All posts by Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don't Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders. See also: Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders All blog posts by Nathan Smith

A Resident’s Bill of Rights: Fixing Immigration While Protecting Communities

My fundamental convictions have not changed: I support open borders. And yet one can’t tilt at windmills too long without feeling a sense of futility and even foolishness. We may have had an impact. We have been noticed in high places, a little. But of course there is no prospect of open borders being adopted as official policy in any of the world’s developed countries anytime soon. Meanwhile, there is room for reasonable hope that immigration policy will move quite a ways in the right direction, and for reasonable fear that it will move far in the wrong direction, in the coming years, and it’s far from clear that advocating open borders is the best way to help accomplish the former, or avoid the latter. To advocate open borders, assuming, as seems likely, that that aim cannot be achieved for decades at least, can only help indirectly, e.g., by expanding the “Overton window,” and might plausibly hurt, by provoking a restrictionist reaction against an open-borders bogeyman. For those idealists who really want to know what justice demands, we’ve explained that. I’d be happy to explain it again, debate it, whatever. But the value of refining the case for open borders still further seems doubtful until there’s evidence that people exist who really want to do the right thing, have read what has been argued so far, and are still unconvinced. My impression is that among people with a thorough exposure to the public case for open borders, as it has been made here and elsewhere, the insufficiency of the arguments offered is not a very important factor in any failure to persuade. Some of the unconvinced just aren’t very smart, while more aren’t good enough to do the right thing when they start to see it, so they bluster and stonewall and scoff.

So in this post, I’m going to attempt something a bit different, involving an unaccustomed degree of compromise. I’m going to lay out a policy platform that, while falling well short of open borders, lies, I think, at the radical end of what might actually find a coalition to carry it through to success in the United States in the near future. It doesn’t institute open borders. If passed, deportations would still occur, and billions who would benefit from immigrating would be excluded from the territory of the United States permanently from birth. Indeed, the centerpiece of this proposed policy, the Residents’ Bill of Rights, wouldn’t increase at all the number of people enjoying a definite legal right of residence, much less a path to citizenship. But it would ensure that all those residing in the United States would be treated a little more justly. It would make it harder to backslide into a harsh enforcement regime or a reduction of immigrant numbers. It would give the foreign born, however they got there, a certain dignity and a certain security. It would cause many acts of wickedness, many violations of fundamental human rights, to cease. It would give conscientious Americans the right to be substantially less ashamed of the way their government treats immigrants. At the same time, by empowering immigration skeptics to act locally instead of nationally, it would appease some of their more legitimate fears. It would not institute open borders, but I believe it would help to prepare the way.

The coalition I’m envisioning, to whom I think this might appeal and who might carry it through, would include most liberal Democrats, especially those of a commercial and globalist stripe, and many Christian and/or libertarian NeverTrumpers like myself, who in some sense identify, even rather strongly, with conservatives and the GOP, though the Trump era has left us politically homeless. My starting point in designing it is the extreme popularity of the never-passed DREAM Act. The Dreamers, born abroad but raised in America and having no other home, and clearly enjoying a right to stay in America if right and wrong mean anything at all, have become the archetypal immigrants threatened with deportation. But of course, the DREAM Act is a one-time fix. A decade after its passage, unless perfect enforcement magically appears, there would be more similarly situated individuals, born abroad but raised in America and knowing no other home, the deportation of whom should be intolerable to anyone who has a ghost of a conscience. So suppose the Democrats win a surprise supermajority in November 2018 on a pro-DREAM Act platform, and want to use their mandate, not just for a one-time fix, but for a permanent correction of the bad laws that have created the sad plight of the Dreamers, while meanwhile boosting the economy. What might they do?

I would propose the following. It might be called “the Human Rights and Growth Act.”

First, remove the cap on H1-Bs. So far, so obvious. Skilled workers contribute to the competitiveness of US-based companies, don’t compete for jobs with the most struggling Americans, and aren’t a fiscal drain. An arbitrary cap makes no sense. This doesn’t particularly help now or future Dreamers, but it’s a good way to signal an end to Trumpism and the scapegoating of immigrants even at the cost of sabotaging the economy. All immigrants could sleep a little better feeling that we’re making some attempt to make immigration policy rational.

Second, a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, because that’s what the Dreamers have been led to expect, and what the public wants, and it’s the surest way to protect them from deportation, which some unworthy Americans still darkly desire for them. Yet it raises as many problems as it solves. Dreamers are a minority of the undocumented immigrant population. The Dreamer population must be defined somehow. There must be lines drawn, rather arbitrarily, defining who’s in and who’s out. Good Dreamers, turned citizens, will seek to protect their parents from deportation, as they should. And the more politicians defend the fundamental justice of turning the Dreamers into citizens, the more they’ll fuel the case for the next generation of Dreamers to get their citizenship, too. Anticipating this, more undocumented immigrants will come, slipping through the Rio Grande or the Gulf of Mexico, or coming from China in shipping containers, and that’s great, but what happens next? Within a few years of the great moral triumph of the DREAM Act, US officials will again find themselves tasked with executing orders to deport people raised in the U.S. from childhood, which everyone now knows, thanks to the DREAM Act debate, is morally wrong. Who’ll be the last to get deported for a mistake?

So this brings me to the third plank of my proposal, the most original and doubtless the heaviest political lift. Call it a Residents’ Bill of Rights. This gets to the heart of the ethical and constitutional crisis that the Dreamers have brought to a head. I’ll first try to frame it in quasi-legislative language, then explain my rationale somewhat, and how I would expect its implementation in law and society to play out.

Residents’ Bill of Rights

  1. No resident of the United States, defined as anyone living and making their home on US territory, regardless of their legal status, being over 25 years of age, not having been convicted of a violent or property crime and not constituting a demonstrable threat to the public safety, shall be deported to a country where they lack a substantial history of residence. A substantial history of residence shall be defined as three or more years living in a country at an age of 16 years or more, within the twenty years previous to the date of the proposed deportation. Citizenship of a foreign country shall be presumptive evidence of a substantial history of residence there, but if a potential deportee denies that they have a substantial history of residence in their country of citizenship, they shall be given due opportunity to prove otherwise.
  2. No resident of the United States living in close proximity, defined as 50 miles or less, to a close relative, defined as a spouse, parent, child, or sibling, not having been convicted of a violent or property crime and not constituting a demonstrable threat to the public safety, shall be forcibly separated from this family member through deportation without this family member’s consent, regardless of whether the family member is a citizen or legal resident of the United States.
  3. No person shall be deported, or otherwise required by the laws of the United States to go, to a country where they face a serious threat of violence on account of their religion due to the policies of the government of that country.
  4. States and municipal communities shall enjoy a right to offer sanctuary to residents of the United States otherwise legally vulnerable to deportation. No person, therefore, shall be deported without the explicit consent of all state and local governments enjoying jurisdiction at the point where the person was apprehended for deportation.
  5. No citizen of the United States shall be deprived of his or her livelihood through the deportation of a foreigner without his or her consent, unless at least two years of advance notice are provided. If a deportation process is initiated, citizens of the United States whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by the deportation shall have four months in which to object, and having done so, four further months in which to prove that their power to earn a livelihood is grievously injured by the proposed deportation. If they prove this successfully, the deportation order shall be suspended for two years subsequent to that determination.
  6. No city, town, village, or other legally constituted municipal community, enjoying a coherent democratic government and continuously settled geography, as defined under state law, shall be required to permit the new entry of residents who are not US citizens. Municipal communities shall be empowered to regulate residency so as to confirm proof of citizenship, so as to exclude non-citizens in general or in particular, before authorizing the purchase or lease of real estate. This right shall not be construed to include the right to expel non-citizens who have already established residency by means that were legal at the time, or to exclude the close family members, defined as spouses, siblings, parents, and children, of legal residents, provided they live in the same dwelling as those residents.
  7. National origin shall be a permissible basis for citizens, companies, religious and educational institutions, private voluntary organizations of all sorts, and state, local, and federal governmental entities to decide whom to hire and at what wages, whom to fire or lay off and for what causes, whom to lease or sell real estate and movable goods to and at what prices and rents, and whom to provide services to and at what price, provided that such discrimination is not applied to the direct disadvantage of citizens of the United States.
  8. National origin shall be a permissible basis for state and local governments to decide how much tax is owed by a person, provided that no citizen of the United States is required to pay more tax than a similarly situated non-citizen would be.
  9. No state or municipal community shall be required to finance or administer welfare or public assistance to residents who lack US citizenship. Instead, they may, if they choose, require beneficiaries to provide proof of citizenship before assistance is provided. They may also provide welfare and public assistance to some non-citizens, on the basis of nationality, education, profession, language, length of residency, or any other criterion they shall see fit to apply, and not to others.
  10. All residents of the United States shall enjoy the right to work for a single willing employer for up to $600 of earnings in a calendar year without providing documentation, and for up to $30,000 if the employer pays a tax equal to one-third of the worker’s wages to the federal government, plus any state and local taxes that may be levied on this anonymous income. Citizens of the United States shall be exempt from reporting anonymously earned income for purposes of taxation or benefit eligibility determination, but non-citizens shall be required to report such income and pay taxes as required by any applicable federal, state, and local income tax codes.

Obviously, the “bill of rights” language echoes, and the hope is that the Residents’ Bill of Rights could borrow the popularity of, the original Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.

The first five provisions curtail the right of deportation, and would introduce an element of human rights and due process into the immigration enforcement regime which is desperately deficient today. They would recognize that there are large classes of persons resident on US territory whom the government cannot justly remove, and give these persons legal protection. Notably, they don’t quite actually, positively, grant anyone a right to reside in the United States, much less a path to citizenship. But by greatly reducing the fear of deportation in which undocumented immigrants live, they could be expected to grow the stock of immigrants in the United States. More would overstay visas or slip through the border if immigration enforcement were less scary, and new undocumented immigration would be offset by fewer deportations. Provision (10) would also be an important incentive to immigrate, for people to whom $30,000 per year in legal, anonymous income might be very appealing.

Provisions (6)-(9) would, I expect, feel like “concessions” to many supporters of immigration. But they do something important, namely, empower individuals, companies, and communities to protect themselves against the consequences of mass immigration, which I think will continue to be mainly good, but which it’s certainly not crazy to fear may be bad in some respects. For those who fear “forced integration” with immigrants due to the operation of anti-discrimination laws, provision (7) ensures that they can “hire American” if they want to. For those who fear that immigrants will be a fiscal drain, provisions (8) and (9) serve as strong protections at least at the state and local levels. Provision (6) is the most offensive to libertarian sensibilities. Yet it’s plausible that subtle externalities operate at the neighborhood level, and certainly, until the education system is comprehensively voucherized, most people will have good reason to worry about certain kinds of immigrant children lowering the quality of the schools. I argued in Principles of a Free Society that gated communities are just, provided that the community’s use of its streets involves activities that contribute  substantially to the flourishing of its members in ways that depend on the peculiar character of the community and its membership. In effect, provision (6) lets towns convert themselves into gated communities. I suspect most of them don’t really have a sufficiently rich and shared communal street life that it would really be just for them to exclude immigrants so as to protect it, but it would be far less, if at all, unjust for towns to practice such exclusion, than for the entire country to so so.

The Human Rights and Growth Act wouldn’t be easy to pass, of course. It gores sacred cows on both right and left. The right could see it, with good reason, as an assault on national sovereignty and “border security” (in the peculiar sense of that phrase, divorced from its legitimate meaning of securing the border against armed invasion, in which the nativist right likes to use it; note that in this sense the 19th-century United States never enjoyed or aspired to such “border security”). The left could see it as an insidiously undermining equal rights and the social safety net, and introducing into American society a deliberate element of apartheid and class stratification. Yet each side would also get something beyond its wildest dreams. Right-wing communitarians worried about immigrants’ impact on the culture could create homogeneous citizenist enclaves where immigrants are excluded, and see how they work. High-minded leftists could celebrate a drastic curtailment of deportation, and exercise their right to create sanctuaries through their local governments.

It’s a highly federalist proposal, which empowers state and local governments to make their own immigration policies, shifting in either direction. They could deny immigrants welfare or even exclude then from residing in certain cities and towns (a “right-wing” policy), or grant sanctuary and full welfare benefits (a “left-wing” policy), or they could protect them from deportation while denying them welfare (a “libertarian” policy). Finally, they could, and I think many soon would, maximize locals’ prosperity, by banning deportation and immigrant welfare and charging immigrants extra taxes to finance state and local government. House and apartment hunting for immigrants would become a bit more complex, since they’d need to look up residency restrictions in any community they considered moving to. For some, long commutes would be the price of living in America and working in a restrictionist town. But for most, this would be a small price to pay in order to enjoy a lot of new options for avoiding deportation.

Even if it didn’t pass now, the strange staying power of the DREAM Act in public discourse shows how even a failed law can become a legitimizing force and a standard of justice. I can imagine a generation waiting in growing indignation until the Human Rights and Growth Act finally gets passed. So, is it a good idea? Who’s with me?

A Time to Defend the Republic

The American election of 2016 is a bit like 9/11: a moment when it becomes suddenly clear what the #1 threat to American freedom will be for the foreseeable future. Then, it was radical Islamist terrorists. Today, it’s Trumpism. After 9/11, there was much discussion of the “root causes” of Islamist terrorism. Today, it’s urgent business to discern the root causes of Trumpism.

Immigration is an obvious candidate explanation. That anti-immigrant hostility is to the rise of Trump what anti-Semitism was to the rise of Hitler is obvious enough, but in both cases, the timing seems underdetermined. Why now? Or in Hitler’s case, why then? Anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant hostility had been around long before Hitler and Trump, always ugly, but they hadn’t previously triggered movements strong enough to overturn the political regime. And nothing in 1933, or 2016, seems to explain why these hatreds got suddenly worse.

Thus, in Germany, one might have expected that anti-Semitism would be declining, several decades after the legal emancipation of the Jews and when Christianity, a past spur to anti-Semitism, was losing influence to liberalism, socialism, Darwinism, and other modern currents of thought. Instead, the smoldering embers of anti-Semitism suddenly burst into flame. Likewise, in 2016, undocumented immigration has been on the wane for sometime, assimilation is proceeding apace, and the economy is picking up, to the point where we’re near full employment. Crime is near historic lows, and immigrants commit less crime per capita than natives. Why an immigrant-hating presidential candidate now? One must look to other root causes to understand the opportunities that Hitler and Trump exploited.

First, new media. The rise of totalitarianism in the early 20th century was fueled by radio, which destabilized public discourse, and gave leaders like Hitler and Stalin direct access to the masses, fueling unprecedented cults of personality. Radio didn’t produce totalitarianism in the Anglosphere, but it did produce dangerous demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though no totalitarian, had his radio “fireside chats” that made him the center of a personality cult of sorts, and he was one of America’s most collectivist presidents. Contemporary new media such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, have transformed public discourse, sometimes carrying it to new heights of thoughtfulness and lucidity, as exemplified by Bryan Caplan’s posts at EconLog, but sometimes descending to new depths of vitriol and propaganda, as exemplified by Donald Trump’s tweets. Anne Applebaum delivered one of the shrewdest judgments on Trump when she called him the spokesman for Internet trolls. The mainstream media and the party establishments have long functioned as elite gatekeepers in American politics, ensuring a certain minimum of civilized and democratic standards in our public discourse and politics, and muzzling the id of the masses. In 2015-2016, the media inadvertently helped Trump by giving him so much coverage, but they did so in ways that would in the past have guaranteed his swift political collapse, highlighting his outrageous statements and his obvious unfitness for office. But Twitter gave Trump direct access to his followers, and the Internet has allowed an angry underground to emerge, propagating its own myths and solidarities, so Trump couldn’t be deflated in the traditional way, and his ability to defy the traditional elite gatekeepers then added to his mystique. One of the shocking things about Nazism was that it arose in one of the world’s most educated, cultured, and industrialized countries, but that’s less surprising when you consider that its rise depended on new media, of which the most developed nations were the earliest adopters. Much of the postcolonial world experienced fascist-style regimes in the decades that followed. Let the rest of the world be warned, then, that new media has opened up new possibilities for vicious demagogy. Your Donald Trumps are probably on their way, if they haven’t appeared already. Let lovers of liberty be prepared to fight them.

The Iraq war is another root cause of Trump’s rise, since Trump used opposition to the Iraq war to upend the Republican establishment. This claim is orthogonal to support or opposition for the Iraq war. Critics of the Iraq war might blame the Bush administration for deceiving the country into waging an unjust and pointless war, thus shattering popular faith in the Republican party establishment and to a lesser extent the national government generally. My take is different. I think the Iraq war’s critics are to blame for systematically and deliberately failing to do justice to the Bush administration’s motives and the real merits of toppling a totalitarian regime, for undermining people’s attachment to liberty in general by devaluing Iraqi liberty, and for fostering a muddle-headed cynicism in the people, in their determination to delegitimize a high-minded and hopeful foreign policy venture that did a lot of good. Either way, the Iraq war of 2003 created a deep reservoir of cynicism and resentment in the American people, which Trump exploits. The Iraq war is to the rise of Trump something like what the Treaty of Versailles was to the rise of Hitler.

And of course, Trump’s supporters come largely from the white underclass described so potently in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, its jobs and earnings opportunities dwindling in the face of skill-biased technological change, its family structures ravaged by the Sexual Revolution, its morals and customs unraveling under the baneful influence of moral relativism. I think it’s here that the most important causal factor is at work, but this is also where my argument gets most speculative, most difficult to articulate and verify. But I’ll make a brief attempt.

It used to be truism that the health of republican government depended on the virtues of the citizenry, and especially the familial virtues. The Roman Republic was founded when Lucretia, the archetypal good housewife, having refused the seductions of a Tarquin price and then been raped by him anyway, confessed to her husband and immediately committed suicide, triggering a revolution that overthrew the wicked foreign king. Romans of the classical era, and generations of classically-educated modern Europeans, took it for granted that the happy home was the health of the state, and that the Roman republic flourished while Roman virtue lasted and decayed when luxury and lax morals ate away its virtue from within. This historical truism is no less wise for having been forgotten of late. Too many Americans weren’t raised right, and don’t know first-hand, let alone take for granted, the wholesome happiness of a good family, so they can’t feel proper horror at a man so inimical to it as Donald Trump. Here again contemporary America resembles Weimar Germany, which like America in recent years, was a sexually decadent place. The 1920s were the heyday of Sigmund Freud’s influence. The Sturmabteilung was thick with homosexuality. Adolf Hitler was the son of a sexual profligate, conceived out of wedlock, and seems to have had an affair with his niece Geli Raubal before he came to power. It’s hard to imagine people like Hitler and Trump coming to power in a culture where strong family values prevailed. They’d fail the respectability test and be immediately disqualified. Ultimately, is it the gnawing misery born in broken families that makes nations eager to sell their souls to demagogues? Do people who have never known familial happiness yearn for leaders who will tell them that their problems are someone else’s fault, and go after that someone in crude, angry ways, without being restrained by old-fashioned notions of law and due process and civility and all that? Are people who have never known the real, wholesome happiness of a good family, and who are left yearning for they know not what, fatally tempted to throw the dice on crackpot authoritarians who peddle vague utopian visions? 

I’ve waded into deep psychological waters here, and I’ll leave the question unanswered, as too difficult for me at the moment. But a related and more pedestrian point is that Obergefell probably helped Trump’s rise by putting a nail in the coffin of constitutionalism– if the Constitution means whatever the Supreme Court, following the latest fashions, says it does, then why should Trump or his supporters respect it?– and by marking a definitive triumph of moral relativism. If political power could be used to overturn traditional morality for the benefit of gays, the alt-right felt, why not for the benefit of racists as well?

If Iraq, new media, and the Sexual Revolution explain the rise of Trump, is immigration irrelevant? Not quite. What I think Trump and Hitler, along with countless other successful fomenters of ethnic hatred and violence that have stained the last century of human history, show, is that it’s pretty easy to stir up ordinary people– not all of them, but enough to fuel a powerful political movement– to hatred of a minority that was already disliked, just by talking a lot about them, and saying publicly the things that people had long taken a guilty pleasure in saying privately, but that good manners and decorum had mostly kept out of the public sphere. Ambient hatreds are the perennial low-hanging fruit of democratic politics, always available for a cynical politician with the right kind of media reach to stir up and ride to power. They provide a cheap kind of skin-deep solidarity that people discombobulated by technological and social change often find comforting. Long before Hitler’s Final Solution, a lazy-minded and casual anti-Semitism was widespread among European nationalists and intellectuals. Similarly, too many generally decent American politicians have said “we have to control our borders, but…” Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, to be sure, are less evil than Donald Trump, but by not saying clearly and resolutely that the law of the land is wrong, they were his accomplices. For existing laws, if not themselves challenged, denounced, and delegitimized, provide a baneful legitimacy to anti-immigrant hatred. One can demand a vast program of ethnic cleansing, millions of people seized and uprooted from their homes and sent away to lands they’ve scarcely seen, and say more or less truly that one only wants to see the law enforced.

