Rights we cannot grant
By Eric Miller
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
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.
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 city.
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 lifestyle.
In an interview Brown spoke about what may be emerging as a dangerous ideological majority. "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.
"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."
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 became reactionary."
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 Francisco today.
But cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Detroit which today lack 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.
"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'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.
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