Introducing: the Federation of Free States, an ongoing thought experiment

The most popular article I have ever written, in terms of views, has been, by far, “10 Places that Should Join the U.S.,” a short piece at RealClearHistory pining for an enlarged geographic area under the American constitution.

This is not a strange concept for longtime NOL readers. I’ve been pleading for stronger political ties between the U.S. and its allies for quite some time. There has been lots of push back to this argument, from everywhere. So I’m going to spend some more time explaining why I think it’d be a great idea for the American constitutional regime to expand geographically and incorporate more political units into its realm. Here is what an initial “federation of free states” would look like in, say, 2025:

NOL map United States in 2020 with 79 states

I’ve incorporated two of the strongest voices against such a federation, NOL‘s very own Michelangelo and Edwin. Michelangelo’s Pacific and Caribbean bias is somewhat acknowledged, and Edwin’s pessimistic socio-linguistic argument against adding continental European states to the federation has also been incorporated.

I’ve also tweaked the “10 places” that I originally saw fit to join the US.

In the map above I’ve got parts of Canada (the 3 “prairie provinces”) and Mexico (3 “ranching states”) joining the American federation. The prairie provinces of Canada – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – would be admitted as separate “states,” and would thus get to send 2 senators each to Washington. According to my napkin calculations, Alberta would only be sending 3 representatives to DC while Saskatchewan and Manitoba would only get 1 representative each in the House. The ranching states of Mexico – Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León – wold likewise be admitted as separate “states,” and would also get to send 2 senators each to Washington. These three states, which have plenty of experience with federalism already, are a bit more populated than the prairie provinces, but not by much. Nuevo León would send 4 representatives to DC, while Tamaulipas would send 3 and Coahuila, 2. Why be so generous to these polities? Why not lump them together into one unit each – a Mexican one and a Canadian one? Mostly because these new states would be giving up a lot to leave their respective polities. Military protection and the rule of law wouldn’t be enough, on their own, to persuade these states into joining the Federation of Free States. They’d need disproportionate representation in Washington, via their Senate seats, in order to leave Canada and Mexico and join the republic.

Antilles (Cuba, Dominican Republic, US Virgin islands, and Puerto Rico). This is a random collection of polities, I admit, and lumping them together into one “state” is even more random. But lump them together I would. On their own I don’t think these polities would do well in a federated system, even with their own Senate seats. There’s just not enough historical parliamentary experience in these Caribbean states. If they were lumped together, though, they’d be a formidable presence in Washington. While Antilles would only get 2 Senators, its combined population would be enough to send 19 representatives to the House, more than Florida, New York, and a gang of other influential states in the current union. At the heart of Antilles joining the US as a “state” in its union is a great trade off: sovereignty in exchange for the rule of law and democratic self-governance.

IsPaJo. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan would also be incorporated into 1 voting state, though I don’t have a good name for this state yet. This isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. The populations of these 3 polities would benefit immensely from living under the US constitution. Questions of property would be handled fairly and vigorously by the US court system, which is still widely recognized as one of the best in the world when it comes to property rights. Concerns about ethnic cleansing or another genocide would be wiped away by the fact that this new state is now part of the most powerful military in world history. Sure, this state would only get to send 2 Senators to Washington, but its representation in the House would be sizable: 18 representatives.

England and Wales (but not Scotland or Northern Ireland). England would be the crown jewel of the federation free states. The United Kingdom is dying. Scotland wants out. Northern Ireland wants to rejoin Ireland. In England, London is thriving but the rest of the country is suffering from the effects of de-industrialization. The kingdom’s once-vaunted military depends on the United States for nearly everything. Adam Smith put forth a proposal in his 1776 treatise on the wealth of nations that’s worth re-discussing here. Smith argued that the best way to avoid a costly war with the 13 American colonies was to give them representation to go along with taxation. He proposed that the U.K.’s parliament should add some seats and give them to North American representatives. This way both sides could avoid the whole “no taxation without representation” dispute. Smith further opined that, were this federation to happen, the center of the British empire would inexorably move in the direction of the North American colonies. England and Wales would both get to send 2 Senators to Washington, giving the Isle of Liberty 4 Senators in the upper house. Wales wouldn’t get much in the way of the lower house (only 2 representatives according to my napkin calculations), but England, in exchange for its sovereignty, would become the republic’s most populated “state” and would therefore get to dictate the terms of discourse within the republic in much the same way that California and Texas have been doing for the past 3 or 4 decades. That’s not a bad trade-off, especially if you consider how awful life has become in once-proud England.