“When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent,” Pastor Niemoller famously lamented. “I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent. I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out. I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent. I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.” Yes. Human rights are the proper basis for solidarity, and only when we all react to the violation of anyone’s human rights as if the offenses were against ourselves, can we expect, or do we deserve, for our own human rights to be respected. First they came for the immigrants. Year after year, hundreds of thousands have been deported, and many more lived in fear. Many otherwise decent, God-fearing Americans remained silent, because they were not immigrants. Now Donald Trump, carried to national prominence as an anti-immigration leader, along with his pet media, threaten all our liberties. Right now, they are going after Clinton, conducting the election as a kind of show trial, concocting phony scandals and threatening her with jail. If they win, who’s next? Bill Clinton? Ted Cruz? Ben Sasse? Democrats generally? Open borders advocates like myself? To Trump, anyone who opposes him at all is an idiot, a loser, a criminal. Expect the show trials to continue.

I’m voting for Hillary Clinton this year, which is something I never expected to do. I’ve always been a Republican. I’m pro-life, I was an ardent supporter of George W. Bush in 2004 and of John McCain in 2008, I’ve written a book against gay marriage, and I admire Mike Pence’s effort to protect religious freedom in Indiana. But that my conscience as a Christian and as a loyal American citizen prohibit me from voting for Trump was always as clear as day. Trump’s platform hardly matters. Donald Trump is a vicious sexual predator, whose business experience is a rampage of self-aggrandizement focused in sleazy, sinful industries like gambling, and fraught with fraud, failure, and bankruptcy, and such a man simply must never be given the kind of power that a US president has. To the extent that Trump has an ideology, what he essentially offers is an escape from freedom. His major stances– anti free trade, anti immigration, anti free speech, etc.– are consistently authoritarian. He’s an open admirer of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. His rhetorical style is distinctive among American politicians in that he doesn’t even pay lip service to liberty. The presidential oath, in such a man’s mouth, would be a travesty, and to vote for this would make me an accomplice in that travesty. The only question was whether to cast an effective vote against Trump, by voting for Clinton, or to abstain or vote for a third party. But after all the American republic has done for me, I think I owe it more than an abstention.

Trump’s signature campaign promise, to build a wall along the southern border (reasonable so far, even if I oppose it) and make Mexico pay for the wall (absolutely outrageous!) is chiefly interesting for the appalling light that it sheds on Trump’s own character, and on those of his core supporters. The idea of forcing a poor country like Mexico to pay for a wall meant to deprive their own citizens of economic opportunity, for the benefit of the far richer United States, is so stupid, mean, bullying, unchivalrous, and contrary to all norms of international law, that it beggars belief. It’s horrifying to think that there are Americans to whom such a thuggish, crazy proposal appeals. Trump’s appeal, indeed, is difficult for the educated to understand, but it seems to consist in a rebellion against what he calls “political correctness,” which in this case seems to mean civility, morality, the rule of law, and the dictates of conscience. I can’t shake the impression that the core Trump supporters are just sick and tired of being good. They are, as Hillary Clinton said, “a basket of deplorables”—in their political opinions, at least.

That qualification is important. I actually don’t think most of Trump’s core supporters are bad people, for the most part, only bad citizens. Most people’s political opinions, after all, are a very small part of their personalities. When we look back on former times, on slaveholding times, on colonialist times, on racist times, on times when national hatreds were universal and mandatory, when heretics were burned, or when wars of conquest were undertaken as casually as financial speculations are undertaken today, it’s easy to slip into the assumption that people of the past were monsters. But it’s possible for a person’s conscience to be numb to the wickedness of certain attitudes, beliefs, or social practices, even while he or she is quite high-minded and ethical in most of his or her personal dealings. If 99% of one’s social contacts are with white Christians, and one treats them beautifully, how much does it matter if one hates blacks and Jews? It does matter, certainty, but I would suggest that its weight in the scale of vices and virtues is rather small. The problem, ably diagnosed in Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter, is that democracy artificially amplifies the impact of people’s political opinions, which are often foolish and irresponsible because life doesn’t teach ordinary men virtue in political opinions as it teaches them virtue in private affairs. One learns a good deal of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice in the struggle to make a living, which, in a rough, everyday fashion, rewards virtue and punishes vice, starving the lazy and spendthrift and isolating the dishonest and intemperate, while those who are just, prudent, brave, and self-controlled usually see their assets and their circles of friends expand over time. But life doesn’t teach people virtue in political opinions, because one’s political opinions don’t really affect the daily business of one’s own life, so people’s political opinions are much more ignorant and biased than their opinions about things they have proper incentives to think about hard and fairly. In most societies, ordinary people’s political opinions don’t matter all that much, because they don’t control public affairs. In democracies, they do.

Americans have, historically, been unusually virtuous in their political opinions: unusually inclined to favor free speech even when they were offended; unusually ready to favor free markets and modest taxes and transfers even when they were poor; unusually deferential to the national constitution and the common-law tradition; unusually willing to accept the frequent frustrations of widespread popular preferences by the constraints that due process of law imposes on what the government can do; unusually insistent on high moral standards in their political leaders; unusually willing to accept adverse election results when defeated, and when victorious, chivalrously to ensure that vanquished candidates and their supporters retain life, liberty, and property, and the political rights they need to contest the next election. The widespread failure of real democracy to take root elsewhere in the world bore witness to a lack, on the part of many or most foreigners, of the kind of civic virtue and political enlightenment that has characterized America.

In the horrifying election of 2016, the American civic virtue that long upheld democracy has undergone a spectacular collapse. Trump’s core supporters are not worthy of democracy, in the rather precise sense that if everyone thought and acted as they do, tolerating and even applauding so much vice, thuggishness, ignorance, deceit, promises to violate human rights, and self-serving fantasy on the part of a political candidate, democracy wouldn’t long survive. Americans tend to feel we have some sort of mysterious divine right to be better governed than most of mankind, but we don’t. Democracy’s success here, imperfect as it had always been, has depended on the practice of virtue by politicians and ultimately by voters. If we vote for politicians destitute of virtue, like Trump, we’ll lose democracy, and deserve to lose it.Donald Trump is the ultimate un-American.

If Donald Trump is elected, American institutions will be put to the greatest test they have faced since the McCarthy era, if not since the Civil War. It’s possible that soldiers will disobey Trump’s orders to commit war crimes, courts will face down his intimidation and invalidate his illegal acts, Congress will block the laws he tried to pass and defund agencies that he turns to nefarious purposes, and in due course, when appropriate grounds have accumulated, will impeach him. A rising Trumpist dictatorship might be nipped in the bud by the American constitution’s checks and balances. Even in that case, damage would be done, but in some respects, the republic might be strengthened by its institutions having to flex their muscles against an evil elected executive. But it would be rash to count on this. One key American political institution, the Republican Party, which one might have hoped would simply refuse to accept a hostile takeover by a man whose personal character and political beliefs are inimical to its historic ideals, and would have gone on strike when a plurality of primary voters made an unacceptable choice, has already prostituted itself to Trump, throwing away a hard-won fund of trust that many Republican officeholders had won through decades of public service. The cowardice of leaders like Paul Ryan and John McCain, who clearly know that Trump is utterly unfit to be president, but who put partisanship before patriotism, is appalling. If Trump were elected, many other American institutions would probably follow suit, forsaking their principles in fear of Trump’s legal or extra-legal vengeance. To elect Trump would be to run a national version of the Milgram experiment. Alas, history shows how easily humans are corrupted by madmen in authority.

And even if Trump loses this year, his constituency has discovered their power. We can expect more Donald Trumps to come.

One of the ironies of Donald Trump is that, by losing, and bringing many other Republicans down with him, he seems likely to bring about an immigration amnesty. With luck, nativism will be burdened for years by the stench of Trump, allowing immigration liberalizers to make steady, pedestrian progress by letting more legal immigrants in, while respecting undocumented immigrants’ basic human rights and regularizing their legalization. But a deeper irony is that while Trump’s platform is allegedly “nationalist,” he has shattered whatever remained of American national solidarity. Many of the majority of Americans who despise Trump must, like me, be asking themselves what we have in common with people who can find such a disgusting man appealing, or who can desire that such a vile desperado be US president. The whole point of being an American was that Americans were too virtuous to vote for people like Donald Trump. That was why we could trust in democracy, why we could look back on our past with pride, why we could look on our future with hope, why we could claim leadership of the free world with an easy assumption that all mankind benefited from our doing so. That was the key to American greatness, the reason why America was a force for good in the world. I don’t want to be a rootless cosmopolitan or a stateless person, even if, as open borders advocates desire, the world became a much safer place for stateless persons than it is today. I was raised a patriotic American and want to stay that way, but I always understood America to be founded on certain values of which Trump is the antithesis, so I can’t help but regard Trump’s hard-core supporters as a kind of foreigners. I can get along with them well enough as neighbors. It’s just really scary to be part of a polity in which they have votes. That’s the problem. Is any solution possible?

It’s not feasible, of course, to gerrymander Trump supporters into their own polity (which would be a rather miserable place). It might be possible to substantially eviscerate the polity that Americans in my sense of the word, not mere juridical citizens but freedom-loving Americans who would never vote for Trump, are condemned to share with Trump supporters. We could look for ways to alienate power to local governments like states and citizens, to voluntary organizations like labor unions and churches, to international organizations like the UN, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, and to private corporations and free markets. Wouldn’t it be nice if the US president could gradually dwindle to a figurehead, a little like the king of England?

But the most promising way for real Americans to protect ourselves from the Trump voters is to elect a new people. We now know, from the rise of Donald Trump, that millions, if not tens of millions, of native-born Americans can’t be trusted to vote for liberty. There can be little doubt that tens, if not hundreds of millions, of foreign-born people are far worthier of being entrusted with votes in a free republic. And if we let them in, and enfranchise (at least some of) them, the Trump voters will be safely outnumbered. At this point, that seems like the best chance to preserve America’s republican liberties so that the next generation of Americans will be able to enjoy them.

As usual with Open Borders posts, the opinions expressed here are my own and not the collective opinions of the Open Borders team.

Open Borders, Christianity, and the Enlightenment

In my most recent post, “The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders,” I asserted that CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and THE ENLIGHTENMENT are the three great faiths competing for the allegiance of modern mankind, but left the claim mostly undefended. I then proceeded to argue that Islam would decline in a world of open borders, as Muslims would emigrate from Muslim-majority countries, where apostasy from Islam and proselytization of other faiths are to varying degrees suppressed by legal and/or private violence, to countries where Islam would have to compete in a free religious marketplace. Islam, I suggested, has never been competitive under those conditions and would not be today.

By contrast– or so I will argue here– Christianity and the Enlightenment are competitive in a free religious marketplace, and open borders would do little to alter their relative strengths. Both would gain market share vis-a-vis Islam and the smaller, non-Western religions, but neither would gain a definite ascendancy over the other. Perhaps this conclusion will be reassuring. My billion immigrants post, though properly understood it was an optimistic forecast about what a world with open borders would look like, alarmed many readers because I forecast such sweeping and dramatic changes. Here, I am predicting that something will stay more or less the same, namely, the Western religious scene, though far more populous, will still be dominated by the long contest between Christianity and the Enlightenment that has been going on since the 18th century. 

  1. In Praise of the Blogosphere

But first I want to respond to some of the responses to my last post. Bryan Caplan’s review of my post was generally very flattering, as was David Henderson’s, and I’ll return the favor by saying that in all my years pursuing and enjoying the life of the mind, I’ve rarely felt so well-rewarded as in these blogospheric exchanges. The academic journals, trapped in their stultifying over-specialization, can’t hold a candle to this. Paul Krugman has expressed cynicism about the academic journals; Bryan Caplan has suggested that they’re (mostly) a waste of paper; Arnold Kling has lamented the math bigotry of the academic establishment and mused cynically on the unlikelihood of worthwhile change coming from within the economics profession. This is a bandwagon worth jumping on. The blogosphere is obviously far faster-moving, more accessible, and diverse than what the journals offer, but supposedly the academic journals are more rigorous than the blogs. Replication crises have gone a long way towards bursting that bubble. They are symptomatic of how slow and siloed is the academic conversation in the journals. The blogs allow for a much faster and more transparent, if less formal, peer review process.

There are some worthwhile things published in the journals which would be difficult to disseminate as effectively through the blogosphere. But there are a lot more things, and more interesting and important things, that could have an impact through the blogosphere but would never be published in the academic journals. In general, a vast amount of effort is poured into writing for the academic journals that could be far better spent elsewhere. The reason isn’t that established and aspiring academics make honest mistakes about how their efforts will best serve truth and human welfare. Rather, formal, peer-reviewed “scholarship” is primarily a form of rent-seeking. The very term “publishing” has become an Orwellian euphemism, for it usually consists of burying behind a paywall (albeit accessible to the higher ranks of the academic caste via university JSTOR subscriptions) what could easily be distributed for free via SSRN or

I’ve seen some of the corruption in academic publishing from the inside. If you want to get your piece in a peer-reviewed journal, you have to know what it’s fashionable to cite (or worse; what citations would please this particular journal editor) in order to steer between the Scylla of “you don’t know the literature” (that is, you don’t cite me and my friends and our favorite papers) and the Charybdis of “you don’t get to the point fast enough” (because you have pages and pages of citations in order to prevent editors from saying “you don’t know the literature”). Citations are the currency of academic fame, and editors and peer reviewers need to be paid off. This system is unfavorable to the discovery of fallacies in establishment theory or correction of stylized facts, both because the gatekeepers have been schooled in a certain paradigm and have trouble seeing outside it, and because they often have a material vested interest in keeping new ideas down.

As a young academic, I was surprised to discover that many academic journals (e.g., PLOS) require authors to pay thousands of dollars to get their work published in a “peer-reviewed” journal. I use scare quotes because the blogosphere is full of peer review in the literal sense, with blog posts responding to blog posts, lively comment sections, etc., but the academic cartel has appropriated the phrase “peer review” and claimed a monopoly on its use. If I had sent this blog post to 1,000 economists, philosopher, intellectual historians, etc., and had gotten rich, critical feedback from them all, it would be far more genuinely peer reviewed than any academic journal article, but it still wouldn’t count as “peer reviewed” in academia. Anyway, I considered paying journals to publish my work. It might, after all, have a pretty good ROI, if a “peer reviewed publication” bought me a tenured academic job for life. I was stopped by (my own poverty and) vague ethical scruples. But what exactly was wrong with it? They openly admitted to being paid to publish stuff. I stood to benefit. And it might make sense for the universities to do business this way, too. Universities have great difficulty assessing the quality of academic candidates. In effect, they outsource this task to academic journals, who form peer review networks to assess the quality of academic work. The journals aren’t really in the publishing business, so much as the certification business.

After a bit of thought, I realized where the ethical problem lay. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an academic certification service paid by academics to provide credentials that will help universities make hiring decisions. The problem is that they’re still masquerading as scientific journals.  They’re pretending that their business is to advance the frontiers of knowledge, when they’re really trying to help universities allocate tenure in proportion to knowledge. And this has costs, not mainly because people might actually waste their time reading these materials (which probably doesn’t happen very often), but rather, because it forces young academics, first to over-specialize, and then to pursue spurious originality in the context of some over-specialized niche.

All institutions face the problem of balancing intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards in pursuit of some good. Intrinsic rewards are the rewards inherent in the pursuit, and consist in the enjoyment of that good. Thus, for a painter or a poet, the intrinsic rewards of his work consist in the enjoyment of its beauty. For a judge, the intrinsic rewards is the pleasure that comes from seeing justice done; for a policeman, the pleasure of seeing law-abiding people protected from criminals; for generals and soldiers, victory; for a priest or a pastor, the saving of the souls of his congregation, and so forth. The intrinsic rewards of being a scholar consist in the discovery and propagation of the truth.

Some work is done for the intrinsic rewards alone. But since we all have mouths to feed, we don’t have the luxury of doing much work just for the intrinsic rewards. And so extrinsic rewards come into play, and they can greatly increase productivity. The poet who would write an occasional verse in the minutes his day job left him, may, once he is published and earning royalties, dedicate the whole day to perfecting beautiful verses. The soldiers who might fight until the crops needed attention, can, when regularly paid, fight as long as the campaign requires. Tenured professors can devote far more time to scholarship than they ever could if they had to earn their livings some other way and study economic theory or Latin literature or epistemology in the scanty minutes they could spare after returning from a job. But as soon as extrinsic rewards come into play, a danger of corruption arises. The judge takes bribes; the soldiers become mercenaries and fight for the highest bidder; poetry and art become means of flattering the powerful, or the mob; the piety of priests and pastors becomes a hollow pharisaism and a mask of avarice; and scholars write, not what fascinates their love of truth, but what they think will get past the peer reviewers and impress the tenure committee.

It’s a subtle problem, because a few mercenaries in a system that, for the most part, is properly motivated by intrinsic rewards, might do excellent work. An amoral policeman who thinks he can’t get away with brutality or bribery, might serve bravely and honestly in hopes of promotion and pay raises. An amoral judge in a healthy legal system might dedicate himself to shrewd legal analysis and scrupulous respect for precedent and/or the moral law, merely in hopes of impressing his superiors and getting fame, power, and job security. Also, it’s an important principle (famously associated with Aristotle) that intrinsic rewards are an acquired taste. Today, a student makes sure to design his regression analysis properly, to get an A in the class. Ten years later, the same student, now a professor, might refuse at all costs, disdaining bribes and threats alike, to put his name to an improperly designed regression. Good institutions can, to some extent, foster the virtues that sustain them. Nonetheless, corruption can always creep in, and probably institutions are rotten a good deal more often than not. I think contemporary academia is fairly rotten.

And it’s worth remembering that it’s actually fairly normal for the universities to be clogged with barren scholasticism while the interesting intellectual work is done by freelancers and independents of one sort or another. The great European universities have carried on, generation after generation, since the High Middle Ages, yet David Hume, Voltaire, John Locke, Descartes, Erasmus, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo are among the many, many famous figures in intellectual history who were, by modern standards, amateurs, philosophizing on the side while holding day jobs as bureaucrats, tutors, financiers, or pastors etc., or making their living by writing for the people directly. If the blogosphere is not only more interesting but, at its best, more rigorous, more serious, than the academic journals, that shouldn’t be surprising. It’s actually a fairly typical situation.

As a general rule, institutions can’t be fixed merely by rearranging the incentives. The ancient, unanswerable question looms: Quo custodiet ipsos custodies? Who guards the guards themselves? If all the cops are corrupt, none of them can be relied on to report bribes. It’s no use appealing over the head of one bribed judge to another judge who is just as eager for a bribe. It takes a good deal of virtue to make good institutions work. Some of the guards have to guard, not because they’re being guarded in their turn, but simply because they’re honest.

Yet institutional design can help, so I would suggest the following reforms.

First, all new PhDs should be invited to join an Open Science Society, members of which are forbidden to publish anything behind a paywall, or to pay to have anything published. Membership would be optional, but public universities would be instructed to treat non-members of the Open Science Society as if they didn’t have PhDs at all, so a commitment to open science would become a sine qua non of full membership in the academic profession. Most academic journals, deprived of subscription revenues, would close, and good riddance. The few that remained would have to get endowments or else advertise.

Second, professional societies should organize public examinations, which academics would be required to take periodically (e.g., every 2-3 years) to show that they were keeping up with the cutting edge of their fields. I think the mere availability of such examinations would go a long way towards killing the ruinous “publish-or-perish” cultures that diverts so much of academics’ efforts into useless scribbling. Publish-or-perish persists, despite widespread recognition of its stupidity, because universities have no good way of assessing professors and so peer review, though a very inadequate signal of professor quality, is what they fall back on. (Naive second-rate schools sometimes use student evaluations as a criterion, but good schools know that they are worse than useless.) Good formal examinations to test what professors know would provide a superior signal of professor quality, and universities would, I suspect, quickly come to use them in preference to peer-reviewed publication records as a means of making hiring and promotion/tenure decisions.

