Further Thoughts on Immigration -- Why Invoking the Romans to Justify Immigration Restrictions is Dead Wrong

One of the reasons, I think, that we struggle so much with the immigration question is that we really only have two options to offer -- not letting people in, or giving them close to full citizenship rights.  I think we would have the same debates on whether we should let people drive if the only two speeds a car could go were zero and 90 MPH.

For most of the people who are trying to get into this country illegally, the issue is not necessarily that they want full citizenship -- they just want to be present.  They want to be able to live, and drive, and accept employment.   While they would like it, they don't necessarily need to vote or be eligible for social security disability payments.   We need new statuses that allow for presence and productivity but are short of full citizenship.

In this sense, I think many Conservatives are 180 degrees wrong when they invoke the experience of the Roman Empire.  The modern argument is that the Romans are an example of what happens when you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by "barbarians" from the outside.  But in fact, I have argued many times that the real Roman failure was that they lost their early ability to flexibly absorb people of other cultures.  Here is what I wrote in my take on five reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:

3.   The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire.  The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire.  For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful.   But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick.  The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land.  This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted.  That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration.  Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft".  I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.

And if you really want a modern parallel with the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, try this other point I made:

4.   Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic.  This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society.  Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations.  Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.


  1. Dan Wendlick:

    I think you can make an equally valid case that a restricted-rights, guest worker-like system would be much akin to the three-caste system of slave/plebeian/patrician that prevailed in Rome for much of the history of the empire. When it became more economical to import and purchase slaves for low-skill labor, a permanent class of plebeians were created who held Roman citizenship but for whom finding permanent employment was difficult. The solution to this was the legendary "bread and circuses", where the patrician class used the national treasury to curry favor for themselves and prevent a serious uprising that could dislocate their power structures.

  2. Ghost of Christmas Past:

    Tell me, Coyote, what did your grade-school US history class teach you as the slogan of the (1776) American Revolution?

    It was "No taxation without representation!", wasn't it?

    The foundation of American government explains why we have only the two options of (a) forbidding mass immigration or (b) giving immigrants close to full citizenship rights, when we consider any large number of immigrants. Neither our political system nor our modern US (or general Western) system of political philosophy is capable of denying any large group of residents political rights for very long. In fact, after we (USA) abolished Jim Crow fifty years ago we started pressing even foreign countries that had "limited democracies" (like Rhodesia) to enact universal suffrage.

    We can and do let in a few people and demand they live under laws they haven't voted for, enforced by police departments they aren't eligible to join (gotta be a citizen to be a cop), while paying taxes to support a government which they influence only indirectly. If they don't like it, they can leave. There aren't enough of them to make a big difference even if they were suddenly given the vote.

    But if we let in a whole bunch of non-citizens, they will form an important potential voting block. Even as non-voters they will be numerous enough to staff political parades or good-sized riots. Ambitious demagogues looking for a power base will see all those "oppressed" non-citizens, "unjustly taxed to support a government that won't let them vote." Political parties will *compete* to recruit immigrant voters, each party trying to outbid the other for immigrants' loyalty by offering a faster "path to citizenship (and welfare payments)." Demagogues will spew moralistic propaganda. They will repeat our own hallowed slogans, like "no taxation without representation." They will call anyone who disagrees "racist."

    Demagogues will persuade many non-citizens that they are victims who have a moral right to seize power from their oppressors, by force if necessary. Many soft-hearted/soft-headed citizens will be persuaded too-- they will champion political rights for immigrants and excuse "direct action" (political violence) should those "human rights" be denied. Even immigrants who voluntarily bargained for residency without citizenship will happily renounce those deals once their favorite demagogues explained that they were "unfair" and therefore void. Even Libertarians will agitate to give citizenship to immigrants (admit it-- if you think borders are immoral then you think arbitrary distinctions among taxpaying residents are immoral too)!

    So the only way to deny migrants citizenship is to deny them entry.

    ALSO, your view of Roman history is bunk. You write that the 4th Century Romans "could have solved multiple problems
    -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the
    need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty
    farm land." You imply that they foolishly neglected to invite in enough barbarians to revitalize the Empire.

