Immigration VI: The Prudential Argument

The strongest argument that conservatives make against open immigration is the prudential argument. This is the only uniquely conservative argument (applied to any topic) that I ever find particularly compelling.

Civilization, conservatives like to argue, is a mysterious, fragile thing. Arguments about rights and utility are nice, but they presuppose a stable society whose roots we can never fully understand. This implies cautious prudence. Traditions and culture have evolved to safeguard civilization in ways we may not realize. A massive influx of foreigners who do not share the American love of freedom and its self-reliant ethic could undermine our democracy. If dominant American western traditions are diluted too suddenly, the cultural prerequisites for social cohesion may disappear, and America will be mired either in race wars or European style social democracy, depending on the doomsayer.

This has the form of a valid theoretical argument. But none of its specific premises are particularly plausible. For one, civilization is not as mysterious as conservatives like to argue. When conservatives used this prudential argument to attack socialism, for example, they were missing the point. The failure of socialist systems might have been mysterious to the socialists, but economists and classical liberal theorists from Adam Smith to Ludwig von Mises had already given tangible reasons why planned societies would fail to match the dynamism of the free market.

What is mysterious to me is that conservatives believe America possesses a unique culture of liberty and self-reliance. This view, inspired by a romanticized vision of the American past, is simultaneously blind to the American present. As I see it, the United States is a run-of-the-mill bloated social democracy with all of the welfare state’s hallmarks – progressive income taxes, managed social insurance for the elderly and poor, heavily regulated public utilities, free public schooling through high school (perhaps soon through college?), guaranteed health care for the elderly and now for all citizens, consumer safety regulation. What is left to be added to this cradle-to-grave behemoth? These entitlements are guarded hungrily by an electorate that only pauses to decide which problem government should “solve” for it next.

There is nothing particularly inspiring about this government. America today is only marginally different from other developed western democracies, the misconceptions of American and European leftists and rightists notwithstanding. If immigration upsets the social democratic order, so much the better. Why not suppose that determined immigrants would in fact import a culture of self-reliance now sorely lacking? One of America’s truly unique features is its immigrant heritage, its history as the product of individuals who took their destiny into their own hands and worked to build a better future. This, of course, is exactly the unique feature that “traditionalists” are trying to undo.

In point of fact, America’s immigration laws were not the product of any reasonable concern about democratic stability. Beginning most significantly with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they were the simple product of racist sentiment toward foreign groups Americans feared or (literally) could not understand. A culture of xenophobia, evolved or no, is not worth maintaining.

What if it were in fact the case that immigrants intended to vote away notional American freedoms? This would be unfortunate. But could we stop it? We were not able to stop the current 12 million illegal immigrants who came to this country. Their children will be citizens whether conservatives like it or not. If conservatives want to worry about the electoral problems of immigration, they should worry about the problem created by alienating a huge and growing chunk of the American populace.

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