The above reforms wouldn’t eliminate all problems of perverse incentives, but I think they’d help. There would be far less academic publishing, but what there was would enjoy much more readership and would get vigorous peer review in a blogosphere rendered much livelier by the paywall ban on PhDs. I think it would favor the cause of open borders, which currently gets far less attention from the intelligentsia than the inherent merits of the cause deserve. Meanwhile, the spirit of Socrates lives on in the blogosphere, and I’ll be forever grateful to have enjoyed it there.

2. Christian Nonviolence: A Relevant Digression

While Caplan praises my essay on the decline of Islam under open borders, in general, he has one strong dissent. I had written:

The Old Testament, to be sure, contains some hair-raising passages that seem very much opposed to religious freedom, but that’s part of the Mosaic law, which St. Paul’s epistles clearly and insistently establish is not comprehensively binding on Christians, but has been superseded, fulfilled, replaced by the higher ethical teachings of Jesus. The early Church never used violence.

Caplan responds:

While this is a great piece, Nathan grossly overstates the incompatibility between Christian doctrine and religious violence…

Yes, St. Paul did “clearly and insistently establish” that the Mosaic law “is not comprehensively binding on Christians.”  But he focuses almost entirely on dietary requirements, circumcision, and the like.  If Paul (or Jesus) meant to spearhead a culturally novel rejection of religious violence, he would have explicitly said so.  And to make “The early Church never used violence” true, you would have to torturously gerrymander both who counts as “the Church” and when counts as “early.”

Now, to respond to this is in one sense a digression, but I’ll explain its relevance to open borders in a moment. For Jesus seems, at least, to have gone well beyond “a culturally novel rejection of religious violence.” He seems to have spearheaded a culturally novel rejection of all violence. After all, He taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

Jesus is taking the most defensible case of violence as the object of his critique. Let it be granted that you are in the right, that your motive for engaging in violence is to resist an evil person; still Jesus says to turn the other cheek. Obviously, if even self-defense is forbidden, so a fortiori is aggression. “Turn the other cheek” is a pacifist creed more pacific than most pacifists would dare to desire. I have sometimes called it pacifist-anarchism because it would seem to rule out even the most legitimate violence of governments.

Moreover, Jesus Himself lived up to His own teaching perfectly. He used non-lethal violence to drive money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12), but He never killed anyone, and when Peter started fighting to save Jesus’s life from the Romans and Jews, Jesus told him to stop (Matthew 26:52). Jesus had, according to the New Testament, miraculous powers, but He declined to use them in His own defense. He set the example of the nonresistance that He preached. Indeed, one of the main themes of the Gospels is that the Jews were anxiously awaiting a militant messiah, but Jesus refused to accept the role, saying instead that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and for that reason, His servants would not fight. And the early Church followed Jesus’s example. Of course, this also explains why St. Paul’s insistence that the Mosaic law has been superseded doesn’t focus on religious violence. St. Paul didn’t have to argue that because Jesus had done so, whereas the life and teachings of Jesus didn’t make clear that the dietary and ritual aspects of the Mosaic law were to be mitigated or abrogated, so that fell to St. Paul.

When I wrote that “the early Church never used violence,” I meant the Church prior to the conversion of Constantine around AD 312. As for who counts as “the Church,” not every Christian all the time counts, but only Church leaders and Christians acting under their orders. Thus, I do not think the fact that Christians served in the Roman army prior to AD 312 falsifies my claim that “the early Church never used violence,” because Christian service in the Roman army, though it seems to have been permitted to Christians, was not a Christian duty or an act of obedience to ecclesiastical authority. But I am claiming, not with certainty but with some confidence based on reading a lot of history (most recently Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity) that Church leaders (e.g., major bishops) never, prior to AD 312, personally perpetrated violence, or commanded Christians to do so, in the name of the Church. If I’m wrong, I beg readers to cite counter-examples in the comments. I would love to know about them.

I don’t think it’s “gerrymandering” to define the early Church in this way, but of course, it opens the way for another criticism of the thesis, namely, that the early Church didn’t use violence because it was too weak. Of course (this critic would say) the early Church didn’t command violence against the vastly superior might of Rome. That would just be suicidal. But as soon as the Church had access to the levers of power, it used them.

But this critic would be wrong to be unimpressed by the early Church’s nonviolence, merely on the ground that it was physically weak. The weak can use violence too, and in particular, the Jews fought desperate and bloody revolts against Rome in AD 66-73 and again in AD 115-117 among other occasions. These Jewish rebels were not dissuaded by their apparent weakness from fighting the Roman superpower because (a) they tended to expect or at least hope for God’s aid, and (b) inasmuch as they expected salvation as a reward for the righteous struggle, they had little to lose by fighting. (This is also the secret to the effectiveness of modern Islamic suicide bombers.) Thousands of Christian martyrs showed by their willingness to undergo torture and death for the sake of Christ, that they were no less fanatical, no less willing to exchange life for salvation, than the Jewish rebels. But they only suffered rather than perpetrated violence, because that was what Jesus had done, and what their faith commanded them to do.

The juxtaposition of (a) Christians serving in the Roman army and (b) Christian martyrs refusing to fight in self-defense when persecuted for their faith, suggests something very interesting, namely, that Christianity was understood by early Christians to forbid religious violence in particular. Inasmuch as they still had one foot in the secular world, sought and got the protection of its laws, and partook of its wealth and honors, it was fitting that they should fight to defend secular regimes. But inasmuch as they were citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, they should abide by its laws, and emulate the perfect example of those laws, Jesus Christ, who did not fight, nor permit His servants to do so. It was precisely in their role as Christians that they must not fight, must accept violence without returning it.

The Christian emperors after AD 312 used violence, as all heads of state do, enforcing laws and fighting wars, and in general, the conversion of Rome was morally problematic for the Church, which could no longer be merely a shining counter-culture, but had to become entangled in the legislation and leadership of a whole society. The closure of pagan temples is the earliest major instance of using state power for Christian religious ends, but I won’t admit it to be an example of religious violence, since I take the word “violence” to refer to the violation of someone’s person or private property, and not to include such actions as the razing of public buildings (even if perhaps ill-advised). I won’t try to defend a claim that “the early Church never used violence” after AD 312: the story becomes too complicated. But I think a certain sense of the illegitimacy and unfitness of religious violence haunted the Christian mind through all the centuries that lay between the conversion of Constantine and the founding of the American republic, which is why not only Protestants but many Catholics felt a sense of relief at American arrangements of religious freedom. Deep down, devout Christians had always known that religious freedom was right, and yearned vaguely for something like what American civilization finally realized.

To conclude this digression on Christian nonviolence, let me highlight two ways in which it’s relevant to open borders.

A. The Christian case for open borders, or at least one Christian case for open borders, is that the teachings of Jesus call the legitimacy of any sort of violence into question. Even self-defense appears to be forbidden in the Sermon on the Mount. Yet there is a case where the duty of violence seems even more compelling than in the case of self-defense, namely, the defense of others, and especially, of one’s own children. It seems to me that (a) I have a natural right to defend myself when attacked, and (b) I also have a natural right not to defend myself when attacked, but (c) I may not have a natural right not to defend my daughter if she were attacked. I can consent, for the sake of peace, of obedience to Jesus, and/or of my salvation, to suffer aggression without resistance. But what if the aggression is not against me but against my daughter? What if she, rightly or wrongly, does not consent so to suffer, but is helpless to defend herself? Surely she has, in natural law, a right to expect such defense from me, as her father, with my greater strength. I do not think that, in such a case, I would dare to refrain from violence, perhaps even from lethal violence.

Of course, society deals with the problem of violence through specialization and division of labor, with police and soldiers being armed and trained at the expense of taxpaying citizens whom they are sworn to defend. Since I would, I think, have a duty to defend my daughter by means of violence at need, I don’t think I have a right arbitrarily and unreasonably to withhold my approval from police forces and armies that defend my daughter through the maintenance of public order and the defense of the national territory against foreign aggression. This is one reason why Christianity has always honored monastics, who forgo sex and procreation, and thereby free themselves from the duties to acquire property to feed their families and arms to defend them. By their celibacy, monastics gain a right to withdraw their approval from the state and its violence, and to embrace the sublime ethics of the Sermon on the Mount in a purer fashion than other Christians can. Anyway, if the justification of state violence derives from citizens’ duties to protect their families, this justification only applies insofar as the state is defending the rights and property of citizens against violation by fellow-citizens and foreigners. It does not justify imperialist aggression, and it does not justify violence against peaceful immigrants, who violate no one’s person or property simply by the fact of being located on the national territory without government permission. So Christians must embrace, with respect to peaceful immigrants, the nonviolence of the Sermon on the Mount.  

B. If an aversion to religious violence is an inherent, ancient and general tendency in Christianity, with respect to which the violence of the late medieval papacy represents a definite deviation universally condemned by other Christians and now repudiated by the papacy itself as well, then we have reason to expect that Christian immigrants to the West will naturally and easily avoid religious violence, not merely as a result of assimilating to Western culture but because to abjure religious violence is clearly supported by the teachings of the Christian faith. Here the case of the 19th-century Catholics is an instructive precedent, for the 19th-century Catholic Church still insisted rather fiercely on the appropriateness of religious violence, as no Christian church in the world does today, yet Catholic immigrants integrated seamlessly into the American regime of religious toleration, to which, as it turned out, they never posed any serious threat. The fears of generations of anti-Catholic Americans, such as the 19th-century Know-Nothing Party, were in my view quite reasonable, since the Roman Catholic Church at that time was still stained with evil doctrines justifying religious violence, of which, praise God, it has since repented. Nonetheless, these fears proved completely unfounded. Today, when even the Roman Catholics are fully committed to religious freedom, we can be highly confident that the mass immigration of Christians from, say, Africa, Latin America, or Russia would pose no threat of religious violence whatsoever.

For more on Christianity and non-violence, check out Robert Murphy’s response to (me and) Bryan Caplan. He takes my side.

III. Christianity vs. the Enlightenment

Back to my major thesis. CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and THE ENLIGHTENMENT are the three great faiths competing for the allegiance of modern mankind: it’s finally time for me to defend this bold claim. It needs defense mainly on two fronts: (a) against an objection that the Enlightenment is not a religion, and (b) against an objection that it underestimates the rest of the world’s religions.

I think I can persuade critics that my description of the Enlightenment is a “religion” is innocuous. Religion might reasonably be defined as “a system of practices designed to bring humans into contact with supernatural personal beings,” or something like that. That definition captures what higher religions like Christianity and Buddhism have in common with paganism. The problem with it, is that the higher religions were something more than that, and this definition leaves out this very important something more. The higher religions supplied an ethics and a cosmology to their believers. Paganism didn’t. It is symptomatic of the nature of pagan religion, that when philosophy arose in the Greek city-states, it conflicted very little with the pagan cults of the same cities. The first philosopher, Thales, when he set ancient philosophy in motion by theorizing that everything was reducible to water, wasn’t taking his cue from pagan religion or even arguing against pagan religion. The poignant, perhaps playfully half-believed stories that pagan religion circulated for purposes of art and festivity, were largely irrelevant to the concerns of the philosopher. Even more importantly, pagan religion did very little to settle moral questions. In Greek mythology, the gods behave quite badly most of the time. There are virtuous characters: the hearers of The Iliad and The Odyssey certainly admired the courage of Achilles or the resourcefulness of Odysseus. There are occasional suggestions that bad people like Sisyphus and Tantalus are specially punished in Hades, but for the most part, all share the same dismal fate. In ethics and cosmology, paganism offered rumors rather than doctrines. It might suggest a good deal, but it settled nothing.

Christianity, by contrast, was born as a philosophy and an ethical system as well as a system of ritual. It was an urgent matter to audit the available philosophies of the day, and discern which of their tenets could and could not be assimilated to Christianity. It was even more urgent to audit the lives of every believer, holding them up to the standard of Christian morality, and develop regimes of repentance and confession to bring straying believers back into communion with the Church. The sacred buildings and rituals had a new purpose: to express and embodied the philosophy and ethics of the Church. Other higher religions, the religions born in the “Axial Age,” resemble Christianity in offering an ethics and a cosmology. And it is in this sense that the Enlightenment is a religion. The Enlightenment is characteristically indifferent to and/or skeptical of the supernatural, but like the higher religions, it offers to the world a peculiar ethics and a peculiar cosmology. Its ethics are based on democracy, its cosmology, on science. And because it offers an ethics and a cosmology, the Enlightenment competes with other higher religions for the minds of men and women. Of course, the themes of democracy and science have many, many variations, and there has been plenty of disagreements among the Enlightenment intelligentsia across ten generations or so, as there have been among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and so on, but the differences do not, I think, overwhelm the similarities so as to make “the Enlightenment” a mere arbitrary reification. Thus, when Peter Watson, in his intellectual history of the 20th century The Modern Mind, writes that…

It seems obvious to me that, once we get away from the terrible calamities that have afflicted our century, once we lift our eyes from the horrors of the past decades, the dominant intellectual trend, the most interesting, enduring, and profound development, is very clear. Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science. The trend has been profound because the contribution of science has involved not just the invention of new products, the extraordinary range of which has transformed all our lives. In addition to changing what we think about, science has changed how we think…

A hundred-plus years ago science was much more a disparate set of disciplines, and not yet concerned with fundamentals. John Dalton, for example, had inferred the existence of the atom early in the nineteenth century, but no one had come close to identifying such an entity or had the remotest idea how it might be configured. It is, however, a distinguishing mark of twentieth-century science that not only has the river of discovery (to use John Maddox’s term) become a flood but that many fundamental discoveries have been made, in physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology, palaeontology, archaeology, and psychology. And it is one of the more remarkably coincidences of history that most of these fundamental concepts– the electron, the gene, the quantum, and the unconscious– were identified either in or around 1900.

Various fields of inquiry– all those mentioned above plus mathematics, anthropology, history, genetics, and linguistics– are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world. This story… includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races… Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution… By its very nature science cannot be forced in any particular direction. The necessarily open nature of science… ensures that there can only ever be a democracy of the intellect in this, perhaps the most important of human activities. What is encouraging about science is that it is not only powerful as a way of discovering things, politically important things as well as intellectually stimulating things, but it has now become important as metaphor. To succeed, to progress, the world must be open, endlessly modifiable, unprejudiced. Science thus has a moral authority as well as an intellectual authority. 

… he writes as a spokesman for a widely shared worldview with a history traceable to the 18th century, which in the late 20th century arrived at a kind of triumphant maturity, but for which the best single label is still that of the historical period in which it had its beginnings: the Enlightenment.

To describe the history of the modern West as “Christianity versus the Enlightenment” is outrageously misleading, crude, oversimplified, and inadequate… and yet there is some truth in it, nonetheless. (To say that the Republican Party in the US represents a political expression of Christianity, while the Democratic Party represents a political expression of the Enlightenment, would be an even more outrageous oversimplification… yet there is some truth in that, too.) Both Christianity and the Enlightenment reject magic and superstition, extol peace, and deplore war and poverty. The thinkers who spearheaded the Enlightenment, Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, were Christians. The polity which best embodies Enlightenment ideals, the United States, has consistently had a Christian majority and a streak of fervent Christian piety. While the revolutionary Enlightenment of the Left, which sees the French Revolution as unfinished business, has always been hostile to Christianity, the liberal Enlightenment of the American Revolution and the British Empire, which has been more successful, has usually been friendly to Christianity, even when skeptical of Christian doctrines. Christianity and the Enlightenment have often been on the same side. Certainly, Christianity has no necessary enmity with the Enlightenment’s favorite themes of science and democracy. On the contrary, the Enlightenment inherited these from the Christian past, though it put new emphasis on them.

The abolition of slavery was a victory for both Christianity and the Enlightenment; World War I was a defeat for both; Nazism was an enemy of both; World War II was a victory for both; the American civil rights movement and the end of segregation was a victory for both. If the world’s borders are ever opened to free migration, it will almost certainly come about as yet another joint victory for Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Yet for all that, each generation since the 18th century has faced the choice of whether to accept inherited Christian teachings and practice Christian morals, or to embrace the new beliefs and lifestyles emanating from the Enlightened intelligentsia. Initially, the Enlightenment was mainly Deist, accepting a “watchmaker” God who sets the world in motion but then leaves it alone, but not denying God, among other reasons because it’s hard to explain, without God, where the world comes from in the first place. Later, Darwin made atheism seem more tenable, by providing a naturalistic explanation of the origin of life. Today, atheistic scientific materialism sometimes seems to be the default or dominant view among the intelligentsia, though Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Faith reminds us that belief in the supernatural remains dominant at the popular level. The typical Enlightenment thinker has changed over time, from Voltaire in the 18th century, to J.S. Mill in the mid-19th century, to Herbert Spencer in the late 19th century– today, intellectuals like Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker may best typify the Enlightenment tradition– but though the Enlightenment is a broad church, a liberal, egalitarian, and anti-supernaturalist bent unifies its champions across the centuries.

As Muslims look to the early Arab conquests as the end of a benighted past and the dawn of a new and better epoch, so the Enlightened look back to two political revolutions, the French and the American, as the dawn of the good, progressive modern world, as against the evil, benighted past that came before. As Islam has its Sunnis and Shias, the two revolutions left two different Enlightenment legacies. The American revolution succeeded, and the American Republic has, ever since, had a spirit of success and a certain complacency. Americans generally approve of their ancestors, though they expect to surpass them, morally and materially. The French Revolution, by contrast, ultimately failed, but lingered on as a legend and a dream, and it became the defining aspiration of the Left to carry on the French Revolution’s unfinished business, to attain that for which they thought the French revolutionaries were striving. Karl Marx eventually became the great prophet of the Left, and had the geopolitical dice fallen differently, all the children of the Enlightenment might revere Marx as Muslims revere Muhammad. Instead, the American Enlightenment has held its own, and the global spread of democratic capitalism is watched with approval by an Enlightened intelligentsia that once looked with favor on the Soviet Union. The Left has settled for the welfare state and the still-evolving Sexual Revolution. But both strands of the Enlightenment see little or nothing good about the pre-Enlightened centuries before Voltaire wrote, and both disbelieve in the supernatural. They comprise something far more than the mere negation that is atheism. To its adherents, the Enlightenment is almost a whole world, or at least, it is all the world that matters, as Christendom was all the world that mattered to a medieval European. The cathedrals and churches left behind by the Christian past, even if services are still held in them, are regarded with an antiquarian interest a little like that with which Christians in Byzantium regarded old pagan statues of Zeus or Hercules.

Philip Jenkins, in The Lost History of Christianity, documents many interesting examples from the Muslim world of syncretism and overlap between Christianity and Islam. Thus, there are places where Muslims and Christians both honor St. George; there are borrowings of ideas and architectural designs in both directions; Muslim thinkers like Rumi turn back to the teachings of Jesus (whom the Muslims hold to be a prophet) and helps to spread Sufism among reluctant or partial converts to Islam from Christianity. I once met a “Christian” from Syria who explained to a Muslim colleague of mine that, though his community was Christian, they didn’t think Jesus was God, but only that he was a prophet, and that Muhammad was also a prophet. Such syncretism and compromise complicate the question of what the market shares of Christianity and the Enlightenment were in the Middle East, at any given point in the long, troubled co-existence of the two faiths there. In the same fashion, many modern Westerners find various ways to split the difference between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Thus, in modern America, over 70% of Americans self-identify as Christian, yet 58% say that premarital sex is “not wrong at all.” These majorities must overlap, so a lot of people apparently consider themselves Christian, yet think premarital sex is morally unobjectionable, an obvious inconsistency. Consequently, it’s not really possible to say how much of the population adheres to Christianity, versus how much of it adheres to Enlightened beliefs. Self-identified Christians surely include many who are more oriented towards the Enlightenment than Christianity, but the 42% who think God created human beings less than 10,000 years ago are clearly resisting the Enlightenment message. As a very rough guess, Christianity and the Enlightenment probably have about equal market shares in the United States, while the Enlightenment is more dominant in Europe.

Another passage from The Modern Mind will go far towards justifying me in downplaying the significance of religions other than my “Big Three”:

When this book was conceived, it was my intention (and the publishers’) to make the text as international and multicultural as possible. The book would include not just European and North American– Western– ideas, but would delve into the major non-Western cultures to identify their important ideas and their important thinkers, be they philosophers, writers, scientists, or composers. I began to work my way through scholars who specialized in the major non-Western cultures: India, China, Japan, southern and central Africa, the Arab world. I was shocked (and that is not too strong a word) to find that they all (I am not exaggerating, there were no exceptions) came up with the same answer, that in the twentieth century, the non-Western cultures have produced no body of work that can compare with the ideas of the West. In view of the references throughout the book to racism, I should make it clear that a good proportion of these scholars were themselves members of those very non-Western cultures. More than one made the point that the chief intellectual effort of his or her own (non-Western) culture in the twentieth century has been a coming to terms with modernity, learning how to cope with or respond to Western ways and Western patterns of thought, chiefly democracy and science… I was astounded by this response, which was all the more marked for being made in near-identical terms by specialists from different backgrounds and in different disciplines.

