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The 1850 Census was the first to ask U.S. residents about their place of birth, which made it possible to calculate the foreign-born percentage of the country. Between 1860 and 1920, the figure was always substantial and also curiously constant, varying between 13 and 15 percent. Thereafter, war, depression and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act intervened. The historian Roger Daniels noted that in the forty years after 1930, fewer immigrants entered the United States than had come in the first decade of the century. By 1970, the percentage of foreign-born residents had shrunk to an all-time low of 4.7 percent.

That was the year before John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, the most famous work of political philosophy of the twentieth century and the basis of a vast coral reef of scholarship and commentary. At a time when political philosophers tended to be utilitarians, Rawls revived the social-contract tradition of Locke, Rousseau and Kant. This tradition assumes, for practical purposes, that society is self-contained. In Rawls’s telling, society can be conceived as a “closed system” with a fixed membership: “No one enters from without, for all are born into it and lead a complete life.” Immigration, therefore, is axiomatically ruled out as a philosophical problem. In that sense, at least, America in 1971 was a remarkably convenient time and place to revive the contractarian mode of thought. It wasn’t a closed society, but it was more closed off, in terms of membership, than it had been before or would be afterward.

A Theory of Justice was a kind of palimpsest. Rawls erased the state of nature and replaced it with an “original position.” Free persons would come together and decide on the principles of justice that would establish and guide an ongoing society. They would do so under a “veil of ignorance,” completely unaware of the wealth, talents, or even psychological propensities they would have in the resulting social order. It was a grand thought experiment that aimed to reveal the moral properties of a truly just society, and in time it became almost overfamiliar in discussions of public policy. Rawls accomplished the most any philosopher can hope for: he turned cerebral eccentricity into cliché.

Rawls revised his system in 1993, in the collection of lectures brought together as Political Liberalism. The hull and rigging of Theory was preserved, but Rawls reoriented his system to address a new set of problems. First among them was the question of how a “well-ordered” society could incorporate different political views and moral doctrines, in a manner that goes beyond mere grudging toleration. Rawls had his own reasons for tacking in this direction. He wanted to resolve a contradiction he had found in his earlier work. But American society had also changed in the twenty years since Theory. As the philosopher Jean Hampton observed, Rawls’s work on liberalism had been “indirectly motivated by the way in which the large-scale immigration of people from all over the world has made the United States one of the most heterogenous of all liberal societies.”

But anyone hoping that Rawls would eventually train his otherworldly, systematizing brain on the subject of immigration must have been disappointed. Political Liberalism essentially punted on the issue, and then his next book, The Law of Peoples, dismissively tossed the football over the grandstand. Rawls had come to believe that the causes of immigration—persecution, famine, population pressure—would disappear in the “Society of liberal and decent Peoples”—that is, in an international context in which every state is either broadly Rawlsian or at least attentive to human rights and the common good. The Law of Peoples calls this hypothetical world a “realistic Utopia,” and in a realistic utopia “the problem of immigration is not … simply left aside, but is eliminated as a serious problem.” All of this is in the introduction. I’m not sure if it meets the technical definition of ignoratio elenchi, or if it is merely underwhelming. An old joke has it that economists on a desert island with no implements but some canned goods will simply “assume a can opener.” But they never, so far as I know, assumed a realistic utopia.

The Law of Peoples was an attempt to transfer Rawls’s work on domestic pluralism to the international system: a foreign-policy guide for liberal societies, dealing with classic topics such as “just war” and the duty to assist impoverished nations, and written in the alpine language of Rawlsian ideal theory. Rawls’s claim that mass immigration would no longer be a feature of a world that complied with his principles might have been sincere, but it seems fair to speculate that immigration also threatened the coherence of the system he had painstakingly built. As philosophers like David Miller have pointed out, there is no obvious way to include immigrants in a social contract between people cooperating to their mutual advantage and treating one another as equals, “since the first question that needs answering is whether [immigrants] should be invited to join the social contract in the first place.”

Rawls’s passages on immigration were not only brief but notoriously elliptical, and they have been both picked apart by open-borders activists and seized on by the nativist right. It is worth quoting one at length:

Concerning the second problem, immigration, … I argue that an important role of government … is to be the effective agent of a people as they take responsibility for their territory and the size of their population, as well as for maintaining the land’s environmental integrity. Unless a definite agent is given responsibility for maintaining an asset … that asset tends to deteriorate. … In the present case, the asset is the people’s territory and its potential capacity to support them in perpetuity; and the agent is the people itself as politically organized. The perpetuity condition is crucial. People must recognize that they cannot make up for failing to regulate their numbers or to care for their land by … migrating into another people’s territory without their consent.

Rawls added in a footnote that these remarks justify “at least a qualified right to limit immigration,” though he chose not to specify what those qualifications might be.

