Libertarians Against Property Rights: “You Will Be Assimilated” Edition
Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 17 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.
Over at Positive Liberty, Timothy Sandefur and Jason Kuznicki seem intent on retreading an argument over immigration that I last saw in the clash of the fascists between Sam Huntington and David Brooks almost exactly two years ago. Here’s Sandefur, who apparently believes that he’s explaining a problem:
The illegal immigration problem is so severe in Southern California that it is difficult for people elsewhere in the country, including even Northern Californians, to really understand what's going on. Whole areas of Southern California are now virtually Mexico. The population of illegal immigrants is enormous, and climbing steadily, at the rates of at least hundreds per day.
— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation
I’m still waiting to find out what the problem is, but Sandefur apparently believes he’s intimated at least part of it just by telling us that parts of Southern California are now, in some unspecified sense, like Mexico. (Well, so?)
Here’s what Sandefur takes to be the most serious objection to Mexicans moving in without permission slips from the federal government:
The most serious, to me, is philosophical. You cannot have a free society among people who do not understand the cultural and philosophical framework of freedom. Allowing people into a nation who do not identify themselves as part of that nation–who do not speak the language, who do not observe the holidays, who do not know or care about the history and ideals and cultural icons–is simply suicidal.
— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation
Of course, it is almost certainly true that freedom requires a certain cultural and philosophical framework, and it would be good if everybody adhered to it. But I’m baffled by the suggestion that speaking the prevalent language, observing the prevalent holidays, or knowing or caring about the history and ideals and cultural icons of whatever country you intend to move to are essential parts of that cultural and philosophical framework. There’s no special affinity between liberty and monolinguism, between freedom and observing any particular theo-nationalist liturgical calendar, or between autonomy and being interested or well-versed in any particular part of the history of the foreign land that you are moving to. (I’d suggest, if anything, that having to negotiate many different languages, many different cultures, many different understandings of history and pop culture, can be just as conducive to freedom, if not more conducive to freedom, as any sort of constructed nationalism.)
But this is ultimately beside the point anyway. Even if failing to learn English was a dreadful threat to the prospects of liberty; even if not celebrating Veterans’ Day or Flag Day or Arbor Day were an ominous step towards totalitarianism, it would provide absolutely no justification whatever for using force to stop people from traveling to property where they are welcomed by the owner (either out of hospitality, or because they pay rent, or because they are prepared to buy it for themselves). Certain kinds of bad thoughts may very well be corrosive to liberty, but there’s no libertarian justification in restraining, beating, shooting,
detaining, jailing, or exiling somebody just for having bad thoughts. Neither you nor the government has any right to force people off of property onto which they have been invited, even if you think that their presence is a looming danger to the future of liberty in America, unless they have actually done or threatened real violence to somebody else. Vices are not crimes, and only crimes can justly be resisted by force.
That argument seems simple, and obvious. So why don’t more advocates of immigration just stick to their guns and make it? Perhaps it’s understandable that non-libertarians don’t make it, but what about libertarians? Why does Kuznicki take this to be the most natural line of response to Sandefur?
Freedom is irrelevant. Assimilation is inevitable.
Subsequent evidence runs against Jefferson's prediction. The United States has absorbed substantial waves of Irish, East European, and East Asian immigrants, none of whom came from countries or cultures that habituated them to freedom. Many spoke little or no English and were almost wholly ignorant of the American system. Yet after a generation or two — and often much sooner — they turned out pretty much like any other group of Americans.
What we are experiencing now is entirely within the bounds of the demographic precedents set by these other groups: As a proportion of the general population, the number of immigrants today is roughly on par with levels that we have experienced in the past, as this (intentionally?) misleading graph actually demonstrates quite well (hint: look at the percentages).
Given the demographic similarities and historical precedents, I have little reason to fear that Latinos will somehow be different — unless, that is, we give them incentives not to assimilate.
— Jason Kuznicki, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): How I’d Reform Immigration
What legitimate reason has the United States government to care whether or not Latin@s assimilate or don’t assimilate? What legitimate reason have we got to make the decision whether or not to use force to stop immigrants (or to exile them from their current homes) on the basis of whether or not they are willing to
assimilate to the surrounding culture? Maybe they will and maybe they won’t; but whatever the virtues or vices of declining to assimilate, it’s not a hanging crime, and neither you nor anybody else has the person to destroy a person’s livelihood, clap them into irons, and force them back out of the country over it. Neither you, nor anybody else, has the right to harass, shove, restrain, beat, or shoot people to stop them from entering the country over it. The only issue here is the freedom of movement of the immigrant, and the property rights of whoever owns the property where the immigrant is staying. (If the immigrant is trespassing, of course, there are already laws against that; it has nothing in particular to do with immigration.) Sandefur, for his part, thinks he has a reply to this. Here it is:
First, it must be kept very clear that no person has a natural right to enter another country against the will of those citizens. A person has a natural right to leave his [sic] own country, no doubt. But a political society is an agreement among people for purposes of the common defense, and the people therefore have the right to decide whether or not to allow others in. So long as they do not make that decision on an arbitrary basis, they have the right to refuse to extend citizenship or entry to others if they wish. So no person has the right to force his [sic] way into the another nation and demand to be accepted.
