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The Rights of Man, the Privileges of Citizen

April 29th, 2010 by Jim May · 17 Comments · Uncategorized

Says a commenter commenting on this article at LegalInsurrection:

Living here is a privilege, not a right that every human being on earth is born with.

This is the end-of-road for conservative anti-immigrationists:  the selective  degradation of the liberty to live in a particular place from a right to a “privilege”.  As a hostile commenter put it sarcastically (albeit a tad illiterately) at LegalInsurrection:

“Nothing says freedom from government interfernce like “show me your papers.”. Of course, limited government only applies to people who are real americans,not to mexicans.”

Let us examine the conservatives’ trip down the anti-immigration road, and see how it ended there — and what it means for conservatism’s purported fealty to Americanism.

The invocation of national sovereignty as justification for arbitrary immigration controls operates on the unstated  premise that individual rights (to life, liberty, property etc.) are contingent upon citizenship (a state-granted status), instead of being inalienable to the person.

This viewpoint is very common these days; it’s not restricted to conservatives.  There’s a good reason for that: it rests on the Leftist, collectivist conception of government, installed into the culture around the same time that democracy was substituted for freedom, and it is profoundly un-American.

Apparently, conservatives have decided to retire God from the rights-giving business in favor of the State.

They are wrong.  Individual rights are not contingent upon citizenship.

Under the American view, basic freedoms such as freedom of association, of communication (speech), of thought, of self-defense etc. are based upon the rights of man, not of the “citizen” or other group memberships, such as race, national origin, gender etc.)  A proper government, constrained by a constitution based on the principle of individual rights, is  *subject* to these freedoms, and exists solely to secure them.

In doing so, the State derives its legitimacy and its sovereignty, from that primary fact which are the rights of the people.  It is the people — individuals — who are ultimately sovereign; the sovereignty of any State is derivative of that of the people, and therefore forfeits it to the extent that it violates that of the people.  (This is why it is morally proper to invade a dictatorship, should a free nation choose; dictatorships have no claim to sovereignty).

If an American seeks to hire a Canadian or to have him as a guest on his property, all the same freedoms apply as when he seeks to do so with another American.  The government has no right to interfere with this arrangement, anymore than it does to interfere with such arrangements between Americans.

In other words, “sovereignty” is not a blank check to do whatever the government wishes, even if democratically elected.  The government is only free to do what is permitted to it by the principles of liberty.

Declaring entry into the United States as a “privilege” for those not born here inverts this arrangement; it operates on the premise that rights inhere to citizens, not humans — instead of the Rights of Man (based on the nature of man), they become the Rights of the Citizen (a status granted by the State).

Conservatives fancy themselves as heirs to the Constitution of 1787, but when it comes to immigration, the principles of the one written up in 1793 are evidently more to their liking.

Now to head off some of the usual arguments that conservatives use to obfuscate the matter:

1.  So we should just let anyone in, criminals, carriers of disease, enemy armies..?

Of course not.  The State does have an interest and a moral sanction to secure the borders.  This authority, however, derives from the mandate from the sovereign people to protect their rights against forcible aggression — in this case, foreign invaders.  It is proper, in my view (here I am at odds with some Objectivists, such as Harry Binswanger) for the State to screen entrants for potential threats to those residing within the borders.

However, the things for which it screens are sharply constrained by its mandate.  Screening for disease, enemy combatants (during war) and for criminals is within that mandate; keeping out foreign labor competition, is not.  If someone is plainly not a threat, the State has fulfilled its mandate and has no further authority (no discretion) to obstruct passage.

2.  So anybody can just walk in and vote?  Oh great, Obama can just go ahead and import 50 million new Democrats!

No.  Open immigration is not the same as open citizenship.  Because of the Leftist premise behind their viewpoint, conservatives fail to distinguish between the two even while citing the Founders who *did* distinguish between them.  See for example Michelle Malkin, who conflates the two even while citing the words of men who did understand the difference.

