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In response to my most recent post, Peter Robinson poses a fundamental question: Why should the government of the United States prefer the welfare of those who are citizens of this country to those who are not?
To begin to answer Peter’s question, one must ask what a political community is and what it is for. In addressing this question, Thomas Hobbes urged that we attend first and foremost to the genesis of civil society. He lived in the great age of European exploration, and he was aware that there were places in the world in which there were no states. He called the condition of men in this situation “the state of nature,” and he argued that human beings construct polities to escape the grievous disadvantages associated with that condition. Chief among these was the prospect of violent death.
John Locke refined this argument. He agreed that civil society is grounded in an agreement — explicit or tacit, but nonetheless widely understood — on the part of a group of human beings to defend one another. He suggested, however, that the passions underpinning that agreement are more complex than what Hobbes had in mind. Alleviating the fear of violent death is not enough. Those who join the civil association also want to protect their liberty and the property with which they provide for their livelihood. Without liberty and property, their lives are not worth much. This they understand.
If you were inclined to suppose that Aristotle and, say, Thomas Aquinas were at odds with this understanding, you would be right . . . and wrong. Their understanding of the genesis of the political community was quite similar to the understanding later articulated by Hobbes and Locke. They were aware that the political community is an achievement. Aristotle described the inventor of the polis as man’s greatest benefactor. And they understood that the political community comes into existence to defend its members against enemies from abroad and criminals at home. The word polis had as its original meaning “citadel.” But they insisted that, although it comes into existence for the sake of advantage, it remains in existence for the sake of something more — justice and the good. We enter the political community, they said, for mere life. We remain in it to live nobly and well.
This explains why they suggested that the members of a given political community are — or at least want to be — friends. There are, Aristotle tells us in his Nicomachean Ethics, three types of friendship: friendship arising from pleasure, friendship arising from material interest, and friendship arising from a common devotion to virtue. The political community is first and foremost a circle of friends held together by material interest. But there tends to be pleasure associated with the arrangement as well. Think of the interest Brazilians take in their national soccer team. And there also tends to be an element of virtue in the mix — for human beings rarely think of advantage alone. When they deliberate together concerning advantage, they simply cannot help themselves. They inevitably come also to consider justice and the common good.
Put in other terms, the members of a political community tend to share a common language. They often share a common religion, and they do share common moral commitments. They share a way of life — and where these elements are missing altogether, where they do not share a common language, where they are bitterly opposed in religion, and where they are at odds with regard to how they should live their lives — the polity tends to fall apart. Think of Lebanon or Belgium and you will see what I mean.
In modern commercial societies, situated on extended territories, the moral element in the mix may be attenuated. Religious diversity may be accommodated. In some measure, even moral differences can be ignored. But it would be a blunder to suppose that the moral element disappears altogether. Especially when there is an external threat, we tend to rally around the defense of a common way of life. Paradoxically, the attenuation of our moral convictions and the embrace of religious diversity and mutual toleration are arguably central to our way of life as Americans.
Archbishop Gomez — along with many another Catholic prelates and perhaps even the current Pope — has forgotten what Thomas Aquinas and everyone of any moment in the Catholic Church of yesteryear understood: that human beings need local communities, that man is fallen and sinful and tends to be greedy and unjust, that the world is in consequence a very rough place, and that men have a right and, yes, a duty to band together and defend their lives, their liberty, their property, and their way of life by excluding outsiders. As individuals, they may also have a duty to concern themselves in some measure with the welfare of these same outsiders. But their first duty — the one that takes priority — is to provide for their families, their neighbors, and their fellow citizens. They may be pilgrims here on earth. Their local ties may be transitory. But on this earth these ties are nonetheless real — and those who speak of pity and compassion and preach humanitarianism are often far more willing to redistribute the property of their fellow citizens than to share with those around them their own largess. Those who profess to love humanity often have little use for the needy in their own neighborhood.
Suppose that we were to open our borders, as Archbishop Gomez seems to think we should. Suppose that we were to accept all comers and to confer upon them citizenship. Would our lives be safe? Our liberty? Our property? Our way of life? Or would those seeking refuge here not deprive us of what is ours?
If the numbers of new arrivals were limited, we could, I am sure, accommodate them and educate them as Americans, as we have done in the past. Their presence, then, might be to our benefit as well as to their own. But if the numbers were great, they would re-educate us. They would deprive us of our way of life. And they might well take from us what we and our forebears labored long to acquire.
Here is one way to think of this. How many Muslims from, say, Pakistan could we safely accommodate? The British experience suggests that we should be exceedingly careful in this regard. Archbishop Gomez preaches compassion. He should also have recourse to common sense. In my lifetime, in this regard, the Catholic Church has lost its way. So have those left-liberals here and abroad who listen to National Public Radio and the BBC and thrill to references to “the world community.”
There is, in fact, no world community. There are separate political communities — some of them friendly to us and some of them quite hostile — and, as human beings, we desperately need the protection that our political community provides for our lives, our liberty, our property, and our way of life.
Let me add that we have an interest in liberty. It is an open question — one raised by Montesquieu long ago in his Spirit of Laws and one taken seriously by the American Founding Fathers — whether self-government can be sustained over an extended territory. As Montesquieu pointed out, great empires tend towards despotism. Those in charge tend to be far away — out of sight and out of mind — and, being out of sight and out of mind, they are unchecked, they can get away with abuses, and they tend to fall prey to temptation. Polities on extended territories also tend frequently to encounter emergencies, and this concentrates power in the center; and those who exercise that power are apt to exercise it to keep themselves in office.
Consider what has happened to the bulwarks of our liberty in the United States in the course of the last century. What has happened to the separation of powers? What has happened to federalism? These were the institutions devised by the Framers of our Constitution to protect us from the dangers identified by Montesquieu. It is by no means clear that our own republic will long endure. Attempts are being made to steal elections and suppress freedom of speech, and these attempts have enjoyed a certain success. More than 40 of the Democrats in the Senate have actually voted to get rid of the First Amendment. When I contemplate democracy’s drift, I fear for my country.
Liberty requires locality. To sustain locality, one must establish boundaries and defend them. Those who reject locality — both those who want to eliminate federalism and the separation of powers in this country and those who favor open borders and an abandonment of patriotic preference and the sense of friendship that binds citizens together — are, whether witting or not, the enemies of liberty.