In my previous post, I wrote out some reflections on the post-9/11 American project in the Middle East and how I think we made some big and critical mistakes to our project in the Middle East. Today, I will try to draw out two conclusions I think one can draw from that project:
When embarking on a project of trying to “help” in the global context, it is imperative to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the tools you seek to use (including military interventionism).
Any project premised on investing altruistically in the global context needs to consider the potential and limits of long-term political sustainability.
In a lot of ways, I actively resisted these conclusions. After all, I am someone who considers myself a “Globalist,” in the sense that I do believe in thinking about policies through the lens of what global impact they will have, not merely about the effect on Americas. My global concern comes from one of the foundational moral principles I hold: the Christian belief in fundamental and irreversible human dignity, which shares no national borders. I start from the ethical premise that all people have dignity before God, so how do I justify ignoring the plight of people around the globe who are suffering the indignities of poverty, war, violence, and oppression?
But it is also because I believe that in most cases when we think about social problems, those problems are not a zero-sum game: that we can do what is good globally and what is good nationally at the same time. For instance, had we done more early in the pandemic to enhance vaccine production, we might not have seen COVID mutate into what it is today. After all, the Delta variant is believed to have emerged from COVID spreading in India among a largely unvaccinated population. Delta has since spread throughout the world and infected numerous more people (even some vaccinated), all of which may have been preventable.
So to be clear, I believe Americans should be deeply concerned with the plight of people who share that dignity, even when their plight does not overlap with our personal or national self-interest. However, a clear-eyed examination of what happened in Afghanistan should make one ask the question: what good can we do? How do we help without hurting or causing even more global suffering to do unintended consequences?
The Simple Power of Knowing One’s Tools
Economics is an area that I feel much more confident pontificating on than foreign policy. And one of the fundamental questions of economic research is should the government help people in poverty? From years of study in economics research, I feel safe in saying that it depends on the program. Some government programs work well at creating social value: especially those investing in kids. One economic study I find particularly insightful found that direct investments in the health and education of low-income children can pay social dividends of 5-8x their initial cost to the government. Moreover, investing in children early in their lives enables them to reach their full potential academically and economically, which pays off to society when they become entrepreneurs, inventors, and generally positive leaders in their communities.
That said, other economic programs aimed at helping people do not achieve their intended results. For example, research has shown that the vast majority of tariffs levied to protect jobs do not work and end up merely destroying far more jobs than they save. Likewise, there is robust evidence that governments do an abysmal job of using central planning to set prices. Research on rent board, gas price-fixing, or even price gouging laws clearly show these policies have substantial unintended consequences and make the problems they aim to fix worse.
The answer to international military intervention is almost certainly the same: it depends. I have a bias against war due to my reading of the Christian tradition, but I also believe there are times and places where war is necessary. Thus it is vital to rigorously think through what types of military interventions are likely doomed to fail and when interventions may be the best strategy to minimizing harm, even if they cannot alone create a society of peace and justice.
For example, saying the US efforts in Afghanistan were unlikely to succeed does not necessarily mean the US should not offer defense protection to Taiwan. Taiwan has all the features of a sovereign country, and we should say so even if Hollywood stars cannot bring themselves to say it:
Taiwan is home to one of the essential industries in the world: semiconductor chip manufacturing. It has a fully operational government and robust civic society, which has operated independently for decades. If its people wanted to re-join China, they could use their political rights to express that opinion. But all indications are the vast majority of Taiwanese do not want to be united with the mainland, even in the face of saber-rattling by Xi’s regime. Taiwan is a very different context from Afghanistan, where we intervened in the middle of a long-lasting civil war. Building new institutions in Afghanistan required suppressing the Taliban against the popular will of a sized portion of the country. Defending the right of an existing civilization to self-determination by protecting them from an outside invasion and colonization is wholly different from intervening to ensure the “right” kind of government is formed from the outside.
To be clear, I am not saying the US should intervene in Taiwan, merely that the lesson of Afghanistan should not be that all intervention is terrible. Every international context is incredibly different, and we should be careful to examine them on their own merits. I will leave the detailed arguments about specific circumstances to those who have studied more history and foreign affairs. But I think it illustrates a broader principle: when trying to do good, it’s essential to know what good you can achieve with the tool you hold in your hand, whether that tool is an economic policy or military intervention.