— Timothy Sandefur, Positive Liberty (2006-03-30): Illegal Alienation
If Sandefur were right about this, it would provide a basis for taking things like
assimilation into account when you’re setting immigration policy. If it were a matter of resisting people trying to
force her way in against the will of people who have a right to keep them out, then you might very well think that any number of factors might be good reasons for stopping them rather than
letting them in.
But he’s not right; that’s not what this is about. The appeal is nothing more than overt, garden-variety political collectivism, which tricks itself out in a few of the rhetorical cadences of property rights while actually assaulting those property rights in the name of collective coercion of innocent individual people. Sandefur would have The People
decide whether or not to allow others in, but in a way that systematically denies individual people the right to decide whether or not to allow others in to their own property. Of course, there is no natural right to enter another person’s land against the will of that person (that’s just trespassing). But I take it we’re not talking about trespassing law here. We’re talking about an immigrant who’s made arrangements for a place to stay with a willing landlord — through the hospitality of people she knows, or by paying rent for the space, or by buying it for herself from the previous owner. Who is, therefore, welcomed by the owners of the property. The only people
deciding not to allow her in are, ex hypothesi, people other than the owners, third parties — nativist voters, opportunistic legislators, La Migra, or whoever else — who think that force of numbers or the writ of The Law gives them some kind of right to impose their decisions on other people’s property.
There are political theories that would approve of this kind of bullying and coercion — as long as it had the right majoritarian or authoritarian backing. But libertarianism is not one of them. If I invite a Mexican worker into my home, she or he has got a right to stay there as long as I (and my landlord) permit it. If a local factory gives her a job, she’s got a right to work there as long as she and the employer want her to continue. If she’s happy to keep speaking Spanish and I’m happy to let her stay without speaking English, then she still has a right to stay. If she’ll work on Dead Prez Day and the factory is happy for her to work on it, then she still has a right to stay. There is no way for La Migra to butt in, whether she is willing to
assimilate or not, without mounting an assault on both her and on my rights to do as I please with my own home, or the factory’s rights to hire whom they please. Whether or not Mexican workers are interested in
assimilating to any particular local culture is interesting only as an empirical question, a matter of idle sociological curiosity. It has absolutely no bearing on the question of right, because your ideas about culture don’t trump my right to my own land, and they don’t trump her life, liberty, or livelihood. Period.
When the topic is immigration policy, please just shut up about cultural assimilation. Whether it is happening or not, and whether it ought to happen or not, it is completely irrelevant to the course of (in)action that the government ought to pursue.
- GT 2004-03-22: Freedom is irrelevant. Assimilation is inevitable.
- Comment (2006-03-27) on Wizbang: Criminals threaten to strike: why is this considered bad?, on
the fundamental issue in all this.
Jason Kuznicki /#
The interest that the government has here is obvious: Populations that are treated unequally from one another tend to come into conflict. Second- class citizenship, whether de facto or de jure, is a threat to domestic tranquility. It is also monstrously unfair.
Not unlike, for example, your likening me to the borg. “Assimilation” is not necessarily a dirty word, regardless of what the television may tell you.
Rad Geek /#
I agree that Latin@ immigrants immigrants shouldn’t be treated unequally by the government. What I’m suggesting is that whether they are willing to culturallyor not should have no effect on how they are treated by the government, so your references to second-class citizenship seem a bit odd. Who’s advocating that? Not me, as far as I can tell. Are you suggesting that so long as Latin@ immigrants don’t , the government is right to treat them as or has to treat them that way, or something? Or is there some other connection, that I haven’t understood?
Jason Kuznicki /#
I think that while a diversity of cultures is great, we all should nonetheless have some basic understanding of the American system of government, the Bill of Rights, the free market, social tolerance for others, and the like. This is sometimes deemed “assimilation,” but I react badly when it is treated as a bad thing. To me, it is all a part of becoming a citizen, as certain shared virtues are indeed necessary for a free society to work.
Meanwhile, so long as people are asked (or allowed) to remain in the country indefinitely, with no hope of citizenship, with sharply limited rights, and wtih a government that may remove them at any time — without extending to them the chance to changing that situation — well, I’d call that second-class citizenship. This is what I find is happening in Europe, where, in the postwar period, whole generations have lived and died, one after another, as “guest workers.” This should not be.
Both private citizens and the government have a role in stopping this from happening here. Private citizens will find it in their economic self-interest to integrate the new population, with its presumably underserved economic needs and inefficiently allocated talents. The government has a role too, because it is tasked with preventing civil unrest, and there is no surer way to cause civil unrest than to maintain a population whose rights are unequal to those of others.
Lady Aster /#
I would say that someone who has actually taken the initiative in their own life to leave a repressive regime in pursuit of their own liberty and fortune, in defiance of an unjust law, has shown a Hell of a lot more of the spirit implicit in such things as the Bill of Rights, free markets, etc. than your average middle-class Anglo sheeple patriarch who has smugly inherited his values, presitge, and social station. I don’t think we need to particularly worry such people are unschooled in the exercise of their rights or the liberal spirit. I fear a creeping fascism emanating from the American Heartland far more than I fear any cultural blindnesses of Latin-American or other immigrants.
