The Corner

Politics & Policy

Unconstrained, Un-Conservative

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during the markup of the FY2018 Budget reconciliation legislation in Washington, D.C. on November 28, 2017. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

My column last week was on how Donald Trump’s version of America First is in many ways worse than what people meant by America First in the 1930s.

But there’s a point that I couldn’t get to in the column that I think is worth making. One of the best explorations of the differences between conservatives and non-conservatives comes from Thomas Sowell’s brilliant book “A Conflict of Visions.” In it he argues that there’s a reason why arguments, politics indeed whole societies tend to divide along certain fault lines. For Sowell, the divide can be explained by a self-sorting into two different visions. This is why such disparate figures as, say, Edmund Burke and Milton Friedman, can reach similar conclusions about the role of government and other matters. “It happens too often to be coincidence, and it is too uncontrolled to be a plot.”

The constrained vision is conservative. It holds that human nature can be bent, but that it cannot be erased. The unconstrained vision holds that humans are not merely malleable but perfectible and therefore so is society itself. The constrained vision, according to Sowell, recognizes that when it comes to most important policy questions, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” The unconstrained vision is derived in part from what I’ve often called the cult of unity, which holds that all good things need not come at the expense of other good things. The unconstrained vision believes in the possibility of Heaven on Earth, the constrained vision recognizes that there are no utopias (perfect places) only eutopias (good places).

The America Firsters, and other isolationists – whether on the political right or left, and there were many on both – were mostly adherents of the constrained vision. They believed that, in America, we had something special and worth preserving, and too much involvement in the world beyond our shores (or the world’s involvement within ours) might jeopardize that. Put aside the merits of this as a prudential or moral question (I think defeating the Nazis, establishing NATO etc, were all good things), philosophically they were on solid ground.

I pick a lot of fights with self-described nationalists around here, but on this point I think they have a solid argument. I like legal immigration more than some of my friends and colleagues, but I am perfectly happy to concede that it involves trade-offs.  There is nothing inconsistent with being a lover of liberty, human rights and political decency and also believing that the rules outside our borders are different than those inside – and that we have the sovereign right to make those rules. By way of illustration, when the U.S. government kills a non-U.S.-citizen overseas it may be right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, but the rules for such an action are profoundly different – rightly and necessarily – than those involved when the U.S. government takes the life of a citizen, or simply someone on our soil. The rules of criminal law, due process, etc. must apply. The same holds true for all of our Constitutional rights. The U.S. government may be founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, but only someone with an adrenally exaggerated unconstrained vision would argue that U.S. government should enforce those principles around the globe in the same way it does at home.

The first obligation of the U.S. government is to protect what we have here. Switzerland is a free country. It’s also a decent country. Its immigration laws are draconian compared to our own. It’s defense policies – armed neutrality — for centuries have been premised on the idea that they must be free and independent, an alpine island of liberty. None of that changes the fact that Switzerland is free and decent.

So much of the conversation from the left about foreign policy and immigration seems to be downstream of the unconstrained vision these days. And it’s contagious. One of the most symbolically significant decisions in recent years was when Bernie Sanders abandoned – or least grew mute — about his opposition to “open borders.” Sanders is a product of an older version of the American Left that may have had an unconstrained vision in some matters, but not when it came to certain trade-offs from immigration. Today, on the activist left, the mere desire to come to America to work (or maybe not work) is enough to justify opening the doors. I am not for sealing the borders or turning a blind eye to refugees, even economic refugees, but there must be some limiting principle, some constraint on the sheer numbers we let in. Because as a prudential matter, the trade-offs for not adopting such a principle would be unacceptable to most Americans – and not just to white Americans or conservative Americans. For instance, a robust welfare state of the sort the left wants is not politically sustainable with continuous mass immigration of poor people, no matter how decent they may be.

Foreign policy, immigration, trade etc. are primarily prudential questions. That doesn’t mean morality and ideology should play no role in how we make our decisions in such matters, far from it. Immoral foreign policy can be even more corrosive than overly moralizing foreign policy. For instance, I believe it is in our interests to expand the zone of liberty beyond our borders, but how we should go about doing that requires hard, realistic, thinking about the trade-offs. In other words, you can be somewhat unconstrained about your ideals, but if you’re also unconstrained about your means, you will do grave damage to those ideals.

The trouble with the debate we have now is that one side of the argument not only believes there are no trade-offs, but that even suggesting there are is proof of bigotry and evil. That is not how the argument for more generous or humane immigration policies can be won, but it is how the argument can be lost, as we are seeing in much of Europe right now.


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