    But the Romans did do *exactly* what you say they should have done, and it bit them in the ass! It bit their leg off! In 376 AD:

    "With outstretched arms, and pathetic lamentations, [the Goths, barbarian would-be immigrants] loudly deplored
    their past misfortunes and their present danger; acknowledged that their
    only hope of safety was in the clemency of the Roman
    government; and most solemnly protested, that if the gracious liberality
    of the emperor would permit them to cultivate the waste lands of
    Thrace, they should ever hold themselves bound, by the strongest
    obligations of duty and gratitude, to obey the laws, and to guard the
    limits, of the [Roman] republic."

    "The prayers of the Goths were granted, and their service was accepted by
    the Imperial court: and orders were immediately despatched to the civil
    and military governors of the Thracian diocese, to make the necessary
    preparations for the passage and subsistence of a great people …"

    But charismatic leaders among the Goths soon persuaded them that they could enrich themselves by making war on their Roman hosts, an project which was much easier since they were already past the Roman frontiers and settled in the undefended interior of the empire. At the Battle of Hadrianople in 378 the Goths defeated and killed the Emperor Valens and humbled the Roman government.

    The immigrants did relieve what you (Coyote) call "the need for more soldiers." They forced the next Emperor Theodosius to appoint tens of thousands of them to the Roman army. Then they behaved like the conquerors they were, swaggering around raping and robbing the Romans they were supposedly protecting.

    About the last thing any country needs is more foreign soldiers. Home-grown oppressors are bad enough.

  3. mesocyclone:

    Instead of arguing about Rome, how about considering the current and probable future results of uncontrolled immigration.

    Hispanics immigrating to the US are over-users of welfare - especially after the first generation. They also have higher crime rates. This is not some random accident - it is a natural consequence of admitting people who do not share our values, and who have expectations that cannot be met. One doesn't have to go far to see this. Coyote, leave your office and drive to W Phoenix and see for yourself. Phoenix has been invaded, and the consequence is a dangerously high violent crime rate in parts of town. This is not a result of the immigrants being bad people, but it is nonetheless a predictable consequence, given the situations they come from and what they encounter when here.

    We can see another consequence of this: the destruction of many blue collar jobs in our society. We have a whole lot of Americans who are "disabled" or just on welfare, because their jobs have been taken by immigrants. The immigrationists say that those are jobs Americans don't want to do, but Americans did them just fine in the past. I know a lot of these people, and they have been screwed.

    At least the Latin American immigrants have a culture somewhat like ours, although closer to that in Greece than that in Germany. Let in an unrestricted number of Africans or Muslims, and you introduce other problems: people who are not culturally equipped to fit into our society. That doesn't mean that all will fail - they won't. It does mean that they will have a harder time.

    Then there's the political aspect. The first thing that will disappear is any hope of Libertarian gains in the US, which makes it bizarre that Libertarians are for immigration at any cost. Poor people are not likely to be interested in Libertarianism, when they can get money from the welfare state. It should not be surprising that the party of the welfare state - Democrats - is also the party for reducing immigration restrictions. They know, as Libertarians do not, that this immigration will move our culture more to that of Greece or Nigeria - more a state where all look to the government rather than themselves.

  4. jhertzli:

    Another take on the fall of Rome.

  5. vikingvista:

    "Tell me, Coyote, what did your grade-school US history class teach you as the slogan of the (1776) American Revolution?"

    I thought it was "all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

    Of course, if you think happiness is being round up at gunpoint, and you think the US Federal government is the Creator, then I can see where you are coming from.

  6. vikingvista:

    The problem is that citizenship is used to justify all manner of state offenses against innocents. If I'm being robbed at gunpoint, I couldn't care less if the proceeds are going to a Detroit-born stranger or a Toronto-born stranger. A society is going to suffer when citizenship is defined in such a way as to turn citizen against citizen, and this has nothing to do with immigration.

    The problem with citizenship, as now construed, is that *nobody* should be allowed to claim it.

  7. JohnM:

    I don't think the picture you paint of the early Romans open to immigration compared to the latter is quite right.

