Thursday, April 29, 2010

Off the Wall Aristocrats?

I just reread "Something There Is That Doesn't Love a Wall," and I realize, in retrospect, that my central idea about unrestricted "free" movement of human beings IS a bit naive.

Were we, suddenly, to throw open the borders to anyone who wanted to enter the U.S., we could, indeed, be overwhelmed by people seeking--not so much to become Americans--as simply to benefit from life in this country.  People who want education for their kids; people who want emergency health care; people who want social services (no questions asked); people who want opportunities to live like "ordinary" people in the "rich" world.

Such an influx might, as many have argued, take an economic toll on us "rich" people (even those of us who are not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as wealthy).  In particular, the necessity to provide a safety net for such immigrants could, in fact, lower the standard of living of middle-class Americans--at least temporarily.  (I doubt that it would have any negative impact on the super-rich, though.)

Yes, "free" immigration would, thus, serve to redistribute wealth--at least the wealth of those who pay taxes--  though, again, I doubt that the top 1% (who own 34% of overall wealth) would be adversely affected.  Indeed, they would probably profit from exploiting low-wage workers.

Still, those of us in the middle and lower ranks would have to share our wealth with newcomers--without any assurance that our generosity would be rewarded later. A painful prospect. It's very Christian, of course--very noble, very whatever.  But no one wants to do it.  (As that great philosopher, Petula Clark, sang, "Tout le monde veut aller au ciel, mais personne ne veut mourir.")

Interesting, isn't it, that those of us who are accustomed to thinking of our income as "modest," are--in a global perspective--wealthy, spoiled aristocrats.  And, like the noblility of France's ancien régime, we owe our comfortable lifestyle to "privileges" that WE have inherited (by virtue of our birth as Americans) and that have been DENIED to those of humbler origins.

(OK, so it's a simplistic view.  I know that a lot of France's "aristocrats" were poorer than the local butcher.)

Nevertheless and notwithstanding nothing and nada, most people will fight to hang onto the privileged status they now enjoy.  So perhaps it is true that we cannot afford--quite literally--to open our borders to any and all.  "Free" immigration might create a lot of wealth--but not inevitably and not immediately--especially for the "in-betweeners," i.e., those stuck between the immigrants (getting richer) and the big capitalists (getting richer).

Is there a middle way?  Can't we figure out some way to welcome immigrants (perhaps not ALL seeking entry) without losing either our standard of living OR our self-respect as a humane and decent people?  Dang.  No wonder the politicians want to avoid this issue.  It's just too painful to admit that our self-concept as an open, optimistic and generous society may, in fact, be "off the wall."

It would seem that our politicians prefer, instead, to dither and obfuscate, following the example of the ancien régime aristocrats--who chose to do nothing in the face of increasing unrest.  Until it was too late and they were finally obliged, on August 4, 1789, to renounce (voluntarily, but mostly to save their necks) ALL of their feudal privileges.   Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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