America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”

One of the most inapt historical analogies you will ever hear is that which compares illegal immigration to the United States to the “barbarian invasions” which were the most proximate cause of the fall of the Roman Empire. First, Mexican illegal immigrants are not barbarians: they are civilized. They come from a literate civilization. Rome had absorbed many settled, civilized people into its empire. The trouble with the Germans was that they were illiterate tribal nomads. Mexicans are not.

Second, by the time the western half of the Roman Empire succumbed, it had already been five centuries since Rome’s republican consistution had given way to a new system called the empire: Rome in its republican heyday had never had much to fear from the Germans in their northern forests. Rome had experienced many civil wars, dozens of succession crises, tyrannical and crazy emperors, multiple emperors, interregna, and so forth. America’s constitution and polity is far healthier than that.

Third, the peaceful migration of Germans as individuals and families, comparable to Mexican immigration today, had gone on for a long time without destroying the Empire. It is a rare half-truth, in an article by Timothy Birdnow that otherwise gets most of its facts wrong, that:

The Germanic invaders of Rome, who would eventually overrun the Empire and usher in the Dark Ages… did not come as warriors so much as peaceful immigrants — some legally, most not.

Concerning the legality I cannot comment: this is a subject I would like to know more about. My impression from a variety of sources is that the Roman Empire just didn’t have immigration laws in our sense: to prohibit peaceful migrants from crossing the empire’s frontiers is just not the sort of thing that it had ever occurred to anyone they might have a right to do. This particular bad idea is a modern invention. I highly doubt that the legal/illegal immigrant distinction could be applied to ancient Rome in anything but a highly anachronistic way. This may be the kind of questions historians could not answer with confidence; at any rate, I cannot. (The Romans did build Hadrian’s Wall but this is the exception that proves the rule: it was only one, particularly dangerous, border where it was built, the motives seem to have been mainly military, and Roman power often extended beyond it.)

But as to the point about warriors vs. peaceful immigrants, the Germans who came as peaceful immigrants strengthened Rome. Problems began only in 376 AD when the Romans allowed the Visigoths, as a united tribe, to settle along the Danube as refugees from the Huns, and even then only because Rome seems to have broken its promise to provide land and food for a people whom it hoped to use to defend the imperial borders. If Rome had kept its word to them, the Visigoths might well have done just that. At any rate, peaceful German migrants were never a problem. On the contrary, the last greater defender of Rome was one of them: Stilicho, son a Vandal father, whose impressive campaigns thwarted Alaric the Visigoth for many years, before Stilicho’s murder paved the way for Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 AD. Wikipedia mentions Stilicho’s “mostly barbarian troops” in his campaigns against Alaric in Illyria, and that he scraped together “a coalition of Romans, Alans, and Huns to defeat Radagasius at Ticinum in 406.” Stilicho managed to fight as far away as Britain, yet Rome fell in AD 410. What happened? Well, not only was Stilicho himself murdered– and Rome had no comparable general– but “in the disturbances which followed the downfall and execution of Stilicho, the wives and children of barbarian foederati throughout Italy were slain by the local Romans.” Naturally, then, some of those barbarian soldiers joined Alaric, and Rome could offer hardly any resistance to Alaric. I’m not sure whether much is known about this “thoroughly co-ordinated coup d’état organized by Stilicho’s political opponents,” but one wonders, especially given this ethnic cleansing aspect… might it have been planned and carried out by nasty Roman nativists, the 5th-century counterparts of Tom Tancredo and Russell Pearce. In short, it looks like Rome fell because nativist know-nothings murdered a talented immigrant general and his immigrant troops, who were doing the jobs Romans wouldn’t do, namely, defend Rome.

However, I want to focus on something different. Continue reading “America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”” »

Immigration and Egalitarianism

Ours is an egalitarian age. Well, in theory. Well, in very bad faith. That occurred to me during a debate with Rachel Lu, my sister, a philosopher, about “classical education” (a new, niche movement in education: don’t ask me about it, I don’t really know, but see here), remarked that “the classical education is unapologetic about claiming that certain places and times in history have been particularly influential, and that some have been more successful than others at fostering human excellence.” Now, this statement is so obvious that it was odd that it was made at all, let alone “unapologetically.” It’s as if someone were to leap up on a table and shout, “I may be hated, I may be denounced for it, but I shall continue boldly and fearlessly to proclaim against the testimony of the entire world that a dog is not the same animal as a cat.”