Note also from that post, this telling quote from Malkin:

“Why should we extend rights to someone here illegally that they wouldn’t enjoy in another country?”

See the collectivist premise?  Since when do “we” “extend” rights?  Governments, be they the royal or democratic “we”, may only recognize or deny rights; they do not grant them.

Citizenship does not confer rights; rather, it confers to the individual a specific and narrow set of privileges: the vote, and the option to seek public office.  It is proper for a government to restrict citizenship for those who reside here for a minimum number of years.

3.  I’m not anti-immigration, I’m anti-ILLEGAL immigration.

This is a common dodge.  It substitutes a different topic entirely, to wit: the rule of law. The purpose of the dodge is to avoid the uncomfortable necessity of justifying their desire to legally discriminate against foreign nationals.

When I stick to the topic and ask whether the rule-of-law supporter would be fine with resolving the illegality issue by *changing the law* (to make immigration open), the honest ones answer yes (or at least that it’s a separate question).

Far more common, however, are the ones who say “Hell, no, we need less immigration!”… in which they confess what they sought to obscure: that they are anti-immigration, with all that implies about their basic political premise.

UPDATE 05/01/10:  I did a touch of tightening up of the text above, moving one line and snipped a redundancy.

Gus Van Horn has also written a fantastic editorial at Pajamas Media on the topic of immigration, focussing on the welfare state as being the root cause of problems that conservatives blame on immigration.  Tellingly, the conservatives are more interested in bashing him in the comments for being pro-immigration, rather than recognize his alignment with their purported distaste for the welfare state… or insisting on straw men of their choice.

A shout out to commenter Ashley: here is an example of an “airstrip“: the conservatives’ morally slipshod, unprincipled “opposition” to the welfare state, exposed as a shallow imitation of the Objectivist position, and tossed aside for the nonessential it is when juxtaposed with what they really care about.

Priorities, you know.  😛

And now, with a tip of the hat to commenter madmax at Gus’ place, here’s a bunch more of the usual conservative anti-immigration arguments, dealt with scattergun style (as it’s all it takes, for the most part):

* foreign labor takes away American jobs

Translation: Americans can’t compete economically.  Were I an American, I’d find that insulting.  This one often comes from people in specialized disciplines who are used to their high salaries and don’t care to make the effort of adapting to increased competition (by skills upgrades, or cutting their prices).

* eliminating the welfare state will not end Mexican immigration because American work pays more so there will still be illegal immigration

But the *kind* of immigrants you attract would be the kind that are willing to work. In light of the proportion of native-born moochers, that’s a net improvement.

* America has too many people as it is and can not accommodate any more.

Evidently, those spouting this one have never been to Europe — or Tokyo.  Or in the Western USA for that matter.

* There will be inevitable tension between whites and Hispanics

“Inevitable”?  Racist/collectivist determinist.  These ones need to google “melting pot”.

* Hispanics, at large, will resist assimilation and Hispanize America

Translation: American ideas and culture cannot compete in an open marketplace of ideas.  Hogwash; see above.

There *is* a problem here, with hyphenated-Americans etc… but anyone who is paying attention knows that it is not melting-pot American individualism that is failing us.

The simple solution here is for Americans to rediscover what “being American” really means.  Hint: it’s not an accident of birth, nor is it a matter of mere citizenship.

* The Southern border needs to be militarized to prevent an invasion

I don’t disagree with this in principle — the government does exist to secure the lives and rights of Americans, and the recent murder in Arizona points up definite failure on this front by the government.  But in degree, this idea is ludicrous.  Large-scale militarization is unnecessary in light of what’s happening in Mexico.  At that level, there is no threat there.

17 Comments so far ↓

  • Jeff Tyrrill

    To those who might otherwise favor open immigration on moral grounds, but are worried that amnesty, or open immigration, would help Democrats, or increase welfare costs, and that therefore, these immigration changes might decrease freedom: This ignores a major effect of opening immigration.

