Sunday, March 29, 2009

Arrow of history

In response to the back-and-forth about the AIG exec OpEd, one reader opines about the limits, for lack of a better word, of liberal theory regarding national borders and sovereignty. I don't disagree with anything below, but I will add my two cents that that the arrow of history suggests a continued blurring of boundaries, at least as far as basic human rights are concerned.

I don't necessarily agree or disagree with your commenter on your AIG post, but he/she does raise what I have always believed to be --- within the context of political theory --- the fundamental problem, in general, with western liberalism and with American liberalism specifically: national sovereignty and national borders.

The gordian knot is something like the following: as your commenter points out, there's nothing deserved about being born in America. It's purely random chance. To the degree that one is systematically better off purely based on geographic location of birth seems to utterly undermine 18th century liberal principles (the ones that American liberals and Amercian conservatives agree on): political equality under the law and equality of opportunity in the market. Given this, no one has ever come up with a defense of national borders that satisfies liberal concerns. And plenty of people have struggled with this. It's probably the issue in contemporary political theory.

But here's the rub: if national borders are illigitmate under liberal political philosophy, then all plausible arrangments of global politics place that satisfy the concerns of American liberals imply that the the lower middle class in Amerifca (i.e. those who have family incomes in the 20k-40k range) will be among the those who will be making net transfer payments in any income redistribution system. Even under the unworkable Obama idea of only raising taxes on the top 5% and placing the burden of most of the new social safety net on them, low-income Americans would be the providers, not the recipients, of transfer payments. If we came back to reality and realized that most of the middle-class in America needs to fork over more to pay for things like health care, all of a sudden the poor in America becomes the targets of global revenue raising.

The same issue rears its head with the Iraq war: under any reasonable definiton of liberalism, we can't possilbly value random American lives over random Iraqi lives. So unless we try to gin-up a liberal defense of national borders and national sovereignty, the only relevant calculation for removing Saddam is whether more people would die if he stays or if he goes, regardless of nationality. It would be like if Arizona had a dictator who was gassing Arizonians.

To me, this is the limit of western liberalism. Because of course there are reasonable arguments to made in favor of national borders and national sovereignty. But none of them are liberal arguments. In fact, many of them are inherently anti-liberal arguments.

Maybe this can be overlooked. But I don't particularly believe that you can be an honest liberal and not be a cosmopolitian about the borders. This is one issue where I think the libertarians and the Catholic Church are exactly right: the only defensible liberal policy is complete freedom of immigration, without political or economic restrictions on such immigrants.

Of course, if that policy was adopted, we'd soon find out how liberal the average American is. My guess is "not very."