Liberia. In 1821-22, the American Colonization Society founded a colony on the Pepper Coast of West Africa and called it Liberia. The aim of the colony was to provide freed slaves in the Americas a place to enjoy their freedom, since racism was still rampant in the Americas. The freedman quickly came into conflict with the locals (a clash of cultures that has continued into the present day). Liberia, governed by its New World migrants, declared its independence in 1847 but it wasn’t until 1862, in the early stages of the American Civil War, that the US recognized Liberia’s declaration. The African continent’s first and oldest republic, predating Ghana by over one hundred years, survived, as an independent entity, the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and has been at the forefront of regional coalition-building in Africa since the end of World War II (when the British and French empires collapsed). Liberia, like almost all republics, has decayed politically and socially, especially over the last few decades. Federating with the United States would do wonders for Liberians, and give the federation of free states a legitimate stamp on the African continent (and breath new life into America’s own republican decay). The West Africans would send 2 Senators to Washington, and about as many representatives as Louisiana or Kentucky.

Japan (8 “states”). With nearly 127 million people, Japan’s presence in the American federation would alter the latter’s composition fundamentally. Federating the United States with Japan also presents some logistical problems. As it stands today, Japan has 47+ prefectures, which are roughly the equivalent of US states. If we added them all as they are, the Japanese would get over 100 senate seats, which is far too many for a country with so few people. So, instead, I would bring Japan on board via its cultural regions, of which there are 8: Kantō, Kansai, Chūbu, Kyushu, Tōhoku, Chūgoku, Hokkaidō, and Shikoku. The country formerly known as Japan would get 16 Senate seats (which would be roughly divided between left and right) and the new “states” would be able to send a plethora of representatives, ranging from 32 for Kantō to 3 for Shikoku. In exchange for its sovereignty Japan would get the military protection from China it wants. The US would no longer have to worry about a free-rider problem with Japan, as its inhabitants would be citizens under the Madisonian constitution. It is true that a federation would lead to more non-Japanese people being able to migrate and take root in Japan, but this is a feature of federation, not a bug. (A federation of free states would devastate ethno-conservatism in several societies around the world.)

Micronesia.” Made up of 8 current countries and territories in the Pacific Ocean, Micronesia is also a cultural territory that encompasses a huge swath of the Pacific. While it doesn’t have a whole lot of people, Micronesia has been important to US military efforts in the Pacific for centuries. Federating with the area is the least we could do for the inhabitants of the Northern Marianas, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, Kiribati, and Wake Island. Micronesia would only get 1 seat in the lower house, but with 2 sitting Senators in DC the area would finally get a say in how the United States conducts its business in the region.

Visayas, Mindinao, and Luzon. These 3 regions in the Philippines would do much to enrich the federation of free states. Like Japan above (and South Korea below), the Philippines has a complicated representative system that would need to be simplified in order to better fit the Madisionian constitutional system. Through this cultural-geographic compromise, the Philippines would be able to send 6 senators to Washington, but these three “states” would also get to send more representatives to Washington than New York, Pennsylvania, and a bunch of other current heavyweights. There is already a long history between Filipinos and Americans, and while the first half century was a rough one for both peoples, today Filipinos hold some of the most pro-American views in the world. Of course, Americans who live near Filipino communities in the United States know just how awesome Filipinos are.

Taiwan. Even though Washington doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country (a deal Washington made with post-Mao reformers on the Chinese mainland, in exchange for peace and trade), the two polities are deeply intertwined. Taiwan spends billions of dollars on American military equipment, and the U.S. spends significant political capital protecting Taiwan from China’s bellicosity. Taiwanese statehood would not only bring two close societies even closer together, it would force China to either fight the United States or reveal itself to be a paper tiger. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take, since China is a paper tiger.

South Korea (5 “states”). Another wealthy free-riding ally of the United States, South Korea has 5 cultural regions that could easily become “states” in a trans-oceanic federation: Gangwon, Jeolla, Chungcheong, Gyeongsang, and Gyeonggi. This would give South Korea 10 senators and 50 representatives (spread out according to population size, just like all the other states in the union).

Altogether we’re looking at adding 29 states to the union. That’s a lot, but I think you’ll find that not only would we be expanding liberty but also limiting the size and scope of the federal government, and forcing it to do more of what it is supposed to do: provide a standardized legal system with plenty of checks & balances and maintain a deadly, defensive military.

Ending Empire

Check out this map of known American military bases in the world today:

NOL known US bases
h/t Dissent Magazine

Expanding liberty and the division of labor are not the only positive side-effects of an enlarged federation under the Madisonian constitutional system. Ending empire – which is expensive and coercive, and gives the United States a bad name abroad – would also be a key benefit of expanding the republic’s territory.