    To the extent that immigration to the US is more open, there is a tremendous pressure on the rest of the world to become more free, or more people, particularly the more productive, will leave the less free countries. This, in turn, will indirectly benefit Americans (and everyone) economically, and in fact, places a reciprocal pressure on the US to continue to become more free.

    This worldwide effect is, in my opinion, far more significant than any short-term gains to Democrats by newly-voting immigrants, or to slightly increased costs of welfare programs.

  • madmax

    Gus Van Horn had a Pajamas Media op ed posted. The comments are very illustrative of the opposition immigration faces and they prove Jim May’s point. For example, Jim May writes:

    Far more common, however, are the ones who say “Hell, no, we need less immigration!”… in which they confess what they sought to obscure: that they are anti-immigration, with all that implies about their basic political premise.

    Here is one comment from Gus’ Pajamas article:

    “Welfare state or not, US jobs generally pay better than Mexican jobs, and this is especially true with a country which is grossly oversupplied with low skill laborers, like Mexico. So the notion that elimination of all but the most modest notions of state support for the poor and or invalid will end illegal immigration is true only on the margin. . . That said, it’s clearly NOT in our best interest to import more low skilled laborers who have a bad attitude toward American culture and a tendency toward irredentism. ”

    “Don’t let’s misunderstand the issue on immigration, we don’t need illegals, and neither do we need more “honest immigrants willing to work hard.” At 300 million people, the US is full up. Send the H1B visa holders home and hire Americans while we’re at it.

    Oh, and get ready for Mexico to explode when 10 million+ workers return home without work and the remittances stop coming. We’ll need troops on our southern border in any event. Might as well start now.”

    These are common arguments:

    * An “oversupply” of unskilled workers is bad for an economy.

    * Mexicans will still come here illegally if we had no welfare state.

    * The US is saturated with too many people and we can’t assimilate any more.

    * foreign labor threatens US jobs.

    * the absolute necessity to militarize our Southern border.

    All of these are not only morally flawed but awash in bad economics. But I think that this very representative criticism reflects the total misunderstanding of rights amongst conservatives and other right-wingers.

  • Richard

    The false “America is too full of immigrants” argument, reminds me of the “America is running out of space for landfills” argument.

    They’re both pretty obviously silly if you have a clue. And of course if there’s any truth to them at all it’s only to the extent that the government forbids using vast amounts of land or creating of jobs.

  • Ashley

    That French Constituition of 1793, despite its collectivism, still seems more liberal than our current laws on immigration.

  • Jim May

    Whoops, I now see that madmax posted his points here! Oh well, in any case I pulled them into the main article and shot them down too (the conservative arguments, not madmax’s points).

    Ashely: as I noted in the update, *here* is the “airstrip” you asked me about some time about in my “cargo cult” post. See the update above!

  • Gus Van Horn


    Thanks for sending the NC’s readers to my piece, as well as for discussing these common “arguments” against immigration.


  • Neil Parille


    You say: “No. Open immigration is not the same as open citizenship.” But what is your policy with respect to citizenship? If a person is in the US for, say, 5 years and hasn’t committed a crime, why wouldn’t the person be entitled to citizenship?

    Since immigrants tend to vote Democratic it’s only a matter of time before the country would turn far left (if it hasn’t already) due to tens of millions of immigrants. All of the US would end up far left , politically correct and multicultural like LA . Just as soon as they arrive they will fall into the clutches of La Raza, labor unions, leftist politicians and the multicultural managerial state. You may call that “determinism,” but I seriously doubt the situation is going to change significantly in 20 years.

    If you think that the application of individual rights to immigration means we should accept this, that’s one thing (although I don’t agree with it). Yet to deny that this is the likely result is naive.

    As I’ve point out before (though it was an Objectivist who first metioned this), if Israel were to adopt these policies it would cease to exist within a generation.

