Constructive Dialogues: Understanding Immigration

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Immigration is one of the most divisive issues thus far of the Trump administration. The discussion is almost guaranteed to anger at least one side of the political aisle. Some of the vociferous claims from the left lodged against the current administration include racism, xenophobia, and demagoguery.

To dismiss all the claims of the left would be unfair and intellectually dishonest. To say that complaints of racism and fear mongering concerning immigration are completely unfounded paranoid delusions ignores a component of the human condition. That component is the evil inclination of Man; bigotry and racism are manifest and very real, and more importantly, worth fighting.

Despite the legitimate claims of bigotry from the political left, much of the popular discourse emanating from the liberal side fails to recognize delegitimizes many conservative positions. Within the spectrum of immigration, there are legitimate arguments the conservatives make offer that are worthy of discussion.

Comparing and contrasting the liberal and conservative philosophical positions can facilitate more constructive dialogues on divisive issues. In the following essay, the moral, political, and philosophical issues that liberals and conservatives disagree on are discussed. These issues are addressed on a more macro, rather than a micro level. By this, I mean that the discussion will focus less on statistics and quantitative analysis, and more on the philosophical incongruences that define liberals and conservatives. There will be no graphs, charts, or statistics on labor, crime, or demographics, but instead, the article will speak of the implicit assumptions and logical progressions taken by the ideological proponents of the debate.

Liberal & Conservative Clashes

The foundational premise in liberalism, and the most important incongruence between liberals and conservatives, is the natural goodness of Man, an idea emanating from Jean Rousseau, the father of liberalism.

Rousseau postulated of the nature of Man:

“The fundamental principle of all morality, upon which I have reasoned in all my writings and which I developed with all the clarity of which I am capable is that man is a being who is naturally good, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and the first movements of nature are always good “(1762).

Human beings are born naturally moral, but are corrupted by society. By fixing society, we can restore the natural goodness of men, and bring about a more equitable world.

In the same vein as the natural goodness of Man, there is also a natural equality of human beings: “there is in fact in this state of nature an actual and indestructible equality” (Rousseau, 1762). The state of nature was a fictitious utopia Rousseau believed in that existed before civil society (Melzer, 1990). In the state of nature, we were naturally good and naturally equal.

Essentially, if we fix society, we can restore the natural equality and natural goodness of man. This can be accomplished through positive legislation, changing language, changing culture, and changing norms.

Edmund Burke, a man who served as a foil to Rousseau in many aspects, believed the opposite: “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decision, and steadiness on that belief” (1791, para. 8). Man has an evil inclination. We cannot simply believe that human beings are benevolent, as there may be serious consequences to ignoring the evil lurking inside us. Burke’s conviction in this position was consistent. He believed that

We must soften into a credulity below the milkiness of infancy to think all men virtuous. We must be tainted with a malignity truly diabolical, to believe all the world to be equally wicked and corrupt. Men are in public life as in private, some good, some evil. The elevation of the one, the depression of the other, are the first objects of all true policy. (Burke, 1770)

Burke knew that Man is constituted with an ethical dualism: we are capable of great good, but also of great evil.

To apply this conflict of visions to the issue of immigration, liberals, following Rousseau, believe in the natural goodness and the natural equality of Man, corrupted by society. They tend to view the glass as half-full when it comes to immigration. The liberal mind tends to gravitate towards all the honest, hardworking, decent families who just want a better life. These people are real, so ignoring them completely is unsympathetic. The liberal mind also believes all people are equal, bringing immigrants from an economically inferior society to a more prosperous environment one will ipso facto make them worthy citizens.

On the other hand, the conservatives are more concerned with the criminal element as well mentally unfit aspect of the open borders ideology. Drugs, guns, gangs, and human trafficking are legitimate national concerns of self-preservation. The conservatives tend to employ more of a glass half-empty thought process when it comes to immigration.

Here, we have a question relative to values. What is more important: Enabling the good while also enabling the bad, or prohibiting the bad while also prohibiting the good? According to psychologists Kahneman and Tversky’s “Loss Aversion” theory (Lehrer, 2010), the answer is clear. “Loss Aversion” is the idea that the sting of a loss is stronger than the elation of a victory. Winning is less powerful than losing. Any victim of a vicious crime will tell you that the sting felt by the victim and their family is infinitely stronger than the modest amount of joy found in allowing hard-working and honest people the opportunity to come to America. Just ask the family of Kate Steinle, a young woman murdered by an illegal immigrant.

This is an analogous discussion to the transgender bathrooms argument. The liberals think of the good it can do for transgendered individuals who are genuine in their transitions. The conservatives are less concerned with those people, and are infinitely more concerned that doors are now opened for sexual assault.