Most American libertarians are isolationists/non-interventionists. Most European libertarians are wishy-washy hawks. Neither position is all that libertarian, which is why I keep keep arguing that “a libertarian position in foreign affairs should emphasize cooperation, choice, and trade-offs above all else.” Non-interventionism is uncooperative, to say the least, but you could argue that it’s at least a position; the Europeans seem to take things on a case-by-case basis, which is what you’d expect from a people who haven’t had to make hard foreign policy decisions since 1945. Open borders is a cool slogan, but that’s just a hip way of arguing for labor market liberalization.

It’s time to open up our doors and start talking to polities about going all the way.

From the Comments: who is the conservative or libertarian equivalent of Nancy MacLean?

Rick posed a great question about Nancy MacLean awhile back. I haven’t been neglecting it. I’ve been thinking about it. Here it is:

Question for those more abreast than me: do conservatives or libertarians have an equivalent of Nancy MacLean? All sides have irresponsible pseudo-scholars, but how often do the various camps launch one of them to undue prominence instead of just ignoring them?

Michelangelo suggests Murray Rothbard as one example, and I had that thought as well, but that’s almost too obvious, and he’s been dead for a long time now.

Libertarians today are pretty firmly divided by the cosmos and paleos, so undue prominence is hard to get. When was the last time you saw Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan praising the work of Justin Raimondo or Lew Rockwell?

With that being said, I think libertarians nowadays tend to launch intellectual fads into undue prominence, rather than scholars. Stuff like Open Borders or signaling or my personal favorite, non-intervention in foreign policy, tend to hold a prominence in libertarian circles that I find ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, find your nearest Cato Institute scholar on Twitter and ask him (yes, him) if his pet policy project has any potential flaws in it…

Nightcap

  1. The left-wing case against open borders Angela Nagle, American Affairs
  2. A classic account of travel in Laos Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. The remarkable rise of John Lilburne Jackie Eales, History Today
  4. The dilemma of India’s undersea nuclear weapons Yogesh Joshi, War on the Rocks

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 20): Transitional Measures and Conclusions

We must recognize than any orderly system used to select and admit immigrants involves a degree of bureaucratic slowness. Hence, the existing family preference-based program would have to be extended for several years, maybe as long as ten, while accepting no more new applications. It’s likely that the compromise solution would even have to be some sort of measure that guarantees that the last direct descendants and direct ascendants of existing immigrants have been accommodated.

To remedy the labor rigidity consequent on the abolition of family preference as the primary source of admission, the US might re-instate a new version of the 1942-1964 bracero program. I refer to a system of admission of temporary contractual workers guaranteed a minimum wage and decent living conditions by employers for a stated period. Temporary immigrants admitted in this manner would have no expectation of permanent admission to the US. The problem of “stay-overs” could be solved through a conventional bonding system. (I am puzzled about why bonding has not yet been tried in connection to immigration.) The work sojourns would have to be made renewable in law so that the US might preserve the option of keeping temp. workers who had acquired valuable and rare skills during, or even before their first, or following stay in-country. In exceptional cases, temp. workers in such a program could be channeled to the new F-1B program, perhaps with credit given for experiences working in the US and for cultural adjustment.

Conclusions

In summary: I deplore two features of current public discussions of legal immigration: They are ill-informed to an astonishing degree; and, they are often crude, lacking in both subtlety and imagination, like an argument between two people who keep cutting each other off. Unless one formulates a systematic alternative to the current system, one squarely separating immigration based on altruism from merit-based immigration, immigration based on the expected immigrants contributions to American society, the helter-skelter liberal project will continue to prevail. It is now prevailing by default in the minds of  most Americans. Those who have the energy to resist it too often limit their response to a blind “No!”In the end,  if no countervailing project emerges forcefully, we will witness the establishment of a statist one-party system in the US. Libertarians, among others, should hurry to confront their close friends and relatives who toy with the dangerous delusion of open borders.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 19; you can also read the entire essay at the “LongForm Essays” section of the blog.]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 15): Conservative Inadequacy with Respect to Immigration

Surely, in addition to those structural tendencies for immigrants’ propensity to tend left, there is a seemingly built-in electoral incompetence of conservative and other market-oriented parties. I, for example, have been waiting for years for Spanish language Republican ads on local radio (mostly cheap radio). Even modest ones, place-holding ads, would do some good because silence confirms the Democrat calumny that the GOP is anti-immigrant. And one wonders endlessly why the GOP seldom builds on the religious ethics of immigrants which are often conservative on a personal level even as they, the immigrants, are otherwise collectively on the left. Work hard, take care of your family, keep your nose clean, save, don’t bother others, are not messages that sound alien to the Mexican immigrants I know, to Latin Americans in general, nor even to some Indians who come over.

