Why conservatives should care about immigration

Brad DeLong discusses why people alive today have obligations towards those historically disadvantaged by the past actions of their society.

I’m tempted to mock something up like this for my migration series, but I’ll probably stick to empirical things for now. Although he is discussing American affirmative action policies which have been put in place to compensate for slavery and Jim Crow, I think a similar argument could be made for a moral obligation towards migrants in light of the UK’s history of international meddling.

What I also find interesting is that from fundamentally conservative principles, Brad DeLong develops an argument which challenges the way many conservatives act.


This is the reason that when–back in 2003–Andrew Sullivan called me a:

classic example of the arrogant liberal. He supports affirmative action and believes that individuals in 2003 bear a direct responsibility for those people who enacted slavery and made life a living hell for many black Americans in decades and centuries past…

I rejected Sullivan’s critique. He was simply wrong. I was not and am not an arrogant liberal on these issues. Instead, the arguments that convince me (and that lead me to reject the quitclaim that Henry Louis Gates offers) are not liberal but conservative ones–Burkean ones, to be exact:

A liberal sees society as a result of a social contract implicitly made between all of us alive today: we agree to live by rules and laws that we then have a chance to rethink, remake, and reform. It’s important that this social contract be fair to us. From this perspective, the questions “Why should recent Korean immigrants bear any responsibility for repairing the damage left by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?” and “Why should African-Americans find their own capabilities and potential accomplishments still limited by the marks of slavery and Jim Crow?” are both very good ones. (Somehow Andrew Sullivan only asks the first, and never thinks to ask the second. But thinking about why would take us far afield.)

I begin from a different point, from the observations that we Americans alive today are all the recipients of an extraordinary and unmerited gift, an inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations that is without peer anywhere on the world today and that is of inestimable value. We aren’t independent liberal individuals making a social contract in the rational light of Enlightenment Reason. Instead, we are heirs who have received an enormous inheritance from our predecessors. As Burke wrote, we:

claim and assert our liberties as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity–as an estate specially belonging to the people.

It’s not a contract, or if it is a contract it is not one just between those alive today. Again, as Burke puts it, if you are to think of a social contract you have to recognize that it is not:

a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico, or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties…. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

But estates that are inherited come not only with assets, they also come encumbered with debts. If we are to be Americans–if we are to take up the wonderul unmerited gift, accept the marvelous entailed inheritance that is offered to us–we must take up not just the benefits and advantages, but also the debts that America owes from its past actions as well. To do otherwise–to ignore the debts while grabbing the goodies with both hands–is to show that we are not the true heirs of Benjamin Franklin and company. And chief among the debts that America owes from its past actions is the obligation to erase the marks left by slavery and Jim Crow.

Now Andrew Sullivan wants Americans to welsh on the debts and responsibilities that are attached to our marvelous, unmerited inheritance of institutions, principles, and organizations. He wants us to grab the good parts of the inheritance with both hands, and to say that the bad parts are none of our concern–that the slaveholders are dead, the lynchers are dead, and those who fought hard to protect lynchers from the law are dead (although not all of them, and Strom Thurmond only very recently).

Edmund Burke would disagree. He would say, “Are you crazy? There’s a history here!” He would reach back to Montesquieu, and say that if the ruling principle of despotism is fear (it collapses if the subjects no longer fear the despot), and if the ruling principle of monarchy is honor (it collapse if the nobles no longer seek to outdo each other in deeds to win honor, nobility, and the favor of the king), so the ruling principle of a republic must be virtue. What is virtue? Well, linguistically, virtue comes from the Latin “virtus”: “vir” = man, “tus” = -liness: “virtue” = “manliness” [in a proper modern and gender-indeterminate way, of course]*. Practically, a republic requires virtuous citizens: citizens who will take up their responsibilities and shoulder their share of the obligations neecessary for the common good. People who won’t shirk their responsibilities. “If you wish to be part of this great more than two-century partnership that is America,” Burke would say if I had him here right now, “you need to recognize that your inheritance is an entailed inheritance. First, it comes with an obligation not to waste it–an obligation to in your turn pass down to those not yet born a better nation than the one you live in. Second, it comes with debts attached: past deeds of America that were cruel and criminal, the memory of which is still shameful. Just because the particular members of the great partnership who incurred the debts (the three-fifths clause, the legality of the slave trade, the Missouri Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, et cetera) are dead doesn’t mean that that the debts aren’t still owed by the great partnership.”

On many issues I am an arrogant liberal. But not this one. On this issue, I’m an arrogant conservative.


8 thoughts on “Why conservatives should care about immigration

  1. I think a similar argument could be made for a moral obligation towards migrants in light of the UK’s history of international meddling.

    I thought that the parameters that we had agreed on when you launched on your mission to set out the rationale for mass immigration included an understanding that such immigration would be defended on empirical rather than moral grounds. And yet here you are, backsliding already.


    1. I’ll file your comment under “huh”.

      I can post what I like. I would rarely use an argument like this myself, not being much of a Burkean, but I think it is an interesting take on the way conservatives treat the issue of immigration.

      I’ve been reading Brad DeLong’s blog for a few months now and I think he’s a very clever man. I like this argument so I’ve reproduced it.

      Hardly backsliding, I prefer to stick to the empirical side of things because there’s less room for argument whereas you can argue all day about morality and ethics and get nowhere.

      1. Of course you can post whatever you like. I’m just reminding you of the challenge that you accepted.

      1. Indeed.

        The challenge isn’t from you, the BNP are irrelevant.

        What challenges me is the dismal performance that our three potential prime ministers gave on Thursday.

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