TCS Daily

American Hajj: Toward an Open Society

By Nathan Smith - August 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Which of the following best fits the label "the open society": a) the United States, or b) Saudi Arabia? (Hint: It's a trick question.)


Annually, almost twenty-four million foreigners travel to the United States -- equal to about 8% of the US population. (Some may be double-counted.) Just over two million travel to Saudi Arabia, also about 8% of the Saudi population. Tie.


But in the US case, those 24 million are less than one-tenth of the 300 to 350 million who are inspected by the INS, and no one knows how many more don't bother to apply because they expect rejection. Saudi Arabia tries to accommodate all religious pilgrims, and I could find no evidence that getting tourist or business visas is difficult. Saudi Arabia 1, US 0.


Thirty-four million foreign-born persons live legally in the US, about 12% of the population. (Another 10 million or so live here as illegal immigrants.) The Saudi government estimates that seven million foreigners live in Saudi Arabia, almost 30% of the population. Saudi Arabia 2, US 0.


In 2001, foreign workers sent an estimated $28.4 billion a year in remittances to their home countries from the United States. This amount was about 0.3% of US GDP. Foreign workers sent about $15.1 billion of remittances home from Saudi Arabia. This amount was about 6% of Saudi GDP. Saudi Arabia 3, US 0.


As an open society, by these indicators, Saudi Arabia has the US beat.


(We consider ourselves an open society because we can preach or publish whatever we want, we enjoy freedom of inquiry in the arts and sciences and religion, we can vote for our leaders, date, show skin, and drink booze. That's all very relevant if you're American-born. But freedom of movement is the most basic of all freedoms.)


Openness enhances the Saudis soft power, which has arguably rivaled that of the US in recent years. Saudi influence has helped to fuel Islamist revival from Algeria and Nigeria, to Chechnya, to sub-Saharan Africa, to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as beyond the edge of the Muslim world, in Europe. And one channel of that influence is the hajj.


Most travelers to Saudi Arabia are Muslims performing the pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, considered a duty for all faithful Muslims who can afford it. No doubt curiosity also motivates pilgrims. Muslims hear the Arabic language throughout their lives, since the Quran is recited and sung in Arabic in the mosques. They know the story of the spiritual revolution that took place in 7th-century Arabia, and of the corrupt empires which the Arabs swept away in the name of their Islamic faith. For many, these have fired their imaginations, and supplied a historical metanarrative that invites them to embrace it, to see their identities as threads in its tapestry. When they visit Mecca, their Islamic identity is affirmed and reinforced. And when they return home, some are inspired to emulate the Saudi Arabian society they have seen, in their own dress and behavior, or by instituting sharia law, the Islamic religious law that is observed in Saudi Arabia, as the law code of their various countries. Movements to enshrine sharia as civil law exist all over the Muslim world, notably in Pakistan and Nigeria.


Pilgrimage is a timeless human need. We find it edifying to walk where the great and the holy have walked, to see with our own eyes the shrines and battlefields, the cities and landscapes that we have read about in history books and sacred texts. That's why medieval Europeans walked hundreds of miles to Rome, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, and other holy sites. Thats why the Crusades were fought. And it's why over 7 million Americans a year travel to Western Europe, to see the great medieval cathedrals, the castles that weve never had occasion to build but that loom large in our cultural memory, and the cities and countries where centuries of genius unfolded.


Travelers to America, too, have come with the spirit of pilgrims. In the early 19th century, immigrants steeped in Biblical heritage called it Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey. In the later 19th century and into the 20th century, America was seen more as a secular Canaan, prosperous and rich in opportunity, where liberty was triumphant, and open to people of all nations and creeds. The symbol of the pilgrimage to America was the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty, rising gracefully out of New York Harbor, was the first sight that immigrants completing a trans-Atlantic voyage beheld in the New World. On her walls, as in the heart of every American patriot, are inscribed the immortal words:


Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost, to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.


Today, most visitors come by plane, and globalization has made American culture so pervasive that most first-time visitors have already been exposed to images of America all their lives. Usually they know some English, from school or business or the internet, and they are accustomed to hearing it spoken in movies and sung over the radio. Many hail from countries that have emulated, to a greater or lesser extent, the liberal and democratic politics that emanates from America. They know the stories of the democratic revolution that took place in 18th-century America, and of the cruel empires we have challenged and defeated in the name of our democratic faith. All this has fired their imaginations, and supplied a historical metanarrative -- the advance of liberty -- that invites them to embrace it, and to understand their destinies as threads in its great tapestry.


Visitors to America tend to return home with an Americanized outlook, and those who stay influence their relatives overseas, which is why countries that send a lot of immigrants to America tend to democratize a bit later. As Western European countries sent millions of immigrants to America in the 19th century, they also became more liberal and developed representative institutions. In the 20th century all of them became durably democratic. More recently, transitions to democracy have occurred in major immigrant source countries like Mexico, the Philippines, and El Salvador.


This may also explain why the global fortunes of liberty and democracy seem to be correlated with US immigration policy. The 19th century, when millions of immigrants were allowed to flood into the US, was a time of gradual, but cumulatively explosive, progress for liberty and representative government in Europe, a trend that accelerated after World War I. Then the US passed the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which lasted until a more liberal bill passed in 1965. Those decades were the heyday of fascism and communism. Since 1965, and especially after a 1986 law that gave amnesty to illegal immigrants and a 1990 law which expanded legal immigration, immigration to the US has steadily increased. At the same time, what political scientists call the Third Wave of democratization has swept East Asia, Latin America, much of the former Soviet bloc, and Africa.


