By Charlie Johnston
When I hit the road late next month, the focus of my presentations will be “A Pilgrim’s Lessons for the Pilgrimage Before Us.” I have come to realize how brilliantly crafted the Lord’s instructions were in sending me out on the road to walk across this great land. If you would like to host a visit, contact my assistant, Mary Lapchak, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In law, the “Reasonable Man Standard” is used most often in liability cases but has been used through the centuries in common law where statutes are ambiguous or non-existent. It simply asks a jury or judge to determine what a reasonable man would have done, under particular circumstances. It has been a useful standard, – though not so much anymore. We live in an age lacking reasonable people – and murderously hostile to them when they are found. It supports my contention that, in the land of the blind, a one-eyed man would not be king, but executed as a heretic.
The poisonous and angry political cant of modern times has badly diminished our capacity for even the simplest rational consideration of serious issues. A radical faction makes absurd assertions, which are then absurdly taken seriously by elite ruling class members. The rational minority, angered then, distorts their own position with an angry opposite reaction. Thus, we end with partisan talking points chopping away at the branches of a problem without ever getting near the roots – in part because the partisans get more vested in taking swings at each other with their verbal axes than even looking for the roots.
Fatuous partisans only want to prevail, so they abandon all concepts of fair play, unable to distinguish between foundational rules and partisan tactics. A partisan’s tactics are designed to win the game of a partisan contest: the foundational rules are designed to see that all contestants have a fair and equal shot at persuading the electorate. The left’s efforts to abandon the Constitution – or pervert it beyond all recognition – are simply efforts to fix the rules to guarantee their preferred outcomes. When they talk of packing the Supreme Court, abolishing the electoral college, or giving 16-year-olds the right to vote, they are not trying to ensure that there is an equal and level playing field. They are functionally demanding that they be given five strikes before being called out while insisting their opponents be called out after one strike. They are trying to rig the rules to ensure their own victory. But rigged rules are a cheat and everyone knows it. They don’t give the aggressors victory; they destroy the game altogether as people lose confidence in it.
Unfortunately, opponents of such sustained nonsense often lose sight of first principles, as well. They become largely reactionary to the assaults on reason and fair play.
When analyzing the controversies of the day, it is fruitful to stay focused on what I call “first things,” fundamental principles that help guide you to a prudent position AND protect you from being distracted by the angry noise. If an opponent cannot convince you to adopt his position, he can still prevail if he can provoke you to dance to the tune he is calling. The following article is the first in an occasional series of “Precepts of a Reasonable Man.” It will take a look at some basic issues – and controversies of the day – from the perspective of those “first things.”
Hierarchy of Responsibility
Each of us has a hierarchy of duties to our fellows. Our first responsibility is to those souls God has put intimately in our care, such as spouse and children. Secondary is our responsibility to close friends and extended family. Living those duties well does not mean we have no duty to those who do not fall into those categories, only that these are subordinate duties. If we emphasize a subordinate duty at the expense of the primary and secondary duties God has placed before us, we offend God and make a mockery of His plan for us. Thus, however well you care for your family and friends, you have a duty to those you don’t even know, particularly the less fortunate, to the extent you are capable. You are not, however, obliged to displace your own children or leave them hungry in your zeal for the welfare of the less fortunate. That would, in fact, be an offense and a deep character failing. There are many subordinate hierarchies: employer to employees, teacher to students, governor to constituents, etc. None of these excuses one from his duty to all, but the duty must be properly ordered, so it does not come at the expense of one to whom a greater duty is owed in the hierarchy.
A healthy society has a multitude of mediating agencies. Most prominent among these are government, churches, and voluntary associations. Government should be the most rigorously limited, specifically because it is the most dangerous. All mediating agencies except government must rely on persuasion to accomplish their aims. Government acts by coercion.
Ideally, government should be little more than an umpire, enforcing those few rules necessary for the integrity and smooth operation of the game without entering the lists on behalf of any of the contestants. Other mediating agencies, though, get caught up in wanting a shortcut – to get government to force the outcomes they desire. This has a multitude of ugly consequences. It makes the government, itself, a source of partisan rancor rather than a dispassionate arbiter – and empowers it in the process. It enfeebles other mediating agencies, first by robbing them of their persuasive power (they don’t need it so much when they have delegated their priorities over to the coercive power of the state) and then by progressively stripping them of their legitimacy and moral agency. After a time, such agencies are almost always surprised to find the coercive power of the state wielded against them. Rarely does it occur to them that they were complicit in engorging the beast that now besets them.
