Over the weekend, Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at UCLA with a nose for interesting social phenomena, pointed to a 2011 New York Times report on a telling phenomenon: American Indian tribes throughout California had started disenrolling individuals who had hitherto been considered members in large numbers. Whereas in years past banishment was treated as a severe punishment for a serious moral transgression, this latest wave was all about “disenrolling Indians deemed inauthentic members of a group.” Because California has long been home to many American Indians of mixed ancestry, it had become “the national hotbed of the trend.” However, pervasive ethnic mixing couldn’t have been the chief driver of the disenrollment boom, for the tribes in question had long overlooked the fact that many of their members were mixed.
So what was the new development that precipitated such an extraordinary response? The rise of casino gambling had greatly enriched many of California’s American Indian tribes, and disenrollments helped ensure that the spoils would be divided among a smaller number of putatively more authentic members. Or at least that’s what critics told reporter James Dao, who was careful to note that tribal governments “universally deny that greed or power is motivating disenrollment, saying they are simply upholding membership rules established in their constitutions.” Yet Dao also pointed to the undeniable fact that tribal membership in the most affluent tribes now conferred large and significant financial benefits for members.
To Rossman, this story of California’s Indian tribes policing their boundaries to avoid crippling fiscal burdens represented “a microcosm of what the politics of [an unconditional basic income] would look like . . . and what the politics of the welfare state already look like.” I agree with him. Bluntly speaking, if membership in a market democracy, however that is defined, translates into generous fiscal entitlements, the stakes of membership become higher, and policing the boundaries of membership becomes a more fraught issue.
In Melting Pot or Civil War?, I address the tension between two arguments. (I also address it in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post.) The first, which I am inclined to accept, is that in an age of offshoring and automation, when the wages of the working class are under intense competitive pressure, it is right and appropriate for government to help close the gap between what low- and middle-income U.S. families earn and what they need to lead decent lives. The second, which I do not accept, is that the U.S. ought to admit well-meaning newcomers who don’t command the skills that are most prized in a postindustrial economy, and who will therefore be in need of public assistance for themselves and their offspring, without limit.
Over the course of a long and stimulating conversation with Jonah Goldberg on The Remnant, I mentioned that my RINO-squish tendencies when it comes to funding anti-poverty programs for U.S. households are directly related to why I’m a firm believer in a more selective, skills-based immigration system. The hard-headed case for strengthening the safety net is that the labor market has so devalued low-skill labor that government needs to step in to use wage subsidies and other measures to ensure that work pays, as the alternative is that we’ll have a large, anxious, and expanding working class that sees our dynamic market economy as a rigged game. Is it wise to greatly increase the ranks of those who will command low market wages under these volatile circumstances? And if the circumstances aren’t volatile — if expanding the safety net is more of a “nice to have” than a “must have” — well, the supposed urgency of new refundable tax credits, expanded public health-insurance programs, etc., is greatly diminished. You can’t have it both ways.
Cosmopolitan libertarians have a straightforward formula for reconciling these tensions: Dismantle the safety net outright, as the more doctrinaire might have it, such that affluent citizens won’t face a rising fiscal burden as openness to low-skill labor results in a sharp increase in the number and share of low-income households in the domestic population. Cosmopolitan liberals might offer a gentler formula, in which fiscal entitlements are based not on membership in a given society but rather on fiscal contributions. Social Security, for instance, is a contributory program. One is only eligible for benefits if one has paid into the system for a given number of years. Contributory programs are, in general, less redistributive than non-contributory programs that are based solely on income. The difficulty, of course, is that phasing out non-contributory programs while moving to more contributory programs, there is little doubt that post-tax-and-transfer poverty would greatly increase, especially among those unable to work.
That is a bullet a cosmopolitan liberal might be willing to bite, and that’s fair enough. If openness to low-skill foreign workers is your chief objective, accepting some increase in poverty among those who can’t work or who can’t work much might be a price worth paying. To those of us who are more concerned with the legitimacy of American society in the eyes of the domestic poor, and especially the multigenerational poor, this is not a terribly attractive proposition.