Sunday, September 22, 2013

Open Borders

I am so happy this website exists:

From the site's self-description:
This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.
The goal of the website is to make the arguments for open borders, and also to explicitly discuss many arguments against open borders, evaluate their validity, and determine ways to tackle the objections.
Living abroad has made this issue more and more personal to me, but I know my experience overall hasn't been too bad. There are millions of people who are not so fortunate.

We need more people who are actually willing to say, "I support open borders." In the Western world, there are far too many intellectual forces which breed prejudice against free immigration, and they often come from what we think of as opposite sides of the political spectrum. On the one hand, you have nationalism, which comes in many forms. Some argue that the state should be obliged first to the economic well-being of its own citizens, and that any disadvantage caused by immigration should be a concern to the state. Others argue that every nation has the right to preserve a certain culture, language, or intellectual or spiritual tradition, and that free immigration would deny this right. Still others argue that it is simply too impractical to allow a pure "melting pot" experiment, in which people from different cultures all try to get along under on state. I call all of these arguments generally "nationalist," even though they may be more or less so.

On the other hand, you have social democracy, which can indeed get in the way of free immigration. If the state has the responsibility to care for the general well-being of all of its citizens, it is naturally going to be difficult to accept a large mass of new citizens. You end up with the paradoxical and sometimes overwhelming tension of a society so compassionate that it can't accept any more strangers.

I think it would be a great moral victory to see the world embrace open borders. I suspect it will happen (if it ever does) more gradually than other moral victories such as the illegalization of slavery.

Morality needs to take a central role in the debate. I am frankly always pessimistic about the average person's ability to understand the economics involved, and even if the whole world were well-informed on economics, maximizing utility functions is hardly an inspiring argument for changing laws. For some on the left, the case for open borders might come down to a sort of cultural relativism in which there really shouldn't be any national distinctions. I don't find this especially convincing, myself. Rather, I think adopting open borders would be the best expression of the values our Western civilization has cultivated over the ages (in particular our Christian values), and I don't think we should be ashamed to say so. We should welcome the stranger, not because cultural differences don't matter, but precisely because our civilization is capable of welcoming others to adopt our way of life. Of course, to invite the stranger is to invite cultural evolution, but there is no ultimate danger in this if one has enduring beliefs that inspire admiration in all. In particular, there is no reason to be shy about saying that all people long to be free, and we should welcome others to share in the freedom for which our ancestors fought hard.

Again, I'm excited this web site exists. Note that it includes every kind of argument you could possibly want: libertarian, egalitarian, utilitarian, conservative, and so on. We live in exciting times, for anyone aware of the intellectual movements going on.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

First impressions on reading Democracy in America

I've always wanted to read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and now I'm taking advantage of my new-found French speaking ability to read the book in French. I haven't gotten very far, but I already have some pretty striking impressions. Here they are.

  • Despite claims to the contrary, it seems pretty legitimate after all to say America is in some sense a Christian nation. Sure, you can point to the theology of the Founding Fathers and say, "Hey, it's all just deism," but Tocqueville is more concerned with the angloamericans who founded places like New England. You can't look at the early settlements without seeing an explicit reference to Christian beliefs in both their goals and even their laws. If "the founders" are people like Washington and Jefferson, then okay, maybe we're just a deist nation. But if "the founders" are the Anglo-Saxons who first came to America, then we are definitely a Christian nation.
  • Tocqueville's general comments on religion strike me as true today just as they were during the Enlightenment: religion was originally the friend of freedom and equality, then it became an ironic enemy, but in many ways it is still a friend and should be more so. The narrative he tells is something like this: Christian beliefs gave people access to a higher power than political power and a belief in inherent human dignity that transcends culture. This was the first step toward defeating tyranny. The next step is democracy, which Tocqueville seems to be best displayed in America, particularly New England.
  • Freedom is not the ability to whatever you want, but rather the ability to do what is right. Tocqueville thus speaks highly of the strong (and religiously motivated) emphasis on education, which he says fosters freedom in the new republic.
  • Townships are the nexus of democracy. Americans in the eyes of Tocqueville are successful in democracy because they build it from the ground up. In fact, Tocqueville marvels precisely at how active the local government is in the life of the people, in contrast to his own French government.
  • Tocqueville gives one of the best descriptions of the modern libertarian ideal you can find. America is founded on allowing individuals to be sovereign in all things which pertain only to them, and likewise for all levels of the federal structure (towns, cities, states, and finally the federal government). Thus there is as little intervention from the top as possible.
  • At the same time, Tocqueville praises townships for having governments which provide an ever-expanding array of services. It may or may not be difficult to reconcile this with modern libertarianism. (Does the growth of federal government actually get in the way of healthy, active local government?)
  • Equality is practically synonymous with freedom. Tocqueville insists that there is probably no group of people on earth that has ever achieved more equality of circumstances than the Anglo-Americans. Yet he also claims that they would be the last people on earth to claim that equality of wealth is a goal worth pursuing. Equality of results is, for him, an outgrowth of freedom, but it's also more than that. In some sense, it is freedom, by definition. Freedom means that no one has any special authority given from above, which is the same as equality.
  • From the very beginning there was a large difference between the North and the South. A lot of people talk about "America's" guilt in tolerating slavery, but as time goes on we seem to get less and less clear on how striking the regional differences actually were. New England, for example, never had slavery. You have to wonder if we weren't asking for a Civil War just by uniting north and south under one Constitution. (None of this is to say racism didn't exist in the North.)
  • Tocqueville is highly critical of slavery, not just because of its consequences for slaves (which is the obvious criticism), but also because of its consequences for society in general. It creates a society which is less free and less progressive for everyone, not just for the enslaved. I believe he says that it makes the society less industrious, which is almost certainly correct.
Some of these impressions might be off base, who knows. What I'm mostly left with is a desire to see more of the vibrant local civic life that Tocqueville seems to love so well in young America. But how do you pull that off in an increasingly transient and mobile society? How do you unite people together by common values? And is there still room in the modern world for communities formed by common religious beliefs?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

How do we keep our own language?

