Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The semester's over, but with the transition to summer activities there's still lots going on. Hope to post again next week.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Stepping Back from Immigration

It's difficult to know what Monday's "Day without Immigrants" demonstrators hoped to demonstrate. The awkwardness of their situation is that their putative indispensibility comes precisely from the low wages made possible by their illegal status. To normalize their situation would oblige their employers to pay them regular wages (as they justly should) and nullify their economic value as wage slaves.

It is a difficult issue. Strict enforcement of border security is a no-brainer (even Howard Dean and Senator Clinton have endorsed it), but only a beginning. An amnesty program would only make the situation worse in the long run by encouraging others to enter illegally in hope of gaining similar advantage. (This is certainly what happened when Reagan granted amnesty.) So no one has proposed a comprehensive solution.

As ever, it helps to step back from the narrow issues to examine the wider context.1

The issue is not simply the millions of people living here illegally and the millions more entering illegally through our poorly protected borders. The broader issue is what is attracting these people, namely, the vast economic disparity between their countries and our own.

One stereotypical solution would be to throw money at these countries; another would be to sprinkle "democracy and capitalism" like pixie dust and hope it clones American prosperity.

Neither of these fixes takes note of the fact that giving someone all the material wealth in the world (or the best political institutions in the world) doesn't automatically mean that they will know how to make use of it. You could drop helicopter loads of cash on developing countries and it will actually deepen their poverty. You can give scientific calculators away in the inner city, but it won't make poor children scientists and doctors. The fundamental issue is that material wealth is founded on personal formation. As the saying goes, "Give a man a fish...".

Certainly "rule of law"2 is indispensible. But there cannot be dependable laws without dependable people.

The challenge is how to form people in other countries so they can enrich themselves by making their own wealth at home. That way their economic situation won't compel them to this violate our borders and compromise our national unity. As I mentioned before, "spiritual" goods like education and good habits are necessary to gain and maintain material goods like economic wealth.

Given the reality of the origin of most of the immigrants (legal and illegal), let's look at Mexico. Despite the institution of truly democratic elections there some time ago, that country still suffers from grinding poverty thanks to widespread and apparently intractible corruption. The police are still largely crooks with badges, and it is little better with higher officials. "Democracy" hasn't been the promised panacea.

I propose that we look to Hong Kong for a model of how to remedy the immigration problem. The nucleus of Chinese economic prosperity is that small port tutored under British rule for nearly a century. I propose a similar arrangement between the Mexico and the U.S. If we could forge an agreement with Mexico for an extended lease of land (say, 99 years) along the U.S. border, we could create a place where Mexicans benefit from American law and order and thereby acquire the formation in American ways they need to take "back" to their own country.

Obstacles to this Plan

Realistically speaking, my plan has little or no chance of being enacted. Why? First I'm guessing Mexico would be resistant to such an agreement. It's simply much easier and much less damaging to national "pride" to set up government bureaus to encourage your people to flee to "El Norte."

Secondly and perhaps more fundamentally, because our leaders (in both parties) have shown themselves rather averse to any plan difficult for the long-term benefit of the country (witness the ballooning Federal budget and trade deficits, and the non-action on Social Security's coming collapse). They are simply too focussed on stemming the tide of political capital to see that by investing a little now, they could reap bountiful dividends in future.3 And this is doubly so in an election year.

Perhaps I'm too cynical. Perhaps I'm wrong about the fecklessness of our leaders (and I hope to be proven wrong). But I know I'm not wrong about human formation being the key to the immigration issue.


1. Here, my political naivete helps me to "see the forest for the trees," but it also prevents me from being aware of many salient issues, which is why I appreciate (constructive) comments here.

2. Without "rule of law" there can be no economic wealth. For example, why would a family build on its land if there were no assurance it wouldn't be taken from them. The foundation of English prosperity began with the Doomsday Book, William the Conquerer's catalog of all the land holdings of the realm. Once the English could point to their official deed, their real estate was secure enough to be developed. It is like that for other forms of wealth as well.

3. Of course the reason politicians are so worried about the political costs is that the electorate (that's you and I) are so geared to economic prosperity that it appears we stomach real leadership only with difficulty. The ruling political paradigm is "It's the Economy, Stupid."