Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Let the People Have Their Say

There are some good things about the current immigration debate. 1) It seems that a debate is actually occurring (despite the administration and the Senate’s attempt to prevent it). 2) The public is making themselves heard on the matter, at least to some extent.

Culture researcher Stanley Kurtz uses his review of Walter Laqueur’s book The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent to make an argument for getting the public’s view on the issue before the U.S. goes any further down the immigration trail. Kurtz cites Laqueur as asserting that it should not be surprising that native Europeans, who are increasingly finding themselves strangers in their own countries, are lashing out against the liberal immigration policies that the elites have maintained for four decades.

“Instead of putting the matter up for debate,” writes Kurtz, “government and corporations quietly and unilaterally set policy.” They relaxed immigration limits and ignored enforcement of immigration laws. After all, it was claimed that there were jobs that needed to be done that Europeans refused to do themselves. Does any of this sound familiar?

Those that sponsored this stealth immigration policy had their motivations for doing so. Business had the obvious motivator of cheap labor. Guilt ridden multicultural elites sought to do penance for sins such as refusing refugees from Nazi Germany and having a much higher standard of living than most of the of the rest of the world. Both camps were deluded, claims Kurtz, by the idea that immigrants would naturally accept and adopt “liberal modernism’s superiority,” which is based on “exemplary justice alone,” without force.

Kurtz draws a parallel sure to stun many on both the right and the left in America. This “soft superpower” concept, which Kurtz labels as a “leftist fantasy of a pacifist, rule-bound world” is not much different from “the Bush administration’s own overconfidence in the power of exemplary democracy.” While the latter employs force that is much loathed by the former, both are based in the delusion of the universal appeal and impending contagious spread of democracy throughout the benighted portions of the globe.

I admire the motto of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff: “Free people and free markets.” Along with WSJ editors, many promote a purely economic view of the immigration issue, as does GMU economist Don Boudreaux. In this post concerning illegal immigrants, he challenges, “Imagine how much higher still their earnings and their rates of employment, homeownership, and education would be if no employer had to fear prosecution for the "crime" of hiring any willing worker.”

Taking exception with this view, Kurtz writes, “Laqueur rejects the cultural blindness of economic elites who see immigration in strictly market terms. He rejects racism and xenophobia as explanations of failed Muslim integration, in favor of a cultural account. He rejects economic explanations for the decline of Europe itself, insisting instead that the erosion of strong families, relativism, and a loss of faith in the future are at the root of Europe’s problems.”

To put it bluntly, Kurtz says, “Culture counts.” He cites Heather MacDonald’s recent article entitled Hispanic Family Values? as evidence that today’s class of illegal immigrants bring problems far different and far more severe than did the Irish and Italian immigrants of a century ago. Kurtz is suggesting that just as European democracy will probably not ultimately survive the immigration that has occurred over the past four decades, American democracy is threatened by our current influx of Hispanic immigrants.

Of course, the easy thing to do is to label this kind of rhetoric racist, nativist, ethnophobic, or whatever other debate-stopping label you want to apply. But the fact is that many Americans have legitimate and serious concerns about unrestricted immigration. And for many of these people it goes far beyond xenophobia. They believe democracy is in peril and that national security is at risk. And there are more than just a handful of people on the fringe that think this way. Many Americans want serious enforcement of our nation’s borders. And they want it now.

We need a healthy public debate on the immigration issue in America. It is unwise to continue a de facto open border policy without first having an honest debate about it. We need to engage in this debate without the unhelpful practice of hurling epithets at people that think differently about the issue. More than anything, we need to arrive at sound public policy that has the goal of doing what is ultimately best for our nation.


Charles D said...

I have several problems with Kurtz' analysis. I would doubt, first of all, whether it is possible to put a matter up for public debate in this country in any meaningful way. Given our sensationalist and sound-bite driven media culture, it would be very difficult to adequately inform the citizenry about an issue.

His descriptions of both the right and left are also dubious. Very few of us on the left are truly pacifist, but most of us do realize that we cannot have a peaceful world unless there area democratic international institutions to enforce agreed-upon international law. A casual glance at history or current events should be sufficient to convince anyone that domination by a single national power is not a workable solution.

The idea that the Bush administration has an "overconfidence in the power of exemplary democracy" is laughable. That is their propaganda slogan, but their actions both at home and abroad show a contempt for democracy. They have an overconfidence in the power of America to dominate the world, but that's a far cry from democracy.

His point about the survival of European democracy given the rising percentage of immigrants with different ethnic and religious backgrounds is valid. Most European nations were until recently quite homogeneous, unlike the US, and a significant number of their immigrants do not share their new nation's commitment to basic human rights (again unlike the US).

The problem in Europe (which we do not share) is an idea of multi-culturalism that tends to value the right of groups to pursue their religious and ethnic traditions more than the right of individuals in those groups to have the same basic human rights shared by the majority culture. When a group, for example, has a cultural or religious norm that permits wife beating, that should be unacceptable in a European nation.

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, please note that most of what Kurtz is saying is merely echoing Walter Laqueur's contentions. Laqueur is no conservative. However, Kurtz does himself draw the parallel between Bushian Wilsonianism and European multicultural idealism. I said that many would find that assertion shocking. I include myself in that number.

If I understand the point of your final two paragraphs, I take it that you believe that immigrants have a duty to adopt the mores (or at least the human rights morals) of the receiving nation. Many counter that in a democratic society, each individual and each group to which individuals belong has a right to work to change the society to more closely match their own ideals.

