oh, the humanity!

ChineseHindenburgYes, a famous German zeppelin did crash 76 years ago today: May 6, 1937. It caught fire while trying to land in New Jersey. But most people already know about the Hindenburg.

I’m guessing far fewer know about a different inhuman event whose anniversary is also today.

Wikipedia tells us that on this date in 1882,

U.S. President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, implementing a ban on Chinese immigration to the United States that eventually lasted for over 60 years until the 1943 Magnuson Act.

This event in immigration history tells us a lot about the politics and economics of anti-immigration sentiment in general.

(1) Organized Labor

The Communists may have lost the Cold War, but international socialism achieved, among other public-relations coups, two apparently permanent triumphs in modern Western language and assumptions: socialism is on the left, while all anti-socialists are by definition right-wing; the Left embraces the liberal values of equal rights regardless of race, ethnicity, and nationality, while the Right is insular and xenophobic; labor is on the Left and capitalists are on the Right.

But a review of labor history shows plenty of racism, and not just among individual workers. (I have often heard the term "education" invoked by leftists as the solution to rank-and-file working-class prejudices. I can’t tell if they know they’re turning the word into a euphemism.) Any increase in the pool of laborers will put downward pressure on wages. It’s simple supply and demand. But I’ve never heard white workers demanding a reduction in white births. It’s always those other workers, the ones who don’t look like us, who are causing the problem. The solution is to lobby for legislation that eliminates the competition from those other people. That’s the origin of Apartheid laws in South Africa (how often do you hear that one correctly attributed to white socialists?) and minimum-wage legislation in the South, where blacks were underbidding white workers; and it’s the origin of many anti-immigration campaigns, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.

(2) Greedy Capitalists

The Wikipedia article includes a couple of revealing lines. After stating that "the laws were driven largely by racial concerns," it adds,

On the other hand, many people strongly supported the Chinese Exclusion Act, including the Knights of Labor, a labor union, who supported it because it believed that industrialists were using Chinese workers as a wedge to keep wages low.

"On the other hand"? Why on the other hand? It’s that left-right model at work again: on the one hand, support for the immigration restrictions was racist, but on the other hand, labor unions supported it because they believed that capitalists supported immigration for self-interested reasons.

I wrote an article for the Libertarian Enterprise several years ago called "The 3 ‘E’s of the Minimum Wage," in which I claim that some people approach political issues from an ethical perspective (E1), and some from an economic perspective (E2) — by which I really mean the consequentialist focus on cause and effect. (Note that the new immigration ebook Invisible Order did for Reason addresses these first two approaches in its title: Humane and Pro-Growth.)

But whether we like it or not, most people take positions via

E3: Emotional alignment.

This is the realm of connotation, of symbolic alignment, which "side" you want to be on. Emotional alignment is how people feel about an issue, and perhaps more important, how they feel about the people they associate with the different sides.

To take a position, I believe one needs to address the first two: the ethical and the economic. To persuade someone, I think one needs to address all three. We libertarians often neglect E3. While most people will claim to hold positions based on morality or on consequences, they really base their positions on symbolic- or emotional alignment: agreeing with "the good guys" and not wanting to side with "those people" etc.

Notice the role alignment takes in the on-the-other-hand construction within the Wikipedia article: labor unions may have supported this racist legislation (with the exception, by the way, of the anarchist IWW), but there were greedy capitalists taking the opposing position!

Although there was widespread dislike for the Chinese, some capitalists and entrepreneurs resisted their exclusion based on economic factors.

Apparently, only capitalists act like homo economicus. Organized labor would never pursue unprincipled policy "based on economic factors."

Or is it possible that some entrepreneurs may have taken liberal positions for liberal reasons?

(3) Human Smuggling

Finally, the Wikipedia article makes this point:

The Chinese Exclusion Act gave rise to the first great wave of commercial human smuggling, an activity that later spread to include other national and ethnic groups.

Wherever there is a legal prohibition, there will be a black market. And black markets turn what would otherwise be peaceful and mutually beneficial exchanges into networks of greater vice and greater violence. This is anti-human enough when the illicit goods are inanimate objects — such as drugs, alcohol, Cuban cigars, untaxed cigarettes, or extra-large sugary drinks in New York City — but when the illicit trade has to involve the handling and transportation of human beings, we step up to a whole new level of brutality. I probably don’t have to review here the atrocities that illegal immigrants subject themselves to in peaceful pursuit of economic opportunity.

An anti-immigrationist would probably reply that the consequences of illegal behavior can’t be an argument against the behavior’s illegality, but the problem with that stance is that anti-immigrationism is a purely consequentialist position to begin with. I never hear contentions for some supposed universal principle that makes an influx of foreigners a problem. The arguments are always about certain groups who will cause certain bad effects once they get here. What can we possibly conclude from this line of reasoning other than an implicit judgment that coercive protection of American jobs (or language, or ethnic makeup) is more important than the violent consequences these laws cause to great numbers of the poorest people in the world?

I don’t mean to imply that a black market is automatically an indication that a prohibition is unjust: the supply of hit men for hire doesn’t make murder any more legitimate. But the prohibition of peaceful exchanges is always defended by arguments about cause and effect — while the effects caused by moving markets underground are hardly ever addressed.

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One Response to oh, the humanity!

  1. Mike Reid says:

    Thank you, BK. This is a particularly elegant post.

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