Sustainability in Projects
But I think a different principle is essential to emphasize: even when a tool effectively achieves the intended goals, one should be aware of selfish human nature. I do not think humans can be expected to altruistically respond when perceiving being on an extended idealistic campaign primarily to help others. One can believe in the moral ideal of globalism while recognizing that they will need to compromise in practice. Unfortunately, many in the Neoconservative foreign policy community do not spend enough time thinking through the limits of the American public's appetite for intervention overseas.
In recent years, it has become a kind of ritual for me to note the birthdays of the high schoolers I coach in basketball and laugh at the speed with which I am growing older. Of course, my age was hammered home two or three years ago when I started looking at my player’s ages only to realize that not a single one of them was born before 9/11. But that exercise took a darker connotation when I realized that the age of my high school players who enrolled in the army after high school could be serving in an Afghanistan war that started before they were born.
I think sustainability matters on these sorts of questions, and there is real doubt that US intervention was sustainable in the public’s mind. Moreover, I believe there are real questions about the moral radicalism that expects self-interested Americans to spend over 20 years engaged in a national building process in Afghanistan. At some point, we have to expect the resolution to fade. The last three US Presidents, Obama, Trump, and now Biden, have all won on platforms that have primarily reflected a desire to wind down our presence in the Middle East. And I suspect that this is no accident: many in the US public have sadly long seen their moral sympathies run dry on this topic.
This fatigue is not unexpected. One can rattle off numerous historical cases where the US embarked upon a version of a military or an internationalist campaign, only to but up against domestic apathy and weariness, often with tragic consequences:
Post-Civil War Reconstruction was a project that involved the south's military occupation to ensure that African Americans had access to equal rights and were not subject to vigilante violence. Unfortunately, reconstruction ended in 1877, before ensuring equal rights was cemented in law because voters in the North grew weary of the project. Shortly after that, Jim Crow was imposed, disenfranchising African Americans for almost 90 years.
The US got involved in World War One to ensure that German aggression could not dominate and subjugate continental Europe. But shortly after the war’s end, the US largely retreated from engagement with Europe. The widespread public sentiment was that too many Americans had died, and with the war over, the continent seemed too far away for Americans to prioritize it. As a result, the peace negotiations were dominated by France and the UK's narrow interests. Unfortunately, they chose to punish Germany so severely that seeds of resentment were planted that eventually helped cause World War Two.
The US started involvement in the Vietnam War in the late 1950s, and the war ramped up in the 1950s. The stated reason for the US was the containment of communism and trying to keep the South Vietnamese from a takeover from the North. But by the early 70s, much of the US public was growing war-weary, and the US pulled out by 1975, only to see Saigon and South Vietnam fall.
The US normalized trade relations with China in the late 1990s, believing that trade with China would benefit the US and encourage China to liberalize and embrace Democratic values. As a result, after almost 15 years of this trade relationship, hundreds of millions of Chinese had been lifted out of poverty because they could access American markets. Still, US sentiment started to shift against the project as it became clear that regions of the US were particularly hard hit by trade with China. Moreover, it was increasingly clear that China was not liberalizing or continually trading fairly. As a result, Donald Trump ran against the arrangement in 2016, took a harsher stance on China as president, and it appears that relations with China are not going to improve anytime soon.
Now to be clear, all of these are different historical cases. I believe some of these campaigns effectively achieved their goals until they were abandoned (reconstruction), while others were largely misguided (Vietnam). World War One and Trade Liberalization with China more mixed cases where both good and bad result from the campaign. But the unifying theme to me is that it is pretty clear that regardless of how well considered the project; it will eventually run up into the same issue of sustainability of public sentiment. And while there may be a counter-factual history where good leadership can make a case for the good projects to keep going. Reconstruction is the best example of this: would history have been different if Abraham Lincoln had survived the war? Or if Ulysses Grant had fewer scandals in his presidency and left office with more political support for his reconstruction policy? We will never know for sure, but I suspect even in the case of good leadership, there are still some limits on sustainability.
