Immigration, identity, nationality, citizenship, and democracy

A subtle danger for open borders advocates is that we may devote too much attention to arguments from eloquent restrictionists who, however, are themselves well outside the mainstream. Restrictionists like Steve Sailer at least have arguments that can be answered. But those arguments tend to have a “hard right” flavor that would probably alienate most Americans, who, however, are not open borders supporters, either. Unlike the restrictionist hard right, the mainstream is largely destitute of arguments, dealing rather in arbitrary and groundless moral assertions, e.g., “we have to control our borders,” or in wildly false claims of fact, e.g., “all we’re asking is that they put forth some effort and come in legally.” The great fact that we live in a world apartheid regime where most people are excluded from birth from the United States and generally from the most prosperous countries and because of this are subject to far more poverty, violence, and political tyranny than the favored few, is not something that the mainstream has come to grips with and cold-bloodedly endorsed. It is something that the mainstream is largely ignorant of. They suspect; they hear rumors; they could inquire further and neglect to do so; but the moral test still largely lies in wait for them. The main task of an open borders advocate, then, is less to answer a body of coherent arguments, than to wander in a kind of shadowland of ignorance and be prepared to counter all manner of naive claims that might jump out of the darkness. What people will ultimately say when they’ve realized the nature of the world apartheid regime we’re living in is hard to predict. They might say anything or nothing. They might become instant, skin-deep converts to open borders, only to flip as soon as the word “illegal immigrant” is mentioned, or the likelihood that some natives would see their wages fall. Or they might make any of the arguments in the drop-down menus at this site, or others… although come to think of it, the background articles at this site do seem to do a pretty good job of outlining the major themes in the inarticulate mainstream resistance to open borders. Anyway, it’s probably more important to answer this mainstream resistance than to duel with Steve Sailer and other articulate restrictionists who, however, are almost as far outside the mainstream as open borders advocates themselves are.

Now, my sense is that the focal point of mainstream resistance to open borders, which prevents people from seeing the issues clearly in the first place, and shapes their reactions when they have understood it, lies, somehow, in the intersection between the five concepts mentioned in the title of this post: immigration, identity, nationality, citizenship, and democracy. Who are we? to begin with, as the title of Samuel Huntington’s book asks. If people immigrate, who are they? Are immigrants them or us? What nationality is an immigrant? What about citizenship? On what basis can and/or should citizenship be granted or withheld? Do “we”– whatever that means– have the right to grant or withhold citizenship as we see fit, or are there some principles of justice at stake here, constraining what we can do? If there are principles, what are they? If citizenship can be withheld from other people, can it not be withheld… from (thinks the ordinary person) me? Why not? What we’re up against is not so much a set of convictions as a set of confusions. As long as everyone you deal with is a citizen and a national and a resident, etc., of one’s own country, as long as we’re all “the same,” all these questions don’t arise. That’s a nice, secure feeling. Immigrants cast doubt on all the usual categories.

Democracy is relevant here because it gives all these questions particular urgency. As I always say, democracy is a good form of government because the people who live under the laws have a say in what they are, and immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law because the set of people who are on the receiving end of them is the exact inverse of the set of people who have a say in making them. This argument will probably strike anyone but a dogmatic restrictionist as plausible, but it is problematic because the suggestion that foreigners ought to be given votes does not lend itself to any obvious structural realization. Should the entire human race get to vote in American elections inasmuch as they touch on foreign and immigration policy? How would that work exactly? “One person, one vote,” runs the democratic slogan, but we don’t actually mean that every single person gets one vote. Children and felons aside, we mean that every single… well, citizen… or maybe, national… gets to vote. In short, every one of us? But again, who are “we?” Open borders advocates can respond to the electing a new people argument by saying: Let them in, but don’t automatically let them vote. But where does that leave “one man, one vote?” Where does that leave democracy? Immigrants are a threat partly in the same way that the returning heir of a deposed dynasty is a threat: he may not be doing any harm for the time being, but his mere presence is a challenge to the reigning principles of legitimacy.