People begin to equate legality with morality, a terribly perilous confusion. Most of the great atrocities of history, though hideously immoral, were accomplished through legal means. The law is a hungry and mindless beast – a useful tool when properly constrained and a terrible, immoral and capricious master when it is not. Government can give no one anything it has not first taken from someone else. It cannot create wealth, only re-distribute wealth others have created (in the process crippling those entities which CAN create wealth). For every “good” delegated to government that should have been handled through the persuasive agency of churches or voluntary associations, both its coercive power and its hunger for the same grows. It is a formula for tyranny and ruin, not for prosperity and justice.
The Raw Force of Creative Agency
The greatest force in the universe is the combined creative capacity of human beings. To unleash that force a person must have liberty and opportunity, constrained only by his duty to his fellows. Human beings and their creative capacity are the ultimate natural resource. Governments can facilitate or repress that creative capacity, either taking full advantage of that great resource or squandering it. The human person is properly viewed as a subordinate creator, in God’s own image, not as a mere consumer.
These are the primary principles I bring to bear in considering how to approach immigration. I have always been permissive in my approach to legal immigration, precisely because I see it as amassing resources when done properly. This requires that a culture be an “opportunity society” rather than a government-run “social welfare society.” My restrictions are simple and straightforward. An applicant for immigration must 1) have a clean non-violent background, 2) have a sponsor who will financially guarantee him for three years, 3) must learn the language in that three years and, 4) must commit to the principles of the country through a loyalty oath and pass a civics test. Once these criteria are met, he is eligible to become a full citizen.
We have garbled rational policy in a multitude of ways over the last few decades.
First, we have so badly blurred the lines between legal and illegal immigration that we are usually talking across each other. Legal immigration, properly ordered as I have put it above, is a positive good. Illegal immigration is an assault on our sovereignty, a soft invasion. There is no such thing as an undocumented immigrant or even an illegal immigrant. They are illegal aliens. By their first act of surreptitiously entering the country, they are criminal invaders. The rhetorical sloppiness leads many on the left to impute the virtues of legal immigrants to criminal invaders and some on the right to impute the offenses of illegal aliens to legal immigrants. The confusion helps no one except those who seek to exploit such people for their own purposes.
Bizarrely, we have made the hurdles to legal immigration hugely daunting. It can take over a decade and tens of thousands of dollars for a legal applicant to be processed. In turn, we have made illegal immigration almost consequence-free. I often say that the iron law of economics and human behavior is that what you punish you get less of and what you reward you get more of. We punish legal immigration applicants and reward illegal aliens. Why? Well, it does make them easier to exploit from both sides of the aisle. Country Club Republicans obtain a source of cheap labor and Democrats obtain a new base of voters to replace the normal Americans their insanity is driving away. The deal, though, is that the aliens must ever live in the shadowlands. Get uppity on the job and they can easily be cut loose. It is not just because they work cheaply that makes them desirable to exploitive masters: it is also because they are powerless. For Democrats, it is their electoral docility that makes them valuable. This is why Democrats can argue that Mexicans should be allowed to vote in our elections and Russians should be charged with treason for even commenting on them. There is no principle involved except for the rapacious appetite of the ruling class for unearned advantage. In either case, the people involved are treated as things to advance the depraved interests of an elite ruling class rather than as children of the Living God.
The first thing is to banish the specious nonsense that all cultures are equal. A culture that encourages creative enterprise, valuing both individual initiative and demanding individual responsibility is superior to one that reduces most to a craven class of consumers dependent on the favor of an elite bureaucracy – and the results show it. A society’s efforts must be focused on inculcating the former and avoiding the latter. A commitment to faith, family, freedom, opportunity and responsibility have been the keys to success in such efforts. Shortcuts only lead to authoritarian dysfunction.
Vastly simplify and expedite the procedures for legal immigration. Anyone who passes the background check, obtains a sponsor for the three-year interregnum, and solemnly professes loyalty to his new country should be quickly and inexpensively integrated into the process. Once passing the language and civics tests after three years – and renewing his loyalty oath, he is fully a citizen, entitled to all the benefits arising from that status and responsible for all the duties it entails.
This balances both duties and responsibilities properly. It gives incentive to those who want the opportunity afforded by the United States, while giving little incentive for those hoping for a free ride. It gets all immigrants out from the shadowlands. Most importantly, it sets all things in their proper order, forcing all the mediating agencies to live their calling properly.
