Politics & Policy

A Welfare State without Borders: A Modest Proposal

A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border wall near San Diego, Calif., April 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Libertarians would like it. So might Democrats, but to their electoral peril.

As more than a few observers have noted, leading figures in the Democratic party have increasingly embraced a maximalist case for immigration, which opposes even minor efforts at enforcement and rejects any refusal to increase legal immigration and guest-worker programs. Barack Obama circa 2008 — let alone Harry Reid circa 1993 — would be denounced as a nativist bigot by today’s “woker” Left. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, embodied this new conventional wisdom among Beltway Democrats when he wore a T-shirt that read, “Yo no creo en fronteras” (I don’t believe in borders). (Class divisions are especially wide on immigration, and it’s worth noting that by and large Democratic voters hold positions on immigration that are much more moderate than those of Democratic leadership.)

This anti-borders sentiment taps into a bigger intellectual argument advanced by both “woke” leftists and a certain sect of post-national libertarians, who hold that it is unethical to favor one nationality over another. As a result, it is unethical to stop a person from migrating from one nation to another. Consider these remarks by Dylan Matthews, one of the more energetic progressive defenders of this viewpoint:

Personally, I think any center-left party worth its salt has to be deeply committed to egalitarianism, not just for people born in the US but for everyone.

That means fighting for LGBT rights against bathroom bills, fighting mass incarceration and police violence victimizing black Americans, and working for more domestic redistribution to address poverty and hardship, including through universal health care.

But it also means treating people born outside the US as equals. It means generously funding foreign aid for health programs that have saved hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives. And it means a strong presumption in favor of open immigration.

In the wake of the 2016 election, some on the left (such as Peter Beinart) have called for Democrats to moderate on immigration. Without a doubt, Hillary Clinton’s maximalist position on immigration hurt her in the general election, and some Democrats fear that continued extremism on the issue could hurt the party at the ballot box. These calls for immigration moderation have often been rebuffed as profoundly unethical or, in Matthews’s words, “genuinely terrifying.”

While much has been written about the way that support for transnationalism could endanger the future electoral prospects for Democrats, a rigorous application of transnationalist principles could also radically disrupt the intellectual coherence of contemporary progressivism. The project of transnationalism threatens the enterprise of the welfare state, which has been a core organizing idea of the American Left since the (first) Progressive era. For a long time — from FDR to LBJ to Barack Obama — the Democratic party was the party of the national, activist welfare state.

“Egalitarianism . . . for everyone” might mean not just “a presumption in favor of open immigration.” A rigorous application of this principle also probably encourages the internationalization of the welfare state, which means no longer confining redistributive government programs to American citizens or even current residents. If it is unethical to prioritize the people of one nation over another, it becomes much harder to support the current system of national redistribution.

Internationalizing the welfare state would allow U.S. government spending to transform the lives of millions across the globe. It’s likely that a dollar spent in the poorest parts of the world would go farther than a dollar spent in the United States. While there certainly is poverty in the United States, many of the American poor have far greater material wealth than the poor of other nations. The average individual food-stamp recipient receives $134 a month in SNAP benefits; the annual per capita income in Somalia is $535, according to the World Bank. About $5,700 a year is spent per Medicaid enrollee — this is more than the annual per capita income of the 50 poorest countries in the world.

And it seems that the welfare state has plenty of dollars that could be redirected to foreign aid. According to the Office of Management and Budget, in the 2017 fiscal year, the federal government spent $944 billion on Social Security, $597 billion on Medicare, and $503 billion on various “income security” programs (such as housing and food assistance). It spent only $24 billion on “international development and humanitarian assistance.” A mere 10 percent reduction in Social Security, Medicare, and income-security programs could add roughly $200 billion to the foreign-aid budget — an increase of more than 800 percent. Even a 1 percent cut to those programs could double the foreign-aid budget. Moreover, many of those cuts could be structured so that they would have minimal effects on the most vulnerable Americans. For instance, progressive lawmakers could call for a 10 percent cut to Social Security by instituting a means-testing provision. That would ensure that poor seniors would not have a cut to their Social Security payments.

The notion of the welfare state as a model of nationwide insurance, in which redistribution programs are a backstop for all citizens who might economically falter, seems to depend on the legitimacy of the nation-state itself.