Wow! Bryan Caplan might cite this passage in support of his theme that “Western civilization is a hardy weed.” I would agree, though Watson and his interlocutors, in stressing the overwhelming intellectual potency of the 20th-century West vis-a-vis the rest of the world, seem to have in mind the Enlightenment element of Western civilization, not the Christian element. Watson is biased in favor of the Enlightenment. C.S. Lewis, in my opinion the greatest thinker of the 20th century, doesn’t even appear in his voluminous index, and one might get the impression from Watson’s book that Christianity has been steadily giving way before the rising tide of the Enlightenment’s science and egalitarianism. Actually, Christianity has held steady at about one-third of world population, gaining members in Asia and especially Africa, and enjoying a revival in Latin America, as its historic heartland in western Europe has become less Christian and seen its share of world population decline, while Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, David Bentley Hart, and many others, have held their own on the intellectual plane. But the point stands that the two great Western religions have no peer competitors outside the Muslim world.

Judaism and Shinto have no proselytizing ambitions, so they are not players in a worldwide contest for human souls. Confucianism, in its origins more a philosophy than a religion, even if has sometimes gotten a religious flavor by becoming encrusted with rituals, is the analogue more of Aristotelianism or utilitarianism, than of Islam or Christianity. Ancestor-worship lacks doctrines and is more a custom than a faith.

Hinduism, a system of believing and belonging surrounding a sacralized worldview, does qualify as a religion, and while it shows little propensity or ability to proselytize beyond India, India itself comprises a substantial enough share of the human race as to make Hinduism important. Yet it’s still not really a global contender. Buddhism is the closest thing there is to a world religion that was not born out of Jewish monotheism. It had its great proselytizing successes in the past and has a very international constituency, albeit concentrated in Asia. But it’s largely quiescent. It shows no sign of the ambition to convert the globe. Islam alone has mounted powerful and escalating resistance to the penetration of Western ways, but it can’t compete outside its home turf. Even without open borders, Christianity and the Enlightenment are spreading worldwide.

Watson’s quote is two-edged. It stresses the global influence and penetration of Western ideas and ways of thought, but it also mentions that other cultures are finding ways to “cope with or respond to” Western ways. There is a hint there of resistance. The Enlightenment, despite the universalism of its ideals and the impressive global reach of its influence, is an indelibly Western phenomenon, and I see signs around the world of successful pushback, above all in the Islamic world but also in places like Russia and India. I don’t expect a rollback of science and democracy, but there may be a decoupling of science and democracy from the liberal, secular spirit of the Enlightenment. Russia is a leader in science and math but has turned its back on liberal democracy. India is approaching seven decades of almost unbroken democracy, but Hindu nationalism has risen to challenge the secular ideals of the founders of the Indian polity. As Islam once seemed destined to conquer the world, but did not, the Enlightenment, too, may have passed the moment of its greatest expansion. The West may, in the long run, prove to be to the Enlightenment what the Middle East is to Islam, namely, its one permanent bastion, where it clings and stagnates and in due course is eclipsed by progress elsewhere.

The “Islamic Golden Age” of the early Middle Ages, when Islam was the world’s most advanced civilization, occurred when much or most of the population living under Muslim rule was Christian. The Enlightenment, too, has enjoyed two centuries of economic, scientific, and moral progress (with a couple of catastrophic disruptions of course) when an Enlightened elite governed a largely Christian populace. The waning of Christian belief in Europe has proceeded in step with the waning of European dynamism and global influence. In what looks likely to be a disastrous election year, with Donald Trump hijacking the Republican Party as a spokesman for the moral underclass, I’m full of grim forebodings that the Christian moral center of the United States, too, is being hollowed out, and a twilight of long, turbulent stagnation is falling over the once-great republic. But time will tell.

Anyway, for now, despite growing resistance from some emerging non-Western alternatives, I think the story Peter Watson tells, of the Enlightenment spreading its influence, shaping minds around the world, and eclipsing older traditions, is still true, and is still the main story. In the 1990s, it was widely lamented that “globalization” was homogenizing the world. It was a symbol and a symptom that American tourists complained of seeing McDonalds’ golden arches everywhere and not feeling like they could really leave home. Coke and Hollywood and Washington Consensus economic policies are similarly ubiquitous, and respect for science and aspiration to democracy, though less tangible, seem to be spreading, too.  

3. Why Open Borders Would Sustain the Enlightenment/Christianity Stalemate

Under open borders, billions of people from all over the globe would come to the West, encounter Christianity and the Enlightenment first-hand, absorb one or the other or elements of both, and in many cases, return home, where they would spread the ideas they learned in the West. The West’s schizophrenia would be projected across the whole world, as is already happening today, only it would happen faster. So far the forecast, though hardly tame or innocuous, is derived in a fairly straightforward way. I am simply extrapolating present trends, but accelerating them, on the assimilation principle. Open borders would lead to more cross-cultural human interaction, fast-forwarding history, and most of the new human interaction would take place on the territory of the West, where Christianity and the Enlightenment enjoy structural advantages.

The riskier prediction is that the balance of influence between Christianity and the Enlightenment would remain unchanged under open borders. After all, it’s quite possible that (a) Christianity and the Enlightenment would both gain adherents under open borders, but (b) one or the other will be more successful in making converts, so (c) open borders would tip the balance towards one or the other.

The (nominally) Christian share of the population would almost certainly fall under open borders. The Christian churches tend to make converts from all immigrant populations, and surely would do so under open borders, but not fast enough to offset the drop in the Christian share of population. Immigrants might be quicker to absorb the ideas and attitudes characteristic of the Enlightenment, than to explicitly adopt a new faith, and in some cases (especially in the case of Muslims) a historically hostile faith. If so, the population of the West under open borders might end up just as Enlightened as today, or more, but less Christian.

Against this, note that with respect to the Sexual Revolution, Christians are more in harmony with the opinions of the rest of mankind, than the Enlightened are. has a great chart here on global views of premarital sex. There are dramatic differences around the world. In western European countries like France, Germany, and Spain, the percentage saying that sex between unmarried adults is “unacceptable” is under 10%. More say this in the USA (30%) and Russia (also 30%), where Christianity is a stronger force. At the other extreme, it is regarded as “unacceptable” by vast majorities in Muslim countries like Egypt (90%), Pakistan (94%), Jordan (95%), and Indonesia (97%). But it is also condemned by 77% in Nigeria, 71% in the Philippines, 67% in India, 58% in China, and 48% in South Africa. In general, almost every non-Western country seems to be less tolerant of sex outside marriage, than are most countries in the West. It’s true that (a) immigrants would be likely to self-select on the basis of sexual mores, with the relatively libertine being more attracted to the West, and (b) immigrants would start to assimilate after arriving, so that many would adopt attitudes towards sex more like those prevailing in the West. Even taking all that into account, the resident populations of Western countries would almost certainly be much more sexually conservative under open borders, than they are today. By the same token, same-sex marriage is mostly a Western and Latin American phenomenon, rejected almost everywhere in Africa and Asia.

The likely consequence of open borders, then, is that conservative Christian views on sexual morality, which are perhaps the single biggest factor isolating the Christian churches today, weakening their influence on the young, and rendering their whole message implausible, would suddenly become normal. This could give Christian churches an advantage in converting immigrants, who might, in new circumstances, doubt their traditional beliefs or feel a need for a new community, yet recoil from the sexual libertinism prevailing in the West. But the mere fact of having so many people agreeing with them would give Christians a new plausibility on sexual matters. Similarly, the sexual liberalism of the Enlightened would, under open borders, make them a small minority in the resident population, facing the moral disapproval of most of the population, even if the advantages of incumbency gave them disproportionate political power. Legislatively, as some part of the immigrant multitudes acquired the vote, conservative Christians could find many new allies on same-sex marriage, pornography, family law and gender roles, etc.

That’s why I think open borders would leave the balance of influence between Christianity and the Enlightenment largely unchanged. It would reduce the nominally Christian share of the population in the West (but increase it in the world) while bringing Western social conservatives new allies on their home turf (though also accelerating the spread of the West’s loose sexual mores abroad). Individual stories would vary, with some immigrants finding community in Christian churches, while for others, Western freedom would be the ticket out of traditional moral restraints. But the individual stories would largely cancel out. There would be some new features of the religious landscape, such as large Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim minorities. But for the most part, the long contest of Christianity vs. the Enlightenment would continue. The actors would be more numerous, more varied in their race and ancestry, and on average, somewhat less educated, but they’d be engaged in the same arguments, and taking the same positions, that Westerners take today.

4. Rethinking “Assimilation”

I’ve mentioned “the assimilation principle,” and made it central to my analysis. But the term must have an odd sound in the context of a discussion of the West’s long civil war of the mind between Christianity and the Enlightenment. If Westerners are so dissimilar among themselves, what can it means for immigrants to assimilate? Kudos to Vipul’s post “A critique of the concept of assimilation” for helping me to think through this. My post on “The melting pot” is also relevant.

What I mean by assimilation is simply that, upon arrival in the West, immigrants will tend to observe Westerners and imitate them in some respects. Individually, most immigrants will come, over time, to bear a greater resemblance to some Westerners. Collectively, the distribution of traits such as manners, opinions, professions, education, lifestyles, etc., among immigrant populations, will come to bear a greater resemblance to the distribution of such traits among Westerners. Assimilation may sometimes go the other way, as Americans have adopted German Christmas trees and Irish St. Patrick’s Day, but the flow of cultural influence will be overwhelmingly from natives to immigrants rather than vice versa.

Note that this definition of “assimilation” is robust to any degree of dissimilarity among natives themselves. To see this, suppose that all possible traits are somehow collapsed into a one-dimensional spectrum from 0 to 100, and half of Americans are at 0, and the other at 100. There is, then, maximum dissimilarity among Americans. Suppose further that immigrants arrive with traits in between, say, in the range of 30 to 70. How would immigrants “assimilate?” Simple: each immigrant would emulate some American or group of like-minded Americans, and end up becoming a 0 or a 100. Individually, each immigrant would emulate certain Americans. Collectively, the distribution of traits among immigrants would come to resemble the distribution of traits among Americans. But while it’s impeccably logical, this seems like a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of assimilation. When critics of immigration often complain that “immigrants don’t want to assimilate,” they surely think that there is a common American, or British, or French, or German culture, and that immigrants ought to adapt to it, respect it, embrace it. 

In what sense is there a common American culture, or a common British, French, or German culture? I’ve described the West as a battleground between Christianity and the Enlightenment. Whether or not that characterization is accepted as useful, the West clearly has a lot of people who believe that God made the world and Jesus Christ rose from the dead and there are miracles and angels and devils and there will be Judgment Day and paradise, and a lot of other people who think blind naturalistic evolution made life and miracles don’t happen and everyone is equal and free love is OK and death is the end and the universe will inevitably end in heat death at last. It’s nice that these people manage to coexist peacefully. But how can there be a common American/British/French/German/Western culture for immigrants to assimilate to, in the presence of such deep disagreements? It’s not a rhetorical question. I suspect that such a common culture is more of a reality than I am able to recognize. Can someone help me?

Here’s my attempt to anticipate the kind of answer I’m looking for. “Yes, Americans disagree about some ultimate things, like cosmology, and about some practical, everyday matters of morality as well,” the advocate of common culture will begin by conceding. “But,” he will continue, “what we have in common is more important. We have an understanding of our constitution and our laws. We are participants in a great political and legal tradition going back to Magna Carta or before. Many of the habits that make freedom work are largely unreasoned and even inarticulate. They are passed down from generation to generation half-unconsciously, but they make us behave in ways that keep our economy strong and preserve the civil peace. Foreigners don’t have the same habits. Even if they’re good people in their own way, they don’t know how to fit into American society in a way that contributes to its flourishing. It’s difficult to communicate, to transact, not just because of language but because of different assumptions. They don’t know the protocols, so they disrupt and interfere and get in the way, without meaning to. Even an immigrant who is fully committed to Christianity or the Enlightenment at the religious/ideological level probably won’t get on well with Americans who may share their ultimate beliefs, but whose behavior less by conscious ultimate beliefs, than by a myriad of beliefs, less important in themselves, that we accept uncritically from the surrounding culture as we grow up. Often, we might be unable rationally to justify, if challenged, the beliefs, attitudes, and habits that make us American, but that doesn’t matter. Such beliefs, attitudes, and habits make us who we are, and make our society what it is, and they give our society a considerable degree of practical integrity, unity, and solidarity, even in the face of pervasive disagreement about ultimate things.”

I don’t really buy it. I’d have given it more credence fifty or sixty years ago than today. In the short run, mere habits, uncritically accepted, matter a lot. But in the long run, people will change their habits to correspond to their beliefs. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was more pressure to conform. American life offered fewer options, and some beliefs were definitely disfavored. Since then, America has sometimes drifted, sometimes deliberately advanced, towards ever-greater tolerance, with the result that no normative center now holds. Even things that Americans all tend to hold sacred, e.g., “democracy,” “the Constitution,” mean such things to different people that they don’t represent a real commonality. Between myself and anyone who thinks that the Constitution contains a right to gay marriage, for example, the gulf is so wide that I don’t see how there could be any common citizenship between us. 

As the tendencies of Enlightenment thought continue to develop and spread in the population, the mental distance between the Enlightened and the Christians must continue to grow. Same-sex marriage is a case in point, since the views of marriage for which Christians are now condemned and marginalized were fully shared by the thinkers of the original 18th-century Enlightenment. A similar evolution took place in the history of Islam. One theme of The Lost History of Christianity is that Christianity and Islam were much more similar in the early years of Islam. They steadily diverged as Islam continued to develop. As the Enlightenment becomes ever more post-Christian, I think any common culture in the West will be increasingly lost, and the question of whether immigrants assimilate to Western ways will give way to the question of which Western ways they assimilate to.

The Islamophobic Case for Open Borders

To simplify somewhat, I don’t care much about terrorism, because it’s too unimportant and ineffective. The statistical risk of dying in a terrorist attack is, in the United States, the West, and most of the rest of the world, negligible, and will be under any reasonably likely scenario. If we’re still driving cars despite thousands of automobile accident deaths per year, we don’t really set the value of human life so high that attacks in Paris (130 victims) and San Bernardino (22 victims) objectively warrant the massive media attention, revolutions in foreign policy, and proposals to shut the borders completely to Muslims that they evoke. Such events get such attention because of statistical illiteracy. People don’t understand that terrorism does less damage than tiny blips in highway safety. Terrorism is dramatic and makes a good story, so the news media cover it out of self-interest, and people can’t put the stories in proper perspective, so as to realize that terrorism only affects a tiny number of people, and therefore just isn’t very important.

But while terrorism matters less than people think, religion matters a lot more, if not than people think (for at some level, most people understand that the eternal questions with which it deals are the most important of all), at least than people talk about in public. Its importance can hardly be overstated. It shapes society from the foundations up, altering family structures, morals, aesthetics, ways of life, institutions, ideas of political legitimacy, and so forth. I am a Christian and so perhaps biased, yet I think clever irreligious people should attribute scarcely less importance to religion than I do, for religion affects everything else, for good or ill. In my last two posts, I sought imaginatively to flesh out an open borders scenario for the future, based on the abstract, numerical predictions in my article “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders.” Here I build on that effort by trying vaguely to forecast the likely religious makeup of a future world with open borders.

  1. (Not) Defining Religion

Religion is impossible to define adequately, for at the heart of what is usually meant by religion is the worship of a deity or deities, but defining deity is one of the tasks of religion itself, so we quickly run into a peculiar kind of circularity. What is religion? Human activity, individual and collective, dedicated to propitiating, appealing to or worshipping a deity or deities. What is a deity? Ask religion: it’s a task of religions to answer this question. But what is religion?… Certain superficial characteristics, like shrines and rituals and sacrifices, solemnity and festivity, are shared between the paganism of Greco-Roman antiquity, or contemporary Asia, and Christianity and Islam. They have, for that matter, analogues in modern nationalism, e.g., the “tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” flag codes, national anthems, which is a clue that nationalism is in part a substitute for religion. It seems to be part of human nature to want to worship something, to pray to something, to hold something sacred, and people will insert all sorts of somethings into that formidable black box, whether it be a philosopher like Confucius or Buddha, or the licentious and irresponsible gods of the ancient Greeks, or a black stone in Mecca, just so that something may be sacred, and our appetite for veneration, worship, humble awe, might not be starved. But the things inserted can be very dissimilar. The omnipotent and omniscient God of the monotheistic faiths has little in common with the whimsical “gods” of the pagan Greeks who can be defeated and deceived, or a merely human philosopher like Confucius.

I’ll cut through all these difficulties with a blunt declaration: CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM, and THE ENLIGHTENMENT are the three great faiths competing for the allegiance of modern mankind. I hope to address objections to this large claim in a follow-up post, but for now, I’ll focus on Islam, whose inclusion in the list no one, I suppose, will object to.

2. Am I an Islamophobe? Yes and No

When I wrote “The Citizenist Case for Open Borders,” I was not admitting to being a citizenist. Rather, I was making the case for open borders on citizenist assumptions, so that people who are citizenists, or who accept a citizenist objective function for purposes of evaluating policy for rich countries like the US, would have reason to support open borders. Similarly, I’m not exactly characterizing myself as an Islamophobe here… yet I’m closer to being an Islamophobe than to being a citizenist. If Islamophobia is taken literally to mean “fear of Islam,” I do fear Islam in the sense that I regard it as a source of error at best and a source of terror at worst. I believe the Islamic religion to be false, in key theological doctrines, in the general tenor of its ethical teachings, in its view of history, and in its view of how society ought to be organized. On the other hand, I think there is more truth in Islam than in some modern teachings such as communism, and perhaps than in the Enlightenment liberalism that is the prevailing ideology on Western college campuses today. I can easily imagine scenarios in which I’d gladly make common cause with Muslims against certain strands in Western public opinion.

Since I believe Islam to be false, I would be a poor lover of my fellow men if I did not wish for it to disappear, that is, if I desired that millions of people remain forever imprisoned in a web of errors. But inasmuch as the word “Islamophobe” implies irrational, uncritical feelings of hatred and disgust towards Muslims as an opaque Other, I do not feel that way at all. I have traveled in Muslim countries like Turkey, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, have been on warmly friendly terms with many Muslims (some nominal, but some devout), and have admired the Blue Mosque, the ruins of Samarkand, the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Rumi, and the Arabian Nights. In foretelling a steep decline of Islam under open borders, I am anticipating developments of which my head and my conscience approve, but towards which my heart and imagination are ambivalent.

Perhaps the fairest definition of an Islamophobia (fair in the sense that it makes the word something other than a mere term of abuse) is someone who thinks Islam is a net negative influence on human history, and is harmful to its adherents. Even in that sense, I’d hesitate to self-identify with it. I’d ask, a negative influence compared to what? From Muslim to Christian is a change for the better, from my perspective, but from Muslim to Communist is a change for the worse. At any rate, if Islamophobes desire that there should be less Islam in the world, my argument that open borders will bring that about, is a reason for them to support it.

3. Religious Assimilation

In making predictions about open borders and religion, my chief basis for extrapolating is the principle of ASSIMILATION. While the speed of assimilation is debatable, it’s well-known that immigrants begin to learn about their adopted country as soon as they arrive, some faster than others, that children born in a country of foreign parents exhibit a mix of their parents’ culture and that of their new homeland, and that second- or third-generation immigrants come to resemble the fellow residents of their adopted country so much that for many purposes, they are indistinguishable. Yet while we’re familiar with this pattern for language, professions, levels of education, popular culture preferences, hobbies, and most other facets of life, there seems to be a widespread impression that religion is an exception. We may expect a third-generation Mexican-American,  say, to speak English and like American popular music, yet still to be a Catholic. This view is partly justified, and there are communities of otherwise-assimilated immigrant peoples still holding onto their religions and thereby to traces of an old national identity.

Yet there’s actually a lot of religious switching, too, and it cumulatively dilutes away the religious distinctiveness of immigration-originated populations. The Pew Research Center finds that “depending on how ‘religious switching’ is defined, as many as 42% of U.S. adults have switched religions.” Considering that there’s so much religious churn, it shouldn’t be surprising that 18% of Indian Americans are Christian, even though just over 2% of India’s population is Christian, or that half of Irish-Americans are Protestant, compared to one-third who are Catholic. The 42% of Asian Americans who identify as Christian are surely a larger share than in their home countries, which have historically had few Christians (except the Philippines). So if, as the economic models generally predict, open borders would lead to the migration of billions, leading to about half the world’s population being concentrated in the West, while India, China, and many other developing countries would see their populations reduced several-fold, simple extrapolation would suggest that the dominant religions of the West, Christianity and the Enlightenment, would see large gains in membership through the assimilation of immigrants, at the expense of the prevailing religions in the countries of emigration, which many of the emigrants would leave behind as they adapted to their new homelands.