    1. The Roman Empire grew in size during the Republic and ending growing not long after it became an Empire. During the earlier period there was a clear distinction between Romans and non-Romans. The latter were second class.
    2. During the Republic Roman citizens were the army and conquered peoples were auxiliaries only. That didn't change overnight but it was changing by the end of the Republic. Hannibal defeated a Roman army. The significance of this is that when Roman Citizens were the army they were united and there were few civil wars. By the time of Pompey, Caesar and Mark Anthony the army had taken in the peoples of the conquered territories but they were not absorbed. The result was that in the civil wars the soldiery were loyal to the General and their region rather than to Rome. [The picture is complicated by the fact that soldiers in the regions were also the descendants of Roman soldiers who had settled or won lands in the regions].
    3. Augustus became emperor after a long period of civil war. After the house of Caesar (Augustus, Nero Caligula et al) ended there was resumption of civil war in the year of the 4 emperors. The net result was that future emperors did not want to create Generals successful enough to challenge the Emperor. This meant the Empire did not grow. (There were exceptions like the Balkans).
    4. When Barbarians crossed the Rhine they weren't quietly settling on empty farms, they were ransacking towns and villages and carrying off the booty. That didn't suddenly change in the 4th century.

    So the picture is more complicated. The early Roman Republic was typified by the idea of the Romans citizens being different to the conquered peoples. The Roman Empire did absorb conquered peoples as citizens but those were peoples who lived with the Romans not peoples who set up colonies. If the idea of success is emulating the dictatorship rather than the republic then by all means argue for condition free immigration. (And just to be clear - I'm not arguing that we should emulate the slave owning Roman republic)

  8. Bram:

    I use the case of the American Indians and the British Celts to highlight the need to some kind of control on your flow of immigration.

    The external threats that ultimately overran Rome were far less dangerous than the many the Republic survived. They had just lost the spirit to survive. I think much of Western Europe is at that stage too.

  9. bloke in france:

    The Ottoman Empire had these grades of citizenship too. Different tax rates, obligations for military service, etc.
    Did that turn out well?

  10. Bram:

    Pretty well until Jan Sobieski charged them at the Gates of Vienna (despite Louis XIV's best efforts).

  11. jdgalt:

    I believe the main cause for the revolution of 1776 was neither "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" nor "no taxation without representation", but was the Proclamation of 1763 -- the king's demand that we stop settling the Mississippi valley, lest he have to pay for another French and Indian War. Indeed, the majority so insisted on this that Andrew Jackson openly defied the Constitution by having the army clear the "Indians" out.

    I suppose the lesson the restrictionists will draw from this is that the "Indians" should have kept us the h___ out. But America became a much freer and richer country precisely because they were utterly unable to do that.

  12. Ghost of Christmas Past:

    vikingvista, jdgalt:

    Do you even realize that you're supporting my view, not Coyote's?

    Coyote says we should mitigate the problem that immigrants vote for socialism (note that this is empirically true already, and we don't even have mass immigration yet) by giving immigrants some kind of non-voting resident status. Then, says Coyote, we can admit millions of immigrants without political risk.

    I say US political institutions are incapable of maintaining such a policy. If any large number of people in the country are "denied the right to vote," plenty of opportunists eager to "lead" a new voting block will agitate to give full citizenship to the "oppressed minority" or "victims of a new Apartheid."

    People like you, vikingvista, will support that "liberation" eagerly, shouting that "all men are created equal." Too bad that as soon as the immigrants get the political equality your philosophy calls for, they will join with native leftists to "share" your wealth and beat you up if you complain, rabiblanco.

    And you, jdgalt, your note suggests that you would have told 1763's Indians to "give up, follow that Trail of Tears-- you must surrender your territory and your forms of government to impetuous migrants!" Would you say that to all Americans today?

  13. captaincinders:

    One interesting take on the fall of the Roman Empire I read was explained by looking at what made the Roman Empire successful. It was argued that it was due to 1. Wealth Creation and 2. Cheap labour.
    Basically, the Roman Empire wealth was generated by conquering and stealing the wealth (gold and land), and slaves provided cheap labour. When the Romans ran out of Lands to conquer, slave prices soared from the level of 'farm labourers' to level of 'luxury goods' and the State ran out of wealth creation and cheap land. This meant that the cost of everything soared, taxes were increased, and borrowings by the Roman State spiralled upwards. This turned into a viscous circle until finally they were unable to afford their standing Army and everything came crashing down.
    No more cheap labour and huge borrowings to maintain current spending. Now where might there be a modern parallel?