    Let me give another example. New Zealand has a population of 4.5 million. If it adopted open immigration how long would it take before Moslems from Malaysia and Indonesia become the majority?

  • Robert

    “Oh great, Obama can just go ahead and import 50 million new Democrats!”

    You know and I know that immigration is different from citizenship (which carries with it the right to vote.)

    My problem is that I don’t believe that Obama and the Democrats know that and they have the Super Majority and the will to use it come what may. See Healthcare.

    I’m for open immigration: allowing peaceful people to cross borders peacefully. But I don’t trust this bunch of crooks to implement it any more than I would trust a Republican.

    Find me the solution to that conundrum will you?

  • Jim May

    You say: “No. Open immigration is not the same as open citizenship.” But what is your policy with respect to citizenship? If a person is in the US for, say, 5 years and hasn’t committed a crime, why wouldn’t the person be entitled to citizenship?

    In much the same way that a person established ownership of land under the homesteading process, they should have the option to take citizenship once they have similarly put down roots of permanency here.

    I have no objections to the wait, seeing as citizenship is simply not a big deal in a free society. Contra Malkin, the Founders understood this too.

    Leftists, operating on the same principle as conservatives, of course make a bigger deal about citizenship because for them, it’s all about power, not rights; for them, the vote is the be-all and end-all of “liberty”.

    You may call that “determinism,” but I seriously doubt the situation is going to change significantly in 20 years.

    Actually, fatalism would be the more accurate term. I defer to Sarah “No Fate” Connor on that one 😉

    While I favor open immigration, it would not be my first priority; abolishing the welfare state first would radically alter the intellectual and moral profile of people who would want to come here.

  • Ashley

    I think I see the “cargo cult conservative” you are talking about in comment 24 by Daniel B to Amit’s piece. He is a muddled pragamatist and I am familiar with the type. Yet there are conservatives who can make a principled case against welfare statism. They are not all cargo cult coconuts.

  • Ashley

    And thanks for the follow up.

  • Neil Parille


    Do you support open immigration for Israel and New Zealand, even if it means these countries become Islamic?

  • L-C

    Why do they become Islamic?

  • Jim May

    Neil: asking the same question is going to get you the same answer. I reject your fatalism, and thusly your alternative.

    I do not concede that open immigration of a free nation would result in being overrun by primitives.

    As for Israel, I and others have already said that a nation has the right to restrict entry for security reasons.

    Rather than trying to play these “gotcha” games, I suggest that you try learning how to grasp and apply the principles put forth here in posts by myself and other Objectivists to particulars and derive the answer for yourself. Hell, I dare you.

    Ashley: A deep-seated aversion to principled thought is one of the defining attributes of a conservative. They can *parrot* a principled argument, and even understand its parts pretty well, but simply cannot/will not abstract the principle from one particular application and apply it to another — especially when doing so contradicts one of their emotion-based beliefs.

    There are conservatives all over the Internet who, by all appearances, have the principle of individual rights down when the topic is guns, but when immigration comes up, suddenly it’s all about citizenship. Whatever happened to “God-given” rights?

    And then there’s the ones like Malkin, too sharp to evade the contradiction outright, who have to carefully misconstrue the Founders and their words in order to keep their pet statisms.

  • Ashley

    Alas, Jim, you’ve got a point.

    Do you see any half decent conservatives out there?

  • madmax


    Objectivish blogger Grant Jones commented on the Objectivist position on open immigration here:

    His argument is the demographic and culture argument that is everywhere in the Conservative blogosphere. Its extreme spokesman would be someone like Larry Auster.

    He says that the popular Objectivist open immigration position is rationalism. I don’t have an answer for him because I often think the same thing myself. But if you go far enough down Grant’s road I can’t see how you don’t end up with a racial conception of nationhood which is exactly what many Conservatives want. I’m at a loss to counter Grant’s position though.

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