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Choice and Borders

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Are Borders Consistent with Free Will?

In recent history, Americans have become more and more divided over how we will manage our national border. Unfortunately, immigration is no longer a question of what is in our best national interest. Rather, it has become much more of a political competition.

The parties fight each other over immigration policy, each claiming the moral high ground. But what they really want is to admit as many new citizens as possible whom they judge will bolster their own political constituencies. And they hope to limit entry for those more likely to support the opposing party.

How would our immigration policy be different if we dropped all the politics and just looked at it from a more principled approach? What would be the correct moral ethic to apply to the problem?

Most people have little trouble agreeing in large numbers about a common ethic, if we can just keep it very simple and basic. For example, most everyone agrees, stealing is bad, and charity is good. Slavery is a very bad thing, but having a job is a very good thing. There are other examples as well. And in most cases, when we get down to the very root of what makes our behaviors good or evil, we find the discriminating factor is individual choice.

When people choose freely to give to others, we call it charity. But if they are forced to give against their will, that is theft. When someone chooses freely to exchange his labor, it is a job—a great thing. But he is forced into that labor against his will, it is simply slavery.

In other words, choice is a basic principle that defines the very morality of our behaviors. And when we look at it in these very basic terms, it is amazing how many of us can agree on a common ethic.

So if we are considering a potential solution to a new problem, it is useful to examine whether it is friendly to the principle of individual choice. This will give us additional insight into whether our proposed approach is a principled, or moral one.

Let us look at the issue of borders to see if we can discover just such a principled approach.

So what is a border really? And why do we even have them?

Your initial impression might be that borders seem to contradict the notion of choice. After all, if everyone really has free choice, they should be able to go wherever they want. They shouldn’t be constrained by some artificial line on the ground designed to separate one group of people from another.

But on deeper inspection, we find that not only are borders consistent with the principles of choice, they are also fundamentally related to a principle we call “natural rights.” If you agree with the Declaration of Independence, you already believe in certain natural rights. You just might not know it by that terminology.

The Declaration tells us, all people are naturally endowed with a right to life, to liberty, and to pursue happiness in the ways they may see fit. We don’t think we have these rights because a king or president has granted them to us. Rather, we think we just have them automatically—as a product of our creation. That is why we call them natural rights.

But there is a catch to these rights. Since everyone has their own rights, each person’s rights have to be limited in such a way that they don’t end up infringing on someone else’s rights. For example, I should have a right to move around and go places if I want. Maybe I even like to swing my arms around as I go.

But you might be standing ahead of me, minding your own business and enjoying your own natural rights. In that case, I don’t have the right to walk up to you, still swinging my arms around. If I hit you, that is assault—a crime. I can only pursue my own happiness, if I can find a way to do it that doesn’t unduly infringe on your ability to pursue your own happiness.

So it would appear, natural rights come with natural responsibilities, or limits. In other words, there are boundaries to my rights. There are lines I cannot cross. And what is a border, if not a boundary?

In our example, the boundaries of my freedom are very much defined by the other people around me. Each one has a kind of private space—his own domain, if you will. I can go where I want, as long as it is not into the domain of someone else’s natural rights.

This implies kind of a personal border that surrounds each of us. In some cases, the border is a virtual one. For example, other people may be entitled to a certain amount of tolerance and respect.

But in many cases, our personal borders are very physical. You may recognize times when you have felt yours being violated—like when a stranger gets too close to you or threatens you. We all like to have a zone in which we can feel safe and secure.

As we extend this notion of personal borders, we can understand better the right to private property. From the founders’ perspective, the pursuit of happiness explained in the Declaration was just another way of talking about private property rights. And it still makes sense to us today.

You have a zone of privacy including, and around your body. You own yourself and your own being. So you are the only one allowed into that private space. And you get to decide who else you will invite in.

So your person—your body and soul—are at the foundation of your own private property. The right to freely pursue your own happiness, just describes what you will do with yourself. You may choose to work, or relax. You might want to explore the world, or you might like to create a business, or design a great building.

We spend our time, or our lives—one of our other natural rights—engaging in these activities we have chosen. As if we choose productive activities, the result is often an accumulation of things, or possessions. Because we have a right to own ourselves, and our lives, the things we produce with our work and our time are also our own private property and should not be infringed.

So if you have worked hard, earned enough to sustain yourself, and have also managed to afford a house, that house is a part of your private property. Just like your body, it has a border around it. Outside that border may be someone else’s domain. But inside is yours. You get to decide whom you will allow in.

Unfortunately, not everyone respects the personal and property boundaries of others. Some people are selfish and will tresspass the rights of others for their own pleasure or gain. And we can’t always rely on others to keep us safe from these bullies. To insist on such security would be an infringement on the rights of those we expect to protect us.

So this implies another natural right: The right to protect ourselves from others who refuse to respect our natural rights. This is the right to self defense.