It occurred to me afterwards, however, that there may really be a certain prevailing mentality in our times that would make this trivial truism strike some people as surprising, novel, and provocative. It could perhaps be called moral relativism but I’ll call it egalitarianism because I want to connect it with a larger system of ideas and attitudes which I think explains it and gives it its force. The sources of this idea includes Jefferson’s dictum in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the political fact that modern democracies practice the rule of “one person, one vote,” which suggests, even if it by no means logically implies, that we have made a collective judgment that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. I seem to recall (though it was years since I read it) Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the word “democracy” was used to mean social egalitarianism as much as, or more than, elections, and that he made certain claims about democracy and dictatorship that would seem nonsensical today. For example, if I were to suggest that democratic countries tend to be ruled by dictators because only in aristocratic countries is the wealth and influence of civil society concentrated in few enough hands that resistance to the usurpations of a tyrant can be coordinated, the claim would seem not so much historically questionable as mere nonsense. Today, a dictatorship cannot be democratic, by definition. Democracy just means that the government’s power is limited, by elections if nothing else, by freedoms of speech, press, and association if elections are to be free and fair as genuine democracy requires, and usually by division of powers between the legislature and judiciary, and by constitutions, etc. It might be, of course, that socially egalitarian countries tend to be dictatorships: possibly the Soviet bloc countries are an example. My point here, however, is simply to distinguish democracy from egalitarianism, on the one hand, but to point out that there is at least a suggestive connection between the two. A person might conclude that since they get one vote, just like the wealthy and famous and high-born and learned, so their opinions must be just as worthy of a hearing, their tastes just as creditable, even, perhaps, their beliefs just as true, as anyone else’s. And if one tries to extend this egalitarian ethos to the interpretation of history, one might conclude that every person in history is equally important, or, if one is a very sloppy thinker, even that every culture is equally valuable. One might even get to moral relativism this way, by thinking no one has a right to consider their morals “better” than anyone else’s, but I’ll put that to one side, because moral relativism in the crude form which this suggests is self-evidently absurd (it implies that a remorseless killer, if he is really remorseless, has done nothing wrong), and while I think there are more sophisticated forms of moral relativism, I don’t know enough about them to comment.

Egalitarianism seems to be a rather pervasive norm in contemporary moral philosophy and political discourse. In fact, it may be easier to approach the idea abstractly than at a more practical level. Thus, consider the meta-ethics (by “meta-ethics” I mean notions of what lies behind ethics, abstract ideas about what makes right and wrong from which particular rules can be derived) of Rawls. Rawls would place us behind a “veil of ignorance” what our place will be in the world, and have us decide from there– freed from any bias due to self-interest– what kind of society we want. He goes on to advocate the “difference principle,” that we should maximize the welfare of the least well-off, which is prima facie stupid since it assumes, surely wrongly, that people are infinitely risk-averse, but never mind that: the point here is that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” setup is egalitarian, it puts everyone in the same position. We can distinguish Rawls from Bentham in that, since Bentham wanted to maximize “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” or as an economist would prefer to put it, “total utility” (though the concept of “total utility” is not robust because utility functions derived from revealed preference have only ordinal, not cardinal values, and are not interpersonally comparable… but never mind), Bentham would presumably have embraced the veil of ignorance concept but rejected the difference principle. But a Benthamite revision of Rawls would be egalitarian too. It would put less emphasis on equality of outcomes, preferring to raise the average, but in calculating that average, every individual would be given equal weight. If a king were to say, “Yeah, the way I rule is bad for my subjects, but it’s good for me, and I value my happiness most,” Bentham would reject the argument contemptuously. Kant’s “categorical imperative” is egalitarian too: he says one should live by maxims one wills to be universal, i.e., apply the same rules to yourself that you would impose on others, i.e., treat everyone the same. And the political spectrum in the United States tends to range from conservatives who stress equality of opportunity to liberals who stress equality of condition. Everyone is egalitarian.

Now, prima facie this pervasive egalitarianism should favor open borders. De facto, I think it has the opposite effect. Continue reading “Immigration and Egalitarianism” »

Metics in Ancient Greece

Did ancient Greece have open borders? Yes, I think, in the limited sense that there was no passport regime. But Wikipedia’s article on “Metic,” the ancient Greek word for “resident alien,” suggests that the link between democracy and immigration restrictions goes back to the very beginning. Still, Athens seems to have had a regime closer to open borders in most respects– not all: no birthright citizenship– than the contemporary United States, and it set several precedents, such as the metic poll tax, which might be useful. In view of the prestige of democratic Athens as the world’s first democracy, I would suggest that the term “metic” could be introduced for legal purposes to refer to immigrants invited by citizens and admitted on an otherwise non-discretionary basis, subject to a special poll tax.

The bulk of this article pertains to Athens in the 5th and 4th centuries BC during the Athenian democracy, which encouraged foreigners to settle in Athens, on account of the part which they took in trade, industry, education, and of which period we have primary sources about the specific legal status of a Metic, as reported by the Attic orators. However, the history of foreign migration to Athens begins earlier with Solon, who is said to have offered Athenian citizenship[2][3] to foreigners who would relocate to his city to practice a craft; indeed, in the period of Solon, Attic pottery flourished. In other Greek cities (poleis), foreign residents were few, with the exception of cosmopolitan Corinth, of which however we do not know their legal status. In Sparta and Crete, as a general rule with few exceptions, foreigners were not allowed to stay (Xenelasia). There are also reported immigrants to the court of tyrants and kings in Thessaly, Syracuse and Macedon, whose status is decided by the ruler. So for a number of reasons the legal term metic should be associated with Classical Athens. At Athens, the largest city in the Greek world at the time, they amounted to roughly half the free population. The status applied to two main groups of people—immigrants and former slaves. As slaves were almost always of foreign origin they can be thought of as involuntary immigrants, drawn almost exclusively from non-Greek speaking areas, while free metics were usually of Greek origin. Mostly they came from mainland Greece rather than the remote parts of the Greek world.

Note well: half the free population of Athens were metics. So in that sense 5th-century Athens was far more open than America today or at any time in its history. Of course, Athens was a city-state and the metics were mainly other Greeks, so the comparison isn’t entirely apt. On the other hand, Athens was an independent state, so in that sense it is comparable to half the free population resident in America being foreigners. Continue reading “Metics in Ancient Greece” »