Implications for the Project of Immigration
To make this principle more concrete: my strongest reaction to the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan was the utter failure to ensure that Afghans who had been working with the US had an SIV visa that allowed them to seek refuge in the US. Bureaucratic failings in the Trump and Biden administrations plagued the process, as did the all but halting of immigration during the pandemic. As of writing this, all accounts seem that most SIV applicants and eligible people are still in Afghanistan, presumably stranded and under threat from the Taliban.
This failure angers me because (in my opinion) the single most effective thing we could have done in the past year in Afghanistan is to ensure that as many at-risk people as possible could seek refuge in the US. Some of my thought here is historical: part of what redeemed the more troubling aspects of US interventions in Vietnam and Cuba was our decision to give asylum to many of those displaced by those conflicts and under threat from the regimes taking power. Some of this belief is grounded in my life experience: I grew up on a block with Afghan refugees and now have numerous neighbors and players who are refugees or Southeast Asian or Central America. But this is also because, on some level, I am someone who believes in a radical moral claim: the belief that America would be better off being radically more accepting of immigrants than we currently are.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that society should be arranged around expanding the economic opportunities that individuals can access. I believe that market economies do an excellent job of creating opportunity, but markets alone cannot guarantee that all people can access those opportunities. The nature of markets leads to good jobs clustering in specific geographic places. Society needs to ensure that policy extends these opportunities to all by allowing people to move to the geographic areas where economic opportunity exists. After all, genuinely free markets need both capital and labor to move freely. One of the best parts of American history for economic uplift was the ability to move both around the country, seeking opportunity freely. In the early days of America, this looked like moving to open farmland; later, it would take the form of people moving to industrializing cities. This right was not universal: racial minorities and other marginalized people were often denied the right to mobility, but it is clear that those afforded this right took economic advantage. We should seek to extend the reality of mobility to more people to ensure we have a dynamic and fair economy.
The US should consider applying this principle of mobility and opportunity in policy broadly: lowering the barriers to building new housing so that cities are affordable, ensuring that people do not have unnecessary occupational licensing when they move across state lines, and making sure infrastructure is better, more cost-efficient, and thus extended further so that people can travel quickly and freely within economic regions to access jobs. But to me, the most precise application of this principle is immigration: extending economic mobility to allow as many people who want to come to the US to work have the ability to do so!
This position is not just a moral intuition: social scientists have a growing consensus that immigration is one of the most effective humanitarian projects. Almost every rigorous economic evaluation finds that immigration is incredibly effective at achieving economic prosperity, both for migrants and the country accepting the migrant. Migrants gain from opportunities they would never have had in their home country, and the receiving country gains talent and economic productivity that otherwise would have been limited. There has long been apparent consensus around this being true for high-skilled immigrants: 43% of fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. But it is also increasingly the case that the economic consensus is that low-skilled immigrants ALSO help the US economy. A recent IGN poll found that when it asked a panel of economists about low-skilled immigration, 61% believed that the average American would be better off with vastly more immigration, and only 10% disagreed. Now, of course, economics is not the only impact: there is lively debate about whether immigration negatively impacts social trust in society. But I think the economic literature establishes an important fact. While immigration is often framed as a policy of humanitarian obligations to vulnerable people, it also can create clear benefits for American society.
Making Immigration Politically Sustainable
That said, I again think it is essential to recognize that as long as the vast majority of people perceive immigration as a humanitarian policy, there will be limits to the sustainability of openness to immigration. Historically, immigration in the US has come in a series of waves and backlashes. For most of early American history, the US essentially had open borders (for Europeans) though the substantial monetary costs of crossing the Atlantic limited immigration significantly. By 1880, technology had changed global travel, and 1880 to 1920 saw a massive influx of immigration from Europe. By the 1920s, there was a rising backlash to this immigration, as the public increasingly saw immigration as a burden, and the project lost political sustainability. The Immigration Act of 1924 largely outlawed immigration from East Asia and severely limited it from South and Eastern Europe. American borders were relatively closed until 1965 when reform happened, and the US once again became more open to global migration.
