Like you, I once supported fewer restrictions on foreign immigration. While I’m not sure of your specific views, in my case, I believed that it was important to break down barriers to high-skill immigration, and that the US should maintain and expand its policy to take in refugees fleeing oppression.
There are a number of reasons why my positions were wrong, but the main reason why I was wrong was because the beliefs rested on a few faulty assumptions:
- Cultural differences are malleable — most immigrants just want to assimilate into the historic and distinctive American culture.
- Genetics is mostly cosmetic — observed differences in intelligence and behavior are mostly due to differences in upbringing rather than inborn.
- People have no moral right to use state power to prevent property owners from importing as many or as few people from foreign countries as they want to.
Point #1 — that all people everywhere are simply Americans-in-waiting — is both logically absurd and readily observable to be false, even when traveling to relatively homogeneous regions like Western Europe and Latin America. While Americans are accustomed to having one big language group over a vast territory, in much of the world, linguistic and cultural fragmentation is a given. In countries like France, there are substantial differences in cuisine, accent, dress, and cultural expression from one region to the next.
There’s also the question as to why corporate leaders looking to increase the supply of skilled labor that they can hire should have superior rights to property owners and others who might want to restrict access to their territories. What gives those leaders superior rights to the existing skilled laborers who might want to restrict immigration?
In practice, the corporate leaders are just more effective at manipulating the political process, but it’s entirely possible to see the reverse happening at another time.
Further, despite postwar and post-cold-war consolidations of political models, there’s still substantial diversity in terms of the types of governments people support worldwide, what policies they favor (if they can even articulate a political consciousness), and what morals they follow.
As for the second point, it requires a staunch denial of the entire body of knowledge of genetics, going back centuries. Thinkers as diverse and well-known as Stephen Pinker, Charles Murray, and James Watson (whom you should remember from your High School biology textbook as one of the co-discoverers of the structure of DNA) have all done a better job of deflating the ‘blank slate’ myth than I could in a short letter to you.
The political implications of substantial biological diversity between groups of humans means that any model which rests on the assumption that humans are roughly uniform in terms of their economic productivity, cultural practices, and political beliefs is not a good model to base your legal reasoning on.
Point #3 is more esoteric, as most people nowadays have a fuzzy notion of what governments should and shouldn’t be permitted to do, with most people hewing towards a contradictory grab bag of custom and abstract principles.
The chief reason why you should consider changing your position on immigration is that it creates social incoherence and makes it more challenging to run an effective government along any given lines, regardless of whatever your beliefs about government are.
If we, for a moment, imagine importing 30 million Frenchmen into the American Midwest and giving them citizenship, the results would be the creation of a big exiled France-on-the-Prairie. The original population would be politically displaced, linguistically marginalized, and also marginalized from existing economic networks within the exiles.
The original government of those regions would have to make way for power-sharing with the new French majority, which would likely move to change the political and cultural climate to one much more like France than it was like the Midwest, with its distinct history.
Immigration advocates could counter that that is largely what happened with the original settling of the Midwest in the mid-19th century, except with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere. And in fact, the history of the settling of that region is one of inter-ethnic conflict between Irish, Germans of different Christian persuasions, the Native Americans, and Yankee settlers from New England. And part of that incoherent internal conflict is what lead to the heinous Civil War, in which Yankees conscripted immigrants straight off the boats to fight against the South.
We like to think that we shape our own political beliefs, but we are also shaped by the results of past wars, rather than an exercise of pure reason which we conduct isolated from others. One of the reasons why debates about immigration are so tendentious in contemporary America is because it’s long been a contentious debate, in large part due to the civic rights granted to all citizens to vote.
In democracies like the United States, the winners of domestic political conflicts have imported foot soldiers to use against their rivals, both in a literal sense and at the ballot box. Ambitious Americans from the founding onward have seized upon dislocations and conflicts in Europe to gain an upper hand in their domestic schemes. When the ambitious see fewer advantages in importing a new class of foreigners, they tend to stop doing it. That’s one of the reasons why, in the early 20th century, Progressives opposed immigration for a time — they were trying to bust local political machines run by largely Catholic rivals descended from immigrants.
In these debates, as in most issues, we tend to try to re-frame self-interested politics in terms of general principles. We ask “is immigration good or bad for the general welfare?” — and then construct arguments based on those terms, rather than in the particular terms of power politics, because enlightened political structures are not supposed to be about conflicts between interest groups and powerful individuals seeking advantage.
What I’d like to ask you to do is to consider looking past the airy expressions of principles and thinking more in terms of the contemporary political scene in the same way that you would look at a conflict in a foreign country. Americans became comfortable talking about the ‘conflict between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds’ as the US struggled to create a modern state in Iraq governed by a fictional nationality with a similar persuasive weight to the fictional nationality that Americans tend to believe about themselves.
Thinking about immigration with the detachment that you’d feel reading a news story about a conflict between tribes you’d never heard of before is a good exercise to cut away some of the emotional responses to terms which have been carefully cultivated in you by the many different interests who want to persuade you to change your beliefs.
Intellectuals under liberalism tend to see themselves as warriors in the ‘battle of ideas,’ but really, ideas are just the early skirmishes in the actual battles in which people shoot each other over scraps of land to determine who controls it and under what terms. The ideas are important, but the people doing the fighting over those ideas — and the results of those fights — are what tend to matter more.
Consider getting out of the debating hall on the immigration issue. One of the lessons we should learn from the 20th century is that it’s entirely possible for people with terrible, contradiction-ridden ideas to win enormous wars, which gives them territorial control over enormous swaths of the earth. The USSR didn’t have to be run on solid principles for it to conquer much of the planet. You can win the debate, and then lose everything anyway.
The immigration issue is less of one of universal, abstract principles and more one of particular conflicts between particular groups of people in a given country, with different interest groups grasping for advantage at the expense of others. This harms our vanity of seeing our political culture as ‘above’ all of that petty grasping, which was supposed to be characteristic of the ‘old world’ and not of the new political order of popular sovereignty, but that’s the case.
When the determination of what policy to support becomes one of which faction aligns with your interests, it deflates much of the rhetoric and intellectualizing around the issue. That rhetoric tends to be a thin veneer over personal ambition. In democratic politics, political actors use such rhetoric to tout people into their camp, even when it undermines their personal interests. Do what you can to immunize yourself against that.