One additional point to make regarding the natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society. Rousseau believed that society’s inception came through one man’s acquisition of private property: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society” (1753, p. 27). Essentially, we were living in the state of nature until someone took private property for themselves. Private property, on a smaller scale, is basically a border. Borders, to the followers of Rousseau, are the source of our corruption and therefore necessitate removal. This is the basis for the liberal distaste for borders, as well as the socialists desire to eradicate private property.

In Property and Freedom: The story of how through the centuries private ownership has promoted liberty and the rule of law (1990), author and historian Richard Pipes informed his readers that private property is a hard-wired facet of human nature, and not something that is socially taught, as Rousseau believed. Man was enjoying private property before civilization. According to John Locke, “the great and chief purpose of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property” (1689,  p. 40). French Historian William Sewell, Jr. commented on Locke’s view of private property: Human beings “already owned property, As Locke’s pre-social men were independent and self-sufficient . . . They established governments only in order to enjoy their property in greater security” (1980, pp. 122-23). A conservative approach to private property and civilization views the protection of  private property as the cause of civil society, and not the other way around.

Private property is not just about the acquisition and protection of resources, it is about the preservation of families (Nisbet, 1966). Liberals believe the central unit of life is the emancipated individual, while conservatives believe that it is the family unit (Nisbet, 1966). The country is an extension of the family unit. In the same way a homeowner would deploy locks for their doors, a fence for their yard, security lights, intimidating dogs, alarm systems, and guns, the conservatives want to fortify and secure the border of our country to protect it.

Further expounding on the notion of the country as a family, the thought of giving illegal immigrants benefits while fellow countrymen go wanting is a difficult pill for the conservatives to swallow. Imagine your parents coming home from work when you were a child and calling a family meeting. They tell you they were given a $10,000 cash bonus at work today, and they want to discuss with you and your siblings how to spend it. You and your siblings say things like fixing leaky windows in preparation for the upcoming winter; perhaps new winter gear to stay warm; or maybe a family vacation? Imagine they said they plan on giving the money to the neighbors instead. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, the very stones of Rome would rise and mutiny.

The liberals view things differently than the conservatives. As Rousseau said in his autobiography, Confessions, he felt, “This innate benevolence for my fellow man” (Rousseau, 1782). The liberals of today, following in Rousseau’s footsteps, believe that we are all brothers and sisters in the world. Certain liberal platitudes come to mind like, “we’re all one race: the human race.”

Burke was opposed not just to this idea in general, but specifically to the man it came from, Rousseau. He said, “their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence” (Burke, 1791, para. 28). Burke continued criticizing Rousseau: “whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy” (Burke, 1791, para. 28). Burke’s line of, “whilst his heart was incapable of harbouring one spark of common parental affection” (Burke, 1791, para. 28) alluded to the fact that Rousseau had five children, all of whom were dropped off at an orphanage before he even bothered to name them (Stanlis, 1991). Universal benevolence was highly hypocritical coming from this self-indulgent  man.

Burke believed that we love in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. He virtuously said: “the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle . . . of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind” (Burke, 1790, para. 75). As Publius, authors of The federalist papers, once stated: “Neighboring Nations. . . are natural enemies of each other’” (l’Abbe de Mably, as quoted by Publius, 1787, p. 26). In Federalist #17, Publius offered that, “It is a known fact in human nature that its affections are commonly weak in proportion to the distance or diffusiveness of the object. . . . A man is more attached to his family than his neighborhood, his neighborhood than to the community at large” (p.78). William Blackstone, a legal scholar, concurred with this notion, albeit at an earlier date: “As it is impossible for the whole race of mankind to be united in one great society, they must necessarily divide into many” (Blackstone, as quoted by Stanlis, 1989, p. 86). Conservatives believe Man’s nature is tribal and groupish (Haidt, 2013) with limited loyalties, while liberals believe we can love everyone at once.

Since we are all brothers and sisters, liberals believe immigrants have a right to a share America. One of the pillars of liberalism is the belief in rights (Nisbet, 1966). This is the main contribution of Thomas Paine, particularly his work, The rights of man (1791). Pay attention to the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders. According to Vermont Senator Sanders, free healthcare, free education, and even free wifi are all natural rights of Man (, 2018).

While conservatives in fact believe in rights, they believe first and foremost in the opposite of a right, which is a duty, and that duties must antecede our rights (Kirk, 1955). As Russell Kirk once wrote, “Ever since Paine’s Rights of man was published, the notion of inalienable natural rights has been embraced by the mass of men in a vague and belligerent form, ordinarily confounding rights with desires” (1955, p. 47). To Kirk, beliefs like Bernie Sanders are, “not rights at all, but merely aspirations” (1955, p. 48). This mistaken nomenclature makes, “the mass of men must feel always that some vast, intangible conspiracy thwarts their attainment of what they are told is their inalienable birthright” (Kirk, 1955, p. 48). Kirk was adamant that, “Man’s rights are linked with man’s duties, and when they are distorted into extravagant claims for a species of freedom and equality and worldly advancement which human character is not designed to sustain, they degenerate from rights into vices” (Kirk, 1951). Rights must be married to corresponding duties, lest they degrade into vice.

