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.