Tag Archives: Christianity

The pope rails against “an economy of exclusion” (and I tentatively like it)

Many free market economists have taken umbrage at the pope’s seeming attack on free market economics. My perspective is quite different. Perhaps I have an advantage here, being both a free-market economist (at least, so I’d describe myself) and an Orthodox Christian, which is kind of close to being a Catholic. (Belief-wise, I’m probably a lot closer to being an orthodox Catholic than the typical nominal Catholic is.) Scott Sumner says that “it’s actually difficult to make sense of the Pope’s statement.” I’d put it differently: it’s difficult to map the Pope’s statement into concrete policy positions, since it is in a language of theology and moral exhortation and appropriately avoids being mappable into partisan politics. I’ll focus on the section entitled “No to an economy of exclusion,” page 45.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

We should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of… inequality?” That’s crazy! Inequality arises inevitably from people’s free use of their persons and property rights, as well as the accidents of nature, and could only be eliminated with some kind of Bolshevik leveling, inevitably bloody, and destructive of incentives to be productive.

Ah, but the pope didn’t say that. He said we should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Logically, an economy of inequality but not exclusion might be acceptable. So maybe that’s all right then… but what exactly is an “economy of exclusion?”

One answer suggests itself: closed borders!

Did the pope really mean by “saying ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion,” that we must open the world’s borders?

A little background here. I agree with Rodney Stark that the influence of the Catholic Church was basically the only reason that slavery disappeared in medieval Europe. But it took them centuries to do it, even after Christianity had become the dominant religion. When slavery emerged again in modern times, the popes fiercely denounced it at first. Alas, their power had been greatly diminished by the modern absolutist monarchies of France and Spain, and they were essentially powerless to prevent the emergence of modern chattel slavery. Instead, the Catholic Church limited itself to amelioriating the condition of slaves, which tended to have it better under Catholic jurisdictions than, for example, under English rule in the Caribbean. Yet the Catholic countries were laggards in actually abolishing slavery. On slavery, the Catholic Church has always been sort of on the right side, often when no one else was, and ultimately rather effectually, yet they also accommodated the powers that be for centuries, in a fashion that seems downright cowardly. But I think cowardice is the wrong diagnosis. The Catholic Church believes it has care of immortal souls, so to provoke schism over mere temporal political and economic issues would be a tactical error of inestimable consequences. Better to move very slowly, but change society to its foundations and ultimately with general consent, than to compromise and form coalitions of convenience to win transient political victories.

So while Pope Francis isn’t demanding open borders tomorrow, I think there’s reason to hope it’s not accidental that he’s sowing a catchphrase so splendidly suited to serve as a platform for attacks on the migration-restrictionist state.

By the way, a word on “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?” The “clean your plate” fallacy is one of economists’ pet peeves. Suppose you were cooking dinner and you made a little too much salad. You can stick in the fridge, but you’ve got plans for the next few nights, you won’t use it, and there’s no space. You’re about to throw it away, when your conscience jabs you about people starving in Ethiopia. What should you do? Throw it away. Ethiopia is neither here nor there. If you could teleport the leftovers to starving people in Ethiopia, that would be great, but you can’t. Should you have cooked less? Not necessarily: it’s hard to predict your appetite. In general, it’s hard to plan food use so precisely that you never waste anything, and most of us have better things to do with scarce brain power. If you live in the US, there’s probably no one nearby you can give your excess food to.

When I lived in Malawi, though, it was different. In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, hunger was never very far away, and it was easy to give away extra food. Now, under open borders, a lot of hungry people would be happy to come to the US even to live as outright beggars. There would be people to give away your extra food to, who would be happy to get it. To the extent that it seems wrong for food to be thrown away while people are starving, open borders is by far the most plausible way to address that problem.