In America, 77% of those raised Muslim, are still Muslim, according to Pew. That’s a fairly high retention rate, but Islam in the West still loses about one-fourth of each Muslim-born generation. At that rate of member loss, less than half of the descendants of Muslims would still be Muslim after three generations. Germany’s assimilation of Turkish migrants seems to illustrate how this process plays out. Less than 2% of the German population self-identifies as Muslim. Almost twice as many people in Germany are of Turkish descent, and there are also substantial numbers of Arabs. Since Turkey’s population is almost exclusively Muslim, it seems that Islam must have lost roughly half of the natural increase of its emigrants in Germany to apostasy. Germany is a relevant case study because its great Turkish immigration mostly occurred around half a century ago, so it’s had time for assimilation to play out across a couple of generations.

What about conversion the other way? In America, there are probably a few hundred thousand converts to Islam in America, mostly in the black nationalist Nation of Islam, most famously exemplified by Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam is an interesting instance of the special political purposes that a Muslim religious identity can serve, and might foreshadow future uses of Islam as a vehicle of radical politics in an open borders world. But it doesn’t seem indicative of an ability of Islam to make many converts, in general. There may be 100,000 converts to Islam in Britain.

Historically, Islam has never made major advances by migration, or by conversion from below, as Christianity has often done. Stagnation or decline has been its fate where it was politically subordinate. Islam spread by conquest, not missionary work. It is still strongest in the historic heartland where it was established by Arab conquerors in the 7th and 8th centuries. That’s not to say that the Middle East and North Africa became Muslim through forced conversions. Forced conversions to Islam were not the norm. Rather, first Arab, and later Turkish, conquerors, became the power elite, permitting Christianity, Judaism, and sometimes other religions, such as Hinduism in India, to persist among the subject populations. But non-Muslims enjoyed various disadvantages, such as paying a special tax called the jizya, could not proselytize, sometimes suffered political violence, sometimes had their children kidnapped to become janissaries, and in general, enjoyed few or no rights and comprehensively inferior treatment. In the very long run, this made it hard for Christian and other minority communities to flourish. Their vitality atrophied, and a slow trickle of conversions to Islam depleted their numbers. So Islam spread through conquest followed by a gradual, top-down conversion of subject peoples to the dominant faith. The exceptions to this rule, such as the seemingly peaceful conversion of Indonesia to (majority) Islam, tended to occur in relatively easy mission fields, where no higher religions had a strong presence.

There are, as far as I know, no historical examples of substantial Christian populations converting to Islam except under Muslim rule. I suspect that one reason why is Islam’s attitude to women. Islam is notoriously anti-feminist, confining women to the veil and the home, and thus preventing them from playing the crucial role as volunteers and community organizers that they play in Christian parishes. When I was a guest at Muslim homes in Central Asia, the wives didn’t sit down to dinner with the men, but served them, staying in the kitchen, then ate dinner later. Historic Christianity didn’t accept women’s equality in the modern sense, but they were regarded as moral and spiritual equals, and they participated in worship alongside men. The Christian saints are the only class of famous people where women have always enjoyed fairly equal representation with men. Importantly, Christianity made the duty of sexual fidelity in marriage mutual, whereas outside Christianity’s influence it had been a duty of the wife only. Christianity has often spread first among women, who then convert their husbands. Islam, I think, is at a disadvantage relative to Christianity because it doesn’t give women enough freedom to be important as community organizers and spreaders of the faith. Anyway, for whatever reason, Islam has never been competitive in a free religious marketplace, and I don’t think it ever will be.

Under open borders, I would expect most of the population of the Muslim world to emigrate to non-Muslim countries over the course of a few decades or perhaps a century. Since Muslims comprise less than one-fourth of the world population, though, migration alone would be very unlikely to lead to a Muslim majority in Western countries. Instead, open borders would lead to a world in which most Muslims live as immigrant minorities in countries where Christianity and/or the Enlightenment were historically the dominant religious influences. That’s a big change from the contemporary world, where Muslims constitute the majority in most of the countries where they live. And while my bits of data and my quick retrospective glance at history hardly constitute ironclad evidence, they point to a scenario in which Islam’s new status as a minority religion in most of the countries where it’s present will lead to a slow but steady dissolution of its membership and influence.

How would Muslims cope with that?

4. Islam and Violence

It is widely perceived that Muslims have a special propensity for violence, which other religions lack, and while Buddhist monks inciting violence against Burmese Muslims and violence against abortion providers in North America are counter-examples, the perception is basically correct. Islamic terrorists, over the past 20 years, have perpetrated dozens of terrorist attacks in non-Muslim regions, with a death toll of thousands, the vast majority of whom had done nothing in particular to earn the enmity of Islam. The global scope of Islamist violence, and its indiscriminate nature, set it dramatically apart. Most denials of Islam’s special propensity for violence represent politically correct spin doctoring rather than serious analysis. That most Muslims oppose terrorism is not inconsistent with Muslims turning to religiously-motivated violence at much higher rates than members of other religions do.

The violent insurgencies of Muslim Palestinians against Israel, Muslim Chechens against Russia, Muslim Algerians against France in the mid-20th century, and so on, illustrate an important pattern, namely, that Muslims are not accustomed to being a quiescent minority in a state where other religions predominate, and often react to it violently. Of course, Palestinians, Chechens, and Algerians had strong historical claims to the lands on which they were living, and could accuse the Israelis, Russians, and French as being imperialist usurpers. Muslim immigrants in the West under open borders could make no such charge. But is irredentism the real motive for these Muslim insurgencies, or just a kind of pretext or secondary cause? Does Islam simply make its adherents disinclined to accept non-Muslim rule, however originated?

Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis argues that there is a fundamental difference in the way Muslims regard the relationship between religion and state:

In [the Muslim] world, religion embraces far more than it does in the Christian or post-Christian world. We are accustomed to talking of church and state, and a whole series of pairs of words that go with them – lay and ecclesiastical, secular and religious, spiritual and temporal, and so on. These pairs of words simply do not exist in classical Islamic terminology, because the dichotomy that these words express is unknown. They are used in the modern languages. In Arabic, they borrow the terminology used by Christian Arabs. They are fortunate in having a substantial Christian population using Arabic, and they therefore have a good part of the modern terminology at their disposal, in their own language. In Turkish, Persian, Urdu and other languages of Islam, they had to invent new words. The word in Turkish and in Persian is laik [from the French word laïque, which describes the prevailing concept of separation of church and state].

In the Islamic world, from the beginning, Islam was the primary basis of both identity and loyalty. We think of a nation subdivided into religions. They think, rather, of a religion subdivided into nations. It is the ultimate definition, the prime definition and the one that determines, as I said, not only identity, but also basic loyalty. And this is quite independent of religious belief. In Islam, there isn’t – or rather, there wasn’t until recently – any such thing as the church, in the Christian sense of that word. The mosque is a place of worship. It’s a building, a place of worship and study. And in that sense, it is the equivalent of the church. But in the sense of an institution with a hierarchy and its own laws and usages, there was no such thing in Islam until very recently.

If Lewis is right about this, his argument strongly suggests an explanation for the widespread impulse to Muslim insurgency. No situation in which Muslims live under non-Muslim rule can be quite normal in Muslims’ eyes. Their religious laws demand to be implemented as civil laws. Their religious community is meant to be realized as a political community. Without a separation of church and state, it’s difficult for the pious to live under infidel rule.

A Christian’s loyalty to the Church is compatible with being a subject of a non-Christian state, because the Christian is commanded to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” The highest law to which Christians regard themselves as subject, the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, are not meant to be, and surely could not be, embodied in the legal code of any state. By contrast, at the heart of Islam lies sharia, a legal code, which, according to majorities of Muslims in most countries where Islam is present, is supposed to be the law of the land. To tell Muslims they may practice their religion privately within the framework of a central state is to impose on them a role congenial to Christians rather than Muslims, and fundamentally at odds with their religious tradition.

My co-authored paper Rowley and Smith (2009) demonstrated that there is a democracy deficit in the Muslim world, an even more marked deficit of freedom, and a lack of religious freedom in particular. Politically correct efforts to explain this in terms of other variables such as oil or the legacy of colonialism don’t stand up to statistical scrutiny. Islam just seems to be inherently illiberal.

5. The Duty to Murder Apostates

Perhaps most importantly, as Pew reports, many if not most Muslims support the brutal stop-loss policy that has been a feature of Islam from the beginning, namely, the death penalty for apostasy:

Compared with attitudes toward applying sharia in the domestic or criminal spheres, Muslims in the countries surveyed are significantly less supportive of the death penalty for converts.19 Nevertheless, in six of the 20 countries where there are adequate samples for analysis, at least half of those who favor making Islamic law the official law also support executing apostates.

Taking the life of those who abandon Islam is most widely supported in Egypt (86%) and Jordan (82%).

How widely is the death penalty for apostasy enforced? According to a Library of Congress report, “The countries surveyed that expressly make apostasy a capital offense are Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen,” though enforcement may be inconsistent. Elsewhere, apostasy may entail lesser penalties, such as loss of property, and apostates may be murdered by vigilantes. Nor is this stop-loss policy limited to Islam’s historic heartland. Even in the West, many apostates from Islam live in fear. High-profile cases like the Islamic Republic of Iran’s attempt to murder Salman Rushdie aren’t just the aberrations of an occasional crazy ayatollah. They express Islam’s historic practice.

It’s worth stopping to rescue any hapless readers who may be under the impression that Christianity, too, mandates the death penalty for apostasy. Put simply, it does not. One thing that will never happen to any Christian in his entire life, is that he’ll be reading his New Testament, and he’ll come across some passage that makes him think, “Hmm, this seems to say that we should kill apostates. Why don’t we do that now?” There is not a single word or phrase in the New Testament that would remotely suggest a thing to an unbiased reader. Even a reader who scanned the whole New Testament desperately seeking some scriptural pretext for religious coercion would come away nearly empty-handed. Neither Jesus nor any of the other protagonists of the New Testament, apostles and disciples etc., use lethal violence, and even of non-lethal violence, the only instances are Jesus’s cleansing of the temple (which sets a precedent only for the use of non-lethal force to protect holy places from defilement) and Peter’s cutting off of the high priest’s servant’s ear (which Jesus rebukes, even though Peter is defending Jesus from men who intend to kill Him).

The Old Testament, to be sure, contains some hair-raising passages that seem very much opposed to religious freedom, but that’s part of the Mosaic law, which St. Paul’s epistles clearly and insistently establish is not comprehensively binding on Christians, but has been superseded, fulfilled, replaced by the higher ethical teachings of Jesus. The early Church never used violence. After the conversion of Constantine, the state got somewhat entangled with the Church, and unfortunately it often made political sense to use violence to suppress paganism or heresy, if only because the Christian religion had become an important determinant of political loyalties. Nonetheless, in the east, violence was used far more by heretics, such as Arians and Monophysites and Iconoclasts, against the orthodox, than the other way around.

Augustine, around the turn of the 5th century AD, wrote a very unfortunate book entitled “On the Correction of the Donatists,” in which he argued that coercion could be used against the Donatist heresy in North Africa. Nonetheless, killing for Christ remained rare for centuries afterwards. The much-maligned Crusades, though spiritually misguided and ultimately quite harmful, sought to acquire and hold territory, rather than impose orthodoxy. Only in the 13th century, with the Albigensian Crusade and the founding of the Inquisition, did the Roman Catholic Church turn into a coercive agency holding the allegiance of its flock with death threats. By this time, Rome had split from the east, and the popes had launched a kind of revolution, called the Investiture Controversy, against the western emperors, leading to a century and a half of intermittent, increasingly unscrupulous warfare, in which the popes became more and more culpable in bloodshed and corruption. It is against this tainted and wayward church that the Protestants rebelled in the 16th century.

So of the three major branches of Christianity, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, only the Roman Catholics are really tainted by historical association with the practice of murdering apostates. True, events like the murder of Michael Servetus in John Calvin’s Geneva mar Protestant, and episodes like the persecution of the Russian Old Believers mar Orthodox, history, but these were acts of individual religious leaders and/or of secular regimes rather than of “the Church” corporately. Modern Protestants and Orthodox take it for granted that these persecutors were in the wrong, and would reject as absurd the notion that their faith required them to approve of such crimes. If anything, they assume that their religion requires them to sympathize with the persecuted. Only for Roman Catholics is it problematic to embrace religious tolerance, and even here, the problem isn’t that any Roman Catholic could suppose it’s against his religion to condone the religious tolerance policies of contemporary Western democracies, since the Church itself does so, but rather, that if conscience compels a Roman Catholic to affirm that the murder of apostates for their unbelief is always and everywhere intolerable, that person will be somewhat at odds with the historic practices, and perhaps teachings, of a Church that claims (in a special, rather difficult to understand, sense) never to have erred.

Yet it is significant that even at the nadir of its wicked career, the Inquisition didn’t actually do the killing of heretics. Victims were “relaxed to the secular arm” to be murdered. This hypocrisy does less than nothing to justify the Inquisition’s crimes, but it does show that even the Inquisitors couldn’t quite pretend that Christ had authorized the Church to kill apostates. Rather, the fiction was that the state was doing it for its own raison d’etat. Also, the Church didn’t authorize vigilante violence against apostates, of the kind often perpetrated in Muslim countries today, either. The Holy Inquisition practiced scrupulous due process. I don’t think this makes the Inquisition any less evil. If anything, it makes it more evil, since the worst crime of the Inquisition isn’t the murder of people but the murder of truth, making people tell lies from fear, and scrupulous due process enabled the Inquisition to carry out this evil purpose more efficiently. But since the Roman Catholic Church never authorized private violence against heretics and apostates, it would be pretty impossible for a Roman Catholic believer to imagine that it’s his or her duty to kill apostates now, when it’s not the Church’s policy to advocate or be involved with such crimes in any way. That said, the Roman Catholic Church’s medieval crimes, not adequately repented of until recently, cast a long shadow, making the Roman Catholic Church an illiberal force for much of the modern period, with some culpability for Catholic dictators like Francisco Franco of Spain.

If people think Christianity authorizes the murder of apostates, that might make people more relaxed about Muslim immigrants. After all, Christians obviously get along fine as citizens of liberal societies, so if they can do that in spite of being theoretically required by their religion to kill apostates, might we not expect the same happy result from assimilating Muslims into liberal societies? But the reason Christians today don’t kill apostates is that their religion doesn’t require them to do so, and never did. On the contrary, it forbids them to do so, a fact that even the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the darkest chapters of its history never quite managed to obscure. By contrast, in Islam, the death penalty for apostasy is an evil idea whose time will probably come again, and again, and again, as long as Muslims keep reading the Koran, and regarding their faith’s early history of conquest as a model to emulate.

6. Islam versus Free Speech

Also symptomatic of the tension between Islam and political freedom are the protests that erupted across the Islamic world when Jyllands-Posten cartoonists depicted Muhammad, provoking violent protests and riots all over the Islamic world. No respect here for freedom of speech. The notion that Denmark is an independent country with its own laws, which can’t be required to abide by Islamic rules against depicting Muhammad, also apparently enjoys little credence among the masses of the Islamic world. The Charlie Hebdo shootings are another case of (certain) Muslims refusing to accept freedom of speech even outside Islamic lands.

A theme of Rowley and Smith (2009) was that Muslims claim to like democracy, yet they have very little. A post at cites evidence that vast majorities of Muslims think they support free speech, even in some countries, such as Egypt, where widespread advocacy of the death penalty for apostasy makes it clear that they really don’t. This seems to show that Egyptians haven’t thought very much about what free speech means.

I’m not really an expert on Islam, even though I’ve spent time in a lot of Islamic countries and had long, deep conversations with many Muslims. Rowley and Smith (2009) was mainly a number-crunching exercise, with no deep causal analysis of the kind that a real expert could offer. But my impression is that there is widespread admiration of Western institutions in the Islamic world, but there is a failure to understand the moral principles that undergird Western institutions, and the incompatibility of key Islamic tenets, deeply rooted in the mindsets of ordinary Muslim people, with those principles. The man-on-the-street in Jordan or Palestine or even Baku, I think, could not, without a fundamental re-education, assimilate the idea that people have a right to apostatize from Islam, or draw Muhammad, and that to prevent such apostasy or blasphemy by force of any kind, much less by murder, is an intolerable violation of human rights.

Personally, I think Westerners should defer to Muslim sensibilities to the extent of not drawing Muhammad. It’s unnecessarily provocative, and there’s no real need or reason to do it. But I would have very little confidence that, if Muslims got norms and/or laws established in the West preventing the depiction of Muhammad, they would stop there, and respect the right of Westerners to attack Muhammad in speech or writing. Some Muslims would, of course, but it seems likely that a determined majority of Muslims would strive to punish apostasy and suppress blasphemy, elastically defined, and with each success, would move the goalposts further, until all public discourse was smothered by a compulsive deference to Islam, if free countries don’t stop them. A few would resort to extra-legal violence, and more would approve of it, but the West would have the force to resist, if it had the will.

And that’s why I’m so worried by incidents like Canadian lawsuit against the journalist Mark Steyn for “defaming” Islam in his writings. We could expect more such efforts to hijack Western institutions for Islamist ends.

7. The Danger of Relativistic Surrender

The real scandal about the Mark Steyn case isn’t that the Canadian Islamic Congress filed a complaint, but that the Ontario Human Rights Commission gave a favorable hearing to it:

While it dismissed the complaint by the CIC against Maclean’s, the OHRC also issued a statement saying the article in question “portray[ed] Muslims as all sharing the same negative characteristics, including being a threat to ‘the West’,” and thus promoted prejudice towards Muslims and others.[14] In an interview, Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall stated that “When the media writes, it should exercise great caution that it’s not promoting stereotypes that will adversely impact on identifiable groups. I think one needs to be very careful when one speaks in generalities, that in fact one is speaking factually about all the people in a particular group.”[15]

Let me take a moment to deconstruct this cowardly, misguided, unacceptable statement. “Stereotype” essentially means “generalization,” with a gratuitous negative connotation attached to it. It can be thought of as a generalization which some authority figure chooses to disapprove of. Generalizations are essential for understanding the world. So for an authoritative body like the OHRC to condemn the use of “stereotypes” is almost to say that people can only use officially approved generalizations, which is almost to say that people can only think in officially approved ways. Such a suggestion is utterly inimical to free speech.

Whether the media should “exercise great caution” not to “adversely impact… identifiable groups” is an interesting ethical question for individuals to ponder. There are strong arguments pro and contra. On the contra side, many true and important things might be impossible to say publicly without adversely impacting identifiable groups, so that such scruples would effectively silence much or most of public discourse. On balance, I think “the media” should not “exercise great caution,” or at least that it’s very important that at least some media outlets tell the truth without worrying about the consequences. What I’m certain of is that a public body like the OHRC, in a free society, has no business having an official opinion about how much caution the media should exercise. The marketplace of ideas must be free.

The most philosophically inept part of the quote is the suggestion that one mustn’t “speak in generalities” unless “one is speaking factually about all the people in a particular group.” The vast majority of general statements by which people communicate with each other and help one another to understand the world have exceptions. If no generalization is permissible to utter unless there are (knowably?) no exceptions to it, the vast majority of human speech would be prohibited. This absurd desideratum could never be put into practice in ordinary life, but it could, under pressure from domestic Islamists, be applied selectively to silence whatever speech the authorities happened to take a dislike to. Freedom of speech could be virtually extinguished in the West without much more sophistry to justify it than the OHRC provides in the quoted paragraph.

In a healthy free society, where public opinion is robust in its understanding of the nature of, and institutional prerequisites for, liberty, the mindless blather of the OHRC might do little harm. What makes the present case so mischievous is that the OHRC is functioning as enforcer for a creeping suppression of free speech by a Muslim minority instinctively allergic to freedom of expression because of the history and doctrines of Islam. That the OHRC surely doesn’t understand this makes them all the more dangerous. It’s not an isolated case. From France, we hear that:

A critical report about the problems faced by — and posed by — school pupils with immigrant backgrounds… says Muslim pupils and parents in France are increasingly making religious demands on the state school system and that teachers should rebuff these demands by explaining the country’s principle of laïcité, the official separation of church and state. Among the problems it listed were pupils who upset classes by objecting to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, who demand halal meals and generally “reject French culture and its values.”