The Churches, in particular, have been unbelievably feckless and irresponsible in their advocacy, betraying the commands of their Master while pretending to moral enlightenment. In the first place, Christ did NOT tell His followers to go lobby the government to force everyone to do the good they want. He told them to do it, themselves. The early Church did NOT lobby Rome to care for the sick, to build hospitals, libraries and universities. It just did what it was called to do. Now the Churches want to give government the power to force everyone else to pay for caring for immigrants…and they are surprised when government turns that power with hostility on them?! Under the system I propose, the Churches would have a huge role in the process. They would be prime guarantors as sponsors for worthy applicants that have no other source. It would require that they actually do something, put some real skin in the game, instead of piously preening with specious nonsense about what government should force everyone else to do. It would hearken them back to their authentic calling.
It would also force religious authorities to deal honestly with cultural problems around the globe. Most churches spend very little time criticizing authoritarian and corrupt regimes for making their own countries such dysfunctional hellholes. They prefer, instead, to demand the U.S. take responsibility for all these problems – and reserve their attacks for the U.S. for not taking on all problems and for refusing to import the dysfunction people are trying to flee. It infuriates me when I see Vatican officials cozying up to people like Hugo Chavez, the late strongman of Venezuela who set that country on the path to ruin, Cuba’s Castros or China’s ruthless and brutal leaders – while vigorously attacking the U.S. I am both embarrassed and grateful for the Vatican’s rank hypocrisy on border walls: embarrassed that while they carefully maintain the wall that completely surrounds Vatican City, they denounce any other nation state as immoral for contemplating similar border walls; grateful because the Vatican is sacred ground to Catholics like me – and the current hypocrisy makes it more likely it will remain intact when Catholic officials there start taking faith seriously again.
While I get irritated at the approach of most politicians, the approach of Churches infuriates me because it smacks of betrayal. It does nothing to help elevate human dignity while striking an impotent false piety. To the Churches I say, get serious, do more than lobby governments to attack the US, care for those in need and pressure dysfunctional governments to offer real opportunity and liberty for their own people. Then put your own money at stake to help sponsor worthy immigration applicants.
It is heartening that the US and Canada have the longest unprotected border in the world. That’s what happens when you promote (classically) liberal democracies – which is what the churches should do instead of honoring tyrants and attacking the US. There is little need for barriers at the borders of such nations. But when there is an attempted invasion afoot, whether a hard, military invasion or the soft invasion of massive illegal entry, border barriers are an effective and necessary means to stem that invasion. We have a primary duty both to our own citizens and to legal immigrants to defend our borders and to insist that newcomers commit to assimilate and pledge loyalty to this country. Period.
The practical incoherence of the left is nowhere better illustrated than in their advocacy against human trafficking while simultaneously calling for open borders – an end to sovereignty. Open borders is the greatest tool for facilitating human trafficking that exists. When applicants come to seek emergency refugee status, of course adults should be separated from any children in the entourage. To do otherwise encourages scoundrels to bring children along either to facilitate their own entry or because there is no effective means of separating them from real parents. This is a temporary inconvenience, not a great atrocity. The great atrocity is to make traffickers’ job so much easier by not double-checking their claims.
The Unique Problem
I am not a fan of amnesty, but I do recognize that cock-eyed American policies have contributed mightily to the problem by making legal immigration so hard and illegal immigration so easy. Therefore, I would set a date certain, say six months out, by which all illegal immigrants must register with federal authorities. If, after a criminal background check they come up clean of any violent crimes, can obtain a sponsor, and pledge to the loyalty oath (Hey churches, again here’s your chance to do something other than wring your hands, posture and virtue signal while attacking US citizens), then they will be put on the normal three-year path to citizenship. This acknowledges both that they are already integrated into the country and that much of it is our fault that they came in illegally rather than legally. After this six-month grace period is passed, if you are found to be here illegally, you are put on the fast track for deportation no matter how heart-rending your story might be. There will be no “sanctuary cities” to defy the law of the land – and any local officials who try to defy it must be treated like those officials in the south who sought to defy integration: arrested, tried, and deposed from their posts, using the National Guard to enforce the law when necessary.
There could be several amendments to this policy that would still maintain the fundamental principles. But however we go forward, if we want a rational policy that has a chance at actually working, we must adhere to the first things of:
- Our hierarchy of duties to our neighbors
- Never enact in law what can better be handled by healthy voluntary mediating agencies
- Insist on a critical intersection between rights and duties
- Always keep foremost in mind the dignity of the human person, designing policy to enhance and enable that, rather than diminish it.
- If someone wants to become a citizen, they must commit to our principles. Anything else merely facilitates the importation of the very dysfunction they are fleeing.
The current system treats people like livestock. It is an animal husbandry program masquerading as compassion, primarily for the benefit of exploiters. Legal immigration has made our country stronger. Returning to first principles will renew its benefits without drowning us all in dysfunction.