaps libertarians simply haven’t thought about immigration. Until five years or so ago, very few Americans had. Charles Murray’s 1997 book What It Means to Be a Libertarian mentions immigration just once — to apologize for not having mentioned it! More recent libertarian productions show some dawning awareness. Bruce Bartlett’s book Impostor gives off a strong flavor of libertarianism, yet the author confesses himself “conflicted” on the immigration issue.

The free market economist in me wants to believe that we should have free flows of labor as well as free flows of capital, goods, and services. And I do believe that, historically, immigrants have been an enormously positive addition to the United States… I believe that our willingness to accept the best and brightest of other nations has incalculably added to America’s well-being…

But at the same time, I am disturbed by the way some illegal immigrants have abused our hospitality and the way some politicians have exploited them. It is insane that some communities have forbidden local police from enforcing the federal immigration laws, even when they could be used legitimately to expel criminals from our midst. I cannot comprehend why some states would allow illegal immigrants to attend state universities and pay in-state tuition, when the native-born from other states must pay more. I am concerned about the ease with which people can become citizens, simply by being born on our soil, when they have no meaningful connection to this country otherwise. And I am bothered by the ability of terrorists to exploit the holes in our immigration system. 

For a long-time fellow-traveler of the Wall Street Journal “there shall be open borders” crowd, this is startling stuff.

As to why I think libertarians are nuts to favor mass uncontrolled immigration from the third world: I think they are nuts because their enthusiasm on this matter is suicidal to their cause. Their ideological passion is blinding them to a rather obvious fact: that libertarianism is a peculiarly American doctrine, with very little appeal to the huddled masses of the third world. If libertarianism implies mass third-world immigration, then it is self-destroying. Libertarianism is simply not attractive either to illiterate peasants from mercantilist Latin American states, or to East Asians with traditions of imperial-bureaucratic paternalism, or to the products of Middle Eastern Muslim theocracies.

There are a number of responses a libertarian might make to that. Not included in those responses, I think, given the current state of our national affairs, is the argument that Providence has inscribed a yearning for liberty on every human heart.

A libertarian might, though, say that while libertarianism could indeed be a hard sell to immigrants from very illiberal political traditions, it will appeal to their Americanized children, to the second generation. Possibly so. Even setting aside the great strengthening of the welfare state caused by the preferences of that first generation, though, to sell libertarianism to the second generation would need a tremendous missionary effort. According to Brink Lindsey, only 13 percent of Americans currently lean libertarian. If decades of libertarian proselytizing have only achieved that much success with a population rooted in the traditions of Pericles and Magna Carta, of the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment, of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, how well should libertarians expect to do with the political descendants of emperors and caliphs, of Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mao Tse-tung?

* * * * *

The people who made Russia’s Communist revolution in 1917 believed that they were merely striking a spark that would ignite a worldwide fire. They regarded Russia as a deeply unpromising place in which to “build socialism,” her tiny urban proletariat and multitudinous medieval peasantry poor material from which to fashion New Soviet Man. Their hope was that the modern industrial nations of the world would take inspiration from them — that the proletarians of those nations would rise up against their capitalist masters and inaugurate a new age of world history, coming to the aid of the Russian pioneers.

When it was plain that none of this was going to happen, the party ideologues got to work revising the revolutionary dogmas. One of them — it was actually Joseph Stalin — came up with a new slogan: “Socialism in One Country!

I think that libertarians should take a leaf from Stalin’s book. They should acknowledge that the USA is, of all nations, the one whose political traditions offer the most hospitable soil for libertarianism. Foreigners, including foreigners possessed of the urge to come and settle in modern, welfare-state America, are much less well-disposed towards libertarianism.

If less than one in seven American voters is inclined to libertarianism, then there is much missionary work to be done among present-day American citizens. To think that this missionary effort will be made any easier by a steady stream of arrivals from foreign parts, most of which have never known rational, consensual government, is highly unrealistic, to the point of delusion.

That is why I say that libertarians who favor mass immigration are nuts. If there is any hope at all for libertarianism, it rests in the libertarianism of my title: libertarianism in one country.

There is no contradiction between maximum liberty within a nation and maximum vigilance on the nation’s borders. Not only is there no contradiction between the two things, in fact, it may be that the second a precondition for the first.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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