When the pope says that “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape,” I cannot but think of the millions of refugees, and the billions of destitute people around the world, who are prevented from bettering their lives by immigration restrictions. Of course, the pope doesn’t say it’s a consequence of migration restrictions; he says it’s a consequence of “everything com[ing] under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” If that’s a reference to the pure operation of free markets, it’s wildly unfair; in a free market, by definition, the powerful can’t “feed upon” the powerless without their consent, i.e., without mutual benefit. But competition is not limited to markets; it also takes place in politics; and as a description of the political-economic constitution of contemporary global capitalism, the pope’s statement is more astute. Rich countries shut poor people out by force, often imprisoning them in dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, then [via their corporations] hire them at extremely low wages in sweatshops. Meanwhile, political competition in democracies often leads to violence and exclusion against undocumented immigrants, as politicians pander for nativist votes.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

That’s good description of populations marginalized by closed borders, isn’t it?

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Now this is a bit of a straw-man attack, but it doesn’t annoy me nearly as much from the pope as when Obama talks similarly, since when Obama talks this way, he’s being unfair to his Republican opponents, but the pope has no Republican opponents to be unfair to. If no one holds the views the pope attacks, so much the better; but some people, and some lines of thought, probably do tend that way, hence the warning. As Ryan Avent has noted, the “inevitably” makes the statement true. It is possible for strong economic growth to co-exist with exclusion and poverty, as in the days of Jim Crow laws… or, to cite a much larger and more example, today’s global apartheid regime of closed borders. Economic growth certainly can trickle down to the broad masses; it even tends to; but politics can prevent it from doing so; and that is very much the case today. That is why the pope is right to say that the opinion “that economic growth, encouraged by the free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world… has never been confirmed by the facts.” As far as I can recall, every period of dramatic economic growth in history has been marred by forcible exclusion of some people from the fruits of prosperity, not merely in the sense that the property rights of the prosperous are protected (which is fine), but in the sense that violence is used to bar people from avenues of advancement through deploying their labor where it is most productive, and enjoying its fruits. Thus, the great age of Victorian progress unfolded alongside first slavery, then continuing racism, and the oppressive policies of some (not all) imperialists. Thus, the 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in living standards in the prosperous West, even as migration restrictions trapped the majority of mankind in Third World poverty.

Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

This is a very good description of the moral numbness, the complacency and cowardice, of rich-world citizens who support immigration restrictions, even as they vaguely understand (as I think many do) that this exacerbates (and may even be the main cause of) world poverty. The pope continues:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Scott Sumner remarks here that “the first sentence seems a bit odd, given that global inequality has been declining in recent years.  So let’s assume that the Pope is thinking about the fact that inequality within countries has been rising (and put aside the question of why the Pope would take a nationalist perspective and not a global perspective.)” But it does not seem unduly charitable to suppose that the pope is taking a longer view, and while there has been a bit of welcome convergence in the past decade or so, the past couple of centuries have seen “divergence, big-time” between rich and poor countries. To call this “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” misses the mark a bit, from my perspective. It is, rather, the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the nation-state, especially its power to exclude. But that’s related, since capitalist nations today usually define “the market,” or “the economy,” in national terms. The “new tyranny” of border restrictions is indeed “invisible and often virtual… unilaterally impos[ing] its own laws and rules.” Now and then it becomes hideously visible, in the form of ICE agents separating families; but mostly it operates by vague threats and paperwork requirements. So maybe I want to redirect the pope’s ire a bit, but its spirit, its vehemence, and much of its substance, are entirely appropriate.

The claim that “they [who? the happy few? a minority?] reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control” will stick in libertarians’ craw. Libertarians do not like linking “the state” to “the common good.” Yet except a few anarcho-capitalists, no one really denies that there should be a state serving the common good. Indeed, the phrase “vigilance for the common good” is, to my mind, decidedly wholesome. The pope stands in an instructive contrast to Paul Krugman, who, in his advocacy of statism, doesn’t really pretend that he wants the state to serve the common good. He is very eager for the state to hurt people he hates, such as Republicans and the rich, in order to seize resources with which to help other people, such as Democratic constituencies, whom he doesn’t particularly seem to like but from whom he gets a self-righteous pleasure from condescendingly bestowing benefits on them. To call, as the pope does, for the state to be “vigilant for the common good,” taken at face value, seems to preclude redistribution, which serves only the private good of select classes of people, and redirect the state’s actions towards the maintenance of law and order and the provision of public goods, which benefit everyone. That is very wholesome and proper.