Having struggled to make sense of immigration within the confines of his system, Rawls was not so much thinking through the issue as availing himself of an existing body of thought. A diverse group of American writers and activists had been talking about immigration in terms of population management and “environmental integrity” for many years. Now that open-borders activists and environmental groups are no longer enemies it is worth revisiting this history—for their convergence over the past couple of decades illuminates the central political question of our time.

In 1999, the year The Law of Peoples was published, the city council of Aspen, Colorado, unanimously passed a resolution asking the U.S. Congress to sharply limit the number of immigrants entering the country. Aspen is an overwhelmingly Democratic city. The main reason the council gave for the resolution was to protect the nation’s ecosystems from the negative impact of further population growth. As the sociologists Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow discuss in The Slums of Aspen (2011), this was just a minor episode in a longer history of environmentalist anxiety about immigration and overpopulation. The connection between these issues came to a head in the early 2000s, as immigration restrictionists and their opponents waged a much-publicized battle for control of the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest conservation groups in the world.

Remarkably, the founding of the Sierra Club predated the word “conservation,” which was not used in an ecological sense in the U.S. until the first decade of the twentieth century. For a time the word was indelibly associated with Madison Grant, who was to Progressive conservationists what David Livingstone was to Victorian missionaries. His achievements were almost superhuman. His biographer Jonathan Spiro ticks off his many feats: “Grant preserved the California redwoods, saved the American bison from extinction, founded the Bronx Zoo, fought for strict gun-control laws, built the Bronx River Parkway, helped create Glacier and Denali National Parks, and worked tirelessly to protect the whales in the ocean, the bald eagles in the sky, and the pronghorn antelopes on the prairie.” In recognition of his efforts, the California State Park Commission dedicated the tallest tree in the world to Grant in 1931.

Grant was also personally involved with the details of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which drastically reduced immigration. His second career as an anti-immigration activist was partly inspired by his lifelong residency in New York City, which overlapped with the arrival of those grasping hordes from Southern and Eastern Europe. Several passages in his book The Passing of the Great Race (1916) are so hellishly lurid they seem ghostwritten by Grant’s contemporary H. P. Lovecraft: “New York is becoming a cloaca gentium [sewer of nations] which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel.” His zeal to turn off the immigration spigot also derived from his work in conservation and natural history. It had taught him how easily alien species can displace the native ones, and it had given him an enormous respect for “the continued existence of the forms of animal life which have come down to us from an immense antiquity through the slow process of evolution.” The first article Grant ever published was “The Vanishing Moose,” in an 1894 issue of the Century Magazine. Looking daily at the multitudes streaming into New York—in what Henry James called a “visible act of ingurgitation”—he came to see himself and his fellow Anglo-Saxons as something like the endangered moose.

For obvious reasons, Grant has been disowned as a founding father of the conservation movement. Yet the suspicion endures that immigration restrictionists, lacking Grant’s candor, are simply using the environment as a stalking horse for racial preoccupations. It would be absurd to suggest this is what Rawls was doing. Yet when he alluded to the “tragedy of the commons” to explain why an “asset tends to deteriorate” unless a specified agent is given responsibility for maintaining it, he was drawing on the work of the man who popularized the concept in the United States, Garrett Hardin, the co-founder of Californians for Population Stabilization. Hardin was a sincere neo-Malthusian, but his chief concern about U.S. immigration policy was that it deliberately fostered “a multiethnic society,” one which he thought would eventually self-destruct.

Sierra Club publications began to discuss population issues in the Fifties, when it became clear that California would outstrip New York as the most populous state in the country. By the time Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb (1968)—an infamous example of unconsummated doomsaying—one could find the executive director of the Sierra Club penning the foreword. Years later, a number of factors would converge to make it a delicate topic for the organization. Proposition 187, a California ballot initiative in 1994 to prohibit illegal immigrants from using a host of public services, infuriated one of the Sierra Club’s biggest donors, David Gelbaum. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, he told the Sierra Club’s leadership that if they supported the initiative or anti-immigration generally, “they would never get a dollar from me.” Whether or not this threat was decisive, the Sierra Club’s board of directors announced a short time later that the organization was formally neutral: it would take no official position on U.S. immigration policy. This decision spawned an internal group, Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization (SUSPS), which criticized the neutral stance as an abdication of responsibility.

