Douthat's Populist Nationalism

Grinding his Christian universalism under his nationalist heel, Ross Douthat breezily sets forth a multiply fallacious argument on the premise that there is no intellectual or moral difference between confiscatory redistribution and voluntary exchange when citizens of other countries are involved:

A slightly better way of putting what Matt is driving at, I think, is this: Large-scale immigration from Mexico to the United States is a form of de facto humanitarianism, and since Americans are generally leery of humanitarian spending (primarily because we overestimate the size of our existing foreign aid budget), liberal humanitarians have a vested interest in preserving the existing immigration system. It’s a rare issue where business interests line up on the side of raising the living standards of Third World peasants, and why mess with a good thing? Better, as Matt suggests, to go after the global elite in other arenas – like tax policy, say – where the business class’s preferred policies don’t have humanitarian externalities.

To which one might respond that there’s something slightly perverse about pursuing humanitarian ends through policies that lower the incomes of your poorest citizens and raise the incomes of your richest citizens. If I proposed a new AIDS-in-Africa initiative and advocated funding it through a regressive tax that included a tax credit for families making over $75,000, I doubt that many liberals would line up behind the proposal.

I'll muster some charity and assume that Ross is simply confused here. But he really is badly confused.

It's a rather profound error to characterize voluntary trade between American employers and Mexicans workers as equivalent to “humanitarian spending,” as if money tax revenue had been withdrawn from the Treasury and sent to Mexicans. There is indeed a pecuniary externality of Mexican workers in the American labor market — downward price pressure from competition — and this can indeed have an effect on the pattern of American incomes. But it is a pretty basic and embarrassing mistake to confuse (1) coercive state confiscation and reallocation of income with (2) changing patterns of income from voluntary exchange.

Perhaps Ross really does think that the U.S. government has taken money from the pockets of the producers of Oceans 13 by refusing to ban Pirates of the Carribean, but I think he's smarter than that. Government tax policy requires justification. Distribution of tax revenue require justification. Exercising our rights doesn't.

That Ross is liable see the issue in this weird, mistaken way does indicate that he thinks some sort of nationalism is the legitimate moral baseline. The liberal (in the broad sense) presumption of freedom, on the other hand, has it that unrestricted voluntary cooperation between human beings is the moral baseline. Deviations from this require special justification. Given the liberal baseline, labor market restrictions (that's what we're talking about here — whether to further restrict American labor markets), besides standing as a violation of the rights of both Americans and Mexicans to freely associate and trade with one another, amount to a transfer of income from Mexican workers and American consumers to some low-skilled American workers. In addition to the basic violation of liberty, this is a monstrously regressive transfer, harming Mexican workers much more than it helps low-skilled American workers.

But Ross seems to understand the situation in a way that, as far as I can tell, completely discounts the welfare gain to Mexicans, and conceives of the effects of millions of people exercising their human rights as requiring some kind of special justification. This makes sense only relative to a nationalist worldview where “humanitarian spending” is something benighted “liberal humanitarians” want to do and the actual welfare effects of this “spending” on foreigners is simply irrelevant to the moral calculus; all that matters is the effect of the policy on persons with valid U.S. passports. If the policy turns out to (on average) reduce the incomes of low-skilled U.S. workers and raise the incomes of  higher-skilled U.S. workers, then it's evidently “perverse.” So if we have to placate uppity U.S. humanitarian liberals by throwing money at poor people somewhere, surely this isn't the way we want to do it.

But what about Mexican workers and their families? Who cares! Wrong passport! What about the lost liberty of Americans to trade with Mexican workers on the labor market? Well, I guess we decide what liberties Americans have based on some undermotivated nation-level idea of just distribution. Why? Who knows!? (And who cares if it keeps Mexicans out?!) I don't think Ross denies the fact that Mexican immigration on average makes Americans better off. So a merely utilitarian nationalism would have us accept even more immigrants. You could try to dress Ross's view up as Rawlsian nationalism, demanding that a policy improve the lot of the least well-off Americans. But I think Ross's argument really amounts to populist nationalism, appealing to populist class sentiments to help achieve a goal he wants anyway: a less Mexican America.  

Well, I understand that a certain kind of nationalism may well be the default baseline for a broad swathe of American public opinion, but that makes it no less repugnant from the perspective of both human liberty and human welfare. Democrats and then Republicans in the American South long succeeded in winning elections by drumming up racist majorities. (Integrating blacks fully into the labor market no doubt put downward pressure on low-skilled white wages, and I don't doubt successful politicians brought this up.) But I don't think this speaks well of our democracy.

This whole issue really turns on what we take to be the relevant moral baseline. I would very much like to see Ross defend what I see as his form of nationalism. From where I sit, there's something more than “slightly perverse” about denying our human rights to freely cooperate and locking very poor people out of our labor markets so that relatively wealthy people whose grandparents got here first don't have to take a paycut.

  • They are not necessarily sane or feasible.But they are the best supplements of the bodies

  • goprivate

    How do you deal with a senior whose income is constant, but insurance premium will probably rise exponentially in the open market as he gets older and older? (“the premium for the burning house…”)

  • Larison has been pointing it out for a long time. When Republicans ask how they can get back in the voters’ good graces they suggest a number of things to change (generally following the Dougherty’s Doctrine), but never militarism. Consider the reception Ron Paul, arguably the most right-wing candidate, got from party faithful when he was running. To dissent on war made him ipso facto a far-leftist in their eyes.