Now in 2021, it seems pretty clear that America once again sees a backlash to immigration. It has not yet had as strong consequences as the backlash in the 1920s was, but I worry that until the frame by which we debate immigration changes, we will continue to see that backlash. I think this debate between George Mason Economists Bryan Caplan and Andrew Sullivan is instructive here. Both Caplan and Sullivan are slightly right-of-center thinkers, but while Caplan favors radical openness to immigration, Sullivan (himself an immigrant) is very skeptical of large immigration flows. I think Caplan makes a good case that I largely agree with, but I also recognize that most people reading this do not likely agree with his argument.
There are extreme versions of this immigration-skeptical perspective out there that are not good-faith arguments but rather scare tactics trying to manipulate people to be even more immigration skeptical. One of these can be seen when Tucker Carlson argues that Afghan refugees are a plot to take over American with Democratic voters:
Likewise, Josh Mandel, a candidate for Ohio’s open senate seat, argues the refugees are a threat to the “American Way of Life.”
Steve Cortes @CortesSteveRaise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town? America paid unimaginable costs in Afghanistan because of uniparty globalists who dominated the Bush & Obama administrations. No more… https://t.co/OBIUapUmMK
But even though these sentiments do not speak for most Americans, the fact is that immigration can and has caused a political backlash. Polls show that the majority of American Christians are, in general, skeptical of refugee resettlement:
Steve Cortes @CortesSteveRaise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town? America paid unimaginable costs in Afghanistan because of uniparty globalists who dominated the Bush & Obama administrations. No more… https://t.co/OBIUapUmMK
Many Americans believe that taking in immigrants is an altruistic burden. While I may disagree with this sentiment, my disagreement does not change the political reality that we all have to be ready to compromise our moral intuitions for the political system to function in a pluralistic society. I think many people with radical ideals struggle, though, knowing the limits of applying their revolutionary moral ideas within the constraints of politics as they are. And that principle applies to my ideas as well.
I believe there would be more bi-partisan support for Afghan resettlement if not for our broader context. After all, some of the most vocal supporters of Afghan resettlement are staunch Republicans, like Utah governor Spencer Cox:
I think part of our failure to resettle these refugees is bureaucratic incompetence. But I also worry that part of Joe Biden’s hesitancy to accept asylum seekers from Afghanistan is because of the politically fraught way the ongoing controversy over asylum has played in US politics over the past seven years, which is ramping up we speak. A recent Wall Street Journal article projects that the US will see 1.7 million apprehensions at the border this year alone, which would be far higher than 2019.
Now to be clear, we do not have an “open border.” Although Biden has relaxed some of Trump’s most controversial approaches to immigration (like child separation), most of these migrants are being detained and sent back by his administration. Currently, the Biden administration is deporting all Haitian migrants who cross the border without even hearing their asylum claims, using public health as a pretext. I do not think this is a good policy; we should have an asylum policy that allows people to, at the very least, make their case. The history of asylum law is rooted in the shameful treatment of Jews during World War Two, where Jewish people were rejected at the border and sent back to their death in German concentration camps. I think it would be a big mistake to abandon the principle of accepting refugees and asylum seekers.
But even with that said, the perception around this issue is critical to its political sustainability. Many Americans see what is happening on the border (and has happened for several years now) and believe we have an open border. It is hard to tell what push and pull factors are fueling the current surge of migration, given the complexity of COVID and politics. But Democratic rhetoric almost certainly helped coyotes sell the perception that America has an open border policy. People on the right have a legitimate point that activists have expanded the definition of asylum in the form of “concept creep” through the years. Our current asylum process is neither politically sustainable nor effective at creating legal pathways for immigration for the most vulnerable people in the world. The policy has almost certainly backed us into a closed policy for those across the world in Afghanistan, simply because they could not physically reach our borders to claim asylum.
