20 July 2013

Culture, Rights, and Immigration

Cue Ryan Long:

Simon Grey provides the first real contribution to the anti-immigration position I have seen in a long time. I would quibble with him a bit regarding the application of property ownership. But it suddenly occurs to me that one's opinion on immigration might be predicted by the extent to which one feels sympathy for the troll who was bested by the three billy goats gruff. Both of these ought to be fodder for forthcoming Stationary Waves posts. And then, just when he's got me convinced that it's a property rights issue, he says, "So if it seems as if man was not designed to be part of a monocultural melting pot of diversity, you just might be on to something." So it is about culture after all?

It can be about both.  Some people may actually be focused on rights while others may be focused on culture.  Certainly both things can overlap, especially since how one approaches rights might have a cultural bias (e.g. the American conception of property rights is rooted in a negative-rights sense, whereas the more progressive conception of rights is rooted in a positive-rights sense, which draws generally from the principles of the French Revolution, IIRC).

Additionally, there are many who subscribe to social contract theory.*  The analogy from a prior post is a more-libertarian twist on the basic thought, which is that citizens of a country can voluntarily surrender certain rights in exchange for some securities (martial, economic, or otherwise).  Even the most hardcore anarchists, save for those that deny that property rights exist beyond one’s own body, can agree that there are instances when extreme tyranny can be libertarian, at least in the sense of being extension of property rights and contract theory.  To put it another way, neighborhood associations aren’t necessarily anti-libertarian, even though they are often petty tyrannies led by small-minded busybodies.

Social contract theory has a very long intellectual history, and much of it is embedded in America’s cultural DNA, to make use of a metaphor.  Really, the theory is very American, and has quite a pedigree in the US, which helps to explain why a lot of Americans don’t seem to have a lot of problems saying that don’t want Mexicans moving to their country.  This may or may not be xenophobic/racist (more on that in a second), but it is ignorant to say that this method of thinking is not at all predicated on some intellectual conception of property rights, even if a good number of those who are immigration are not able to clearly articulate all the reasons why they oppose mass immigration from a social contract theory approach.

However, it cannot be denied that many people who, though well within their rights, do not want to live near foreigners.  This may be distasteful to some, and racist or xenophobic as well, but it is true that some people do not like people who are different from them (shocking, I know). This motivation is certainly present in the immigration debate, and I can’t think of a single reason to pretend otherwise.

Still, even if some people are complete racists when it comes to immigration, it doesn’t stand to reason that their racism necessarily invalidates their right to suppress immigration.**  No store owner, for example, should be compelled to serve people of another skin color if he doesn’t wish to, no matter how distasteful such behavior might seem to us.  In like manner, citizens of a country may be well within their rights to refuse entry to foreigners, even if we personally find such behavior distasteful.

Ultimately, the immigration matter is linked to both one’s conception of rights and culture, and the two seemed to be inextricably linked, especially since one’s conception of rights is likely strongly influenced by one’s culture.  Calling anti-immigrationists racist is unduly belittling in light of the intellectual depth of social contract theory, and calling pro-immigrationists stupid is unduly belittling in light of their conception of rights.  There are certainly racists who rationalize their beliefs in the guise of property rights.  There are also a lot of people who can grasp that social organizations are well within their rights to have criteria for membership*** without being able to extend the concept to nation-states as well.  It’s more helpful, then, to view the conflict in terms of point-of-view rather than right-or-wrong.

* I’m undecided on the theory, personally, but I am sympathetic to parts of it, and feel generally comfortable operating within the philosophical framework.

**  Of course, this is contingent in large part on whether you subscribe to social contract theory.  But even if you don’t, you can at least acknowledge that many people do, and their beliefs have some degree of credibility.

*** For example, a union of tradesmen would obviously want to exclude people who a) aren’t tradesmen or who b) would actively try to undermine the union of workers.