As for a ‘basic understanding of the American system of government’, I think it’s kind of patronising to be afraid that immigrants don’t know what kind of government they are getting into. I remember high school civics class, and it wasn’t exactly the kind of information anyone couldn’t learn on their own, and I rather suspect your average Mexican worker is as informed on such things as your average by-birth American, who statistically doesn’t vote.
In fact, I would even suggest that someone who has seen up close the other side of this government- the side the system turns towards social minorites and undesirables (see: ) — knows a lot more about the way America really functions than your average bourgeois who spends his or her life coddled away from such things. It is a characteristic of marginalised groups that they see how the system functions for the in-crowd, as a matter of survival and because the established have such social visibility- while the mainstreamers can go on in blissful ignorance of the way the other half lives, and the repressions the other half sufferes (often to keep the mainstream in their privileged place). I wonder who should be teaching whom the civics lessons- tho’ philosophically I suppose I’d say that we all probably have something to teach each other.
As for ‘social tolerance of others’, spare us your lectures, mon amie. Some of us know a bit about social intolerance and Latin cultures have a better record than Anglo ones on at least some issues. And if social tolerance is a prerequisite for integration into the American polity, then most of America, which voted for George W. Bush (remember the “Defense of Marriage Act”), fails. And then surely those intolerant of immigrants should be one of the first groups whose integration into our cosmopolitan society should be an anxious priorty. I’d love to see how white rich Texas would do on a Bill of Rights test.
Rad Geek /#
Jason, there’s two separate quesitons here.
The moral question of whether or not immigrants ought toin some respect or another.
The political question of whether or not the government can legitimately use force (via immigration law) to make immigrantsin some respect or another, and punish those who don’t by restraining, confining, and exiling them from the country.
I have my own views about the moral question of assimilation, which we can discuss if you want to, but that’s not really the point of this post. Whether or not immigrants ought (prudentially or morally) toto the culture of the country they move to, there is no legitimate basis for forcibly expelling those who decline to, or threatening to do so by putting them at the mercy of a capricious and violent immigration I’m for open borders, on the grounds of simple property rights, and I think that from the standpoint of government policy, the only relevant question about assimilation is the political one, the answer to which is always and everywhere How fast and in what respects Latin@ immigrants are is interesting only from a sociological standpoint; libertarians ought to recognize that it’s irrelevant to policy.
So would I. I don’t advocate that.
The point of this post was largely to urge a more strident and principled defense of liberal immigration policy, and to suggest that the grounds that you were invoking against Sandefur were probably not the right ones to invoke.
This debate isn’t one I can comfortably get into — most of the arguments I find hard to adress, given that I think that The American State (along with it’s trappings in the Bill of Rights and so on), TheMarket, and most of the other things people seem to think immigrants ought to know about have no moral right to exist.
I would however like to make one simple point. Someone who has had to cross a border, and get past the paramilitary that patrols it, and has lived in part of America working for terrible wages, while being under constant threat of police attacks, deportation, and violence propably has a far better understanding of how the American political and economic system actually works than your average middle class white person. Perhaps it’s not non-status immigrants that need to “assimilate” into American society, but rather American middle-class Society that needs to assimilate into the real world.
“…who do not know or care about the history and ideals and cultural icons…”
Wouldn’t that mean that the Republicans shouldn’t be allowed into California?
Sheldon Richman /#
Well put, Charles. It’s about time the pure libertarian position on this issue was proclaimed. Thanks.
John T. Kennedy /#
“But a political society is an agreement among people for purposes of the common defense, and the people therefore have the right to decide whether or not to allow others in.”
What agreement? Does he mean this five to ten percent solution?
If American citizens collectively own everything within U.S. borders then the rest of his argument follows. The burden is on him to show that they do.
In fact they don’t and never did. Sandefur’s citizens have no agreement with me and thus no moral say over whether an unassimilated person may stay on my property.
Rad Geek /#
Sandefur could probably try to claim that the collective ownership isn’t of all the property within the U.S. borders, but rather of the border-crossings themselves or of the tax-funded highway systems or something else that immigrants typically have to use to cross into the U.S.
Of course, even if that line worked, it would actually only provide a justification for the Border Guard, not for internal immigration cops, and would provide no basis whatever for deporting immigrants once they’ve made it over the border and are staying on property that is privately owned. And, as you point out, there’s still no such agreement and therefore no such collective ownership.
But I suspect that that is the line that he’d take if you pressed him on the question of why the government should be able to force immigrants off of privately-owned land where they are welcome.
Actually, I could make the argument that those who DO identify themselves as part of a nation (see Thoreau’s treatment of the concept ofin his treatise, Civil Disobedience) should be the ones whose presence here should be viewed with skepticism at best. Nationalism and collectivism, in the political sense, are not virtues, by any means.