But– here is the crucial question– what is the common good? The common good of a nation? Or the common good of the human race? Coming from the pope, doesn’t it have to mean the latter? And this brings us back to the condemnation of an economy of exclusion. For when a state excludes poor immigrants, it may benefit its own citizens (or some of them), but it almost certainly doesn’t benefit mankind. Granted, the pope seems to be defending the right of states to “exercise [some] form of control,” but that’s aimed at the financial sector. What I find welcome is that his reasons for endorsing state control would seem to greatly disfavor control of migration.

The pope’s call for a renewed emphasis on ethics is also very appropriate:

Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

It’s true, I think, that the discipline of economics, and the practice of finance, tend to keep ethics at arm’s length. In different ways, Marxists, Rawlsians, and neoclassical economists tend to replace fundamental notions of right and wrong with a mere calculus of interests. One of the things I like about Bryan Caplan is the way he forces ethical issues to the fore. We need more of that. A greater stress on ethics can’t fail to be favorable to the cause of open borders, since being able to win the moral high ground in any debate is one of open borders advocates’ greatest assets. The Chrysostom quote will not please those who (like Bryan) regard giving to the poor as “supererogatory;” clearly the Catholic view here is ultimately a bit different from the way free-market economists habitually regard property rights. But, let’s suppose that we do have an obligation to help the poor. Whose poor? Those of rich countries? Or the global poor? Surely the latter, since they are much poorer. How should we help them, then? Many ways, but surely the first and foremost is to stop excluding them by force from our homelands, which does them more harm than any aid we could give would do them good.

The pope predicts, a little vaguely yet at the same time vividly, that global inequality will lead to violence. At times he almost seems to endorse it, but no, he actually doesn’t: “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.” It is an interesting question whether global inequality will lead to violence. I must say that if some international movement based in the developing world eventually waged war against the rich countries to force them to open their borders to migration, it would be one of the more respectable casus belli in history. There’s little to no evidence of such developments now, but 19th-century economic inequality in Europe looked pretty stable at one point, but led in bloody revolution.

I have to think more about the pope’s remarks, but in general they seem a wisely aimed and much-needed provocation. Global capitalism today is indeed very unjust, mainly because borders are closed to migration, but there are other problems, too. It’s great to see the pope hurling down the gauntlet against the “economy of exclusion.” I don’t fully understand where he’s coming from, but much of his language is very promising. The world certainly needs “freedom from all forms of enslavement” and “a more humane social order.”

Social conservatism and attitudes to immigration

A little while ago, I got into a debate with Vipul Naik over the link between social conservatism and open borders. My hypothesis was that social conservatives would oppose open borders because they are defending in-group privilege. Also, being socially conservative correlates with Republican party identification, which correlates with negative views of immigrants. In contrast, Vipul thought that the opposite might be true. Social conservative ideas (e.g., anti-abortion) do not logically entail anti-immigrant views. Immigration attitudes might be decoupled from social attitudes.

Here is what I found out when I used the General Social Survey to explore this issue. First, you have to identify an immigration question. The GSS has a few. The most general is “527. Do you think the number of immigrants from foreign countries who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased a lot, increased a little, left the same as it is now, decreased a little, or decreased a lot?” 1 – increased a lot. 5 – Decreased a lot. Roughly speaking, 8% increase, 37% stay the same, 54% decrease immigration.

