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what makes a just nation-state

This post follows the utility of the nation-state in exploring the importance of properly defining fairness, a concept that weighs heavily in most discussions while rarely being explored on its own merits.

At some point, a nation ingrains a conception of fairness in the national fabric, most often in the constitution itself. I think many would refer to this as the “social compact.” Europe emphasizes distributive justice among citizens, both increasing the possibilities for the worst off among their citizens and decreasing the opportunities for those branded outsiders.

Some of those outsiders headed to the New World looking for a type of fairness very different from that found in Europe at the time, or, for that matter, in modern Europe.

The Statue of Liberty stands a testament to that uniquely American ideal: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The American Dream was characterized not by distributive, but procedural justice. Each person would be given the same opportunity regardless of their ethnicity, religion, creed, etc. Talent and hard work would determine how far you’d go in life, not whether you were Catholic or Protestant or born from “proper stock” or any other determination of what was a “proper citizen.”

What’s happened since then?

Well, the frontier’s been settled. The moment the Italian no longer considered himself an immigrant he spat upon on the ‘Irish dogs, who, in turn, cast a wary eye and a perjorative slur at the Mexican.

Yet despite the natural human inclination to protect one’s kin and consequent belief in the “defective moral quality of being a stranger,” the American notion of procedural fairness has remained remarkably resilient.

Despite nativist attacks at nearly every stage in American development — from the Know Nothing Party to Lou Dobbs — immigrants continue to flock to the United States and power American development and innovation, from the atom bomb to Google.

The United States has ridden the creative powers and hard work of the “poor and huddled masses” to a level prosperity unmatched in the history of the world. The American social compact is to be credited.

Yet societies have remarkably short memories, and apparently a 305-foot high statue warmly welcoming the world’s “wretched refuse” in the nation’s richest city is not enough to remind Americans of how the US developed into an economic titan.

The trouble is that energetic, hard-working immigrants eventually have kids. Some of their kids will keep their parent’s spirit, most will not. While the immigrants who venture to the US leave behind their lazier and less talented brothers and sisters, there is no self-selection mechanism for those born in the US.

While that may sound in bad taste, it’s no different than the way we talk about being born into a rich family. While the original entrepreneur was likely hard-working, there’s no reason to suspect the same of their children.

The American paradox is that we all want to be treated fairly as we grow up (procedural justice), and then we all want our children to receive the best treatment available even if they don’t deserve it (distributive justice).

Who loses?

Well, who would have lost if the Know-Nothings successfully closed the door on Irish immigration, or if the racists in California had succesfully shut the door on Japanese immigration?

Clearly, the immigrants themselves would have lost dearly, as well as their children, and their children’s children. In addition, the children and great grandchildren of the earlier Americans benefitted as well, as dynamic labor markets spurred on the creation of new industries and created new jobs and opportunities for all Americans. Yet in both cases loyal Americans tried to slam the door in the face of these immigrants in defense of what they perceived as the American interest.

The trouble is that it’s only easy to see the benefit of immigration 100 years later, removed from the emotional tug that drags down most political discourse. It’s hard to put much weight in the positive externalities of productive new immigrants if you think things could be better in your life at that moment (“My son lost his job + I see a lot more Mexicans around + They have jobs = they took his job.”)

The changing economic dynamics of the 21st century once again raise the question, what kind of country should America be? Should it be a nation-state in the static European sense? An exclusive club that sets up barricades and pampers its few members? Is distributive justice the next step?

Clearly, I don’t think so. I don’t think it would be healthy for America in the long run to choke off her access to fresh ideas and hard work, and I don’t think it’s just.

The United States is not, and should not be static, like a France or Germany. It should be dynamic and everchanging, a whole composed of parts bound not by blood but belief in a fair shake. That’s not to say we need be as superficial in our understanding of procedural justice as our ancestors. We can still admit we have a lot to learn from Scandinavia while staying loyal to procedural justice. How we can do so is a subject for another post. But our core strength lies in equal opportunity, and we’d be wise to focus discussions of justice within that paradigm, rather than the distributive justice of our country-club cousins in Europe. It’s both in our interest and more helpful to the disparate.

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