    • Mark G

      Do you favor the kind of isolationism advocated by the Republicans in the 1930’s? If not, it seems to me the issue is not “militarism,” but merely a debate over the details of a (fundamentally agreed) policy of making the larger world conform to our preferences. As we maintain lots of troops in Iraq and the coffins continue to come home from Afghanistan over the next four years, with the light still farther down the tunnel, I think it will be increasingly difficult to distinguish between the parties on the issue of “militarism.”

      • Mark G

        In case my last is too subtle — I am supposing that an isolationist candidate would be doing well to get 30% of the popular vote. (I could be wrong; if folks get sick enough of Afghanistan, maybe a majority will convert to “America First,” and let Russia, China and Iran expand their spheres of hegemony unmolested for a while.)

        For now, it seems to me that the prescription for R’s in not “eschew militarism,” but “don’t wage wars that most voters consider needless and mismanaged.”

      • I actually wrote a post entitled What was so bad about Charles Lindbergh?

        • Mark G

          Guess that answers my question!

          It really is fascinating to speculate what life would have been like if we had sat out the world wars, and put “American First.” Probably no Israel. If we let Europe, Korea, Japan to fend for themselves with nasty hegemonies the world — and our place in it — would have been worse in a variety of ways; but enough worse to justify the numbers of our servicemen killed in action the last 100 years? Of course the dirty secret is that by 1941 there were political advantages to FDR gearing up for war: full employment, economic recovery, and a populace focused on a foreign enemy instead of his mistakes. (I hasten to add, my tentative view is that FDR was at bottom well intentioned, and in fact played the hand dealt him suberbly.)

          • Mark G

            Oh, and to answer the question “what’s wrong with isolationism,” — our electorate has the emotional maturity of a 16 year old. When some foreign malefactor hurts us, any politician who hesitates to punish him militarily is a wimp, and not taking action to keep us safe. Imagine a congressman arguing against the invasion of Afghanistan after 9-11.

  • Dan H.

    Here’s another thing that people are about to re-discover: liberals are not anti-war. They are anti-Republican-war. When liberals run the show, they’ve got no problem wielding military force. Kennedy started the U.S. engagement in Vietnam, and Johnson escalated it. Bill Clinton sent the U.S. military on many foreign adventures, bombed Iraq and the Sudan, and when the Democrats held power people like John Kerry and Al Gore were calling for regime change in Iraq.

    Or as a Clinton staffer said to a left-wing activist who complained about the flight of military jets when Clinton was inaugurated: “Those are our jets now.”

    Note that Obama just signed an order sending 17,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan.

  • Sigivald

    Nobody’s bombed Iran, though. Those evil Republicans were all about… talking to the Iranians.

    Freedom Fries were not, as far as I remember, either named or endorsed by the GOP – they were one guy’s stupid idea.

    (I’m also with Dan H. – while the GOP are hardly libertarians, I continue to think they’re still significantly the lesser evil to liberty, as the two parties stand at this moment.

    Believing that the Democrats are somehow against the things in the quote listed*, rather than against them when it’s a Republican doing them seems to be unsupported by the history of the 90s.

    * Except for defense budgets; the only Democratic presidency of the past almost-30 years, except for the one that just started, did in fact slash defense considerably. But it also had the excellent excuse of the cold war ending.)

    • John Thacker

      Freedom Fries were, actually, the idea of one particular Republican Congressman– Walter Jones (R-NC), who became one of the first Republicans to noisily oppose the war as well. (He represents the prickly backwoods mountain areas of NC, who have been Republicans for forever because they hated the state government and going off to fight for the wealthy city folk who owned slaves and disliked the revenuers. Libertarianish peopple.)

      I’d have to be convinced that the Democrats are actually an alternative on those issues. I don’t regard waterboarding as worse than what goes on daily in Supermax prisons (like ADX Florence in Colorado or in Fort Leavenworth), so if the idea is “we won’t keep them in Guantanamo, we’ll move them to Supermax or to “temporary” overseas prisons), who cares?

      The Obama Administration position on rendition and indefinite detention is the same as the Bush Administration’s, just with a promise to use it more reliably.

      I guess we’ll see if the omnibus spending bill actually has any defense spending cuts. Clinton did cut defense considerably– and a Republican Congress went along with it. (Did anyone seriously think that Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey couldn’t have started a budget crisis (and won) by insisting on more military spending? And yet they didn’t, despite it being a putatively winning issue.)

      I would be nice for there to be a more libertarian alternative. But as far as I can tell, libertarians ran away from the Republicans precisely when the Democrats offered little more than vague promises at best.

      They also ran away from a Republican contender who had voted against the worst Republican excesses, including torture, the farm bill both times, both energy bills, the prescription drug benefit, etc., all because of “temperament.” I struggle to understand why voting for someone who you’d rather have dinner with rather than because of policy (just like how most people vote anyway, sadly) is particularly “rational.”

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