One of the founders of the dissenting group was Ben Zuckerman, an emeritus professor of astrophysics at UCLA, who recounted the story in a recent interview with Sam Evans-Brown of New Hampshire Public Radio. In 2002, Zuckerman managed to get elected to the board of the Sierra Club. By 2004, two other SUSPS affiliates had joined him on the board, and that year three additional likeminded candidates were running for election (among them a former Democratic governor of Colorado and a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation), raising the prospect that SUSPS could effectively control the board. “This completely terrified the [Sierra Club] establishment,” Zuckerman recalled. “They pulled out all stops to destroy us.” In fact, it seems unlikely the election would have attracted much controversy or media coverage if not for the intervention of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Researchers at the SPLC monitor white-nationalist publications, and they were bewildered to find in their pages appeals to join the Sierra Club and vote in the upcoming board election. The SPLC became alarmed at what they perceived as an incipient racist takeover of the organization. In response, their co-founder Morris Dees ran for the board of the Sierra Club. As Evans-Brown describes it, “The [SPLC] planted a candidate … to try to discredit [the] other candidates.” Despite the resulting media coverage (including a front-page story in the New York Times), it is hard to say how much of a difference the SPLC made in the election. In the event, all three of the SUSPS-backed candidates lost by large margins.

Zuckerman remains angry about what happened. He thinks he was unfairly maligned, since he had no control over the white-nationalist groups promoting his faction. As Zuckerman tells it, his chief concern is that immigrants to the United States will assimilate all too well: they will, in fact, start consuming resources like Americans, who already consume more than is globally sustainable. It is a matter of prudence for him. If Americans are struggling to reduce their global impact, it would be crazy to retain policies that increase their numbers.

In 1994, Sierra Club Books published How Many Americans? Population, Immigration and the Environment, a book sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a restrictionist advocacy organization. After the 2002 Sierra Club board election, that era of collaboration is dead and gone. Today, Mark Krikorian, the current executive director of the CIS, tells me that, as far as he knows, “all environmental groups are now for unlimited immigration.” Even radical groups like Earth First! have followed a similar trajectory, going from cold-eyed restrictionism in their early years to a spirit of openness and repentance in their later ones. The most famous activist for population control is now Thanos, the supervillain of the Marvel universe.

Climate change probably made a difference. The great environmental pessimism of our day is more global and shapeless than the tangible concerns of the past—deforestation, species loss, acid rain—and it doesn’t link up neatly with immigration and population growth. More accurately, perhaps, it doesn’t connect intuitively with those issues. Ben Zuckerman would point out that someone who moves from the Global South to the United States will dramatically enlarge his carbon footprint—indeed, that’s the very point of moving here. Nevertheless, the fights against climate change and for mass immigration have converged on a similar political logic. Essential to both causes is a spirit of transnational cooperation and a diminution of national sovereignty. If political commentator Michael Lind is right that the culture war of the late twentieth century has been supplanted by a “border war” over sovereignty and citizenship, then open-borders activists and environmental groups have, wittingly or not, become allies on the central question of the era.

There is also a simpler explanation. The shifting views of environmental groups were an attempt to keep up with public opinion. For all the talk of anti-immigrant backlash across the West, the most dramatic change in American polling has been in the other direction. When the Pew Research Center asked Democrats in 1994 whether “immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents,” only 32 percent agreed. By 2017, an astounding 84 percent of them affirmed the statement. Republicans have followed the same pattern even into the age of Trump, though by a smaller margin—going from 30 to 42 percent. If we live in a reactionary age, we also live in one that might be described as xenopietistic.

Rawls, in spite of his own views, contributed to this development. Like consumer hardware and over-the-counter medicine, philosophical constructs tend to be used in unexpected ways. The “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” were no different. Philosophers like Joseph Carens quickly ripped them out of the social-contract framework (as traditionally understood) and applied them to questions of immigration policy. “Whether one is a citizen of a rich nation or a poor one, whether one is already a citizen of a particular state or an alien who wishes to become a citizen,” these were conditions that properly belonged behind the veil of ignorance, according to Carens. Many popular arguments for open borders rely on a similar quasi- or pseudo-Rawlsian logic: “If you didn’t know which country you would be born into, what would you want the immigration laws around the world to look like?” This past October, for example, New York Times columnist Michelle Alexander invoked Rawls to argue for a globalized veil of ignorance, behind which Americans would supposedly change their minds about climate change and the plight of immigrants.

Rawls was not simply a Kantian revisionist but a distinctively American thinker, and the soaring abstractions in his work lie beneath the firmament of our national traditions. When he stressed in The Law of Peoples the need for separate “peoples” to maintain their land’s “environmental integrity” and its “capacity to support them in perpetuity,” he was recalling the old Jeffersonian dream of self-sufficiency. (Indeed, a major reason why he revived the social-contract tradition in the first place was its compatibility with American constitutional experience.) Rawls couldn’t have anticipated a time when global warming and global migration would become daily headlines throughout the West, so that the “we” of America could no longer be easily separated from the “we” of the whole earth. We can only guess at whether he would have tried to stretch the veil of ignorance to accommodate the emerging reality, or whether he would have conceded that it will take a new construct—and a new tradition—to deal with a globalized era where “in perpetuity” hardly sounds like the promise it once did.

Art credit: Hugh Hayden, courtesy of Lisson Gallery

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