“It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures,” said the report.

Luca Volonte has more examples in “Europe, Multiculturalism, and Nihilism.”

Freedom depends on a certain paranoia. Free peoples must know how to nip threats to liberty in the bud, before they’re too strong to be stopped. For every brave Mark Steyn, who writes boldly about Islam in the face of threats from velvet inquisitions like the OHRC, there are a dozen writers who will take the safe route by not saying anything that’s politically incorrect, no matter how true and important it may be. I suspect that there’s already less criticism of Islam in the movies and the mainstream media than its illiberal character and epistemic implausibility would warrant, because the thought leaders of Western society are afraid of a backlash, including acts of violence, if they speak out.

With people like the Ontario Human Rights Commission in positions of power within the West, I think there’s a significant, though small, chance that Muslim immigration could lead to a sweeping loss of freedom in the West. Cases like Mark Steyn’s may be rare, not because officials have the intelligence or integrity to defend the principles of a free society, but because it wouldn’t occur to Westerners, schooled in the traditions of freedom, to file such complaints. Without the Canadian Islamic Congress to file a complaint, the OHRC might have carried on the routines of liberty forged by their wiser and better ancestors, and their unworthiness might never have been exposed. How much of the Western elite is similarly indifferent to truth and freedom, ready to throw away the best traditions of the West at the first suggestion? The fortress of Western liberty is very strong, but this won’t do much good if all the guards are asleep at their posts.

But I’m pretty confident the guards would wake up in time. It would be an easy matter for a resolute West to admit hundreds of millions of Muslim immigrants while keeping its own traditions of freedom intact. I’ve stressed the OHRC because its sophistries are very dangerous, but it turned out to be just words, and Mark Steyn is still a free man. Under open borders, there would be more Muslims, but they would almost certainly be a minority. Christian and/or Enlightened Westerners would enjoy large structural advantages as being the incumbent population, and having much greater wealth and education. In the face of efforts by Muslims to push a pro-Islamic political agenda, they would have natural allies in billions of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other non-Muslim immigrants from the developing world. If Western elites have sometimes made compromises that they shouldn’t, they’ve done so in a spirit of generosity from what they feel is a position of strength. If Islamist agendas brought to the West by Muslim immigrants became a real, existential threat to the West’s heritage of freedom,  I think Western elites would either rise to the challenge of defending it, or be removed and replaced with people willing to do so.

8. Let Them In First, then Change Them

The free governments of the West ought to communicate to the Muslims of the world the following message:

“You are welcome to come and live among us, and in return for moderate taxes and obedience to our laws, we’ll protect your rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as religious freedom, insofar as practicing your religion doesn’t require you to violate the rights of others. But the rights of others include some things you’re not accustomed to, such as the right to proselytize other faiths, to apostatize from Islam, to condemn Muhammad as a false prophet, and to insult all that you regard as holy. You may build mosques at will, and attend them, and fast during Ramadan, and try to persuade others, peacefully, to do so with you, but you must utterly and forever repudiate the evil practice, which has stained your faith with murder and shame from the beginning, of killing apostates from Islam. If this despicable and barbarous doctrine is taught among you, you will be imprisoned for incitement of violence. Similarly, while you are free not to depict Muhammad yourselves, you must henceforth understand this as a law binding on you only, and in conscience, not as a law that binds non-Muslims, or that can be enforced against anyone, Muslim or not, by violence. We do not care how incompatible these demands are with your faith as it has been practiced for a thousand years. We are more powerful than you, and we insist that, while you live among us, you submit to the principles of a free society. Any effort to subvert those principles will be ruthlessly crushed. Your religion must henceforth become something out has never hitherto been, an affair of private worship and peaceful speech, destitute of temporal power, as our own Christian churches willingly are. Even as you venerate the conquering Muhammad, you must make your religion emulate that of Jesus, Who taught that His kingdom is not of this world, and told His disciples meekly to accept the rule of earthly masters, while awaiting their rewards in heaven.”

As long as Western governments resolutely insisted that the rights to denounce Islam, missionize Muslims, and apostatize from Islam would be defended to the death against any and all challenges and never mitigated or compromised in the least, they could easily carry their point. I think, ultimately, this would happen, as lapses like that of the OHRC provoked popular backlash from conscientious disciples of Christianity and the Enlightenment. Westerners would develop and refine and popularize the case against Islam. Parts of it might come to be taught in schools, since the mere facts of history, properly told, are a strong case against Islam. Christian missionaries would carry the case against Islam deep into Muslim communities. Each wave of apostates from Islam would make it easier for the next, by writing ex-Muslim books, and forming ex-Muslim communities. Their stories would bolster the case against Islam with invaluable inside information. Islam would be tested as Christianity has been tested in its long contest with the Enlightenment, by critiques from former insiders who know its weaknesses. I don’t think it could withstand the test.

So if open borders brought hundreds of millions of Muslims to the West through migration, I would expect these Muslim immigrants to try to co-opt Western institutions, and/or engage in private vigilante violence, to prevent criticism of Islam, enact and enforce bans against apostasy from Islam, impose Islamic proscriptions on non-Muslim populations, and otherwise Islamize Western societies at the expense of truth and freedom. Westerners would need to be alert, resolute, and principled, to block these efforts from succeeding. Yet it wouldn’t really be very difficult to block them from doing so on any large scale, and if Muslims were forced to submit to Western norms of religious freedom, I’d expect them to lose at least one-fourth to one-third of their youth to apostasy in each generation. Meanwhile, the historic heartland of Islam would be largely depopulated by emigration, and its weight in world affairs would become negligible. There would still, even after a century or more, be more Islam in the West than there is now, but there would be a lot less Islam in the world. And I would probably welcome that.

9. Can Islam Reform?

One of my co-bloggers read an earlier draft of this post, and asked me if I thought Islam could reform, so as to become more appealing to Western natives and/or to the assimilated descendants of Muslims living in the West. When people talk of Islam “reforming,” they tend to assume it will “reform” in a direction they like, a liberal and tolerant direction, more conducive to peaceful co-existence with other religions, and perhaps with greater equality for women. But there’s another kind of reform, the reform of ISIS and al-Qaeda and Saudi Wahhabism and the Iran of the ayatollahs, a reform that seeks, not compromise, but renewal, a deepening of commitment. The Protestant Reformation in Europe wasn’t moderate and compromising, but fanatical and often violent.

I think we’ll continue to see reform movements of both kinds in Islam: reform in the direction of liberal tolerance, and of violent fundamentalism. Open borders might tip the balance in favor of the former rather than the latter, by exposing more Muslims to Western tolerance and prosperity and mitigating their sense of grievance by giving them access to opportunity. But I suspect that violent Islamic fundamentalism is actually a more intellectually coherent position than any kind of liberal, tolerant Islam could be. “If past generations of Muslims were wrong about so many things,” the children of liberalized Muslims will ask, “why should we believe that they were right to revere Muhammad?” Liberal forms of Islam would prove to be pathways out of Islam, while violent fundamentalisms would arise in reaction against them. A transformation of the Islamic religion as a whole, such that it became unproblematic for Muslims to live peacefully under non-Muslim rule, scrupulously tolerant of their neighbors and committed to freedoms of speech and religion, seems unlikely.

I could imagine new sects sprouting out of Islam as Mormonism sprouted out of Christianity. They would discard most of Islam’s historical legacy so as to be comfortably modern, yet still call themselves Muslim and acknowledging Muhammad, appealing to people whose heritage inclines them to regard Muhammad as a holy man. Such sects might then base their appeal primarily on strong community, family values, and clean living, combined perhaps with political radicalism like that of the Nation of Islam. But I doubt such sects would become either dangerous or numerically important.

As usual, the views expressed in this blog post are those of the author, Nathan Smith, only, and do not represent any sort of official position of Open Borders: The Case.

From Printing to the Nation-State, from the Internet to Neo-Medieval Globalism

The below article is soon to be published in the 2015 issue of the Pacific Journal, making it my second peer-reviewed journal article, posted in full with permission. It’s a piece of speculative futurology, like my “Billion Immigrants” post last summer. It has nothing explicitly to do with immigration, but it has everything to do with the nation-state, and therefore deals with a major concern of critics of open borders. “Where there is no border, the nations perish,” summarizes their fears. I show how the nation-state is not a permanent feature of human political organization, but a recent development, and following Benedict Anderson, I impute its rise to the printing press. If that’s the case, it stands to reason that the obsolescence of printed text in the face of the rising internet foreshadows another great reordering, first of the human conversation, next of the imagined communities that people see themselves as part of, and finally of the geopolitical order. To the emerging world order that I dimly forecast, I give the strange but interesting label, “neo-medieval globalism.”

Among the many past posts of mine that are relevant, I’ll highlight two here. First, I wrote a post called “In defense of the nation-state” in March 2013. To nationalists, that post will seem like damning the nation-state with faint praise, yet I do argue, quite sincerely, that nation-states had substantial merit for a considerable historical period, and even today. Second, my post “Immigration, Identity, Nationality, Citizenship, and Democracy,”  written in June 2013, reflects on the relationship between identity, nationality, and citizenship, and suggests that the challenge posed by immigrants to people’s habitual identification of nationality with citizenship as undergirding democracy, is the main underlying source of mainstream resistance to the case for open borders. 

The “neo-medieval globalism” scenario forecast in the article below suggests a vague answer to fears about the fate of the nation-state under open borders. Open borders probably would accelerate the fading of the nation-state, but that may be fated to occur anyway. In its place, there need not be chaos; instead, we may look forward to a more decentralized and voluntarist world order, in which NGOs, the purpose-driven voluntary sector, and multilateral institutions like the UN, World Bank, and IMF, and many more existing today or to be established in future, will increase in importance at the expense of national democracies, which will go into a gradual yet terminal decline, as the European monarchies did in the centuries following the invention of the printing press.  It’s a challenging world to contemplate, but there is good reason to think it would be a better world in which to be a human being, and a much better world in which to be an open borders advocate.

From Printing to Nation-States, from Internet to Neo-Medieval Globalism

Abstract: The printing press reshaped the conversation of mankind along national lines, then reshaped the imagined communities in which people lived, making a world of nation-states seem natural, so that people struggled for it and eventually largely achieved it. Today’s world order, based on the nation-state, is a legacy of the age of print. But the internet is now reorganizing the conversation of mankind again, and giving rise to new forms of imagined community. As in the High Middle Ages, an educated elite bound together by the dominant means of communication and a shared lingua franca — Latin then, English today — and ideology — Catholicism then, liberalism today — is beginning to see itself as better represented by transnational institutions like the UN, EU, World Bank, IMF, and WTO than by national governments. These trends foreshadow an era of “neo-medieval globalism,” where beliefs matter more than nationalities and global purpose-driven voluntary organizations gradually rival and eclipse national governments.

The thesis tentatively advanced here is that the internet is reshaping the human conversation and the structure of people’s imagined communities, making them at once more nichefied and more global, but at any rate, less national. In important ways, it is reversing the reshaping of the human conversation once wrought by the advent of printing. Prior to the advent of printing, people lived in many imagined communities, from local ones like villages and guilds to quasi-universal ones like Christendom, with none of these levels enjoying a clear primacy. Printing led to the rise of nationalism, as printers targeted local mass markets, text and literacy reached first the middle classes and then the masses, and reading publics developed national consciousness. Nations displaced or subordinated other forms of community, and nationality displaced or subordinated other forms of identity. The tendency of print to foster nationalism arose from the economic properties of printing as a medium of communication. The high fixed costs and low marginal costs of printing make it suitable for profit-driven production of large numbers of identical books for mass consumer markets, and these reading publics coalesced into nations.

Today, the internet makes far more text available to far more readers, yet in some respects the new economics of texts resembles the age of the medieval manuscript. Transactions costs for payment are high, since few will bother with an online credit-card payment to read an online article. This gives an advantage to institutional, purpose-driven, pro bono text producers, who are willing to supply online content to readers for free, over profit-driven text producers who prioritize what the consumer is willing to pay for. Profit-driven online publishing exists, of course, but its influence on how the human conversation develops is less preponderant today, and was less preponderant in the Middle Ages, than it was in the age of print. Meanwhile, relatively low distribution and storage costs give writers an incentive to use a lingua franca—Latin in medieval times, English today—so as to reach international audiences and posterity. The internet makes text production more diffuse, blurs the distinction between writing and reading, and enables people to find niches where others share their interests and opinions, while rendering them more independent, socially and intellectually, of their immediate neighbors.

Politically, the dawn of the internet age was marked by the flaring up of an international protest movement ostensibly opposed to globalization. As such, it proved remarkably transient. After erupting in Seattle in 1999 and climaxing in Genoa in 2002, it faded out swiftly, so that the IMF, World Bank, and WTO are now able to meet without physical resistance. Ironically, the “anti-globalization” movement may prove to have been the harbinger of a type of globalist politics that will prevail in the age of the internet. As the internet, and social media, knit together a globalized civil society, national imagined communities will gradually be eclipsed by new forms of community that are more voluntarily chosen, overlapping and interpenetrating one another, such as the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that have become increasingly influential in development and advocacy. Globalization will continue, deepen, and gain legitimacy, and political contestation will occur within its framework. Institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and others that may be established, which have at least a tenuous claim to represent the whole human race, and which have a certain authority as champions and expositors of a universal (neo)liberal creed, will enjoy increased power and influence. A diffuse voluntary sector will sometimes cooperate and sometimes resist. The older political structures of the nation-state will experience growing internal dissension and face new challenges to their prerogatives.

As the internet and social media shape first the human conversation, then the imagined communities in which people live, we can look forward to a productive tension between “sovereign” nation-states and a globalized civil society, for which the High Middle Ages, a time of tension between the universal Catholic Church and an array of secular kings, may serve as an illuminating analogy. If printing gave rise to the nation-state, the internet may be leading us into an age of neo-medieval globalism.

  1. A Brief History of Communication

Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in the waning years of the Middle Ages. At one point, a character in the novel sees a printed book and utters the cryptic prophecy: “The book will kill the edifice.” His colleagues think he is mad, but Hugo explicates his character’s thought in a long, strange digression that turns into a sweeping and insightful history of communication. The first thesis is that the printing press catalyzed the Reformation, or as Hugo more eloquently puts it:

In the first place, [“The book will kill the edifice”] was a priestly thought. It was the affright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg. It was the pulpit and the manuscript taking the alarm at the printed word: something similar to the stupor of a sparrow which should behold the angel Legion unfold his six million wings. It was the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees human thought, volatilized by the press, evaporating from the theocratic recipient. It was the terror of the soldier who examines the brazen battering ram, and says:–“The tower will crumble.” It signified that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”…

By now, it is almost conventional wisdom that the printing press catalyzed the Reformation. A century before Luther, Jan Hus defied the Catholic Church, and for some years after Hus was put to death, a Hussite rebellion smoldered in Bohemia, but it did not spread or endure. But the Lutherans, with the printing press to spread their message, were far more successful. Hugo’s thesis about the printing press is now widely accepted (e.g., see Cole (1984)). But Hugo has a second, more ambitious thesis.

[But also] it was a presentiment that human thought… was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. In this connection the archdeacon’s vague formula had a second sense. It meant, “Printing will kill architecture.”

In fact, from the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.

When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded, when the mass of reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument… Not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented, according as the symbol to be expressed was graceful or grave. Greece crowned her mountains with a temple harmonious to the eye; India disembowelled hers, to chisel therein those monstrous subterranean pagodas, borne up by gigantic rows of granite elephants… During the first six thousand years of the world, from the most immemorial pagoda of Hindustan, to the cathedral of Cologne, architecture was the great handwriting of the human race. And this is so true, that not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its monument in that immense book…

Among other things, this passage is a forceful reminder of the importance of non-written communication to the shaping of the pre-modern mind. Literacy has usually been the preserve of a minority, whereas everyone can feel awe at the sight of a pyramid or a cathedral. The visual arts— paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures, and so on—and music always existed alongside text, and were sometimes more important. In the Middle Ages, icons, statues, stained-glass windows, and magnificent churches educated the illiterate medieval peasantry in the Catholic faith. The abbot Suger of St.-Denis (1081-1151), strangely enough from a modern perspective, invented Gothic architecture as a way of expressing the Neoplatonist philosophy as conveyed by (the supposed) Dionysius the Areopagite. Architectural styles supply periodizations of history, e.g., the Romanesque and the Gothic, and to a lesser extent the Renaissance and the Baroque. The last two periods, which were as much artistic (the Renaissance) and musical (the Baroque) as architectural, came after the print revolution, but before mass literacy had taken hold. But the Enlightenment (which overlapped the Baroque) and Romanticism are defined by their great books. Today, architecture has become largely utilitarian, and famous buildings are usually old. In the heyday of print, books were the prime shapers of the popular consciousness.

A shrewd scholar in 1900 might have had a similar premonition to that of Victor Hugo’s archdeacon, foreseeing that radio and TV would kill the book. For decades, much of the population in much of the world has spent much of its free time watching TV, and the telephone made spoken communication possible over long distances. If the great serialized novels of the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, have a counterpart today, it is not any novel but a TV show like 24 or The Simpsons. The 1960s are defined by their music, and to a lesser extent by certain great films, far than by any books written at that time. Since then, however, popular music has lost its prophetic force. There are no modern analogues of Bob Dylan. If there is a medium in which the “dominant idea of each generation” is expressed today, it may be the website. The internet, in contrast with radio and TV, began as a text technology, but as connection speeds have gotten faster, it has become a major conduit for photos, videos, and music. Today’s cultural history is probably best periodized by the advent of great websites: we live in the Age of Facebook.

While non-written communication has been important for the masses, text has always been the dominant vehicle for the accumulation and preservation of knowledge. In the history of text itself there have been a few technological transitions. First, the scroll gave way to the book, at about the time when paganism gave way to Christianity. The book has the advantage of “random access,” i.e., you can open it anywhere. Second, papyrus scrolls gave way to parchment and then to paper. Third, somewhere along the way, a largely silent transition from reading aloud to reading silently took place. Fourth and hitherto most important is the advent of printing. But the rise of the Internet is probably as important as the rise of printing.

The internet has spawned several new forms of textual communication, including email, blogs, tweets, Facebook feeds, wikis, and discussion forums. The physical book, after a nearly 2,000-year ascendancy as the chief home of knowledge, has been swiftly reduced to obsolescence. The internet and Kindle’s e-library contain far more information than the ancient Library of Alexandria ever did, and makes it readily available, all the time, to any person with a smartphone, which means almost everyone in the developed democracies of the West, and rapidly growing numbers of people in developing countries as well. The quantity of text is perhaps less important than its searchability. After all, it has been two or three centuries at least since there has been more text than anyone can read, but this abundance does a person little good if they can’t find the text that answers their question. A Google search has become the preeminent way of fetching information.

There has been a great democratization in the production of text, too. Today, anyone can write a blog and publish his or her thoughts to the world, for free. Of course, finding readers is not as easy, and there is an online elite, arising from the mysterious, spontaneous distribution of eyeballs among web pages, of which some are almost completely unread while a few attract millions of viewers every day. But many blogs have risen to fame from obscurity without much help from the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing world. Business writers with a knack for statistics have also noted a phenomenon called the “long tail,” meaning that in the statistical distribution of, say, blog readership, or product sales, the market share of the biggest players is often outnumbered by the combined market share of numerous smaller players. The internet has given the human conversation a more decentralized and nichefied structure.

2. The Economics of Text

As Victor Hugo understood, the historical impact of new text technologies is largely a function of economics. Underlying the metaphorical “marketplace of ideas” is a literal marketplace of manuscripts, or printed books, or websites. Authors must make a living somehow, and prices and logistics affect who reads what, and thereby which minds are changed, and how. So to forecast the impact of new media, we first need some insight about the cost characteristics of different text technologies.

Economic activities typically have inputs and outputs, and various cost concepts are used to characterize the relationships between them. For example, printing a book (simplifying somewhat) requires a printing press—capital—and a lot of time to set up the mold for the pages—labor. These are called fixed costs, because they do not depend on the size of the print run. In addition, each copy of a book printed requires further labor, as well as paper and ink. These are called marginal costs, because they accumulate at the margin. If fixed costs are substantial and marginal costs are relatively constant, then average costs, the sum of all fixed and marginal costs divided by the quantity produced, are falling as the size of the print run increases. Falling average costs are also called economies of scale. Once production is complete, there are further costs of distributing books, storing books until they are sold or otherwise used, and conducting transactions with book buyers.