The preceding paragraphs then lead us to two questions about the right to live in the United States: What is the perceived source of this right, and what are the geographic origins of this perceived right? Concerning the source of this right, by what means is the right to a foreign country earned? What is the corresponding duty relating to this right to participating in another country? We have the right to the fruits of our labor, which makes the source of this right obvious: What we work to earn, we have the right to keep. The same logic is employed for private property: If I purchase or rent a home, the money I pay for it combined with the natural borders of the real estate, demising walls and doors of an apartment, or the change in continuity from one property to the next are axiomatic; even dogs instinctively understand borders. There is no real source of a duty or a right one nation has to accommodate another.

Additionally, what is the geographic origin of this right? It seems to begin with Mexico and descends south of our border to some nebulous region around the northern portion of South America. How far down it extends no one truly knows. Are there other countries with similar reciprocal relationships? Do the people of Argentina have a right to Thailand? Do the Thai people have a right to Saudi Arabia? Do the Saudis have a right to Norway?

When posed in this fashion, it should be obvious that a right to resources and a voice in the democratic processes of a foreign nation are illogical. When given the right to access a foreign country with no corresponding duty, these new occupants lack the sufficient investment- both emotionally and physically- in their new country. According to Pipes (1990), traditionally, the privilege of voting was only given to land owners. Land owners are more invested in their geographic area for the long-haul. Today, the typical mortgage loan is roughly 30 years, which should provide a basis for of understanding for this principle.

This absence of an investment, colloquially referred to as, “skin in the game,” enables free-riding. As Pipes knew, the free-rider is one, “who claims his share of the fruits of common labor but shirks his obligations- a phenomenon which sooner or later leads to the collapse of nonprivate enterprise” (1990, p. 90). John Haidt, in, The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (2013), explained that conservatives are angered by the notion of free riding, and are more concerned with proportionality than liberals (Haidt, 2013).

Finally, through personal experience, I’ve learned that when it comes to immigration, you can have a lengthy discussion with liberals about immigration without once hearing the word “illegal.” While this is simply a classic straw-man argument, this is also Rousseau’s voice echoing through the mouths of today’s liberals. This willful blindness to the legal aspect of immigration ties in directly with the notion of rights and duties.

One contemporary issue regarding rights and duties and the legality of immigration concerns families being separated at the borders. If families have a right to remain intact, then parents have a corresponding duty to avoid committing crimes while simultaneously involving their children in said crimes. If a someone commits a crime, it could result in a jail sentence. If incarcerated, the law breaker may be separated from his or her family. This policy is common knowledge, and obvious, and observed internationally by most sovereign nations.

It is difficult to find another area of law and societal convention where people will ignore this reality. If one commit a crime, you will be arrested, tried, and face a jail sentence, consequently losing your family. This is simply avoidable by not committing a crime, especially a crime involving your children. Imagine hearing outrage over parents separated from children after committing a murder, dealing drugs, or some other felony.

The liberal notion of ignoring the concept of the law is due to the natural goodness of Man. Rousseau felt that, “the first of all goods. . . is freedom” (Rousseau, 1762B). Societal restraints and laws corrupt us because they prohibit the natural goodness of man from shining. Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, commented that, “In short, Rousseau attempts . . . to bestow on virtue the splendor of self-creation, absolute freedom, or what later came to be called ‘autonomy’” (1990, p. 105). The disciple of Rousseau feels that any restrictions on our freedom imposed on us by society are corrupting and immoral. This is the polar opposite belief of the conservative doctrine. Conservatives believe that Man’s nature is wild and beastly (Muller, 1997). Man necessitates restraints imposed on his unruly passions and appetites to contain our beastly and savage nature (Muller, 1997). Basically, immigration laws are immoral because they restrict liberal autonomy and corrupt the natural goodness of Man.


Liberals and conservatives clash on issues due to fundamental differences in beliefs. These differing beliefs range from issues such as disagreements on human nature, society, and what is ultimately best for Mankind.

One incendiary issue, especially under Trump administration, is immigration. Unfortunately, many on the left do not understand or value the conservative position. Through honest and constructive dialogues, we can better communicate with our opposition, and perhaps begin creating better relationships with our neighbors, as all nations must have real borders to preserve its culture, language, and sovereignty.


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Steven Kessler

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Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."