If one of the premises of the free movement of people is that government should not be prejudiced against an individual for things behind his control (such as place of birth), it seems pretty clear that it would be unfair to limit redistribution only to those who immigrate to the United States. Plenty of things outside an individual’s control might prevent him from immigrating to the United States or make it harder for him to immigrate. For instance, by geography alone, it is much easier for someone from Mexico to immigrate than it is for someone from the Solomon Islands, and Mexico is a much wealthier country than the Solomon Islands. A very ill person might have a much harder time immigrating than someone in perfect health. Allowing international redistribution primarily through immigration would in turn end up favoring one group over another according to certain arbitrary standards (such as geographic proximity, personal health, and family connections).

As has been implied above, internationalizing the welfare state need not be sudden. Rather than calling for the end of entitlements, advocates for universal egalitarianism might instead call for means-testing them, with the savings rolled into international aid. They might also stop spending any political capital on new income-support programs for Americans and instead fight to increase international-aid spending.

Certain objections could be raised against internationalizing the welfare state. Some might argue that foreign nationals should not be able to receive government benefits because they do not pay taxes to the U.S. government. However, poor Americans are not excluded from many federal programs if they do not have a net federal income-tax burden. Most children do not pay taxes, yet few argue that we should deny them government benefits. Conversely, plenty of people pay taxes (such as foreign travelers to the United States) but receive no direct government benefits. So paying taxes is already distinct from access to government benefits. If government policy should treat people equally regardless of their nationality, what is the argument for confining that redistribution to the citizens of one nation? (The notion of the welfare state as a model of nationwide insurance, in which redistribution programs are a backstop for all citizens who might economically falter, seems to depend on the legitimacy of the nation-state itself, so, if nationality is no longer a legitimate distinction, then it seems less legitimate to limit welfare spending to only those of a certain nationality.)

Some might argue that entitlements such as Medicare should be sacrosanct. However, the Affordable Care Act offers a precedent for tampering with entitlements to extend protections for the less-well-off. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Affordable Care Act cut nearly $800 billion over a ten-year period from future Medicare payments to hospitals and doctors. Given that precedent, cutting some entitlements to pay for aid for the less fortunate abroad could surely be justified under a doctrine of “egalitarianism for everyone.”

Some partisans might fear that running on cutting entitlements to increase foreign aid could be electoral suicide. It could indeed be a politically problematic tactic, but that has little to do with the ethics of the situation. Indeed, some immigration maximalists on the left have argued that moderation on the issue would be immoral even if it were popular. If “egalitarianism for everyone” means that it is immoral for Democrats to support immigration moderation, it also raises moral questions about having such a vast amount of spending for American citizens and residents alone.

Post-national egalitarianism casts the national welfare state as a kind of nationalized selfishness — one that focuses on only struggling Americans while ignoring the huddled masses of the rest of the world.

The “egalitarianism for everyone” argument is certainly one for open borders — but it’s also likely an argument for expanding the redistributive project of the welfare state beyond a nation’s borders. Post-national egalitarianism would seem to involve transforming the national welfare state into a vehicle for international redistribution. This might make the poor and elderly in America worse off, but the point of post-national egalitarianism is that policymakers should not fixate on the concerns of a nation’s residents alone. (It is perhaps because of the implications of post-national egalitarianism that John Rawls, one of the major influences on egalitarianism for the Left, believed that there could be just limits on immigration. As he wrote in The Law of Peoples, a people has “at least a qualified right to limit immigration.” It is for these reasons — and others — that some have attacked Rawls as a “liberal nationalist.” A similar awareness of the implications of post-nationalism might be one of the reasons for Bernie Sanders’s denunciation of “open borders” in 2015.)

Now, an obvious defense of the national welfare state is available: the thesis that a nation has a primary obligation to tend to its own people. For this approach, government is right to do what it can to prioritize the needs of the nation’s people and so may quite legitimately set up programs to protect the nation’s poor, elderly, disabled, and so forth. The idea that a nation has its obligation to its people is profoundly anti-utopian; instead of sacrificing local concerns for the dream of a globally “just” order, it focuses on advancing dignity and prosperity within borders. While this approach justifies the welfare state, it also justifies the ability of policymakers to craft an immigration system so that it serves the interests of a nation’s people. This might mean regulating immigration in such a way that it advances some of the core interests and aims of a given polity.

“I don’t believe in borders” might be chic among progressive activists, but a rigorous application of this principle raises deep moral questions about a national welfare policy that prioritizes the interests of a nation’s citizens. Post-national egalitarianism casts the national welfare state as a kind of nationalized selfishness — one that focuses on only struggling Americans while ignoring the huddled masses of the rest of the world. As some libertarians have grave doubts about the morality of the national welfare state, they might welcome any argument to delegitimize it. But it’s less clear why Democrats should be so eager to destabilize one of the pillars of their party.


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