Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now

The subject of 19th-century immigration almost inevitably comes up in open borders debates. Open borders advocates see a lot to desire and emulate in the 19th century approach to immigration — namely:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The 19th-century-related counter-example I’ve seen here from restrictionists is “Where are the Native Americans/other aboriginal peoples of the world now?” A related, more specific, example is how Mexico’s open borders allowed whites from America and Europe to enter their state of Texas, and eventually secede altogether from the country. These aren’t very convincing examples for many reasons, but the biggest one I can think of is that 19th-century contemporaries, by and large, took cognisance of these problems, and nevertheless agreed that keeping borders open remained the just, humane thing to do.

The history of immigration restrictions is near-inextricable from the history of racism. It holds true in the US; in Australia; in the UK; even in Malaysia. Most countries which kicked off the rush to close their open borders did so to keep out the races they didn’t want to interact with; in most cases, they wanted to keep out people like my great-grandfather, who emigrated from China to Malaysia some time around the 1890s. Even so, the UK maintained virtual open borders with most of the Commonwealth until the mid-20th century, when they decided they were admitting too many blacks for their liking.

Generally speaking, we no longer share the racial prejudices of our ancestors. If one excludes racial prejudice as justification for immigration restrictions, how do we justify the immigration status quo? The other reason cited for anti-immigrant policies when they were established was that immigrants stole jobs from natives. But both economic theory and empirical research demonstrate that if such effects exist at all, they are tiny (the worst case empirically-demonstrated scenario I’ve seen is George Borjas’s finding of a ~4.8% reduction in earnings for select classes of workers in the US). What keeps us from going back to the immigration policies of the 19th century, if not racial prejudice and ignorance?

Restrictionists often use the alien invasion metaphor to describe immigration, comparing immigration with the vile extermination and oppression of the aboriginal peoples native to countries all over the world. To say the entry of “foreigners” to the US, Brazil, Australia, etc. has been unfortunate for the native aboriginal peoples is a great understatement. But what marked the entry of foreigners to these countries in the centuries leading up to the 19th century? An immense government conspiracy to colonise these places, which largely lacked any significant government to resist the foreign conspirators — and near-global acceptance of governments’ moral rights to implement such conspiracies.

Is there anywhere in the world today where such conditions exist? If there is such a place, it quite clearly isn’t any of the OECD countries, where strong governments exist, and it is accepted that any government conspiracy to colonise another country would constitute an act of war. Maybe some failed states like Somalia would be ripe for falling prey to such a conspiracy, but for some reason, these failed states don’t seem very desirable to those who might otherwise conspire to establish a new colony.

The case of Texas in the 19th century is very interesting, and it meets all the criteria I’ve outlined: the Mexican government was far too weak, politically and fiscally, to exert control over its far-flung territories (it’s a minor miracle not more Mexican states seceded). There was a government conspiracy to subsidise immigration to Texas and introduce foreigners to that place — and this conspiracy was run by none other than the Mexican government. Mexico did not merely allow anyone to cross its borders: it allowed anyone who wanted to to just settle in its territory and claim land. The authorities over Texas specifically allowed anyone to claim one square league (4,438 acres) of irrigable land. The Mexican government specifically authorised Stephen Austin’s colony in Texas, granted him more land for his settlers, and made him a virtual dictator over the colony there, allowing him to import the English common law and permit slavery.

Texas later revolted after the political turmoil in Mexico led to the establishment of a government which rejected federalism altogether. Besides the immense 19th-century issue of slavery, Texas had been governed as part of another Mexican state; they had long agitated for a state of their own in Mexico. The centralist Santa Anna government finally rejected these demands, triggering Austin’s decision to call for secession, and thus the Texan Revolution. The same centralist policies simultaneously triggered the secession and creation of the Republic of Yucatan, the Republica del Rio Grande, and an independent Tabasco.

If there are any lessons in the history of Texas for modern Americans fearful of greater immigration, I fail to see them. Who is asking for the US government to give new immigrants 4,000 acres of land, or the pecuniary equivalent? Who is asking to give immigrants legal power to establish themselves as separate jurisdictions? Beyond allowing communities to arbitrate family disputes via their traditional laws (a right granted to Muslims in some countries — but one which indigenous communities, and just about anyone seeking arbitration of a family dispute, also take advantage of), there is no conceivable way in which the situation of Texas could happen to a modern country.

The story of open borders in the 19th century is one of moral justice and economic prosperity. Nothing about open borders requires or entails colonisation, subjugation, or oppression. The open borders of the 19th century served as one of humanity’s greatest weapons against these terrible crimes — allowing people to escape poverty and oppression is a condition of both moral and economic justice. There is ample economic evidence showing how immigration in the 19th century created economic prosperity, but I don’t really need to see it to know it; all I need to do is think of my ancestors.

In the 19th century, restrictionism may not have been ascendant, but it was alive and well — and right-thinking men and women fought it, knowing the folly of drawing restrictionist lessons from the plight of Native Americans or the story of Texas. The Know-Nothings famously attempted to close US borders in the 1850s, fearing the “political externalities” of allowing foreign “Papists” to enter the country and purportedly conspire against their Protestant society. The Know-Nothings fortunately died out, extinguished by the ascendance of the Republican Party, which in its 1864 platform proudly declared what open borders advocates echo today:

8. Resolved, That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, should be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy.

But before that, Abraham Lincoln in 1855 had this to say:

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

To Abe Lincoln, all men were created equal, with certain inalienable rights. In his day, these rights were granted to foreigners but largely denied to blacks. Lincoln died so that blacks could have these rights. Today, the US and the rest of civilisation have regressed: they proclaim “all men are created equal, except foreigners.” Every day that we stand by and allow our governments to deport and refuse entry to other humans for no crime worse than being born a foreigner, we desecrate the memory of Abraham Lincoln and the freedoms he died for. If Abe Lincoln were alive today, he would be a Russian immigrant, taking despotism pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


6 thoughts on “Abe Lincoln would be a Russian now”

  1. Thanks John, I appreciate your eloquence. I would stop you here, however:

    “But both economic theory and empirical research demonstrate that if such effects exist at all, they are tiny (the worst case empirically-demonstrated scenario I’ve seen is George Borjas’s finding of a ~4.8% reduction in earnings for select classes of workers in the US).”

    But this is the harm that some natives suffer from immigration in a situation where immigration is far less than it would be under open borders. Even if the harms that immigrant-competing workers suffer now are pretty slight, they might be very large if we let in many tens of millions more immigrants. That’s why I advocate migration taxes. I’m rather conservative, and I want to adopt Pareto-improving policies as much as possible. It’s a little unfair, to be sure, but much better than the current system, and it could prevent economic harm to natives.

    1. Thanks Nathan. I think we agree on what’s probably the best achievable policy reform for now (immigration tariffs), but I am inclined to disagree with your moral preference for Pareto-improving policies here, as well as your characterisation of them as merely “a little unfair”. I think immigration tariffs would be a massive improvement, but remain a distant second-best policy (from a moral standpoint) to true open borders. I used to consider immigration tariffs the best policy here, but have been convinced by the economic evidence that I was placing far too much weight on natives’ welfare, and far too little on migrants’ welfare. (This change in my beliefs is something I plan to write more on, so I won’t elaborate too much on it here.)

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