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Libertarian Matrix Revolutions

There’s a couple ways to understand Ross’s talk of “common culture” and “national identity.” One way is illiberal, repugnant, and dangerous. According to the other way, our common culture and national identity is robust and not at all endangered.

The stuff you’re toying with here is really poisonous, Michael. This is not conservatism. This is illiberal, authoritarian, nationalist collectivism, and there is almost nothing good to say on its behalf. Bad stuff. Bad bad bad. ~Will Wilkinson

It is maddening to see the Minutemen stringing barbed-wire along the Mexican border because that is an attempt to erect a literal barrier to the exercise of our natural moral right to cooperate — to deny our ability to make strangers our friends (our figurative siblings, even) through exchange. I agree that there is something terribly wrong when millions of people have to break the law to excercise their moral rights. But the problem isn’t that people are trying and succeeding to exercise them. The problem is poor legislation that fails to acknowledge, accommodate, and protect those rights. We can do better. ~Will Wilkinson

Facing so many obstacles, the town is slowly resigning itself to whatever Chiquimula makes of this New York village. Parking tickets are enforced on the high-school kids, but imposing our immigration, zoning, and quality of life laws on the immigrants is a task too great for Brewster. It is apparently better for property values to drop, for iconic small businesses to close, for the streets to become dirty than to be called racists. Putting aside the number of man hours it would take to check the legal status of village residents and the number of upset landlords and contractors, the town lacks the moral resources to enforce its laws on people whom it values so little as members of the community and so much as the bottom rung in the economy. ~Michael Brendan Dougherty

My recent post on libertarians and immigration elicited a serious protest from a reader: if I read more Mises and Rothbard, then I would know that no real libertarians talk about national identity in the flippant terms I attributed to them.  In fairness, I got a bit carried away and made some sloppy statements.  As I did acknowledge, though perhaps I did not stress it enough, there are well-known libertarians who have acknowledged the existence of natural communities, legitimate definitions of nationhood and the right of people in these groups to define their membership.  There are arguments in Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed related to some of these points, and I tried to acknowledge those in the earlier post.  In any case, I acknowledge them in the comments section and again here. 

Unlike Mr. Wilkinson, quoted above (once from an old comment thread on Michael’s blog, to which I responded here, and once from a post he wrote at Cato’s blog), there are libertarians who would argue that national groups are within their rights to control immigration, and this is based, as I understand it, in rights of property and association. 

The rights of a people to determine their own future and define their own membership are fundamental to the existence of a people.  Describing the subversion of those rights with the euphemism of the “moral right of cooperation,” because economic forces have ravaged a small town and reduced it to the point where is desperately needs foreign labour to survive, hardly does what is happening the proper justice.  Michael’s hometown is slowly being changed beyond all recognition, as described in his article cited above–is this the result of a “moral right of cooperation” or an example of selling your birthright for a mess of pottage?  Is nothing sacred except making a deal?  There is perhaps one thing, as Mr. Wilkinson said all those months ago:

Outside of the love, solidarity, and altruism of family, trade is the paradigmatic human moral relationship. 

As I said in the comments, and as I will say again here, there is something actually rather horrifying about someone who regards trade as one of the two “paradigmatic human moral” relationships in life.  What can that really mean?  If trade is such a paradigmatic moral relationship (which suggests that all our other relationships are modeled on the making of contracts, which is not the case) what is to prevent us from regulating and defining that relationship as the political community deems necessary?  If such a thing as a “moral right to cooperation” exists, what prevents that right from being constrained as and when it is necessary for the common good?  If illegal immigration is an expression of the right of cooperation, why is it so difficult for those exercising their rights from cooperating with the Americans who have set up the legitimate processes for entering the country?  Or perhaps all criminals are expressing their moral right of cooperation and should be left in peace, free from the meddlesome arm of intrusive government? 

Disregarding these rights of nations as Mr. Wilkinson seems to do suggests that he believes national self-definition and the defense of a nation’s boundaries, both cultural and physical, is actually immoral and violates someone’s natural rights.  This is not necessarily a universal libertarian view, but it does seem to be a prevalent one.   

If it is true that some libertarians have taken natural nations seriously, do these ideas have much bearing on the immigration views of many prominent modern libertarians?  Particularly if we are not talking about the paleolibertarians, it becomes increasingly difficult to credit this claim.  When they talk about it at all, and it is not filled with dismissive references to nativism and Nazis, we get more and more into this vague language of the “moral right of cooperation” which presents to me a rather bizarre world where the right to exchange labour and services trumps all. 

The key problem in these debates between libertarians and conservatives, as I said in my response to Mr. Wilkinson, is this:

It isn’t that we and the libertarians agree 90 or 95% of the time and differ greatly about a few details on economics and trade here or there, but that we have entirely different understandings of human nature, society and the purpose of politics.

It is therefore entirely reasonable that many libertarians do not have serious problems with mass immigration, because many of them do not even begin to understand society or national identity or, in some cases, the legitimacy of borders in the same way that we do.  When we say national identity, they hear collectivism, and when they say “moral right of cooperation,” I hear national disintegration, because we literally inhabit different mental universes.  If natural nations exist in their universe, it seems to have no relevance for what to do about mass immigration.  Free markets and free minds, and all that–no nations are really necessary in such a vision and tend to be impediments to the functioning of markets.  But the indifference to problems of national identity and immigration–which are for the average libertarian “non-problems”–strikes me as unusually naive, even for libertarians, when the inescapable reality of human existence is the persistence of tribal and ethnic identities that simply refuse to be bartered out of existence.  I can think of no better way to exacerbate the sharp edges of those identities and promote social instability than to press large numbers of different groups of people together in direct competition with one another for wealth, status and work.     

Incidentally, what does it mean to favour “open borders”, as Reason‘s Web editor Tim Cavanaugh clearly does (and whose chief editor recently wrote on “Non-militarized non-solutions to a non-problem,” i.e., immigration)?  If you favour having them be open, why have borders, and if you keep the formal borders around, is it not a tacit admission that they might in certain circumstances need to be closed?  But that would violate someone’s moral right to cooperate, wouldn’t it?  Wouldn’t it be best, from the perspective of a proponent of “open borders,” to dissolve them all together?  Indeed, that is just what some of them do propose.  Which brings me back to one of my original questions:

Do any libertarians have an understanding of national identity that is more credible that does not fall back on the (from my perspective) creepy ideological definitions of the “proposition nation”?  Does anyone opposed to the “blood and soil” rhetoric have an idea of what constitutes national identity that does not lean on fatuous “nation of immigrants” and “proposition nation” slogans?  Anyone?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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