L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 67, March 15, 2000
Ides of March Special
Rights We Cannot Grant
by Eric Miller
Special to TLE
The United States is a nation of immigrants. Almost half of the
residents of New York in 1910 were foreign born. Almost as many had
at least one foreign-born parent. The number of languages spoken on
the streets of Chicago a century ago are as numerous as the tongues
spoken in San Francisco today. Not unlike yesterday's cities of steel
and railroads, modern high-tech cities are being built by countless
different people from almost as many backgrounds, ethnicities and
cultures- many still getting used to their new home.
But in the interest of preserving an abstract "quality of life," many
wish to close the doors on what has been a wave of immigrants from
Mexico, Central America, Asia, India and even Eastern Europe.
Has the prosperity of America somehow been thwarted by the record
numbers of new arrivals? Even if there were some way to reasonably
argue that immigrants- legal or illegal- were draining government
services and taking minimum-wage jobs away from natives at a time
when unemployment is at record lows and economic expansion continues
to stretch into the horizon, how could we seriously justify limits
while respecting our tradition?
It's not just that the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of
Liberty might seem like a demented hoax to the families of the
would-be Chinese immigrants who arrived dead in a cargo container
ship in Seattle, or the Mexican immigrants who died of dehydration in
a hot box car in Texas. But what about the words written so long ago
by Thomas Jefferson, that all men are created equal and endowed by
their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To what extent must we ensure
others have these same rights?
When Jefferson wrote those words, who did he think they applied to?
The residents of the thirteen colonies? Residents of France and
England? The Spanish nations in Central America? Native Americans or
African Slaves? People in India or China? Women? Today we must take a
step almost as bold and universal as Jefferson proclaim that the
government must be used for one of its only moral purposes-
protecting individual rights within our borders and doing what we can
to promote their protection in other countries.
Like it or not, nations are becoming less important than companies
and other willing alliances among people that spread beyond
traditional boundaries and aren't dependent or forming on account of
birth. Yet, as we cling to the slowly fading notion of a geographic
nation, the next logical step is the expansion into a notion that
there is no right to control borders- and governments have no right
to regulate the flow of people on any other principle than the
ownership of private property.
But it's not likely that we will be ready to completely throw away
the concept of a geographic nation anytime soon, so we have to
resolve our own decision to deny life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness and private property to those who show up on our shores and
borders. If these rights are truly endowed by a creator, and not the
government, then they cannot be denied by the United States Border
Patrol or the American electorate.
And it isn't just at America's borders that attempts to preserve
"quality of life" are being promoted to the expense of the right of
people to move and the right to acquire and use property.
Like the Chicago of a century ago, today San Francisco is perhaps the
most rapidly changing city with the greatest numbers of immigrants.
Until the technology revolution, the Victorian city was a quirky
low-rise affordable city with one of the most moderate climates in
the United States. Because of a rapid-influx of newcomers, houses
that sold for $20,000 in the 1970s can fetch a half-million today.
Not unlike the use of quotas and other restrictions at the national
level to keep out newcomers, a constituency in San Francisco once
known for tolerance and acceptance is faced with using the government
to protect quality-of-life through rent control and building codes
that severely limit the amount of housing that can be built in the
The New Mission News, a liberal-progressive newspaper explained that
millions of new immigrants were pouring into the city to take
advantage of the exploding potential of Internet commerce- and the
pressures were making property values go up, pushing out
long-established residents paying subsidized rents, making it harder
to drive, and encouraging long-established light industrial
properties and services such as auto-body shops to be replaced with
loft housing and office space.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, elected to a second-term as a
minority mayor in a city without an ethnic or racial majority, is
faced with the task of maintaining the dynamic nature of the city
created by newcomers with new found freedom who come as a threat to
the white and middle-class liberal residents who seem to find
prosperity threatening to their low property values and laid-back
In an interview Brown spoke about what may be emerging as a dangerous
"San Franciscans," he said, "believe what attracted them to the city
must never be altered. As long as they had their own residence with
their rent-control laws and early acquisition (of residential
property) they were okay."
Just like the opponents of open-immigration nationally, the objects
of mayor Brown's comments suffer from an "I got here first,"
syndrome. But as the builders of the new-economy know and the
"progressives" in San Francisco are beginning to find out, a system
that operates only on seniority won't get you very far.
