Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, January 25, 2007


Mickey Kaus argues that "comprehensive immigration reform" and the Iraq War are both "bold, decisive disasters":

Bold, Decisive Disasters: The conventional view of Tuesday's State of the Union speech is this: Bush's invasion of Iraq has turned nightmarish. He got beat in the midterms. He's reacted by changing his approach on the domestic front--reaching across the aisle to make bipartisan, centrist compromises on domestic issues like "comprehensive immigration reform."

But it seems to me the invasion of Iraq and "comprehensive immigration reform" actually have more in common than you might think. Far from being a sensible centrist departure from the sort of grandiose, wishful, rigid thinking that led Bush into Iraq, "comprehensive immigration reform" is of a piece with that thinking. And it's likely to lead to a similar outcome.

I'm in the opposite position from Mickey: I support both immigration reform and the Iraq War. But I also see resemblances between the two: in particular, both are simultaneously (a) ways to deal with intractable problems, and (b) are half-conscious assaults on the idea of "sovereignty" that is the fundamental organizing principle of, and the chief source of injustice in, our world.

Here are ten similarities:

1. They're both ideas Bush had when he came into office...

2. They both have an idealistic basis. Bush was sympathetic to the way Middle East democrats had been frustrated by "realist" foreign policies, and he's clearly sympathetic to the problems of poor immigrants who come to the U.S. to work and feed their families only to be forced to live "in the shadows."

This is key. Critics of the Iraq War don't always acknowledge the "idealistic basis" of the Iraq War; a lot of criticism is of the "blood for oil"/conspiracy-theorist kind. Few critics of the war get as far as "The Iraq War had an idealistic basis, but..."

3. They both seek, in one swoop, to achieve a grand solution to a persistent, difficult problem. No "smallball"! The Iraq Project would begin the transformation of the Middle East, an area that had frustrated president after president. "Comprehensive" immigration reform would, as the name suggests, resolve in one bold bill the centuries-old immigration issue--including a) devising a way to keep out illegal workers while b) providing business with legal immigrant workers, plus c) deciding what to do with illegals who are already here. It would, as Bush said Tuesday, be "conclusive."

Maybe. To my mind, the Iraq War and immigration reform "get the ball rolling" on their respective causes, causes which, if the follow their logical course, will transform the world we live in.

4. In both cases, they envision a complicated, triple-bank shot chain of events happening just as Bush wishes it to happen. Iraqis were going to be grateful to their American liberators, come together in peace and give us a stable "ally in the war on terror." Hispanics, in the happy Rovian scenario behind Bush's immigration plan, would be grateful to Republicans for bringing them out of the shadows, etc., ensuring a large and growing GOP Latino vote for decades to come.

Whether the "visionary" objectives of Iraq/immigration reform are either necessary or sufficient for adopting them is not clear. A "shoot high, settle for less" approach may be at work.

5. Both have an obvious weak spot, depending crucially on pulling off a very difficult administrative feat.

Yes, and neither will work out according to plan. Both involve a revolutionary move against an indefensible status quo: after that, things will spin out of control, that's a given.

6. In both cases, the solution has failed before. We had failed to "stand up" a democracy in Vietnam. We failed to establish a stable, trans-factional governing structures in Lebanon and Somalia. Similarly, the grand, bipartisan Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform of 1986 had promised, and failed, to establish an effective immigration enforcement mechanism.

But was the Simpson-Mazzoli reform really a failure? Kaus himself quotes Bill Kristol's cogent rebuttal:

7. Both were promoted by Bill Kristol!

8. In both cases, some Bush plan enthusiasts may not really mind a chaotic end result... Similarly, Kristol has said he isn't really bothered that the enforcement parts of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli law failed:

I'm not cavalier about illegal immigrants. ...[snip]... What damage have they done that's so great in 20 years? The anti-immigration forces said 20 years ago, there was an amnesty, which there sort of was, the Simpson- Mazzoli bill, which was pushed by the anti-immigration people, that Ronald Reagan signed. What's happened that's so terrible in the last 20 years? Is the crime rate up in the United States in the last 20 years? Is unemployment up in the United States in the last 20 years?...

Exactly. And of course there are remittances to Mexico, and improvements in the living standards of the immigrants themselves. Kaus goes on:

9. In both cases, less grand--and less risky--alternatives are available. Bush could have kept "Saddam" boxed up while he planned regime change through other means, built alliances and pursued the more manageable war in Afghanistan.