Ok, let’s crank through some measures of social conservatism:

* Ideology: “66 A. We hear a lot of talk these days about liberals and conservatives. I’m going to show you a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal–point 1–to extremely conservative– point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” Correlation? .094 – p-value <.001. n=2598.
* Abortion attitudes: “251. Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or never legal under any circumstance?” 1 – Always. 3 – Never. Correlation? .016, not significant. N=1497.
* Gay Rights: “219. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” 1- Always wrong, 4 – not wrong at all. Correlation? -.138, p <.001. N=1702.
* Affirmative action for blacks/women: “153/552. A. Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks/women should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?” 1. strong support to 4 strong oppose. Correlations? .198/.091 . p<.001/p =.07. N= 383 (each).
* Biblical literalism: “120A. Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” 1 – word of God, 3 – book of fables. Correlation? .071, p=.16. N=383.

Bottom line: Anti-immigration views are always positively correlated with what we’d consider indicators of being socially conservative. In some cases, the correlation is strong, in other cases not significant. However, there are no cases where being conservative is correlated with having pro-immigration views.

Open Borders editorial note: You might also be interested in Nathan Smith’s post Who favors open borders?, that examines World Values Survey (WVS) data comparing attitudes to immigration in 48 countries around the world.

A Biblical Frame for Immigration Liberalization

This is a repost from Paul’s blog Quitting Providence. The original post is here.

I was reading this Atlantic write-up of the excellent website Open Borders: The Case and I was surprised when the article concluded that what was really needed was Mark Zuckerberg to ride in to the rescue. Zuckerberg has started deploying resources to make it easier for skilled workers to immigrate to America, but this is small potatoes compared to what he could be doing:

Lobbying his unparalleled audience, the largest online community the world has ever known, to create an army of open borders supporters–that is the kind of connect-the-world change that Zuckerberg has already created with Facebook. Perhaps not this year, or even five years down the line, but Zuckerberg might eventually use his clout to start a global debate about the borders that keep Marvin from the marketplace. The lure of trillions of dollars for all, the potential elimination of world poverty, and a solid moral footing preached by Naik and Clemens probably won’t convince a majority without backing from major business leaders.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in favor of fabulously rich individuals devoting their wealth to advance worthy causes, but my awake-at-4AM mind jumped to “Why doesn’t the Catholic Church devote (a lot) more energy to pushing for liberal migration policies around the world?”
The Catholic Church, as a large, well-funded, and international institution with a vested interest in removing barriers to movement seems particularly well placed to press for open borders in an effective way. Unlike most things I would like the Catholic Church to do (like accept women’s reproductive rights, contraception, and some facts of human sexual diversity), this would not require the Church to radically rethink any theology or rewrite any catechisms. The Church already acknowledges the human right of migration and has some powerful rhetoric it can deploy in its favor. The following was taken from the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (it was one of the first pages to come up when I asked the Internet what Catholics think of immigration):

Both the Old and New Testaments tell compelling stories of refugees forced to flee because of oppression. Exodus tells the story of the Chosen People, Israel, who were victims of bitter slavery in Egypt. They were utterly helpless by themselves, but with God’s powerful intervention they were able to escape and take refuge in the desert. For forty years they lived as wanderers with no homeland of their own. Finally, God fulfilled his ancient promise and settled them on the land that they could finally call home.

The Israelites’ experience of living as homeless aliens was so painful and frightening that God ordered his people for all time to have special care for the alien: “You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lv 19:33-34).

The New Testament begins with Matthew’s story of Joseph and Mary’s escape to Egypt with their newborn son, Jesus, because the paranoid and jealous King Herod wanted to kill the infant. Our Savior himself lived as a refugee because his own land was not safe.

Jesus reiterates the Old Testament command to love and care for the stranger, a criterion by which we shall be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).

The Apostle Paul asserts the absolute equality of all people before God: “There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). In Christ, the human race is one before God, equal in dignity and rights.