Costs depend on technology, and Table 1 gives a rough, schematic description of the cost structures in the production and distribution of text in the medieval (manuscript) and modern (print) epochs, as well as in the age of the internet. In the Middle Ages, the marginal cost, in labor, of producing a book was very high, since books had to be copied by hand. Most other costs were low by comparison. Text production tended to be dominated by institutions, especially the Church, or to depend on aristocratic patrons.

Table 1: How the economics of text technologies structures the human conversation

Medieval manuscripts Printing Internet
Produc-tion costs:
Fixed (capital) Modest: ink, parchment High: you must own a printing press Low: computer, internet connection
Fixed (labor) N/A High: you must mold each page Modest: formatting for the web
Marginal Very high: books must be copied by hand Low: after setup costs, mass production is cheap Negligible: once posted, all can read
Distri-bution and storage Relatively low, so texts are disseminated widely and kept available Relatively high, so most texts are distributed locally, then go out of print Negligible: everything anyone writes is permanently available everywhere
Transac-tions costs for reader payment Relatively high, so institutions usually pay Relatively low, so readers’ willingness to pay drives publishing Relatively high, so sponsors and advertisers pay, or text is produced pro bono
Price of texts High Low Free
Quantity of texts Limited Plentiful, but a limited selection available to most readers Almost inconceivably vast and diverse
Market struc-ture Dominated by the Church Publishers with large print runs Decentralized and nichefied: most reading occurs in the “long tail” of the distribution
Interac-tivity Some: “glossators” write notes in margins None: books are fungible, readers are passive receptacles Easy and abundant: comment sections, blogs, chat rooms, social media

Printing made it possible to make and sell books at low prices, but only with large print runs. High fixed costs discouraged niche or custom publishing. Distribution and storage were no more expensive than before, but they were much more relatively expensive, because production costs were so low. So distribution networks limited the geographic reach of many books, and older books often went out of print. While printing vastly increased the number of books made, and high-quality reading material became available to the masses, the selection was still limited by the high fixed costs of launching a print run, as well as by problems of distribution. Moreover, the role of some medieval copyists as “glossators” who wrote in the margins of texts, or between the lines, to explain unfamiliar words and reconcile apparent contradictions, disappeared. All copies of a book were identical, and readers of a book became passive receptacles of what publishers sold them.

The medieval “glossator” has an interesting counterpart in the modern blogger, who publishes excerpts of other texts, adding commentaries that integrate them into a coherent worldview. Some of today’s leading public intellectuals, such as Tyler Cowen, Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, Scott Sumner, and Matthew Yglesias, rose to prominence through the blogosphere, while others, such as Paul Krugman, became famous through traditional scholarly channels, but then took to blogging for the sake of the freedom and influence it provides. Some blogs, such as the Brothers Judd ( primarily link to and quote other texts, adding only a few words of their own commentary to each post. This raises the question of why readers read the blog, instead of the sources, which are usually just a click away. A major reason seems to be that the reader is familiar with the blogger, knows and trusts his or her perspective, and prefers either to read texts filtered for consistency with a worldview they accept, or else to be armed by their favored blogger with refutations of any texts they may disagree with. Bloggers, like glossators, satisfy a demand for coherence and consistency in a world made confusing by the chaotic diversity of voices. Readers of blogs can also add their own comments, but even the blogosphere seems to have declined in recent years, eclipsed by the “micro-blogs” of Facebook and Twitter.

The comparative interactivity of both the internet age, with its teeming comments sections, and the Middle Ages, with its glossators writing in the margins of the books they were copying, stand in striking contrast with the age of print, when consumers were passive receptacles, reading identical, mass-manufactured copies of exactly the same text. Yet in another way, consumers had more power in the age of print than they do today, and the subtle reason for this relates to transactions costs in the book market.

A book maker incurs costs. The readers enjoy benefits. In principle, the readers should be willing to pay for the benefits. If readers’ willingness to pay is greater than the book maker’s cost, the book should be made. If not, not. Supply and demand should, in principle, motivate text producers to produce the text that people want to read. In the age of print, this was more or less true. Profit-driven publishing was the norm. This was possible because bookselling was the main transmission mechanism for text, and it is straightforward for a bookseller to collect a payment. So what got printed depended on what the consumer wanted to buy. In the words of Adam Smith, “the consumer is king.” Readers could not talk back, but they enjoyed consumer sovereignty.

By contrast, in the Middle Ages, books were too expensive to be often purchased by individuals for their own pleasure, and institutions, such as churches and monasteries, which could share books among many individuals, and keep them down the generations, played a larger role in book markets. What books got made therefore depended more on ecclesiastical or aristocratic patronage than on consumer demand. Surprisingly, this feature of the medieval book market has reappeared in the modern internet. It is hard to get people to pay to use websites. Few people today have such a low value of time that an article worth reading is not worth paying 10 to 20 cents for, but pulling out a credit card to pay (a) wastes a valuable minute of time, and (b) involves a security risk, since internet users are wisely wary about entering their credit card information into unfamiliar websites. So internet users tend to insist on free content. The clumsy solution to the problem is advertising, and annoyed readers end up closing pop-ups or scrolling away from sponsored content, but perhaps occasionally seeing something they want, and justifying the advertising dollars that finance the sites they are reading. But the internet age gives an advantage to websites that are produced on a pro bono or volunteer basis, or which have institutional sponsorship, so that they can keep their content available for free.

Another parallel between medieval manuscripts and the internet is that both favor a lingua franca over vernaculars. Early estimates of the global market share of English in internet content put it at 80%. That proportion has certainly fallen as internet use has spread worldwide, and Pimienta, Prado, and Blaco (2009) estimate English content at 45% today, while guessing that the true figure is under 40%, which is still far ahead of other languages, and enormously disproportionate to the 5.4% of humanity whose native language is English. English is the new Latin, the great textual language, the language of an international intelligentsia, the medium of the best argument and information.

But why? Because today, as in the Middle Ages, the relative cost of distribution and storage of texts is low compared to the cost of producing them, so it is easy to reach mass audiences, if only you are writing in a widely understood language. Most medieval writers—Dante, who wrote in the Florentine dialect of Italian, and the troubadours, who wrote in Old Provencal, were exceptions— preferred Latin, because vernaculars were local and ephemeral; and vernaculars were local and ephemeral because medieval writers preferred Latin. A paucity of books reduced the opportunity and the incentive to become literate in vernacular languages if one did not have the resources to learn Latin, and without books and schools to fix vocabularies and grammars in place, the vernaculars varied from town to town and generation to generation. Latin gave access to an international, albeit an elite-only, audience, and ensured that works could be read by posterity. But printing made it less important to be read internationally or by posterity, for printed books could make a quick profit from, and have a rapid impact on, large local audiences. The profit motive drove a shift from Latin into the vernaculars, and the proliferation of literature in the vernaculars homogenized and elevated them into the great modern European languages. For a long time, Latin was still better known internationally than national languages like English or French, and some authors wrote in Latin for elite audiences– Isaac Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica in 1687 in Latin, for example– but such long-distance circulation of books was expensive, and the profit motive tended to push text producers towards English, French, and German.

Today, when anything published online is automatically available to the whole world, text producers face the opposite pressures. They can reach the whole world, but only if they write in English. The vast supply of English online content increases the means and opportunity to learn the web’s dominant language. An intriguing possibility suggests itself, that non-English languages might be reduced to a status like that of the medieval vernaculars, abandoned by the intelligentsia and thereby deprived of sophisticated vocabulary and formal, prescriptive grammar, and sometimes degenerating into slang, while at other times being colonized by English loan-words.  

Perhaps most importantly, the age of print cut off what is sometimes called “the long tail,” (Anderson, 2006A). The “long tail” of a statistical distribution is the many small entities that together may be much larger than the largest entities. Thus, if a printer publishers 100 books, and rejects 10,000, the rejected 10,000 may well have sold more copies, and created more reader satisfaction, than the printer’s 100 top picks, had they been published. But high fixed costs mean the printer cannot print a few copies of 10,000 different books. The result is a “few-to-many” distribution structure. But the 10,000 books can easily be published in cyberspace. The result is a wider selection and happier readers, but also endless diffusion, diversity, and decentralization. Social media accelerate this trend. Facebook epitomizes “mass customization” and makes everyone a published writer. It is an apt symbol of the contrast between the age of print and the age of the internet. The internet has given rise to a “many-to-many” structure for the distribution of text. And that may have major geopolitical ramifications, if Anderson (2006B) is right that the rise of the nation-state was a side-effect of “print capitalism.”

3. Imagined Communities

In the contemporary world, everyone is still thought to have a nationality almost as everyone has a gender. We have even forgotten that this is odd. Part of the confusion arises because race and native language really are almost as fundamental as gender. But neither race nor native language is synonymous with nationality. To 19th-century nationalists fighting to reunite Germany or liberate Ireland, the idea that a benighted past was giving way to a more rational future, in which one people had one government, came naturally. But in a longer historical perspective, the naturalness of desiderata like Irish independence or German unity for certain generations is just what needs explaining. After all, medieval Europeans rarely found the cause of national independence and/or unity worth fighting for, or even intelligible, while in the early 21st century, many contemporary Europeans are embarrassed by their former nationalism and desire to submerge hard-won national independence in an “ever closer union” of Europe.

Nationality today is the political fact of membership in a particular state. If, as Aristotle claimed, “man is a political animal,” might nationality, as membership of a state, be almost as necessary and fundamental to human identity as gender, race, and language? No. History reveals that the identification of nationality with membership of a state, and the partitioning of the population and territory of the whole globe into nation-states, are quite recent developments. As recently as World War I, most of the world consisted of multinational empires, migration was largely unrestricted, and class and race were as important to human identity as nationality or citizenship, which in turn would rarely be identified with each other. That said, the transition to a world of nation-states was already well underway. Most of the world’s leading powers in 1914, were organized as nation-states, with Britain and France priding themselves in national histories going back to the Middle Ages, while Germans and Italians had sought national unification in the 19th century, and some form of this desideratum had been achieved through the power politics of older dynastic states. Dynastic multinational empires were widely perceived as backward and archaic. When Wilson, after WWI, sought to rebuild a shattered world on the basis of “national self-determination,” he would help to catalyze decades of chaotic, revolutionary transformation, first in eastern Europe, then in the post-colonial Third World, but if Anderson (2006B) is right that nationalism arose from print capitalism, Wilson may only have been accelerating a long-term trend.

Nationalism was linked with democracy, as it would later turn out to be with socialism, despite the ideological internationalism of Marx and other socialist theoreticians. The phrase rule of the people, which can equally have a democratic meaning (the people vs. kings and aristocrats), a nationalist meaning (the people vs. other peoples), or a socialist meaning (the people vs. the rich and the capitalists) neatly elucidates the inherent links between the three. The association of nationalism with the political “right” and of socialism with the political “left” is misleading. The widespread advent of democracy in late-19th century Europe led to the decline of international capitalism, as it was curtailed by larger governments that were at once more national and more socialist, regardless of whether they called themselves communist, fascist, or democratic. Autarkic isolationism has a perennial appeal for the nationalist mind, but it leads to economic inefficiency and geopolitical instability, as the world painfully learned in the Great Depression and World War II. However, the post-war West was able, for a while, to use military alliances and limited economic integration to achieve peace and prosperity within relatively closed national communities. Meanwhile, the new nationalisms that had been emerging under colonial rule, began to attain independence. By the 1980s, the Wilsonian idea of a world of nation-states seemed largely realized.

Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities (Anderson, 2006B) offered the most influential explanation of the continual popular drive for national self-determination in the modern world. He explains how modern nationalism arose from “print capitalism.” Anderson’s title calls nations “imagined” communities, but he does not mean they are imaginary. People who think they are a nation, are one, really. The way people imagine the world matters to them, so it matters to history. That said, Anderson is pointing out that various more “real” or “objective” definitions of nationality which might be suggested, fail to generalize. Language does not work. It can explain the unity of Czechs and Italians, but not why Switzerland is one nation, or why the English-speaking nations—the USA, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—are six. Race does not work, since the USA and India are racial rainbows, while a dozen distinct northern European nations exhibit no discernible racial differences. History does not work, since long union didn’t make the Irish feel English, while centuries of city-state independence did not prevent 19th-century Italians from feeling a shared nationality. Religion does not work, since the USA is religiously diverse, while Spain, Italy, Ireland and so forth do not comprise a single Catholic nation. Sovereignty does not work, for subject nations aspire to gain separate sovereignty, while pieces of divided nations aspire to lose it. The search for some deeper essence of nationality fails, leaving us with the conclusion that people who think they are a nation, are.

But people’s need for imagined community long predates modern nationalism. The lives of people in the Middle Ages were embedded in a wide variety of imagined communities, including guilds, monasteries and religious orders, universities, feudal hierarchies, dynastic kingdoms, and overarching all, the Catholic Church. Anderson stresses that nationalist writings are full of love for their countries, and that people in the 20th century proved themselves ready “not so much to kill as to die” for their countries, more than for any other cause. But in the Middle Ages, men loved, and fought and died for, Christendom and the Church– especially in the Crusades– or for their kings and feudal lords. Personal and local ties were probably more important in medieval times than they became in the modern age of urban industrialization, but what we might call “international” loyalties, to the Roman Catholic Church or the Holy Roman Empire, were also more important. The very word “international,” however, betrays our modern bias to emphasize the national unit. The word “catholic”– meaning universal– better expresses medieval sensibilities, which saw the community of Christendom as at least as real and organic as any nascent national political units that might exist under its aegis.

So if the idea that nations are “imagined communities” is accepted, it remains to explain why, in modern times, national imagined communities eclipsed other kinds of imagined communities. Anderson explains this novelty by looking to the rise of reading publics as the nursery of nationhood. Profit-driven publishers learned to connect with their readers, and thereby connected their readers with one another. Newspapers created, among their readerships, a sense of the immediacy and urgency of events, as well as of the permanence of the community itself, of which the readers were a part. They created a sense of a collectivity moving through time but remaining itself. Novels were written, in an unprecedentedly intimate style, to an implicit audience, an audience that shared certain assumptions and circumstances, that knew certain place-names and had certain customs, in short, to a nation. While a common language is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for shared nationality, the literary transition to the vernacular was obviously important. Erasmus (1466-1536), the cosmopolitan intellectual who still wrote in Latin, was succeeded by Luther (1483-1546), who translated the Bible into German, and Shakespeare (1564-1616), who laid the foundations of an English national literature. But the crucial element was not language per se, but the way printed literatures shaped the human conversation. As modern literatures eclipsed classical and medieval texts, the circulation of these literatures helped define the boundaries of a community, eclipsing both more local and feudal loyalties, and more abstract and universal ones. Language barriers and political frontiers impeded the circulation of text, but more fundamentally, the economics of printing oriented writers to local and immediate mass markets. It discouraged writing for the ages, since, as Jonathan Swift (1712) complained, the national languages were still changing, and might not be intelligible to future generations. Text reached downwards into classes it had never before touched, and began to soften class distinctions, but it ceased to reach across national, political, and linguistic boundaries, or backward and forward in time, as easily as it had once done.

Today, the primacy of national imagined communities may be giving way to a more stratified, complex, voluntarist web of overlapping and interpenetrating imagined communities, more like that of the Middle Ages. Recent books like Coming Apart (Murray, 2012), Our Kids (Putnam, 2015) and Bowling Alone (Putnam, 1995), and The Big Sort (Bishop, 2009), among many others, highlight the increasing stratification and self-segregation of American society, and the decline of a sense of national community. At the same time, social networking sites enable people to revive and strengthen social ties and meet new people, without regard to national boundaries. A recent study of the global social network that is Facebook (Ugander et al., 2011) found that 84 percent of links between “friends” are within the same country. While this implies that social networks are still mainly intra-national, it almost certainly represents an internationalization of social networks relative to, say, the 1950s and 1960s. Epidemiologists estimate that between 70 percent and 95 percent of a population needs to be immune to a contagious disease before it acquires “herd immunity.” It seems likely that, in the heyday of print capitalism and nation-states, nations had a sort of “herd immunity” to foreign ideas, whereby an open-minded few who might have listened to them, would simply never have heard them, whereas today, with foreign media sources only a click away and 16 percent of people’s Facebook friends living abroad, they have lost it. Ideas move easily across political frontiers, and public opinion is less national in character.

Table 2 summarizes the argument so far, as it relates to the impact of text technology on the structure of the human conversation, how people’s imagined communities were or are likely to be shaped by it, and what forms of geopolitical organization these imagined communities were or are likely to aspire to.

Table 2: How text technology shapes imagined communities and politics

Text technology Structure of the human conversation Imagined communities Geopolitical organization
Manuscript A lingua franca (Latin) united a literate, orthodox, largely clerical elite across space and time. Most other communication is oral and local. The Catholic Church was the overarching community; plus religious orders, guilds, the knightly class, and personal feudal ties. Secular power was organized in complex, shifting feudal and dynastic matrices, while the Church and its religious orders enjoyed substantial freedom and privileges.
Printing National, transient in scope, and “the consumer is king” in the marketplace of ideas yet can’t talk back, moderate centralization because of the fixed costs of a printing press. Loyalties gradually become concentrated in notionally homogeneous nation-states. Dynasts come to seem archaic, and fascist, communist, and democratic nation-states based on egalitarian citizenship take over.
Internet A lingua franca (English) increasingly ties together a global educated class, and the profit motive recedes as institutional and volunteer voices predominate. At once globalized and nichefied. People can bond easily with like-minded people worldwide, but need not know their neighbors. Global governance institutions and NGOs gain influence, while national democracy becomes increasingly problematic.


If the printing press was the ultimate cause of modern nationalism, the transition was remarkably slow. Almost four centuries passed between Gutenberg’s printing press and the political consolidation of the German and Italian nations. Ideas of sovereignty are stubborn features of the mental landscape, and like the Roman empire, it was the fate of the dynastic principle to be destroyed, then revived, and then to linger on as a dream and a fiction long after it had ceased to be a fact. First in England, then in France, revolutionaries executed a king, only to see a restoration, followed by another, more moderate revolution that set up another, more moderate king. England’s kings had almost ceased ruling by the mid-18th century, yet the British crown was never more popular than when it sat on the head of the largely powerless Queen Victoria. The principle that the people ought to rule seemed obvious to Locke in 1689, and to many others in the generations that followed, but the difficulty of implementing it played into the hands of the old dynasts again and again, most notably in 1848. Hobbes and Burke, fearing revolution, strained to supply new justifications for the old monarchical order. Yet in hindsight, we can hardly regard the fall of the dynasts and the advent of national democracy throughout Europe as historical accidents. An aspiration that had persisted for centuries could hardly have remained indefinitely unfulfilled.

But the aspiration to national democracy was not an inevitable and permanent feature of human nature. It was, instead, a product of history, and more specifically, a consequence of how the human conversation was organized by the printing press. Today, the human conversation is being reorganized again by the internet. It stands to reason (a) that in due course, the imagined communities in which people situate themselves can be expected to adapt to the new opportunities for communication, and (b) that what shape these new communities will take, and how they will shape the political organization of a future humanity, must be as difficult to conceive now, as a world of democratic nation-states would be in 1550. Yet it may be helpful to use the High Middle Ages as “a distant mirror,” to borrow the title of Tuchman (1979) as a potent description of how historical analogies help us understand the world. The parallel is suggested, first of all, by the resemblances between the medieval manuscripts and modern websites, with their low costs of distribution and storage relative to production, and their high transactions costs for payment, favoring international distribution of texts, linguae francae, the dominance of institutional, volunteer, and pro bono over for-profit text production, and the simultaneous globalization and nichefication of the human conversation. Other resemblances follow from these.  

The hypothesis that we are fated, in some respects, to relive the Middle Ages, is not a pessimistic hypothesis, even if it is partly inspired by the Islamic terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment had a bias against the Middle Ages, and it lingers on in the negative connotations which words like “medieval” and “feudal” usually carry. Yet beginning in the Romantic era, there has also been a tradition of admiring the Middle Ages. The works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are set in quasi-medieval worlds, and countless quasi-medieval imaginary worlds are generated by the flourishing fantasy-fiction industry for the benefit of readers and gamers. The pro-medieval tradition of the Romantics, Lewis and Tolkien, is wiser than the anti-medieval bias of the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophes. For all the brilliance of classical Greece and Rome, they never really had human rights, limited government, or freedom of conscience; their religions were immoral and intellectually irresponsible to the point of absurdity; their philosophies were mixed up with magic and superstition; their economies were founded on slave labor; and the golden ages of Greek and Roman freedom were stained with incessant warfare. In the High Middle Ages, philosophy and the arts flourished, universities appeared, legal traditions capable of protecting human rights were emerging, slavery was mitigated to serfdom and even serfdom then began to give way to general freedom, parliamentary government was born, and science and technology began to accelerate. To say that we entering an age of “neo-medieval globalism” is to forecast a sweeping betterment of the human condition, marred by some religious violence.