A low-rent neighborhood in San Francisco had been successful at
banning construction of live/work lofts some members of the same
constituency had once advocated- because they were not being
purchased by artists as they had anticipated. they were being
purchased by the dot.com crowd.
"The real tragedy of the live-work debate is that the ban on lofts,
which the neighborhood requested and got, has backfired," printed The
New Mission News, a paper which heralds the slogan "afflicting the
comfortable and comforting the afflicted." "Pressure on existing
residential tenants has increased and the property owners have simply
changed their focus to building office space instead."
Similarly on a national level, opponents of open-immigration seek to
preserve their freedom, property-rights, government programs and the
right to pursue happiness on any level and with the assistance of
government institutions that deny the same rights to others on their
"We can have our welfare checks, subsidized housing and low-interest
loans and union-backed jobs, but don't let anybody else in," Brown
told the Independent.
But like the San Franciscans who got to the city before rents were
high and property made unaffordable when unprecedented demand
combined with restriction of supply, as a resident of the United
States we have our rights, and to some extent our property and our
freedom by geographic accident of our birth.
Brown however noted that it wasn't until the point when most of the
space in San Francisco was occupied that the "so-called progressives
Can there be too many people in the United States? And if so, can we
as a culture bear a weight similar to that being experienced in San
Francisco when we are faced with denying the rights we enjoy even
more often to poor huddled masses and educated job-seekers arriving
at the Golden Gate or the Golden Door.
Despite record population levels in cities like San Francisco and
nearby San Jose, other cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown,
Philadelphia and even New York are faced with declining population
levels. Many metropolitan areas like the Cleveland MSA hold the same
numbers of residents they did a half-century ago, only now they take
up twice as much space. In essence by restricting the number of
arrivals, we are maintaining the affordability of more space for
ourselves by a means outside of the market. Newcomers to Cleveland
would undoubtedly spawn similar cries and whimpers being heard in San
But cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit which today lack the
the energy, drive, entrepreneurship and pressure on property values
brought by the new arrivals in San Francisco haven't seen the
technological and productive benefits created when people, free and
diverse, move in and out, stir things up and are able to exchange
ideas and energy for their own benefit. Without the pressures being
placed on San Francisco it would likely still be the sleepy low-rise
wonderland of the 1950s some long for today instead of the head of
Silicon Valley, the driving force behind the new economy.
Ironically, the idea that a city or a market can be preserved has
only exasperated the effects on housing prices in San Francisco.
Housing is only a static quantity because its construction has been
restricted- not in the name of preserving architectural gems, but in
the affordable, quaint city of yesterday.
But like wealth, housing is not a static quantity. The industrial
might created in the last century and the technological wizardry
being created today, the skyscrapers in New York and the Victorians
in San Francisco were built where they did not exist before.
Jefferson could not foresee and would not recognize American cities
today. San Francisco was not even part of the United States and the
computer industry several centuries away. And he would marvel at the
number of races and cultures that came together in Chicago a
three-quarters of a century after his death, let alone the diversity
and dynamics of San Francisco in the 21st Century.
Though industrialized cities were not the form of democracy he
visioned, he would be assured at seeing the light of liberty was
still burning for those lucky enough to live below its flicker. And
he might emphasize our responsibility to protect the rights we enjoy
for others, regardless of how they may affect our own notion of
quality-of-life or affordable property.
"I shall not die without a hope that life and liberty are on a steady
advance," Jefferson wrote to John Adams. "Even if the cloud of
barbarism and despotism should again obscure the science and
liberties of Europe, this country remains to preserve and restore the
light of liberty to them."
Today it's not so much barbarism and despotism that are infringing on
mans rights to life and liberty, but a dangerous notion that the pie
is only so big and another's liberties must come at our expense.
As Ayn Rand wrote in the Textbook of Americanism, inalienable means
that which we may not take away, suspend, infringe, restrict or
violate, and we might add that rights granted by a creator cannot be
granted by us by categorizing immigration into terms of "legal" and
Today's global economy is only a threat to the sovereignty of nations
if it is a threat to the individual rights and freedom of its
individual citizens. The global voluntary organizations which may
eventually emerge to replace nations present a unique chance to
fulfill Jefferson's vision that would have the American spark in 1776
carry freedom around the globe. Until then its even more important we
maintain that freedom here by opening our borders to those seeking
rights we cannot grant but are too quick to try to deny.
to advance to the next article, or
to return to the previous article, or
Table of Contents
to return to The Libertarian Enterprise, Number 67, March 15, 2000.