The idea is pretty simple. We should all respect others’ boundaries of property and person. But if someone begins to infringe upon our own such rights, we can rightfully stop them—even to the degree it intrudes upon their own boundaries, if such force is reasonably necessary to protect our own security.

Finally, we should not forget the right of free association. This is something the founders referred to in the first amendment as “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”

An important part of human joy and satisfaction comes from the variety of ways we join together in cooperation with other people. Today technology allows much of that association to take place by way of telephones, television and the Internet. But in 1791, the only way people could cooperate in commerce, politics, security or sociality was to physically assemble together in one place.

But the principles behind this critical right still remain: When our associations are based on the principle of choice, both sides must be in agreement.

You can join with another person if, and only if, you are both willing. And either of you should be able to leave at your own discretion.

One of the most important kinds of free association is when we join together with others in a common effort to defend our own natural rights. You can imagine two hikers lost in the jungle, cooperating to protect their own lives. One might stay up through the night, watching for dangerous animals while the other sleeps. Then, they will reverse rolls so each can get the sleep, and the safety they need and desire.

This is the ideal purpose of nations and governments—what we often call “civil society.” It is an association of people who group themselves together to more effectively protect their own natural rights and freedoms. And just like a personal space, a civil society has its own, private territory—also defined by a border.

Civil societies are typically organized in a hierarchical system of country, state, county, and city. But even within cities, we have neighborhoods and, the most important social structure of all, families.

Within the borders of each of these different associations, there exists a system of expected behaviors, values, and beliefs. This “way of being”, or culture, tells us much about the people within the civil society and how they choose to live their lives. Will it be a culture of principles—based on freedom and individual choice?

If so, we can extend the principles of personal privacy to this association of a larger scale. Specifically, all parties to the association must consent to the relationship. This means an individual does not have an automatic right to become a member of an existing civil society to which he does not already belong. In other words, entry across a border is not an automatic right.

However, movement in the other direction must always be allowed. Everyone should be free to leave their society for another, if it will have them.

This simple principle has been noted by a number of people, including Ronald Reagan, whom we will roughly paraphrase as follows:

Just nations build walls to keep people out. It is a Tyranny that builds walls to keep its people in.

And what would we have without our civil society? Anarchy—a condition where there is no law, there is no justice, and the strong prey upon the weak. Unfortunately, this is the natural state of the world. It is ruled by the use of force and often violence.

We hope to create a haven of safety, security, peace and justice inside the borders of our nation. But on the world stage, there are very few laws. And there is no ultimate authority to enforce such few as do exist.

Nations must relate to each other according to the same natural laws we recognize as individuals. Just and righteous nations should seek to do no harm and to respect the private boundaries of their peer nations. But they have a clear right to defend themselves when their own rights are threatened and infringed. That defense is the expression of the collective right to self defense of their individual citizens.

So the primary role of a just national government should be three-fold:

  • To defend the civil society from those on the outside who would otherwise threaten the culture, the peace and the other natural rights of the citizens. This means maintaining a military that can apply decisive, and potentially lethal force wherever necessary to protect our freedoms.
  • To regulate the border in the best interest of the individuals, familes, cities and states within the nation. This means everyone on the inside always has the right to leave. And those on the outside can enter only as they are willing to adapt themselves to the culture and values upon which the society is built. In America, this means a devotion to the Constitution, and our natural rights of life, liberty and property.
  • To assure that basic, natural rights are not violated within smaller units of civil society within the nation.

We have discussed the boundary, or border of a national civil socity and how, in conjunction with the defining culture, defines the very existence of a nation. But there is one further boundary that needs to be recognized and maintained. Even with a perfect external border, it is difficult to maintain perfect order and justice within any civil society.

Many people refuse to respect the natural rights of others. In spite of their membership in a society that seeks to protect life, liberty and property, there are many who just take what they want without regard to the rights of their victims. For these people, we need a system of internal justice. And this too must resort to the law of nature—force.

We need an internal police force to help assert the collective manifestation of our individual right to self defense. Those among us who will not respect the rights of others must be arrested, and subjected to a system of justice. Ultimately, if they can not resist their anti-social behaviors, they must be banished from the civil society, or imprisoned within it. And that internal prison defines our second boundary.

This can be envisioned as a circle within a circle. The outer circle represents our national border—the boundary that defines our country and our culture. Outside, we relate with other nations, some good and some evil. We respect their rights, but will defend our own with strength and resolve.

The inner circle is where we keep those who will not leave and will not live according to life, liberty and property. Unfortunately we have to again resort to force to defend ourselves and our natural rights.

But all who wish to enjoy their rights and liberties, and will afford to all others that same honor, get to live between the two circles. This is a place of peace and a place of security. It is a place where people enjoy their natural rights and exercise their own power to choose. But they also honor their natural responsibilities. They are accountable for their own actions and choices. And they do not seek to enslave or exploit their neighbors.