Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Unpleasant questions, Migration, Wealth, Secession, and the Common Good

Think out loud last week was about immigration rules in America, particularly the controversy surrounding Arizona's immigration law. As I lay in bed listening, I got to thinking about the underlying policy of immigration and emigration, the limits of liberal education, and how the many smaller issues that came to light throughout the discussion linked back to the philosophy that our Nation's laws are ostensibly based on. Although everyone agreed that reform was needed, there were essentially two visions of what the reform should be. One group put forward rather persuasive arguments that the large influx of new immigrants was undermining the bargaining power of workers in America and by the numbers this influx can account for all of the unemployment in America today. The other group essentially argued that we are all immigrants and that it is wrong to separate out the immigrants of yesterday from the immigrants of today. These arguments aren't mutually exclusive, and neither side really argued against what the other group said. It seemed that the commentators on each side approached a dark space within the rhetoric, a collection of unutterable assumptions underlying the worldview of the opposition, and chose to remain safely in the light rather than venture into new, dangerous territory.

Without dwelling on the implications of this behavior on the theory of progress through dialectic, this debate highlighted a clear deficiency in the liberal educational experience. Although the typical collegiate is bombarded with a few ideas from a smattering of philosophers and given many tools for justifying whatever opinion he or she might personally fancy, there is little effort made to confront the ideas of the student in a way that highlights systematic inadequacy and encourages the synthesis of new ideas and structured application of theory. Instead, the individual finds himself with many different ideas at his disposal that are mere instruments of justification, rendering the ideas of philosophy nothing more than tools to be used ad hoc to justify whatever decision the student fancies. In this way, the liberal experience functions as a preparation for corporate office culture because it deliberately deconstructs many of the individual's natural tools of moral decision making rather than integrating the philosophy into those notions. Thus, the individual is torn between a philosophy for which he or she has a poor understanding and his or her natural sense of fairness that has been stunted and alienated. Such an individual comes to experience the world from a state of permanent immaturity. When acting with authority, he or she tends to be unnecessarily cruel; when responding to authority, he or she tends to experience a much higher level of stress.

To illustrate, consider a thought experiment that one of my teachers used in a writing class that I took. In this experiment, a ship is sinking, and there is not enough space on the life boats to accept everyone. The question is then to determine who among the remaining passengers shall be saved. There are young people, old people, child prodigies, retards, lepers, etc. We each made our list and recorded our reasoning. The teacher then had a few of us present our views on the matter. After listening patiently to our presentations hinging on random dice rolls, who is first in line, and of course measures of the value of individuals based on characteristics, our teacher told us that the only ethical thing to do was to refuse to participate in the thought experiment entirely. I disagreed, and continue to disagree, and this is the core of my objection to the liberal educational program. My teacher had conflated two very similar but different things: the political impression of an action, and the moral impact of an action.

Anyone who we believe to be a good person has certain traits. Such a person respects diversity, cares for the less fortunate, shows kindness and compassion, etc. Our perception of the person as such comes from a relatively small data set. We typically only know of a few actions a person has taken that are good or bad. Additionally, we tend to see things in a self-centered way, so that our friends become good people because they have done thing that are good from our perspective, such as helping us to get a job over other people, hanging out with us rather than other people, and sharing with us rather than other people. I call this phenomenon - our impression of a person based on a relatively small data set, biased by our ideas of allegiance - our political impression. Therefore, when a person does something that strikes us as not being good, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is a bad action or that he or she is a bad person, even if we individually come to believe that it is so. He or she has left a bad political impression, but more investigation must be done to determine if the action is truly bad or if the person is truly bad.

Because it is highly likely that people actually can't be good or bad, and in the interest of brevity, I'll focus from here out on just actions. The political impression of an action is one thing, and it is an aspect of our individual perceptions. The actual moral impact of an action must be an object that does not depend on individual perceptions - we are striving to perceive an actual object that is ultimately constructable from a log of physical events (by "actual object" I don't mean something having physical substance, I just mean a collection of traits, eg. a doorway, a karate kick, to give $10, a collision, the color red).

So we can immediately approach the question in two ways - either we can have a paradigm of actions that are good and actions that are bad, match the action up to that paradigm and immediately label it, or we can have a valuation of world states in which the action occurs and in which some alternative occurs, and label the action as good iff the world state that results is the more valuable one. We want our approach to eventually solve the problem, and a little bit of thinking tends to reveal situations in which both approaches must be blended in order to arrive at the truth. But we can't pretend to have solved a problem by refusing to address it, nor can we act as if it is unsolvable simply because we haven't solved it.

Western philosophy is horribly tainted by Christian sentimentalism. When a group of firemen race toward a burning building only to find several people outside dying of smoke inhalation, knowing that several others remain inside, they may be faced with a choice: save those who have already escaped or try to rescue more from inside. The political impression of either choice cannot be bad, but the moral question is not necessarily neutral. It certainly isn't neutral for the author of the firefighter's training manual. Here, even when weighing lives equally, points of equivalence must arise. If nobody asks whether the life of an elderly man should be saved before the life of a child, whether a convicted felon should be saved before a Nobel Laureate, whether a healthy person should be left to die while a sick person is saved, nobody will know if the right thing was done. The christian answer seems to be to pray, that is to say to leave the decision to fate. But fate is not just.

This is all stated merely to argue that even though unpleasant questions may arise during philosophic discussions this is not an indication that the discussion has gone down the wrong track. Rather, this tends to mean that that these questions must be asked - a person who purports to have a solution must answer them. A person who doesn't offer solutions is not necessarily unwelcome in the discussion, but those who offer solutions deserve the highest honors, even if those proposals end up being flawed. The discussion must always be about finding solution, not just meandering talk.