Ideas about nationality and citizenship vary greatly around the world. This was brought home to me during my travels in the Caucasus, where I was often asked Kto ty po natsionalnosti?— “What nationality are you?” I would say Amerikanets, “American,” but they would object, Net, eto — grazhdanstvo. Kto ty po natsionalnosti? “No, that’s a citizenship. What nationality are you?” For people in the Caucasus, nationality vs. citizenship is a fundamental distinction. States and empires have come and gone, making and bestowing and revoking and altering various citizenships; and people move about, too; but Azeris, Georgians, Ossetians, Armenians, Lezgins, Russians, Chechens, Avars, Kabardins, Ingush, and so forth remain. You can’t become an Azeri; you’re born one, or not; at any rate, that’s the local ideology. It’s not true. A colleague of mine had an Armenian name but was Azeri and Russian by blood. In the chaos of the revolution, her grandfather had simply put an Armenian aristocratic suffix on his name because he liked it, as if I were to call myself Nathan O’Smith because I like the Irish, or Nathan von Smith from pretensions to be a Germanic philosopher descended from some castle-owning baron. Of course, I couldn’t get away with that here, but literate history is not very deep in the Caucasus, and many personal and place names have been Russified, though Russian rule dates no earlier than the 18th and 19th centuries. But the local ideology assigns people to “national” categories by birth, and treats citizenship as a political superficiality overlaid on the ancient facts of nationality. Since there are no ancient demographic facts (not even pretended ones) in America (Amerindians aside), people in the Caucasus don’t accept “American” as a nationality. I insisted: Amerikanets. I have some English and Norwegian roots, of which I know little and care less. They are not the most fundamental fact about who I am. They are not, to an American, really important. The point, though, is not that the American view of nationality and citizenship is better or worse than that of the Caucasus, but simply that concepts of personal and collective identity vary greatly, both in the world today and over the course of history. The former Soviet Union is the region that I know best, other than the US, but co-blogger Grieve Chelwa discusses the artificiality of borders in Africa, and my impression is that in the Middle East, tribal identities on the one hand and pan-Arab and even pan-Islamic identities are more important than “national” ones, while in Latin America solidarity within countries is impeded by racial divisions and class stratification and nationality is somewhat eclipsed by regional identity among the Catholic Spanish speakers ranged from the Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande. The US, parts of western Europe, and a few East Asian countries, where nationality = citizenship supplies a powerful source of identity that unites polities, are exceptional.

Why does identity matter? Voter status aside, is it– to broaden a question recently raised by co-blogger Sebastian Nickel– morally relevant? Before answering that, what kinds of identity are there? We classify human beings in many ways: nationality, citizenship, class, caste, religion, gender, family, tribe, civilization, race, education, profession, place of employment, place of residence, political party, membership in clubs and societies and organizations, honors and achievements, and no doubt many others. Answers to the question “Who are you?” might identify a person in any number of ways, but virtually always they will help to define and distinguish a person while also establishing their membership in one group or another. “I am a Christian” or “I am a Communist” establishes one as a member of a broad community of believers. “I am an American” defines a nationality and a citizenship; “I am an Azeri” establishes a nationality but not a citizenship, for there are Azeri citizens of Russia and Georgia as well. One might also say, “I am a parishioner of Holy Trinity parish,” or “I am a member of the American Economic Association,” or “I am a sculptor,” or “I am Joseph’s brother-in-law.” People have, not one identity, e.g., American, but many identities, overlapping and interacting in complex ways, sometimes in tension, sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes compatible but not particularly relevant. One can be an economist and a Republican or an economist and a Democrat: both combinations are entirely feasible, though a Republican economist is probably a somewhat different kind of economist (more free-marketeer) than a Democratic economist, as a Lutheran plumber is probably not different from a Presbyterian plumber.

Now, it’s not too hard to see why some of these kinds of identity are morally relevant. Religious identity, for example, is morally relevant because believers in various religions feel morally bound to abide by the various rules of those religion (though of course they don’t always live up to this), and also because religious rituals tend to regulate participation according to religious status. It would be immoral for a non-Catholic to commune in a Catholic church, for example, because at least from the Catholic point of view this is sacrilege, and there should always be a presumption against doing things that are gravely offensive to others. Professional identity is morally relevant, because professional skills qualify one to do things that non-professionals can’t do safely (or even legally). It would be immoral for a non-pilot to fly a commercial airplane, or for a non-doctor to conduct a surgery. Family identity is morally relevant: it is all right for a woman to sleep with her own husband, but not to seduce another woman’s husband; it is all right for a man to tell his own children what to do and punish them for disobedience, but not (usually) for him to order around, or punish, other people’s children.

Let me try some more challenging suggestions. Might it be morally unacceptable for a philosopher to accept a traditional prejudice for which he could discover no arguments in favor, yet at the same time, morally acceptable for a laymen (non-philosopher) to accept the same traditional prejudice? The layman doesn’t have the time or talent to reason things out for himself with any kind of depth or thoroughness, so the best he can do is largely to believe what he’s told. But the philosopher is capable of thinking things through, of doubting, of demanding, seeking and appraising evidence, and of exploring alternatives, so for him, to accept a traditional prejudice that critical reasoning tends to challenge or overturn, would be culpable lazy-mindedness. Again, might it be acceptable for a peasant to run away in the face of danger, but unacceptable for a knight to do the same? In the knight, perhaps, but not in the peasant, there has been inculcated a certain ethos of valor which is both noble and useful, and society expects him to take risks and fight for what he thinks is right; but the peasant has never been taught such virtues, and what society tacitly asks of him is merely that he labor to support his family. How about this case: a certain Leader, not possessing any particular legal authority but full of wisdom and experience and commanding deference from many people thanks to his prestige and charisma, has ordered you and me to look after and protect each other. The Leader is a busy man and did not stay to hear our answer, and we only exchanged glances with each other, yet each of us expects the other to fulfill the Leader’s expectations. Has a kind of social contract been created, even without explicit consent, with some force to bind me to protect you in time of danger, and vice versa? Is such a thing possible?