Some who have visited or lived in America have gone home to become democratic leaders of their countries. A recent example is Michael Saakashvili, who recently became the president of Georgia (the post-Soviet republic). He has made the country a pro-Western democracy and is engaged in a fight against corruption. Saakashvili got a law degree from George Washington University and used to work for the New York law firm Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler.


However, most of those who aspire to come to America are barred from doing so, and sometimes their disappointment ferments into resentment, contempt, and hatred. They look elsewhere for their identity and their creed. If they seek to remake their societies in our image, it is in order to rival us.


The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was one of the turning points of the Cold War. Before that, and for some time after, the dark-skinned nations of the Third World, emerging from colonial rule, looked mostly to the Soviet Union for inspiration, because, for all their faults, the Soviets were more enlightened with respect to nationality and race. The Soviets proclaimed the equality of all peoples and took the side of various oppressed races against their white rulers. We might have been forgiven for being allies with Western European colonialist powers, if we hadnt also been oppressing our own black minority at home, but Jim Crow laws signaled that our vision of freedom was for whites only. Aside from the race issue, however, Americas liberal societal model was more attractive than the Soviet communist alternative, and once we removed the stain of racism our influence began to recover, so that we were able to win the Cold War as much through the persuasive appeal of our values as through military and economic might. Were in a similar position today. Our societal model is more attractive than the Islamist alternative represented by Saudi Arabia, but those shut out by our immigration restrictions feel snubbed and alienated, and are more easily drawn to anti-American enthusiasms such as Islamism, or chavismo.


Were fortunate to have a leader who knows right from wrong on this issue. President Bushs position on immigration is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He starts by putting himself in the other guys shoes, in this case those of the (legal or illegal) immigrant. As he said in his third debate with Kerry:


If you can make 50 cents in the heart of Mexico, for example, or make $5 here in America, $5.15, you're going to come here if you're worth your salt, if you want to put food on the table for your families. 


And so Bush supports a guest-worker bill. But Bush is going against the grain of public opinion. In particular, many feel that 9/11 strengthens the case for immigration restrictions. They have a point, of course. Letting in just a few successful foreign terrorists would have catastrophic consequences. In order to prevent that, since we can't be sure which immigrants and visitors have terrorist intentions, we will end up enacting policies that shut out a lot of non-terrorists too.


Actually, though, our efforts to restrict immigration generally have nothing to do with preventing terrorism. Thanks to the visa waiver program, young European Muslims, who really do constitute a terror threat, can travel to the US visa-free. Meanwhile, demographic groups for which there is no pattern of terrorist behavior against the United States whatsoever, such as Orthodox Russians, Christian black Africans, southeast Asian Buddhists, and Indian Hindus, have enormous difficulty obtaining visas. Such restrictions are not intended to protect us from terrorism, but to artificially restrict the labor supply in order to deliver to American workers what in economics jargon are called rents, meaning unfair advantages that accrue to insiders as a result of rules that interfere with the market.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers in manufacturing in the US earned $21.97/hr, on average, in 2003. (In many European countries, wages are even higher.) In Mexico, which is representative of Latin America, they earned $2.48/hr. In Sri Lanka, which is representative of South Asia, they earned less than 50 cents per hour. Workers in the Third World agricultural and service sectors tend to earn even less than workers in manufacturing. So workers in developing countries generally earn between ten and a hundred times less than workers in developed countries, often for similar kinds of work. These wage differences are the core of global economic injustice.


If there were free labor mobility, workers would move from low-wage to high-wage countries and the international differences in wages would diminish. Most immigration restrictions are enacted by rich countries in order to prevent this from happening. In other words, these laws have the sole purpose of exacerbating inequality. If we changed our policy to allow in those who obviously intend to be peaceful workers, while focusing our immigration control efforts on threats to national security, we could reduce discrimination against the foreign-born, while protecting ourselves better against terrorism.


Even if we want to safeguard the standard of living of the American-born, there are better ways to do it. As is already happening, immigration can boost housing prices and bring capital gains to the 69% of Americans who own their homes, which helps offset any downward pressure immigration may exert on wages. For non-homeowners, we could encourage savings and skill acquisition, so that earnings premiums and interest and dividends would offset any reduction in the return on raw labor. We could even simply make cash pay-outs to the American-born out of immigrants' tax dollars. While this may sound (and no doubt it is) somewhat unfair to the immigrants, foreigners would be better off having the option of coming to America and working, subject to taxes that would finance subsidies to the American-born, than not having that option.


To make our society fit to win the Cold War, we summoned up from our history the great Jeffersonian proclamation that all men are created equal. Then we applied it to American blacks. To win the cold war against radical Islam, we need to remember and relive the ideals of the Statue of Liberty. When our society becomes as open as that of Saudi Arabia, we will begin to win the battle for hearts and minds.


Nathan Smith is a writer in Washington, DC.  You can e-mail him here.  He stashes some old articles here and blogs here.  Read more of his ideas on immigration here and here; and the latter essay has attracted favorable comment from Steve McMullen and Timothy Goddard.



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