Incidentally I make the same disparaging comments about the one French political party that is unambiguously market oriented and its inactivity toward the Muslim immigrants who are numerous in France. Several years ago, Pres. Sarkozy had two nominally Muslim women in his first cabinet but this did not set an example, unfortunately. One was Attorney General. (Note: France being France, both women were very attractive, of course!) In the US, it’s as if the Republican Party and the several libertarian groups, had in advance abandoned the immigrant grounds to the Democratic Party. It’s perplexing to me personally because every time I take the trouble to describe Republican positions in Spanish to the main immigrant group in my area, I am met with considerable interest. Explaining the attractiveness of small government to Mexican immigrants fleeing the results of one hundred years of big government that is also deeply corrupt shouldn’t be a colossal endeavor, after all. Indians have had a similar experience though they would have to be approached differently. I don’t know about the increasing number of Chinese immigrants. It would be a good question to explore.

In the past ten years or so, the GOP has fallen into a crude trap. It has allowed the Democratic Party to treat its insistence on the rule of law with respect to illegal immigrants, and on the respect of sovereign boundaries, as proof of the GOP being anti-immigrants in general. The GOP, as well as libertarian groups, have failed even to point out the obvious in connection to immigration: New immigrants compete most directly with older immigrants for jobs, housing, and government services. The facts around sovereignty add to immigrants’ generic left-tropism to ensure that the bulk of new immigrants will come and replenish a Democratic Party otherwise devoid of program, of ideas, and of new blood. (The young Dominican-American woman who won a primary in New York in June 2018 is quickly turning into an embarrassment for the mainstream of the Democratic Party.) Immigrants have the power to snatch victory out of the mouth of the Demos’ defeat.

The various libertarian groups don’t speak clearly on immigration aside from emitting the occasional open borders noise that, fortunately, they seem afraid to pursue or to repeat. Who remembers anything the Libertarian presidential candidate said on the subject during the 2016 presidential campaign? I know of one dangerous exception to the observation that libertarians seldom finish their thoughts on open borders. Alex Tabarrok argued forcefully the case in his October 10th 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely.” In spite of its leftism, the Atlantic retains its high prestige and its influence, I think. What it publishes cannot easily be ignored. The article is enlightening and tightly argued but almost entirely from an ethical standpoint. Unless I missed something important, the author seems to sidestep the fact that no Western system of ethics requires that anyone commit collective suicide, or even, risk it. Thus he by-passes the lifeboat argument completely. This single article leaves pure libertarians in an intellectual lurch because it poses squarely the central issue of the moral validity of the tacit pact of mutual defense that is the nation- state: The nation-state violates your values through its very existence. Without the nation-state, it’s unlikely your values will survive at all.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 14]

Legal Immigration Into the United States: Introduction (Part 1 of 6)

This an essay about legal immigration. It includes a theoretical framework, essential facts, and subjective opinions. In this old-fashioned piece, there is no pretense of scholarly detachment. It’s a personal endeavor that I hope will be useful to others. I don’t have a hidden agenda but topical preferences I think I make clear. Footnote 1 describes my qualifications to discuss immigration. You might surmise that I have a more pro-immigration bias than most small-government conservatives but not than most libertarians (but who knows about them?). I deal with American immigration, specifically. I present rough figures only, trying to add some orders of magnitudes to the current complicated media narrative, and to establish distinctions that don’t always occur naturally. I don’t aim at precision. If mistakes of fact slip into my story, I hope readers will draw attention to them and thus, perhaps, start a conversation here. My few policy recommendations are all tentative but I hope they are logically linked both to orders of magnitudes and to conceptual distinctions.

I choose to address legal immigration specifically for two categories of reasons. First, there are reasonably good, trustworthy figures regarding legal immigration, while numbers for illegal immigration are largely estimated from data gathered for other purposes and often according to wobbly rules. Second, the relationship between legal immigration and illegal immigration is complicated enough to justify an essay all of its own. Here is a sample: Many illegal immigrants, especially many Mexicans, argue that there would be less illegal immigration into the US if there were more doors open through legal immigration. Yet, as I show below, to a considerable extent legal immigration facilitates illegal immigration and thus increases the numbers of illegal immigrants. So the numerical relationship between the two appears both negative and positive. In a co-authored article (referenced in Footnote 2) I examined the complex links between legal and illegal immigration in the special and numerically important case of Mexicans. Though that article dates back to 2009, it remains remarkably current in some respect. In the present essay I only refer tangentially to illegal immigration and only insofar as it serves my main object. Continue reading

In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.

Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.

Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.

There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?

However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.

I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.

In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.

Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights

In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.

The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.

Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:

If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]

A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.

For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.

The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.

A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism

Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.

Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.

Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.

It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:

[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’

Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.

Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.

Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.

Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.

Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.

Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration

The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”

This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.

Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.

References:

Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
352-372. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.