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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.

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