From arguments like the above I would derive an argument that countries tend to be morally relevant, though I think virtually any parallelism between the “countries” of the contemporary world is without merit, and while countries are morally relevant, they are relevant in very different ways. For example, consider the issue of how the cultural legacy of mankind is to be preserved. We cannot all learn all there is to know about all cultures: that’s far too much to fit into any human being’s mind. But it is desirable that much of mankind’s cultural legacy be preserved. Not all of it: there is an opportunity cost to preserving cultural artifacts, and many, many cultural artifacts just aren’t worth preserving. But it probably is desirable that many people have read Shakespeare, and Hemingway, and Tolstoy; that many people are Bob Dylan fans or know how to square dance; that many people have thoroughly absorb the ethos of Dostoyevsky; that many people understand Kant and Hegel and the whole brilliant succession of German philosophers; and so forth. And it might be quite a wise division of labor for many people to give a priority to mastering the treasures of “their own” culture, for Germans to know something about Kant and Russians something about Dostoyevsky and Americans something about Dylan. Aside from being (probably) an efficient way to preserve mankind’s cultural legacy, this is also likely to give German, Russian, and American neighbors something to talk about with each other. And fellow nationals can help one another master the national curriculum. It is surely easier to find someone to introduce you to the genius of Dylan in America than it would be in Germany.

Again, in matters like disaster relief or national defense, mere informational and logistical considerations can do much of the work in establishing a principle that people should prioritize their own compatriots. Americans, it may plausibly be suggested, are better able to discern how much aid hurricane-hit New Orleans needs, and what kind and when, than Europeans are. When it comes to customs and manners, the best thing to do morally may often be to learn whatever customs and manners prevail locally and practice them, so as to ease communication and cooperation and hospitality. There are obvious advantages to having people who live near one another speak the same language, and this makes a certain degree of linguistic segregation efficient. It does not follow that non-English speakers can be excluded from America by force, but that linguistic homogeneity is a reasonable desideratum for societies is clear enough.

Yet in spite of all these arguments, I don’t think there is or ought to be a general answer to the question “What is nationality?” It means different things to different people, and all the things it means have their own histories and their own usefulness. The sovereign nation-state paradigm of politics which has been universalized since World War II attempts to organize the world on a national principle, treating this as a universal feature of human nature and human society, when it isn’t. This leads to all manner of awkwardness.

When it comes to citizenship, the famous dictum of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” is instructive by how quixotic and irrelevant to contemporary affairs it sounds. In the United States, citizenship is automatic and doesn’t demand anything of us. It can’t legitimately demand anything of us because it’s automatic. Conscription used to demand a real sacrifice of citizens, which was rather unjust, since citizens hadn’t agreed to be citizens. But at least, in the time of conscription, it was not bogus to speak of the duties of citizenship. Well, there is jury duty, too. And taxes, only they are not a duty associated with citizenship, for people with low enough incomes need not pay them, while resident foreigners who are earning wages do have to pay them. Citizens do not have to vote, but “good citizenship” is nonetheless a plausible explanation of why so many people do vote, and devote considerable effort to following politics in order to decide whom to vote for. Volunteering for the military might be another way to practice “good citizenship,” but only a small part of the population does that. If citizenship involved more duties to go with the privileges, one could argue that immigrants be allowed to perform the duties and thereby earn the privileges of citizenship.

I argued earlier that there are many kinds of identity. Let me add that it is quite false to suppose that there is some natural or necessary hierarchy among these kinds of identity, such that national identity is somehow the most important or basic or fundamental. One person might be an American first, Christian second; another might regard Christianity as his only real ultimate loyalty and being an American a mere practical asset; a third might consider himself a sociologist first and foremost and at home only in the international community of sociologists. I believe that the primacy which our own age attaches to nationality and citizenship vis-a-vis other forms of identity is anomalous and problematic. We may need to give freedom of association more respect, and allow other forms of identity to flourish, while at the same time we need to be more generous in recognizing and defending the rights simply of human beings as such. The trouble is that one of the functions of identity is to provide a moral structure for society, and people are justifiably nervous that if we deny the moral relevance of countries, we’ll end up with a society deficient in structure, excessively fluid and chaotic. There are many ways to answer the questions Who am I? and Who are we? but there probably is some danger that people will ultimately be left saying, “I don’t know,” or with answers so haphazard, subjective, and changeable as to be almost empty. Such, at any rate, is my attempt to diagnose the vague fears of the mainstream about open borders.