Recently I listened to a debate (in French) on Réplique, a radio program on FranceCulture hosted by Alain Finkielkraut, on the place of English in the French university. The trend is clear: universities want to teach more classes in English so as to attract more foreign students and professors. Unsurprisingly to anyone who has read or listened to a bit of Finkielkraut, his reaction to this general trend was less than favorable. "La langue, c'est l'âme d'un peuple" (the language is the soul of a people) one might say. If we lose our language, do we not also lose our soul?

As an American, I found the whole debate somewhat embarrassing. It is undeniable that English has become the lingua franca of the modern world, and it is not hard to see this as part of a general trend of American cultural dominance (leaving aside the British colonialism that defined a previous era). So it makes me blush when I hear a French intellectual argue (against Finkielkraut) that in order for France to remain in a prominent position, it must learn to speak two languages fluently: the language of its soul (French) and the language of the world (English).

But before anyone (Americans included) jumps on the USA for imposing its culture and its language on others, it might be wise to think about how Americans also imposed this language on themselves. Cultural traditions, especially languages, have often gone to die in the United States. Most Americans only speak one language, but it is hardly the language of their ancestors. Very few of us have bloodlines which are all English. Our ancestors learned English in order to become part of a new people and construct a new nation state. (In recent years in Europe one often sees the opposite happening: nations splitting apart countries in order to preserve their separate peoples.)

If there really is international desire to become one global community (and at least to some limited extent, there genuinely is) it is only natural that there should be a language uniting us. There is simply nothing more fundamental than language when it comes to human coexistence.

Then again, I understand perfectly well the desire to guard one's own language. There is something beautiful about having a plurality of languages and traditions, to one who is motivated enough to learn or at least observe them. For each people, it is difficult to let go of its soul--that is, the language. So if the desire to adopt a new language simply isn't there, it seems rather arrogant or cruel to insist on it.

Yet there is something naïve about this portrait of culture. Take French as an example. To suggest that the French people ought to guard their language as something which is theirs by the purely organic process of cultural transmission would fly in the face of actual history. No, French people speak French because there is a French government which designates in its Constitution that the official language is French, and which insists that in all the schools in France the classes will be taught in French. There exist even today languages and dialects in France that are slowly dying, simply because there do not exist the same kinds of institutions backing them. And that is not to speak of the French language itself, which is the product of a long series of mutations and transformations of various European tongues. Neither have I mentioned the large amount of immigration into France in recent years, which further problematizes the notion of "French people" and calls into question how much the French language truly unifies the country. So to act as if the French people have a "right" to guard what is "theirs" seems a little strange, in a lot of ways.

But if a nation is to exist, it must have a language, right? Indeed, and so anyone seeking to unite as one nation must be willing to learn its language and its culture. Therein lies the paradox for me: we join together with others in forming a nation, so that the nation can in turn form us. This is either the most beautiful of life's paradoxes, or a very cruel irony.

From my point of view, the paradox of language (and culture) can only be beautiful if we refuse to accept the myth of modernity that we construct the world as we choose. There are certain errors committed by progressives and conservatives which are, so to speak, equal and opposite, and which have as their origin the false notion that history is a test of human will. Thus progressives, on the one hand, believe that by leaving old things behind, we can arrive at a new Eden of human flourishing, while conservatives believe that we will accomplish the same thing by instead keeping those things which we are at risk of losing. I believe, on the contrary, that we must accept that most things in history will be lost, whether we wish it or not, and that at the same time most new ideas are bad ideas, which will only be weeded out with the passage of more time and thoughtful criticism. A language neither can nor should be perfectly preserved, and neither can it be invented from scratch (as proved by the dazzling failure of Esperanto to become an international language).

The best we can do politically is, in my estimation, to ensure that people have as much freedom as possible, both to benefit from the culture of their own ancestors and to learn the culture of others'. The United States has, in particular, never had an official language at the level of a constitutional requirement. I have absolutely no sympathy for "English only" movements within the US, which seems to me to run counter to everything that the American experience proves (or may hope to prove) about human beings--that we can, by some miracle, albeit not without pain, unite dozens of cultures in one place and under one system of laws. As for France, I would recommend giving freedom a try, as well. It is not necessary for all students to take classes in English, and the fact that English is fashionable is no reason to push for it in more universities. On the other hand, neither does it make sense to deny a university the right to teach more classes in English (or any other language which might one day be useful internationally).

For God's sake, the French language gave us the phrase "laissez faire." I've never understood why the French themselves are so bad at doing that. But that's a whole other story, I suppose.