This is powerful stuff, and it made me think how different this language is from the usual rhetorical framework for the immigration debate. In the US at least, the focus is always on economics, with the burden of proof lying on the immigration advocates to show that there are huge economic gains to be had and high school drop-outs won’t be hurt too badly, and of course that migrants aren’t terrorists by nature. These are all silly arguments, and Catholic thinkers somehow manage to cut to the moral heart of the matter, powerfully asserting what most of us seem too embarrassed to declare outright: All human beings are morally equal. We are all worthy of the same ethical consideration. And if we can do something to help a fellow human being in need, that is, all else equal, a fine thing. We shouldwant to help even if we decide for some practical reasons that we can’t. Wanting to help is the starting point.Getting bogged down in technical debates about whether and exactly how much immigration benefits natives risks an ethical blunder, ceding the terms of the debate to restrictionists who will focus on economic minutiae that would be absurd in other contexts. (If a new invention were predicted to perhaps cause a 1% decrease in the wages of 6% of the population while everyone else benefited from the productivity gains, no one would blink). Of course we all want pareto-optimal policy changes, where absolutely everyone benefits by the departure from the status quo. Yet this happy congruence is clearly not always either possible or even relevant.The granddaddy example of this is slavery. In the early nineteenth century, the debate over abolition was colored by the fact that entire economies were built on the peculiar institution. If slaves were freed, a lot of plantation owners would suffer severe economic setbacks. Abolition of slavery, possibly the greatest moral victory the world has ever seen, did not happen because slave owners were persuaded they would be made better off by the deal. Abolition was achieved because the abolitionists persuaded enough free people of the moral truth that slaves are human beings and are therefore should be accorded basic human rights.

The civil rights victories over the Jim Crow regime were likewise not achieved by sophisticated economic arguments about how integration and human capital development among blacks would ultimately benefit even white supremacists. No, it was Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders appealing to the sense of fairness among the empowered.

Women did not win their suffrage and the rights to work and own property by convincing the contemporary enfranchized that men would stand to gain materially from women’s empowerment. No, feminists persuaded enough men in power that the radical notion that women are people was simply true. The injustice of enforcing power structures based on amoral accidents of birth was laid bare.

Expanding empathy played a role in each case above, getting the privileged parts of society to see that, but for a roll of the dice, they could have been born with a different color of skin, or a different gender, or in chains, or on the wrong side of a border. Even a morally perfect being or a divinely chosen people could find themselves with the short ends of these sorts of sticks.

At its most basic articulation, the policy of open borders asserts the individual’s presumptive human right to move freely about the world, and live where she wishes to live. The status quo global policy of constraining an individual to live where she was born, for the morally arbitrary fact that she just happened to be born there, is a transparently unjust institution. The only relevant economics is that this injustice is magnified by the poverty it inflicts on hundreds of millions of people.

More on immigration and the Bible

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

From my reading of the Old Testament, it’s quite clear that the Bible supports open borders, full stop. But I should acknowledge that this isn’t the consensus view. Here is an article that claims “The Bible Gives No Sanction to Open Borders.” The author, John Vinson, is in blockquotes, I’m not.

For religionists sympathetic to mass immigration, legal and illegal, Old Testament Bible verses saying “welcome the stranger” and “love the stranger” are the ultimate trump cards and justification for their position. This absolute certitude is ironic when it comes, as it often does, from religious liberals who commonly regard much of the Old Testament as Hebrew mythology, with little authority to command ethical obedience in the modern world. The Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, for example, carry little weight with these liberals, if indeed they notice them at all.

I don’t think I’m one of the religious liberals Vinson is talking about, but anyway, one can accept that the Bible teaches something and not advocate making that the policy of contemporary states. I think the Old Testament provides a pretty good template for immigration policy, though not one that exactly corresponds to what I’d prescribe. I don’t want us to return to the Mosaic law when it comes to religious freedom (worshipping pagan gods could be punished by death) or slavery (permitted under the Mosaic law, albeit in an ameliorated form), or marriage (polygamy was tolerated).

