Wednesday, December 7, 2016

On Immigration, Sovereignty and the Modern Nation State

Donald Trump made immigration a central issue of his election campaign, claiming that immigrants take Americans jobs and commit a disproportionate number of crimes. I disagree with Trump that immigrants steal jobs or that they make a country less safe. The evidence from countries that have had high levels of immigration historically, such as the United States, is that immigrants create more jobs and commit less crimes than the 'native' populations. I believe that the benefits immigrants bring almost always outweigh any negative factors such as social disharmony and that anyone who comes to a country with peaceful intentions and who is self-supporting should be welcomed.

Trump's view of immigration is a typically collectivist one. Collectivists believe the rights of the group, i.e. the nation state, the race, the socio-economic segment or however they define it, should prevail over the rights of the individual. In the case of immigration, they believe the collective rights of those who are already in the country outweigh the individual rights of the immigrant and others such as family members, friends and employers who might have an interest in that person coming in.

I have written before about how modern nation states are, for the most part, entirely artificial and arbitrary entities. If you doubt it, consider that in the early 19th Century it was almost as likely that New Zealand would end up as a French colony or a state of Australia as the nation we became. The United States was cobbled together from territories that were settled, conquered, purchased and conceded over many centuries and through successive waves of immigration and it is still evolving as a political entity today (e.g. with the current initiative for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state). So when Trump talks about 'America First' or Winston Peters about New Zealand First, which America or New Zealand do they mean?

Political commentators and historians talk about sovereignty as if it is inherent to a political entity rather than to the individuals who inhabit that entity. If sovereignty is a right in the sense that John Locke or Thomas Paine defined the concept, then it cannot belong to a territory or a group, it must be inherent to individuals. The Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and the US Declaration of Independence were all based on the principle that state sovereignty derives from individual sovereignty and that individuals only cede a degree of their inherent sovereignty in return for collective protection - not the other way around.

Which brings us to New Zealand and the Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi was a deal in which Maori chiefs agreed to trade their tribal sovereignty for the protection of the British Crown. The Treaty bestowed on Maori 'all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects', i.e. Maori individually became subjects of the Crown. This meant that they were no longer subjects of whichever violent and capricious chief happened to gain the upper hand in the endless wars that were fought between tribes up until 1840, and that they were emancipated from the slavery, indiscriminate tribal killings, infanticide and cannibalism that had prevailed in their highly collectivist society until that time.

Some tribal leaders and many political sympathisers today interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as giving residual sovereignty rights to present day tribal elites. I completely reject this view, not because of anything the Treaty of Waitangi may or may not say (although I think the words support my interpretation) but because I don't accept that tribes have any inherent rights whatsoever. Whether you think Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty or not is irrelevant - the Treaty extended the rights recognised under British law to Maori individually and those rights cannot be given up or abrogated today - at least not morally. It is the individuals who live in New Zealand today that have the sole right to determine who governs this nation state because it is their sovereignty that is being ceded - not that given up by a group of Maori chiefs 176 years ago.

Which brings me back to immigration. The main problem that collectivists have with unlimited immigration is their belief that a nation state is some sort of exclusive club, membership of which is determined by racial, ethnic or cultural criteria, and they don't want to share the nation's benefits with those who don't meet their selective membership criteria. This presupposes that a nation is a zero sum game, which is of course a typical left-wing view of economics. But if I am right and a nation is only a collection of individuals that delegate some of their rights for protection to the state, there are no collective benefits to be shared. It is up to individuals, families and businesses to decide whether they will be generous in accommodating newcomers and the state's role should be confined to ensuring those who enter the country do not endanger anyone else.

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