I doubt it. Of course, Saddam was more "in a box" already than we knew, or could have known, at that time. But the sanctions were unraveling, and dead Iraqi children because of the sanction were already a cause celebre for bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and a particularly dangerous one, since they were one of a number of areas where al-Qaeda was on the same page as conscientious Westerners.

Similarly, Bush could put "enforcement" mechanisms in place, and make sure they work, before he potentially stimulates a huge new wave of illegal immigrants by rewarding those illegals who already made it across the border.

And thus reinforce the injustice that those born within the borders of the United States have far better opportunities in this world than those born outside it.

10. In both cases the consequences of losing Bush's big bet are severe.

Severe for whom? The consequences of the status quo-- Saddam in power; our current immigration system-- were/are severe for its victims. More fundamentally, the status quo in each case puts us in the wrong. It was morally unacceptable to be punishing Iraqi children for Saddam's vile thwarted ambitions. It is morally unacceptable today that we are applying massive coercion to preserve the privileges of the American-born while denying freedom of migration to the foreign-born.

The equivalent disaster scenario in immigration would go something like this: "Comprehensive" reform passes. The "earned legalization" provisions work as planned--millions of previously undocumented workers become legal Americans. But the untested "enforcement" provisions (point #5) prove no more effective than they've been in the past--or else they are crippled by ACLU-style lawsuits and lobbying (as in the past). Legal guest workers enter the country to work, but so do millions of new illegal workers, drawn by the prospect that they too, may some day be considered too numerous to deport and therefore candidates for the next amnesty. Hey, "stuff happens!" The current 12 million illegal immigrants become legal--and soon we have another 12 million illegals. Or 20 million.

That's exactly what I'm hoping for. It would be interesting to know whether this is what Bush is hoping for, as well, or whether he really thinks "enforcement" will work. As I wrote in "A Right to Migrate":

The question, then, is whether illegal immigrants and their sympathizers have the courage and conviction to organize civil disobedience until they force lasting change... I, for one, hope they do. And I hope they bring about a world in which the right to migrate is accepted as an essential pillar of freedom.

As a result, wages for unskilled, low-income legal American and immigrant workers are depressed. Visible contrasts of wealth and poverty reach near-Latin American proportions in parts of Los Angeles.

Bring it on. After all, the "contrasts of wealth and poverty" are already there; borders are a blindfold, preventing us from seeing how the foreign-born are condemned to live. Open borders would render them visible but would not create them; on the contrary, they are by far the most effective means of reducing them, both through the natural processes of the free market, and by sharpening the pangs of conscience felt by the wealth off and fueling private charity.

And the majority of these illegal (and legal) immigrants, like the majority in many parts of the country, are from one nation: Mexico. America for the first time has a potential Quebec problem,** in which a neighboring country has a continuing claim on the loyalties of millions of residents and citizens.

This is paranoid. Mexicans come here because they want to benefit from the superior economy and governance of the United States. If they wanted to live in Mexico, they'd stay in Mexico. But of course, if we're worried about this, there's an easy solution: let in more non-Mexican immigrants.

In one sense, this second grand Bush plan failure wouldn't be nearly as disastrous as the first--tens of thousands of people wouldn't die.

Poverty kills more people than the Iraq War. Open borders would create huge opportunities for people to better their lives, leading to better health, lower infant mortality and malnutrition, longer life expectancies. Immigration restrictions kill.

In another sense, it would be worse. We can retreat from Iraq. We won't be able to retreat from the failure of immigration reform--no "surge" will save us--because it will change who "we" are.

Who we are is rooted in what we do. As long as we protect the privileged lives of the American-born through immigration restrictions, there is a fundamental cowardice at the soul of the American nation; we are spoiled aristocrats, telling the rest of the world, "Let them eat cake." We walk blindfolded, we cut ourselves off from our fellow men, we "retreat into our money and our vast carelessness," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. And we are tainted by the unjust coercion that is exercised in our name. For this reason, many in this world justly despise us.

The Iraq War was, or at any rate may be, the beginning of the end of our Pontius Pilate foreign policy, in which we washed our hands of the injustice and atrocities which we had the power to stop, trying to deny any responsibility. Immigration reform points the way towards the end of the border policy by which we walk on the other side of the road and pretend not to see the suffering, the downtrodden. These two Bush policies point us... towards a Good Samaritan world.

(I've finally shed a bit of light on the cryptic title of this blog!)


  • In an absolute sense, the value of acting as we did in Iraq is certainly up for debate and is at least plausibly positive. The place where the balance sheet gets far more incontrovertably bloody is when we consider opportunity costs. What else could we have done?

    By Blogger Nato, at 5:13 PM  

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