In contrast, their literalistic embrace of “welcome the stranger” without reference to context or scholarship is characteristic of the uninformed dogmatism they often attribute to fundamentalists and other Christian conservatives. In fairness, this characteristic sometimes is true, but the general tendency of people who take the Bible seriously is to weigh verses carefully from every standpoint of learning and insight.

Yes, as long as you’re not just using that as an excuse to pretend the Bible says what’s convenient for you to have it say.

One who has done so on the pro-stranger verses is biblical scholar and archeologist James K. Hoffmeier. In his book The Immigration CrisisImmigrants, Aliens, and the Bible, Hoffmeier sheds a great deal of light on these verses and the issue of immigration from a biblical perspective. Hoffmeier convincingly argues that Middle Eastern peoples in biblical times controlled their borders and regulated immigration much as countries do today. Among them was ancient Israel.

To understand how Israel’s system worked, Hoffmeier shows, one must understand the meanings of different Hebrew words which English Bibles translate as “stranger,” as well as “foreigner,” and “alien.” The passages that command hospitality, love, and protection toward people so named use the Hebrew word “ger.” The ger, says Hoffmeier, was what today we would call an alien with permanent resident status. The Bible specified that such persons were to enjoy most of the same rights as Israelites, while at the same time requiring that they obey the laws of Israel. But others called stranger, foreigner, and alien did not have these benefits or obligations. The Hebrew words from which they derive are “zar” and “nekar.”

I suppose Hoffmeier knows Hebrew and in that respect has an advantage over me. But I suspect he doesn’t know much about immigration policy if he thinks “Middle Eastern peoples in biblical times controlled their borders and regulated immigration much as countries do today.” Passport regimes are a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Open borders were the norm as recently as the 19th century.

Consequently, the modern day writers who claim that the Bible sanctions illegal immigration, by referencing the pro-stranger passages, are drawing a completely false analogy. The strangers in this context were legally admitted people who agreed to abide by the laws of the land.

The Biblical texts do suggest that resident foreigners were expected to abide by the Mosaic law. That they had “agreed” to do so does not seem to be the case, because some procedure would have to take place whereby they agreed, and no such procedure is discussed in the Mosaic law. And I don’t see how anyone could have read the Book of Judges and suppose that any legal infrastructure existed to “legally admit” people. In the Book of Ruth, it seems clear that she didn’t ask permission, but simply came. Neither rules nor administrative procedures for “legally admitting” people are defined in the law. I haven’t read Hoffmeier’s book, but it seems clear the Biblical ger were neither like modern legal immigrants, who have received permission from a sovereign government, nor like modern undocumented immigrants, whose presence is a violation of the law. They just came, and were expected to abide by the rules. Continue reading “More on immigration and the Bible” »

Migration and Christianity

When I wrote Principles of a Free Society, I hinted at a Christian case for open borders:

American Christianity has not been only a conservative force, fending off bad foreign ideas and keeping America true to its heritage of freedom. It has often championed reform, progressively realizing the latent imperatives of America’s founding ideals.

Nobel laureate Robert Fogel has argued that American history has followed a pattern by which the evolution of religion leads the evolution of political reform, with four “Great Awakenings” in religion– in 1730-60, 1800-40, 1890-1930, and 1960 to around 1990– leading to four great eras of political reform: the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War, the creation of the welfare state, and the civil rights movement; and finally the tax revolt of the Reagan era and the 1996 welfare reform.

Fogel’s periodization could be disputed; but the links he draws between religion and political reform are compelling. Churches enjoy no institutional representation in the American political system, nor do they typically instruct their members how to vote. Yet religion heavily influences voting behavior and other forms of political participation. Today, for example, one of the strongest predictors of voting Republican is church attendance.

