More than a few times I’ve heard sentiments like this expressed: “I would support the legalization of immigration, but as long as it remains illegal, those that break the law shouldn’t be allowed to stay.” This appeal to authority can seem reasonable at first-glance: It denotes a respect for law, while also giving lip-service to support for immigration. There’s something to be said for respecting the rule of law in general, even if you disagree with specific laws. After all, some might claim, if we simply disobeyed every law we thought was unjust without respect for the avenues by which we might legally change those laws, then what is the point of legislation at all?
However, nearly all people have a point at which they would disobey a law – the point at which it conflicts sufficiently with their own ideas of true morality. That point may be different for every person, but almost all people have such a point. If a law was passed tomorrow legally mandating that parents abandon their children in the woods, it’s unlikely that many would obey such a law. So does this mean that people only obey laws that they morally agree with – or at least, don’t morally disagree with strongly? Not necessarily.
Numerous examples in history and psychology have demonstrated that a person’s moral limit on obedience is not an immovable line, but rather is quite malleable depending on circumstance – and technique. The Milgram experiments done in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Stanford Prison Experiments, and the Mount Washington McDonald’s incident all provide examples of how people can be pushed beyond their stated moral limits. If you know about those (and other) examples of the malleability of human morals, then it suddenly doesn’t become so far-fetched to imagine that people could be convinced to obey a number of laws they’d find immoral if asked directly.
So is that what’s happened? Have the citizens of the developed world been slowly conditioned to accept immigration restrictions as moral, when philosophical reasoning so easily reveals them to be the opposite? It’s certainly possible. It’s in the nature of authority to condition those under it to respect that authority for authority’s sake – to accept that authority itself is morality. Even though the residents of a nation usually benefit from migration, individual political leaders often oppose it, and the gradual effect is cyclical: politicians oppose immigration, which helps to condition people to oppose it. People conditioned to oppose it demand politicians that oppose it. Those politicians oppose it, and the cycle continues.
The effect is not absolute, however. The Milgram Experiments demonstrated that while people may have a tendency to allow their morals to be eroded by the proper conditions, there were always those who bucked the trend and opposed the commands. When slavery was the law, there were still those who, as a part of the Underground Railroad, helped to break that law because it was morally right to do so. Those people were lawbreakers, but history regards them positively. Despite the fact that they broke the laws, history sees people like Harriet Tubman and Oskar Schindler (and many others) as heroes. Those we see as heroic in history were often those who bucked the trend of allowing authority to dictate morality, despite the pressures.
One hundred years from now, will the cause of Open Borders have a Tubman or a Schindler to admire?
Open Borders editorial note: The following posts suggest some possibilities: Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real by Nathan Smith, and How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders by David Bennion. Nathan Smith’s post Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves is also related to the point Roccia makes about the Underground Railroad.