Key parallels between the present and the Middle Ages are sketched in Table 3.

Table 3: How the internet age resembles the Middle Ages

Feature of today’s world Medieval analogy Explanation
English Latin Lingua franca of the educated elite
The international community The Church The largest imagined community with which most people identify, containing all others
Economics Theology Reigning intellectual discipline that supplies a standard of right and a conception of the good life for humans
Liberalism Catholicism A broad ideology, generally accepted by leaders and populaces, dissent from which is feared and condemned
International human rights law Canon law Legal norms pretending to universality, whose development guides and constrains the positive law of particular states
“Nation-building” Medieval kingship emerges with Church sponsorship Where states are weak, state formation is catalyzed and supported by outside civilizing forces
Govt. power is limited by human rights, representative institutions, international law Govt. power is limited by natural law, feudalism, canon law and the Church Opposition to overly strong states is supported and legitimized by outside civilizing forces
The UN The papacy Conceived of as center of civilization and touchstone of legitimacy, though often ineffectual
NGOs and development agencies Monastic orders Purpose-driven, transnational voluntary organizations working in various ways for the prescribed standard of right

A low cost of distribution and storage of text, relative to its production, made it easy for the human conversation to cross frontiers, and people learned the lingua franca of the times to participate in it. This helped the medievals to feel themselves to be part of a universal Church, whose Latin liturgy was the same from Sicily to Scandinavia. Similarly, people today feel a stake in “the international community,” to which they are tied by webs of communication, especially if they happen to know English, as more and more people do. The shape of the human conversation helps explain the ascendancy of (broadly defined) liberalism, which, having conquered the minds and consciences of the West, fairly easily extends these conquests into lands that communicate intensively with the West, listen to its deliberations from the margins, and find themselves challenged by its values and principles. The shape of the human conversation may even explain why economics, like theology in medieval times, is so influential today. Economics, built on basic needs and observed choices as analyzed using deductive logic, is a form of reasoning largely independent of cultural assumptions, so it travels well. Medieval theology had a similar universality in the Catholic West.

Shared principles—liberalism—and modes of thinking—economics—allow for a high degree of solidarity and mutual understanding among upstanding members of the international community. The flip side of this is that illiberal opinions and regimes face anathematization, rather like heretics in early medieval times. Vladimir Putin is the latest national leader to defy the liberal world order. It will be interesting to see if his end resembles that of those who preceded him in the role, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Openly racist speech in the USA provokes fierce ostracism. Illiberal political parties in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, are treated as pariahs by mainstream parties. The range of tolerated opinion includes free-market economics and democratic socialism, libertinism and moderate social conservatism, Christianity and atheism and all long-standing religious traditions, but not racial hatred, advocacy of terrorism, or sympathy with Nazi and fascist regimes.  

The international community, like the medieval Church, encourages state formation in places where states are absent, and seeks to strengthen states that are too weak to maintain order and administer justice, through foreign aid and policy advice. As medieval churchmen once crowned kings, served as royal councillors, and raised armies from episcopal lands for the king’s service, so weak states today can expect help from the IMF, World Bank, diverse development agencies, and NGOs and private philanthropy. States, after all, are needed to protect human rights against private violence. But stronger states can expect resistance from the same agencies if they violate human rights. Sanctions, the non-violent but often potent weapon of the international community against wrongdoers when it is not prepared to use force, resemble the interdict, the cessation of ecclesiastical services ordered by the medieval papacy, which it used to exert pressure on various regimes, without going to war. Liberals today, like the medievals, believe that government should be limited, though the mechanisms are different. Medieval kings were limited by the feudal social contract, the immunities of the Church, and notionally by natural law. Modern national leaders are limited by representative institutions, international law, and the obligation to respect human rights. The UN lies at the heart of the liberal world order, as the papacy once lay at the heart of the medieval Catholic West, and even if, as of 2015, the UN bore a greater resemblance to the impotent papacy of the 10th century than to the muscular papacy of the 13th, its widespread recognition as a touchstone of legitimacy is a mostly untapped resource that may one day be used to accelerate the transition to liberal globalism.

At present, this sort of neo-medieval globalism is still only a tentative scaffolding around the firm, if eroding, structures of national sovereignty. But trends over the past couple of decades point to the empowerment of globalist organizations, official and voluntary, a trend probably accelerated by the internationalization of social networks. If the internet is going to transform the world order as the printing press once did, we should not expect it to do so quickly. First, the conversation of mankind will be restructured. That is happening today. Over time, the structure of the imagined communities that people feel they belong to will change to become more like the structure of the human conversation itself. But nation-state sovereignty will remain a fixture of people’s minds long after the rationales for it have lost their persuasiveness. People will fall back on it again and again as an expedient, when dreams of a more just and rational order elude implementation. Yet those new dreams are already being born, and are beginning to be actors in history. Some of them were born in the crucible of the anti-globalization movement.

4. The Rise and Fall of Anti-Globalization

A great irony of recent history, is that the movement which probably most typifies and foreshadows the dawning age of globalist politics, rallied under the slogan of “anti-globalization.” Rising to international prominence through huge, angry protests against leading institutions associated with global capitalism, such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, it appeared to be a growing force, a permanent challenger to the international economic power, as the international revolutionary socialist movement was in the 19th century. Some apologists for global capitalism, such as Harold James (2002), wrote with the urgency of men with their backs against the wall. But the movement dwindled as rapidly and unexpectedly as it had begun, and even the financial crisis that began in 2008 did not revive it. It was not suppressed. Rather, ideological evolutions made it unfashionable.

The largest anti-globalization protests, involving tens or hundreds of thousands, occurred in November 1999 in Seattle, against the WTO; in April 2000, in Washington, against the IMF and World Bank; and in July 2001, in Genoa, Italy, against the G-8. Most protesters were non-violent, but not all; meetings were canceled; police retaliated with pepper spray, tear gas, and stun grenades. One motive for scheduling the WTO meetings in November 2001, which launched a new round of trade talks, in Doha, Qatar, seems to have been that Doha was far away from the Western democracies where most protesters came from, and was moreover an authoritarian kingdom with few scruples about suppressing protests. The West seemed unsure of being able to guarantee the physical safety, in its own cities, of official summits associated with global capitalism, and had to outsource the WTO summit to a petro-state on the Persian Gulf.

Then something changed. The Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in September 2002 attracted protests, but far smaller than those in Seattle and Genoa. One or two thousand protesters showed up, of which hundreds were temporarily arrested. Since then, the IMF, World Bank, WTO, G-8, and other multilateral organizations and clubs have been able to meet with only token protests. Why? Why, first of all, did so many people take to the streets to protest against globalization in the first place? Given that they did, why did they stop? If the anti-globalization cause could mobilize hundreds of thousands in protest in 2001, why not in 2006, or 2011?

Protesters’ stated motives were bewilderingly varied. Some were protesting on behalf of the environment, trying to protect nature from the depredations of global corporations. Some were protesting against the outsourcing of jobs from developed nations to developing countries where wages and working conditions were poor. Some were protesting the loss of democratic national sovereignty to opaque technocratic global institutions. The key catalyst of the Seattle protests, however, seems to have been the founding of the WTO in 1995, with new powers to interfere in the policies of developed Western democracies. In 1997, the WTO ruled against EU (European Union) restrictions on imports of beef from cattle treated with hormones. In 1999, the WTO ruled against the EU’s policy of favoring banana imports from certain ex-colonial countries. This pattern of interference threatened US domestic groups such as environmentalists and trade unions who were accustomed to using domestic policies to regulate working conditions and protect the environment. They were troubled to see a global institution, operating outside the ordinary channels of democratic accountability, imposing laissez-faire rules. Environmentalists and labor unions were the key constituencies of the Seattle protests.

One of the slogans in Seattle was “No Globalization without Representation,” and this slogan probably comes closest to expressing what the movement was about, what gave its disparate members their transient unity. But it also highlights the ambivalence that was present in it from the beginning. If one protests against “globalization without representation,” there are, logically, two ways to address the grievance: (a) no globalization, and (b) globalization with representation. Which did the protesters want?

Inasmuch as they were protesting that increasing power was being wielded by institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, which had only tenuous constitutional links to any democratic process and were effectively insulated from any kind of electoral pressures, the protestors had a point. It was anomalous, in an age when democracy reigned without a rival on the ideological plane, even if far fewer regimes were really democratic than claimed to be, that major institutions of global governance wielded power without democratic accountability. But what was to be done about it? It was not clear how the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, much less the impersonal market forces of global finance or global supply chain management, could be made more democratically accountable. The anti-globalization movement was becoming a magnet for a political left orphaned by the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Marxist communism. It did not want less governance of markets, or a purer form of laissez-faire capitalism. What did it want?

The economist Dani Rodrik, at Harvard University, was the most respectable critic of globalization. In books like Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (Rodrik, 1998) and The Globalization Paradox (Rodrik, 2011), Rodrik stresses the importance of various roles that the government plays in the economy, from antitrust to consumer safety to labor rights to environmental protection to social insurance, and the value of having these roles played by large, democratically accountable governments. A globalizing economy without robust global governance, Rodrik argued and still argues today, would be too volatile, and deficient in public goods and social insurance. Rodrik doubted that robust governance of a globalized economy would be possible for reasons that can perhaps be best expressed in Benedict Andersen’s language. People’s imagined communities were still national, so to organize some sort of democratic world polity was not a feasible project. To oversimplify, Rodrik truncated the slogan “no globalization without representation” to “no globalization.” More accurately, he wanted to see globalization curtailed, and more power be wielded by the representative institutions that were already in place, namely, democratic national governments.

Yet Rodrik was never quite a thought-leader for the anti-globalization movement, probably because there was never widespread sympathy within the movement for Rodrik’s brand of nationalism. Most activists did not want to truncate the Seattle slogan, but preferred to foster vague dreams of a globalization with representation, a globalization that would somehow give the global proletariat more of a voice. Some of the Seattle protesters, to be sure, were old-style protectionists, resenting the threat to US sovereignty posed by the WTO. Yet as the movement expanded, it soon claimed to speak for the oppressed masses of the developing world, and to make this claim credible, they needed exotic allies. As the left took over the movement, they imbued it with their traditional internationalism. That made the “anti-globalization” label awkward, and some participants adopted the label “alter-globalization” as an alternative, signalling that they wanted global cooperation, but not on “neoliberal” lines. An economist like Rodrik, calling for a return to the Bretton Woods system of the immediate post-Cold War decades, when trade and capital flows were more tightly controlled and national governments had more freedom to pursue national development plans, was not the ideologist the movement needed.

All manner of grievances against global capitalism were brought under the umbrella of the anti-globalization movement. In part, the anti-globalization movement was a generous reaction to global inequality, which seemed to be at a historic peak. Global inequality was not new, but the West’s triumphalism in the wake of its victory in the Cold War made it more galling. The title of Francis Fukuyama’s bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man, (Fukuyama, 2006) captured the mood of the West, even if it was widely dismissed as hyperbole. By that title, Fukuyama meant that history in the sense of ideological struggle was over, and liberal democratic capitalism was established as a universal pattern for human societies, even if some societies had not yet caught up with the end of history. Such eulogies to the neoliberal world order made the need for a critique more urgent. How could a world of liberal, democratic, capitalist nation-states be accepted as “the end of history” when so many people worldwide were so desperately poor?

To this, the neoliberal answer was that as societies remodeled themselves on neoliberal lines, they would gradually “converge” to the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the West. They would accumulate physical and human capital, adopt cutting-edge technology, and see labor productivity increase. The IMF, the World Bank, and the foreign aid agencies of the Western democracies, would help them to adopt sound fiscal and monetary policies and improve public services and the rule of law. The WTO would pressure them to get rid of harmful protectionist rules that catered to local vested interests, while securing them access to the large, lucrative consumer markets of the West. Yet in the late 1990s, the facts seemed to contradict this optimistic story. The 1980s had been a “lost decade” for Africa and Latin America. Economic growth had been slow in South Asia for decades. And even the one region that had seemed to be converging to Western living standards, East Asia, suffered a devastating financial crisis in 1997-98, which then spread to Russia and Brazil. The writings of wandering polymath journalist Robert Kaplan, such as The Ends of the Earth (1996), vividly documented extreme global inequality in a way that would hardly have been possible before the openness of the 1990s gave writers like Kaplan increased freedom to travel. Western Europe was rich, but suffered from high unemployment and slow growth. The USA was thriving, but for the rest of the world, global capitalism looked like a bad deal. It did not follow, however, that its critics had a viable alternative to offer.

The diversity of the anti-globalization movement was its strength and its weakness. It gave it an appearance of power and popular support, and at the same time made ideological coherence elusive. Some intellectuals sympathetic to the movement wrote books at the time that seemed like efforts to express articulate a unifying ideology for the diverse and chaotic anti-globalization movement. Thus, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, (Klein, 1999) published shortly after the battle in Seattle, represented multinational corporations as simultaneous oppressors of First World consumers, compelled by fashion trends to overpay for cool brands, and of Third World workers, paid starvation wages for toiling in sweatshops. But this story made little sense economically, since sweatshop jobs must make Third World workers better off than the alternatives or they wouldn’t take them, and outsourcing jobs to poor countries lowered the prices of manufactured goods for Western consumers, rather than raising them. Other anti-globalization tracts for the times, such as William Greider’s One World, Ready or Not (Greider, 1998) were similarly fraught with fallacies.

Had the anti-globalization movement endured, it might have found its Karl Marx in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and its Das Kapital in their 2000 book Empire (Hardt and Negri, 2009). Hardt and Negri make a determined effort to discern the constitution of the world order, which they call the “Empire,” since the distant mirror they use to see the contemporary world by is the ancient Roman empire. This metaphor overstates the political unity of the contemporary world, which is why the High Middle Ages, when the universal Church had great moral and political influence but kings and feudal lords held most of the political power, supplies a better historical analogy. But there is nonetheless a certain lucidity in Hardt and Negri’s vision of “Empire” as a system at once of juridical power and of capitalist exploitation, of which the UN and international law, humanitarian interventions, and transnational corporations are equally expressions. It is productive not only of vast wealth, but also of notions of justice and right, tendentiously designed to serve the interests of capital.

Like Karl Marx, the supreme opponent of capitalism, who however insisted that capitalism was to be preferred to the feudal past because it brought socialist liberation closer, so Hardt and Negri refuse to entertain nostalgia for the nation-state. Instead, they see in the rising global Empire a new stage on which the internationalist ambitions of the left can be played out. In spite of the wealth, power, and apparent strength of the Empire, they see corruption, decadence, and decline as inherent in it from the inception. They look beyond that decline and fall to a vaguely described epoch in which “the multitude”—the laboring proletarian mass of global mankind—will attain new modes of freedom and self-government, rather as Christianity brought a new kind of freedom to the declining Roman Empire. They end with a eulogy to the “militant,” a kind of revolutionary community organizer who, they prophesy, will rise up and overthrow global capitalism. What will replace it is not clear, but it is certainly not the national democratic capitalism advocated by Rodrik. It seems, rather, to be some sort of “globalization with representation.”

But the crescendo of protest from Seattle to Genoa was followed by a swift and sudden fade-out. Why? The 9/11 provoked a reaction of patriotic solidarity which briefly made revolutionary protest distasteful. Then the war in Iraq provided a new focal point for the ire of the political left. Meanwhile, there was a strong intellectual counter-attack by advocates of globalization. Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization (Bhagwati, 2004) and Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works (Wolf, 2004) among many others, made an erudite and often passionate case, based on economic theory and history, that the anti-globalization movement’s means were the worst possible way to achieve its ostensible end of helping the world’s poor. Globalization had lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in East Asia, and it would do the same elsewhere, if only it were fully embraced and given time. More importantly, the facts began to support this optimistic story. By the mid-2000s, the world economy was booming, and world poverty was being alleviated as never before. East Asia’s financial crisis proved transient, and strong growth resumed. China’s booming growth not only spread decent living standards to more of its own people, but buoyed global commodity prices, helping countries in resource-exporting regions like Latin America and Africa to flourish, as well. Before 2008, growth was robust in every developing region of the world, and no one seems to have blamed the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath on globalization.

If capitalist prosperity and the Bush administration explained the decline of the anti-globalization movement, it should have revived with Bush’s exit from office, and especially, with the 2008 financial crisis. And in fact, there was an outbreak of protest in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Anti-austerity protests in Europe helped to ignite the Occupy Wall Street movement, which broke out in Zuccotti Park in New York City on November 15, 2011, with the slogan “We are the 99%.” Naomi Klein (2011) called Occupy Wall Street “the most important thing in the world now,” while Hardt and Negri (2011) hailed “the fight for ‘real democracy’ at the heart of Occupy Wall Street.’” But the Occupy movement did not target the IMF, World Bank, or WTO, but banks and rich people. Many of the same people and organizations that agitated against global capitalism in 1999-2002 are still agitating against it, but their target now is just capitalism, not globalization.

If the anti-globalization cause has become unfashionable, globalization and the institutions that represent it have gained, as it were by forfeit, a certain legitimacy. They enjoy a habitual deference from the media, and strikingly, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, was the leading Socialist candidate for French president before he was discredited by a sex scandal in 2011. More important is the globalization of civil society of which the anti-globalization movement was both a symptom and a catalyst. A vast proliferation of “non-governmental organizations,” or NGOs, now engage in operational development work as well as advocacy, are often recognized as “stakeholders” by the World Bank and other development agencies. Watkins et al. (2012) summarize a scholarly literature that views NGOs as “an alternative form of social organization… more altruistic, more cooperative, and less hierarchical than governments and for-profit organizations” which “by their very presence… assert an imagined shared citizenship in an emerging global polity.” They represent a makeshift solution to the problem of “globalization without representation,” more voluntarist and decentralized than formal democracy. As Hardt and Negri (2000) observed at one point, they are to the contemporary world order what the monastic orders were for the civilization of the High Middle Ages. NGOs and development agencies, like medieval monastic orders, each have their own style, structure, and goals, but these are generally consistent with liberal principles and desiderata, e.g., Doctors without Borders promotes health, and Reporters without Borders, press freedom. They are not the paid pawns of global capitalism, but are usually run with donor funds and the time donations of underpaid staff, and motivated by spontaneous sympathy with liberal ideals.

5. Conclusions

 At the time of writing (October 2015), the democratic politics of the contemporary West exhibit a certain aura of crisis and dysfunctionality. Far-right parties in Europe and populist candidates in the United States mock the political establishment and cast doubt over whether the center can hold. Europe has at least the excuse of economic crisis, but the United States is experiencing political turmoil (e.g., Donald Trump leads the polls for the Republican presidential nomination) despite a relatively healthy economy. If the thesis advanced here has any truth in it, the deep cause of this dysfunctionality may be the reorganization of the human community by the internet, making the democratic nation-state less well-adapted to serve human needs. The legitimacy that is bleeding away from nation-states is flowing to global governance institutions and NGOs which, though not democratically accountable by any regular mechanism, yet have weak claims to represent the human community as a whole, which national governments lack altogether.

If nation-states do find themselves ever more penetrated and constrained by NGOs, international human rights law, trade treaties, and so forth, human liberty will probably be well served. Democracy is far from a guarantee against the abuse of power, and representation is separable from majoritarian math. Often, unelected NGOs stand bravely for universal principles, while legislators are captured by vested interests, or pander to voter ignorance. Neo-medieval globalism can supply new checks and balances on national governments, and open up new spaces and chances for human beings to flourish. Some of the vague but alluring visions formed in the excitement of the anti-globalization movement may, after a fashion, be realized.

In today’s world order, no one is really tasked with representing the common interests of mankind. This is a gap the anti-globalization movement briefly tried to fill. The “invisible hand” of the market may direct the profit-seeking efforts of corporations in the service of the common good to some extent. But as Rodrik stresses, the market must operate in a framework of institutions which it cannot provide for itself, and in any case there are well-understood “market failures.” So global capitalism without global governance is problematic. The tension between globalization and democracy should not be resolved at the expense of globalization, however, since globalization is a mighty force for good. Nor does a democratic world polity seem either likely to emerge, or desirable. We should look instead for a humane global civil society to emerge in a more decentralized and voluntarist way, based partly in social media, and to engage in a sustained, benign contest for the moral high ground with the old sovereign nation-states, in a quest for some form of globalization with representation.



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