In spite of the Republican bias of American Christians, however, and the anti-immigration bias of the Republican Party, I think there are signs that immigration (that is, support for immigration) is emerging as a distinctively Christian political issue. An immigration amnesty in 1986 was championed and signed by a born-again Christian president, Ronald Reagan. Another Christian president, George W. Bush, strove for and nearly succeeded in passing immigration reform in 2006 and 2007, with widespread support from churches.

The Catholic Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles compared a repressive anti-immigration law in Arizona to Nazism. Richard Land, president of the general conservative Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has advocated comprehensive immigration reform. Polls by Pew show that religious leaders and frequent churchgoers are significantly more pro-immigration than less frequent attenders.

Ultimately, I think the Bible, the New Testament, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and in particular one detail in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, will force Christians to turn against the world apartheid system of border controls. When the priest and the Levite see the wounded man on the road to Jericho, they do not just fail to help, they pass by on the other side of the road— that is, they deliberately create physical distance between themselves and the suffering man in order to avoid incurring the moral responsibility to help him.

But of course, this is exactly what migration restrictions do: they keep the world’s poor at a distance, so that we will not feel conscience-stricken and have to help them. But of course it is perfectly clear in the parable that the priest and the Levite only make themselves more culpable by trying to avoid moral responsibility; and so it is with rich countries that close their borders to poor immigrants. Christians cannot go on failing to see this indefinitely. Time for a Fifth Great Awakening?…

How would church-state relations change if the conviction became widespread among Christians that to “love thy neighbor” meant not collaborating with the enemies who want to deport him? (Principles of a Free Society, pp. 189-191)

At that time, however, I had not read what the Old Testament specifically has to say about immigrants. When I did so, last May, for the post “The Old Testament on Immigration,” I was astonished at how thoroughly they confirmed my views. Again and again, the Bible stresses that foreigners are to be given justice, treated fairly, loved, and included in Jewish festivals and Sabbath observances. They were often grouped with widows and orphans as a protected class. In correspondence with readers after that post, I learned that there seems to be a distinction between a ger, which I’ve seen translated as “resident foreigner” but which means something close to “convert to Judaism,” that is, someone who has accepted the religious rules of ancient Israel, and a “foreigner at the gate,” zak or nekhar. Many of the Biblical passages which most strongly urge “foreigners” to be treated well use the word ger, and some argue that these exhortations do not apply to the zak or nekhar. I believe it is the latter, moreover, to whom the Mosaic law permits Jews to lend at interest and sell meat found already dead, which Jews are not allowed to eat. Some contemporary writers equate ger with legal immigrants and zak with undocumented immigrants. But this is certainly untenable, for several reasons. First, ancient Israel had no passport regime, and zak were not breaking the law by dwelling there: they were not illegal. Second, while the Bible does suggest that ger must obey the Mosaic law and thus shared the obligations as well as the privileges of Jews, there is no hint of some process of permission by Jewish authorities that had to take place for a person to become a ger. And in the story of Ruth the Moabite, no permission is asked. Ruth admittedly has a Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, but her admission to Israel is not conditional on that. She simply comes, and gathers grain behind the reapers, taking advantage of a sort of ancient Jewish poor law. In short, there were open borders under the Mosaic law. And if that was the case even under the Old Testament law, which in many respects is rather harsh– a girl found guilty of premarital sex was to be stoned, for example (Deuteronomy 22:21)– then what about the New Testament, which often seems to endorse complete nonviolence…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 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.” (Matthew 5:38-40)

… which pointedly softens the Mosaic law, e.g., when Jesus pardons the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11), and which is far more universalist in spirit, for example in eliminating the circumcision requirement so as to integrate Gentile converts? Surely it would be odd for someone to agree that the Old Testament called for open borders and then say that the New Testament offered a warrant for a harsher and more exclusionary migration policy than what the Old Testament allowed.

Given the comparative rarity of open borders advocacy among Christians, however– devout Christians are more likely to favor open borders than others, but it’s still a small minority view– I’m always interested in hearing the other side. What do Christian restrictionists have to say for themselves? Continue reading “Migration and Christianity” »