Tag Archives: alien invasion metaphor

The Native Americans and Open Borders

Greetings and salutations Open Borders bloggers!  I’d like to thank Vipul for inviting me to participate on this blog, and with luck I can bring some interesting points to this discussion. I want to begin by talking about Native Americans. This is something of an elaboration on a point I brought up on econlog, the original comment you can find here (there is a lot in that comment but the part I’m elaborating on is conveniently labeled).

We can find on the Internet a number of images of Native Americans that satirize the position of closed borders advocates. Clever closed borders advocates embrace the analogy and note that the alien invasion by European immigrants was not all that beneficial to Native Americans. Thus, the downfall of Native Americans becomes an example of the potential problems of open borders. This is at first glance a convincing point. European immigration did lead to the downfall of pre-existing Native American societies. But in reality it is not the concept of immigration this historical example condemns. Two key factors were distinct about this immigration which were responsible for what might even be called genocide (there can be some dispute about this, but that’s not the argument I’m interested in having today). These are disease and invasion.

Disease is the first, and largest, problem arising from contact with Europe. Estimates have some variation, but books like 1491 by Charles Mann suggest that diseases could have killed in excess of 95% of the Native American population. This is devastation that often occurred simply on first contact, not when immigration began. Furthermore, the chances of such an apocalypse today are remote at best. Beyond the advances in modern medicine and quarantine techniques, the globalization of the modern world means that any disease that could now arise and kill that many people would not likely selectively hit certain groups sparing others. European diseases had the effect they did because Native Americans had been isolated for centuries. Now disease is already shared constantly across continents. There are no “privileged” groups with greater immunity.

However, that point may be readily accepted, but that does not fully explain the tragedy of Native Americans. If Europeans had restricted relations to simply trading then this may have allowed Native Americans time to adjust and recover from the (mostly) accidental genocide they faced. But the problem was not the immigration of Europeans to North America but the invasions they undertook. The difference between the two is simple. Immigration occurs when a group of people peacefully move to a new area. Invasion constitutes the use of force to conquer a region. The early Spanish colonies almost entirely were made up of invasions, as were many English and French colonies. However, there are compelling examples of simple immigration which did not cause the problems of invasion. Colonies such as early Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and the French Acadians moved into areas peacefully and interacting with Native Americans in mutually beneficial ways. These colonies were typically among the freest in terms of individual rights, and particularly in the Acadian case, created prosperous societies intermingled with one another. That superior European military technology alongside the weakness from disease losses made Native Americans easy to conquer is not the fault of immigration.

So does the Native American example teach us anything about the advisability of open borders? In the broad sense, not much. Most interactions between Native Americans and Europeans were of invasion, which inherently does not respect the border crossing policies of the invaded nation. This is clearly not applicable to the modern Western world whose military advantage over the countries sending migrants cannot be seriously doubted. But there were some instances of simple immigration which offer a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. There were immigrants from often extremely repressive societies mixing with natives in societies with (generally in North America, if not Central or South) more respect for individual liberties, creating prosperous, peaceful, and free communities.

The upshot of this? Given that invasion is a separate issue from political externalities, the political externalities problem has failed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg not only in 19th century America, but as far back as European immigration to Native American areas. Is this a definitive argument for open borders? No, but it seems to me that when individual liberty is on trial, liberty should be considered innocent until proven guilty. And in contrast to those who use the example of Native Americans to warn against increased immigration, most of the evidence is invalid and that which is valid tends to the opposite conclusion.

America, the Roman Empire, and “Barbarian Invasions”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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