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Perspective - Natural, Not National, Rights

by Sheldon Richman for the Foundation For Economic Education

Somewhere in my reading about immigration I encountered the deceptively simple point that it’s not immigration we should be talking about but migration. That’s another way of saying the focus has been on “us,” when it should be on the people coming to the United States . The discussion has proceeded as if they have no rights in the matter but we do. We will let them come here if and only if we have a use for them. And “we” doesn’t refer to a group of free individuals, but rather to a collective Borg-like entity with rights superior to any held by its constituents. The collectivist, and therefore statist, nature of the discussion indicates how far we’ve drifted from our individualist and voluntarist moorings.

You can see what I mean in most of the commentary about what is prejudicially called the “immigration problem.” By that I don’t mean such real dangers as migrant-exploitation and migrant-smuggling, which are products not of the lack of border control but precisely the opposite. No one would choose to cross the border at a cost of thousands of dollars and squeezed into a gas tank if he could take a bus or a plane.

No, the “problem” that “we” presumably must solve is that too many of the wrong kind of people are coming here. Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes, for instance, “Do liberals [he means Democrats] believe that the number, social class, education level, background and country of origin of immigrants—the kinds of decisions every democratic country makes for itself—should be taken out of the hands of the American citizenry and left to the immigrants themselves and, in particular, to those most willing to break the very immigration regulations the American people have decided upon democratically?”

I’m sure Krauthammer doesn’t think of himself as a collectivist, but could his question be more saturated with collectivism? What does he mean when he says a democratic country decides? An abstraction, such as a country, doesn’t make decisions. It requires prodigious evasion to take the self-serving, logrolling, rent-seeking, voter-pandering, incumbent-protecting activities of a gaggle of legislators, who don’t even read the bills they vote on, for The Country’s decision-making. Considering the long and winding road from an election of a congressman to the passage of an immigration bill, it’s laughable to claim that the decision over who may enter the country lies in the hands of the American citizenry. Civics-book clichés can’t change the facts.

Krauthammer goes on: “There are tens of millions of people who want to leave their homes and come to America . We essentially have an NFL draft in which the United States has the first, oh, million or so draft picks. Rather than exercising those picks, i.e., choosing by whatever criteria we want—such as education, enterprise, technical skills and creativity—we admit the tiniest fraction of the best and brightest and permit millions of the unskilled to pour in instead.”

Imagine that. We’re giving up a golden opportunity to engineer the composition of our society. It’s this sort of thinking that attracted many respectable people to eugenics in the twentieth century. Krauthammer presumably would oppose central planning in other respects. But he’s all for centrally planning the migrant component of the U.S. population. It’s hard to see how centralized decision-making is bad in most matters but good in this one.

The synthetic right of The Country or Citizenry to decide who comes here nullifies the real, natural rights of flesh-and-blood individuals—those very rights that we believe set us apart from the rest of the world. Judging by the discussion, migrants have no rights to speak of; the Bush administration even demands that the Mexican government block “its” people from leaving Mexico . Forbidden entry requires forbidden exit. An American whose land borders Mexico apparently isn’t entitled to think of that boundary as his and to invite people from the other side to live or work on his property. Instead, it’s “our” border, with “our” including people thousands of miles away.

Then there’s the popular view that if migrants couldn’t find jobs here, they wouldn’t come. Thus the Lou Dobbses of the country want to imprison employers who have the gall to hire migrants not in possession of tamper-proof government papers. So much for freedom of association and contract. So much for free and private enterprise.

Americans, we apparently are in need of reminding, are not the only people with rights, which are universal and natural, not national. As Robert Higgs says, “[T]he Bill of Rights makes no mention of anyone’s citizenship status.”

A country is not a country club. What separates a true liberal from everyone else is his or her belief that freedom is not a luxury for some, to be enjoyed only when they approve of the outcome, but a necessity for individual human flourishing.

What was the early American attitude toward immigration? Becky Akers consults a variety of sources to come up with the answer.

From the beginning FEE has promoted the right of people to change their location regardless of national boundaries. This month’s FEE Timely Classic is an excerpt from the early pamphlet “The Freedom to Move” by Oscar Cooley and Paul Poirot.

Tax reform is a perennial issue that absorbs much activist time and money. Is it a good investment for advocates of the freedom philosophy? Gene Callahan says no.

Capitalism and democracy are often said to go hand in hand. That sort of sloppy thinking will only lead to trouble, writes Arthur Foulkes.

Critics of the automobile and the highways that make it valuable charge that without government subsidies our transportation habits would be radically different. Randal O’Toole challenges the premise.

Who was Auberon Herbert and why was he saying those bad things about government? Gary Galles will tell you.

Eminent domain can threaten nearly any American’s home or business. Fredrick McCarthy has a story about one company’s effort to keep from being turned into a football-stadium parking lot.

Here’s what our columnists contribute this month. Richard Ebeling exposes Keynesian authoritarianism. Donald Boudreaux cautions against bad arguments. Burton Folsom describes a lethal New Deal program. Walter Williams revisits the Constitution. And David Henderson, hearing arguments that raising the minimum wage would stanch Mexican migration, replies, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books coming under scrutiny herein deal with the rise of collectivism, the fateful year 1776, a Supreme Court justice’s view of the Constitution, and how to make decisions.

This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in The Freeman, Vol. 56 No. 9 (November 2006).

About The Author

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, published by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York, and serves as senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and FFF's newest book Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read to study and advance the freedom philosophy. FEE's mission is to offer the most consistent case for the "first principles" of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.