Politics involves Hard Choices
To be clear, I think America would benefit economically if we reduced barriers to immigration wherever possible. And I will continue to make this theoretical case until someone can persuade me I am wrong. That said, the political reality is that there is no chance of meaningful immigration reform without limiting principles. Even worse, there is potential for a backlash to immigration gets more entrenched in law. As fellow pro-immigration writer Matt Yglesias argued last month:
I believe that to the extent there’s an answer, openness to immigration is the secret sauce that makes the United States so uniquely prosperous and successful. We have a lot of immigrants, we have had a lot of immigrants for a long time, we are the number one desired destination for the plurality of immigrants, and in a way that’s not true for a lot of other countries, we have a well-established template for immigrant assimilation, immigrant success, and ethnic change. In America, we can elect an anti-immigrant demagogue with a Slovenia-born wife.
But even though American culture and American society are more immigrant-friendly than what you see in most places, it’s still not the case that there is a huge mass constituency in favor of immigration. Instead, what we had for a long time in this country was an elite consensus.
Yglesias argues that to safeguard the broader goal of immigration, advocates need to embrace limits:
Now, by contrast, tons of people showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border, getting arrested, making asylum claims, then overwhelming the system’s ability to detain claimants or process their claims is not good...uncontrolled flows of migrants freak people out, and the current dynamic is not what any normal person thinks of asylum as being for. It is harsh to slam the door shut on it, but all things considered, I think it’s the right choice.
Again, neither or Yglesias think that migrants are harming America in any concrete way. I had the privilege of visiting Tijuana in 2018, at the height of the last migration crisis, and found the stories of people escaping violence incredibly compelling. But there will always be bad situations abroad because brokenness is not going away in our world anytime soon. And if you try to draw no limits around immigration, the politics of immigration will become untenable. After all, when Julian Castro advocated in 2019 to decriminalize border crossings, polling found only 27% of Americans supported the idea, and 66% rejected it. Even so, I worry that many of my friends and readers who are immigration activists have essentially talked themselves into a position where they are unwilling to accept any limiting principles on immigration.
I suspect that the best political strategy to ensure America stays open to immigration over the long term is to pursue politically realistic immigration reform, the full details of which cannot be outlined in this post. I do believe that we can be more generous to those with compelling cases:
We create a pathway to citizenship for long-term residents of the US, who are already integrated into our society
We should make it incredibly easy for specialized professionals in areas where we have evident shortages (Doctors doing general practice) to come and work in the US
We should also make it much easier for the US to take in people facing a refugee crisis, especially ones that the US has a special obligation to (like right now in Afghanistan). We need to have the capacity to ramp up capacity at our embassies abroad when we see these unique crises.
We should give migrants the option to come to the US committing to work and live for ten years in specific places where people are needed to help revitalize economically shrinking communities: Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis, West Virginia.
At the same time, you need to accept limits and the need for an orderly process. We do need more resources at the border, and I think some of Biden's proposed rule changes to allow non-judges to decide on asylum cases quickly are necessary. But this reform will almost certainly involve making the hard choice of some level of border deterrence and ensuring that courts will quickly reject migrants who do not have a strong claim. So instead, as presently constituted, it is a system genuinely creating many unintended consequences. Consider the story of Mayra Aguilar:
Struggling to put food on the table after the pandemic closed her small coffee business, Mayra Aguilar sold her car and left her home in Ecuador’s southern Andes last month, hoping for a better life in the United States.
Ms. Aguilar and her 4-year-old son crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves over to the U.S. Border Patrol, believing they would be welcomed after her smuggler said the border was open for migrants. Instead, they were apprehended and sent back to Mexico, leaving the single mother broke and depressed, living in a shelter in this violent border city filled with other migrants.
“I was cheated. I thought I would be able to stay in the U.S., but it was a total lie,” said Ms. Aguilar.
I wish there were no trade-offs in politics. I want humanitarian programs with altruistic aims not to face sustainability concerns. The US may, in the future, find itself in a politics where there is a shift, and immigration is seen as a strategic asset, meaning we do not face these same constraints. I hope I look back on this post and realize I was wrong! But I suspect we will live in a world of constraints for the foreseeable future. And I worry that merely ignoring them will force us into making choices where we cannot do the most good for the most in need. And everyone who has radical moral ideas (even those who, like me, confidently believe they are right) to be just a little more humble in their approach to the world.