Acton Institute Powerblog

Immigration and Xenophobia

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I’m reading David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice, which is very ably reviewed (although not by me) in the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (10.1). I just read a striking passage, which discusses the merits of a principle of property rights that respects first possession rather than equal shares.

An overlooked virtue of first possession: It lets us live together without having to view newcomers as a threat. If we were to regard newcomers as having a claim to an equal share of our holdings, the arrival of newcomers would be inherently threatening. Imagine a town with one hundred people. Each has a one hundred foot wide lot. If someone new shows up, we redraw property lines. Each lot shrinks by one foot, to make room for the new person’s equal share (and so on as more people arrive). Question: How friendly will that town be? Even now, in our world, people who see the world in zero-sum terms tend to despise immigrants. They see immigrants as taking jobs rather than as making products, as bidding up rents rather than as stimulating new construction, and so on. The point is not that xenophobia has moral weight, but that xenophobia is real, a variable we want to minimize if we can. Rules of first possession help. What would not help is telling people that newly arriving immigrants have a right to an equal share (155).

It seems that the latter is exactly what many political liberals in America are doing by guaranteeing various kinds of entitlements to immigrants, whether legal or illegal. In that sense, a statist ideology that emphasizes government provision of various social entitlements seems to promote and foment rather than minimize xenophobia. And so ironically, the liberals who champion a freer and more lenient immigration policy are effectively undermining their own efforts.

This also shows just how dominant a statist (or zero-sum) mentality is in today’s United States when political conservatives are the ones who are most vociferiusly depicting immigrants as economic and social drains rather than positive producers.

The reality is that immigration generally tends to be a net economic benefit. While there are some localized pockets of negative economic effects, the national economic trend is positive. This has been articulated in one of Acton’s policy publications, “The Stranger who Sojourns with You: Toward a Moral Immigration Policy,” and was recently underscored by a White House report.

These realities bear serious reflection. Last Wednesday was World Refugee Day. We should be asking whether our society’s decisions about the government provision of social welfare entitlements has concurrently made our nation more attractive as a destination as well as more unfriendly to newcomers.

Could an elimination or reduction of entitlements make our country even more attractive while at the same time removing some of the economic incentives for xenophobia? Perhaps so.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Carson

    Economic gain for some. Annihilation to make room for them for others.

    The Unacknowledged Holocaust

    Back in the 60’s the Federal Government came into the public schools and brainwashed us as little children with the message that the children we were about to have were unwanted because the population was rising so fast. They launched a program called, “Zero Population Growth”. They pushed Family Planning and birth control pills. I think you and I now both know that you only have to trick people for their few child bearing years and there is no going back.

    Many of us never had a say in the future of our unborn.

    I am the result of two living cells. One from each of my parents. They are the result of two living cells, one from each of their parents. I wasn’t just born. I am a continuation of life. I am a living thing that reaches back into time perhaps 400 million years and the result of billions of joining of pairs of cells. It is possible that if you were to follow my cells back to my parent’s cells and beyond that my family tree touches every living thing here on earth. That is if we limit ourselves to believing life was created here on earth. If it rained down from the immensity of the universe it could reach back into that immensity of time and space, and who knows what relationships and who knows what species.

    At least until I came up against the Federal Government and their plan to control the population.

    I have seen the Federal Government do little else to control the population.

    The open border, United States laws only apply to some malarkey, is a serious slap in the face. No, not a slap in the face. It reaches well beyond that. Maybe back to the beginning of time and stretch to the bounds of the universe.

  • Carson

    I’m getting a kick out of this article because I’m NOT an economist.

    I can sort of see how a myopic economist may be able to see an increase in profits by snuffing the descendants of the founders of this country. That makes room for the criminals in business’s illegal labor. Not only can many of the illegal invaders be paid off in token wages but that also leaves the honest workers stiffed with the criminal’s taxes, medical and social services. It’s a pure genius way of eliminating any competition. They won’t be able to compete on that playing field. Every day more and more will go under.

    The part that confuses me is I can see examples of some of the illegal aliens previous work. How will all of the crime that surrounds illegal immigration be helping you out when the honest people are forced to join in, in the lawlessness?

  • Carson,

    It is a bit of stretch, don’t you think, to offer special rights and priveleges to “descendants of the founders of this country” Isn’t that better handled by fraternal organizations such as the DAR than by an economic policy?

    It would be a bit easier to understand your post if you could differentiate between honesty and the criminality of working outside of government construct.

    For example, if you shop via mail order from an out of state business, and neglect to pay sales tax, you are certainly committing a crime (in a State which has sales tax). You may be a generally honest person, but a criminal nonetheless. Are these “criminals” forcing honest people to “join in the lawlessness”? Or are honest people compelled to commit a crime, because the laws are unworkable?


  • Charles Warren

    *For example, if you shop via mail order from an out of state business, and neglect to pay sales tax, you are certainly committing a crime (in a State which has sales tax). You may be a generally honest person, but a criminal nonetheless. Are these “criminals” forcing honest people to “join in the lawlessness”? Or are honest people compelled to commit a crime, because the laws are unworkable?*

    Unworkable ? If I ran a store in which I offered my customers bargain merchandise because all my stock “fell off a truck” and the authorities flatly refused to arrest or prosecute me for receiving stolen goods, wouldn’t honest merchants selling lawfully bought merchandise find the system ‘unworkable’ ?

  • The authorities do flatly refuse to prosecute sales tax crimes (except for Dennis Kozlowski for some reason) and the retail world seems to be humming along just fine. Perhaps society has recognized that sales tax avoidance is something an honest person does, similar in many respects to working without having your paperwork correct.

    The authorities do occasionally prosecute sales of stolen goods, as theft is generally recognized as both dishonest, and a crime.