Democratic decision making functions best when it is the most localized. That doesn't mean that the best decisions are made at the local level - but that when the democratic process does work correctly, it puts the decision in the hands of those who are affected by the problem. Of course, the process requires some level of dedication to the common good to be of use at all, and a real debate must occur. We tend to see this very little nowadays. This is probably symptomatic of the fact that modern states are so large that individual opinion really end up mattering very little, even for people like the President. It is only natural that people stop caring about the common good when their opinion seems irrelevant in the first place.

Nevertheless, as a democratic country, the United States gives each citizen a vote and collectively the citizens are sovereign from the laws of other countries. Even though our control is imperceptible at the individual level, collectively we control the destiny of our country. We determine the economic regulations that in turn create specific incentives that lead to specific business configurations. Collectively, the people's preferences, knowledge, and beliefs, in combination with the system of economic regulations, history, and institutions of business represent the object known as the economy. This economy, being the result of repeated democratic decisions reaching back into the past, is ultimately sovereign from other economies. This sovereignty is necessary if we are to exercise democratic control over the economy.

Other economies, existing within other sovereign states, are similarly free to determine their own compositions. As a result of different events in their history, some economies experience significantly lower standards of living than our economy does. So it might seem that accepting people from these other economies to come live within the United States is a good policy. But allowing this free exchange of peoples actually deals significant harm to the ability of the people to regulate the economy.

Immigration to this country has always imposed the greatest weight upon the poorest. The first immigrants to this country drove the indigenous peoples off of their ancestral lands, "spoiling the world" for them. So naturally I take the statement that "you should be for immigration because you are an immigrant" with a grain of salt. Regardless of my specific heritage, looking at the problem objectively it is clear that immigrants tend to inflict real harm to those whose economies they migrate to. While a new immigrant to our country might not have the right to take land away from us as we did from the Indians, they instead compete for jobs, and to a lesser degree, social services. There was a time (about 40 years ago now) when a young, middle class person like me could work in a factory producing the goods we consume, work in a field tending the crops we eat, or work in a kitchen washing dishes or the like. But nowadays it is not simply that we don't want to do this work, but that the wage for such jobs has been artificially depressed as a direct result of an influx of unskilled laborers as a result of a broken immigration policy and porous borders. For the wealthy and the educated elite, in fact for any member of our society who has a secure, white collar job, or even some secure blue collar jobs, these immigrants pose no danger - they are not in line to receive public welfare service or applying for jobs that take unskilled labor. In fact, these classes of our society benefit from unregulated immigration because there is a marginal lowering of prices that results from reduced labor costs.

The core of the problem is that resources are limited, meaning that only a certain maximum quantity of goods and services can be provided within our society at any particular time. Furthermore, the level of exploitation of resources is far below the theoretical maximum because environmentally harmful infrastructure must be built upon any natural resource that is to be exploited, or the resource itself is environmentally valuable. Thus, there is an environmental cost associated with any particular standard of living. Ultimately, too, these resources will one day be depleted. Our country has prudently decided to pursue meaningful environmental policies. These are predicated on controlled growth and a limited material standard of living. Inviting millions of additional people to this country means that either A) they will starve or B) they will receive some resources, either through additional environmental destruction or through competition - meaning reduced welfare for those already here.

The problem cannot be solved simply through increased welfare and raises to minimum wage. As more services make available to the poorest, and the more friendly we are toward immigration, the greater the incentive becomes to immigrate to this country. There are more than enough poor people in this world to overwhelm the limited resources that are available to the United States to feed, house, educate, and employ them, at least in our current economic configuration of market capitalism with debt-issue balanced budgets.

All of this drives me to ask whether the right of emigration - the right to leave one's country - truly is a fundamental human right. It is enumerated within the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so according to one authority it is fundamental. But as I have written before, it is problematic without a right to immigrate anywhere. I prefer the stance that the right to become a refugee and the right to amnesty are fundamental - but that there is no right to leave without first being seriously oppressed or under threat. Poverty alone cannot suffice. Certainly, being wealthy, gifted, or ambitious is also not a valid reason.

Wealth is only ownable by an individual because the laws of the state to which that individual is a citizen confer the privilege of ownership to the objects of property that are considered to have a wealth value. It certainly follows that an individual cannot take wealth from one country to another except by the consent of both governments. Whenever such a transfer is considered, the governments must ask whether the common good is served by allowing this exchange. The movement of currency from one state to another alters the market conditions in both states. As immigrants arrive in the United States, they bring currency with them that is exchanged for dollars, reducing the quantity of dollars held by the country from which they came and in turn encouraging imports from that country to the U.S. Prices are also bid up in the U.S. and down in that country. This price disparity exacerbates the inequality between nations. So it seems that a prudent policy is to heavily tax the movement of wealth between nations.

Finally, emigration can be seen as a special case of secession. If secession is disallowed, so ought be emigration. When a group of people secede from a nation, they declare themselves and certain of their property holdings to no longer fall under the jurisdiction of their former State. Secession generally disallowed by states because it poses significant problems to the process of law. Emigration is merely the movement outside of the geographic boundaries in which the state operates. That is, it accomplishes the aims of secession but only for the individual. However, individuals can still emigrate en masse, in which case emigration ceases to be the harmless, low level phenomenon that it was. Furthermore, the state's interest in controlling a person's behavior do not cease simply due to a person being in a specifc geographic place. This is particularly true if the person in question is, say, an unscrupulous industrialist intent of thwarting environmental regulators. So, individuals have no more right to emigrate than they have the right to secede, that is to say, they have no such right.

If emigration is not allowed, immigration cannot be allowed. Thus, there is no case to be made that a fundamental right to immigration exists.