My personal take on this is that this latter contention is true up to a point. Society has two types of rules restricting behavior: behavior that is prohibited by agreement or legislation (malum prohibitum) and behavior that is wrong by nature regardless of whether any governmental rule exists regarding it (malum in se).

Individuals and groups have a right to work to change malum prohibitum rules and mores, but not malum in se rules and mores. Wife beating, for example, is behavior that is malum in se. The official language of a nation or state is malum prohibitum.

The problem with this view is that not everyone agrees with what falls into the categories of malum prohibitum and malum in se. Some groups argue, for example, that wife beating is acceptable when a greater 'good' comes from it. I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend such a thought. But if the groups that believe this way get enough power, they can force a change of the laws to more closely match their desires.

The forum we have for publicly debating issues begins with private citizens in small groups and ends up in representative legislative bodies. The public obviously gets angry when legislators seem to ignore them. They want their views included in the legislative debate.

I'm interested to know what your thoughts (or those of anyone else that cares to comment) are concerning government and business colluding to create a de facto open border policy without actually going through the democratic process of changing the laws. Are our current immigration laws unworkable simply because we have purposefully ignored them so long? And has that ignorance of law been done in a purposeful and underhanded way to circumvent public will on the matter?

Scott Hinrichs said...

For what it's worth, Daniel Henninger, who advocates a more open appoach to immigration, writes in this WSJ op-ed article with renewed respect for those with opposing opinions. He seems to now understand that the main problem many have with the illegal immigration problem is that illegals "more or less permanently" evade "the complications of civic life" of dutiful citizenship.

That is, even if illegals were given citizenship, they would not become fully functional citizens. They would accept the benefits of citizenship, but would shirk the responsibilities that go along with it because they have never bought into it. This is why those on one side of the debate call for a very long path to citizenship -- so that immigrants can learn to become dutiful citizens and can find value in paying the price to achieve this honored position.

That being the case, Henninger wonders what these people propose to do, since wholesale deportation of 12.5 million illegals currently in this country is impossible. He suggests that "a temporary guest-worker program that rises and falls with the tides of the U.S. economy" is the most plausible answer.

I don't know about that. Guest worker programs create a permanent underclass. (Of course, our current system does that today.) And Europe's experience with guest worker programs does not inspire much confidence.

Any other ideas?

Charles D said...

I don't think we're too far apart on the issue of malum in se. I would assert that there are inviolable rights accorded to every human being. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights could serve to enumerate those rights.

As for Mr. Henninger's perspective, I doubt that undocumented workers are intentionally evading the responsibilites of citizenship or that they would shirk them if they were offered citizenship. Their motivation is generally economic, and if they had an opportunity to become citizens, there is no reason to suspect that they would act differently from others who have had that opportunity.

I agree that guest worker programs are designed to create a permanent underclass, and to drive down wages of US workers. We need to realize that in most cases, undocumented workers are hired because they can be paid much less, be given no benefits, and cannot complain about their working conditions. I sincerely doubt that most of these jobs (excepting seasonal agricultural work) would be rejected by citizens if the pay and benefits were set at a competitive level. Illegal hiring of undocumented workers is more about enlarging the profits of employers and driving down labor costs than anything else.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I also felt that the claim that undocumented workers that achieve citizenship would fail to fulfill their duties was a flawed argument. Or at least I think those that offer this theory should supply a lot more support for it.

Yet another perspective I heard yesterday is that by perpetuating a working underclass we are offering business an incentive to stifle advances in productivity and technology. The argument goes that studies prove that our modern economy has no need of 19th Century-style peasant workers. But by providing low cost peasants, businesses (including agricultural businesses) make the economic decisions that offer the most short-term benefit. Were this working underclass unavailable, businesses would make the decision to invest in innovation that would increase productivity and would develop new technologies. The economy would not collapse, but would boom.

Economists like Boudreaux argue that it is counterproductive for government to insert itself into the transaction of a willing employer-willing worker relationship, and that government is ill suited to determine (and has a bad track record of determining) what is best for the market.

And I agree with this view to a certain point. However, free markets are not necessarily moral markets. Despite the argument that morality cannot be legislated, infusing an acceptable level of morality into society is the main function of most of our legislation. We frequently get it wrong and do too much or too little. But we constantly adjust to try to achieve the level acceptable to the general public.

Boudreaux may be correct from a purely economic point of view. But I doubt that most Americans would agree that his view is the most morally correct one.

Republicans gripe that documenting undocumented workers is a huge power grab by organized labor, which generally supports the Democratic agenda. And that may certainly be a side effect. But I tend to agree with you that getting undocumented workers documented and subject to the same rules as employment of American citizens will go a long way toward reconciling the problems we are experiencing today. But that can only happen if we stanch the flow of those willing to work as exploitees of the black market.

I also believe, however, that citizenship is something precious, and that foreigners accepting citizenship should undergo a process that helps prove its value. My father went through this process and is a patriotic American today.

Charles D said...

"Free markets are not necessarily moral markets" -- truer words were never spoken. While it is possible for small, privately held businesses to conduct themselves according to their moral code, it is impossible for large, publicly held corporations. If faced with a choice between upholding moral standards and increasing profits, an executive who chooses the former will find himself unemployed in short order.

The economic incentive for having a large pool of undocumented workers is that they drive down the cost of labor, and allow employers to avoid regulations that impact profits. While granting them visas or citizenship would reduce the downward pressure on wages, there's no evidence that these workers would organize with unions.

I agree that citizenship is, or at least ought to be, something precious. Providing extended visas with the opportunity to gain citizenship seems like a good response to the problem, however I wonder if the current emphasis on this issue is more of a campaign of posturing by politicians than an attempt to grapple with our nation's societal or economic problems.