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Just deserts

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“Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” — Barry Switzer, quoted in The Chicago Tribune, 1986.

One of the observations I remember from the only sociology course I ever took (in 1968–69) was that people who are wealthy tend to believe that they earned their wealth and therefore deserve it, while people who are poor tend to believe that wealth is mostly a matter of luck and has little to do with just deserts. Whether a person justly deserves what he or she gets is probably one of those questions that cannot be answered, because there is no clear criterion for what makes one’s fortune just or unjust. Insofar as there is any truth to the matter, it is probably simply that what happens happens, and what one gets is what one gets. Justice does not enter into the picture most of the time, but that hardly prevents human beings from reading justice or injustice into almost everything that occurs in life.

I have no intention of trying to convince others that what has happened to them is just or unjust. What I intend to do instead is to reflect on my own life in a way that extends an invitation to others to reflect on their own lives. Whether they will reach the same conclusions I have reached, I neither know nor care.

There is almost nothing concerning the basic circumstances of my life for which I can take any credit at all. With very few minor exceptions, I have enjoyed good health. When I look at the illnesses and injuries and infirmities that many of my friends and acquaintances have had, I realize that I have had remarkably good fortune, none of which I can claim to deserve. A good deal of health is a consequence of genetic inheritance, a matter of which no one has any control. Other factors in health have to do with the circumstances of one’s life and the conditions of one’s environment. As a child I was fortunate to live in mostly healthy environments, a fact that was made possible by the fact that the family I was born into could afford to choose where we lived. From the choices my parents made I derived a good deal of benefit, but I played no significant role in making the decisions from which I derived benefit.

One of my earliest memories is being taken along with my parents to an office in which they conducted what seemed to me an interminable and crushingly boring business transaction of some sort. What they were doing, I later learned, was buying a life insurance policy in my name into which they paid a modest amount every month until I was eighteen years old. When that policy was cashed out, it provided enough money to pay for my college tuition and room and board. Through no effort of my own, I was in a position to get a good education. I did not get as good an education as my opportunity allowed for, because for the first two years I made hardly any effort to learn anything except what I found interesting and stimulating. As luck would have it, I had acquired a good curiosity from the adults in my life, so I was interested in just enough to keep going from one year to the next, but it could hardly be said that I was disciplined. I was far more hedonistic than disciplined, and whatever work I did was a result of happening to enjoy work rather than a result of doing what anyone else expected me to do.

My parents, as I mentioned above, had the means to make good decisions that were conducive to my wellbeing. To some extent that was because my father had a job that he loved to do and that paid him reasonably well. I benefited from all that, but I contributed nothing of my own to either my good fortune or my parents’. The comfortable circumstances my family was in was due only in part to my father’s earning a steady living wage in his profession. Not an insignificant part of our good fortune came from the fact that some of our ancestors had become wealthy in industry and had passed their wealth down through several generations of people who had done nothing at all to contribute to the business that generated the wealth they had inherited. No one who inherits prosperity can be said to be deserving of that prosperity. Having it is blind luck.

It could perhaps be said that I have played some minor role in having had a good life. But even my ability to play those minor roles was inherited, either genetically or culturally. Without making any real effort of my own to do so, I managed to acquire productive attitudes from my parents and their friends. The adults in my life were, with very few exceptions, good role models, and I imitated their examples, because imitation is what children do best. That I was surrounded by good examples to imitate was entirely a matter of luck, not something I deserved to have through my own hard work or good sense.

Perhaps because I am so aware of how much good luck I have had, it has always been difficult for me to understand how easily people come to believe that they deserve what has come their way, that what they have received has been earned rather than given to them by others, often quite gratuitously. That individuals can believe that they have somehow earned their fortunes, whether good or bad, is not entirely a matter within their individual control. We are all influenced by the society in which we live, and it turns out that most societies have devised a mythology according to which there is some justice to what happens to people.

Some societies, for example, have a mythology of karma, a belief that happiness is a natural consequence of doing what is right and good and that misery is a natural consequence of doing what is wrong and evil. The notion of karma often accompanies a belief in rebirth or reincarnation, so that what happiness one has in this life can be seen as a natural consequence of altruistic deeds done in a previous life, and what ills one experiences in this life is but the ripening of selfishness in a previous life. The greatest virtue of this belief is that it is completely impossible to test. It cannot be verified, nor can it be refuted, and there is therefore no great risk involved in holding the belief. There may even be some benefit, both to the fortunate and to the miserable, in believing that there is some sort of cosmic justice behind how fortune is dispensed. The fortunate can enjoy their good fortune without having their enjoyment spoiled by awareness of the less fortunate. And the miserable can console themselves in the belief that they are learning a lesson of some kind and that by making a few good decisions in this life they may have better fortune in the next life.

Other societies have other mythologies that smooth the rough edges of misfortune. The philosopher Leibniz summed up the convictions of his Christian worldview by articulating the doctrine that God cannot possibly be anything but good, and that God is omnipotent and omniscient. What follows from this, according to Leibniz, is that God can only have created the best of all possible worlds and that whatever happens in this world is therefore good. That a set of circumstances seems not to be good is only because it is being viewed from a limited perspective that blinds one to the larger picture. The mouse that is being gobbled up by the cat, for example, sees this event as a misfortune only because it cannot see that it is participating in the goodness of the cat’s being provided its nutrition. The person dying of cancer sees the condition as a disease because she cannot see that she is participating in the goodness of making room for others to have their turn in leading a good life. Like the doctrine of karma, this conviction has the virtue of being beyond the reach of tests that could either confirm it or refute it. Those who accept the doctrine as true have only to have faith that God would never do anything truly harmful to them and that everything that happens to them, no matter how it may seem when viewed superficially, is in fact to their overall benefit.

A substantial part of American society subscribes to some version of the myth that those who have good fortune have it because a benevolent God is rewarding them for their virtue and that the unfortunate are miserable because they are being punished for their vices. This way of thinking made it possible for European Americans to feel justified in owning slaves and conducting genocidal campaigns against the occupants of lands that they wanted for their own purposes. Throughout much of American history, preachers have been available to support the essentially plutocratic and anti-democratic dogma that the wealthy and powerful deserve all their comforts while the poor are simply reaping the consequences of their lack of ambition, their laziness and their poor attitudes. A good deal of the resistance to social welfare programs can be traced to the effectiveness of preaching such doctrines, and to preaching the doctrine that everything good is a gift from God rather than a gift from good human beings striving to make good fortune more a matter of good planning than of blind luck.

If the truth is that we all get what we get, not because we deserve it, but because of an essentially amoral universe dispensing blind luck willy nilly, it is not a particularly pleasant truth. Finding anything satisfactory in it is probably at best an acquired taste. The unpleasantness of the view, however, hardly disqualifies it from being true. There is no reason to claim that truth must be palatable. If one observes life with a degree of impartiality, it does seem that this view of amoral blind luck is a candidate for being considered true. There are, after all, plenty of scoundrels who seem to get away with their selfish domineering actions with impunity, and there is no short supply of people who are hard-working and generous and loving and cooperative but who just barely make it through life. There are plenty of people who never receive the appreciation and recognition and credit for their virtues, and plenty who take credit and get recognition for what others have done.

What happens is what happens. Seeing any rhyme or reason to it, seeing justice or injustice in it, is subscribing to a story that adds a gratuitous layer of comforting fiction to the small gritty core of fact. Do people who do not separate fiction from fact get what they deserve? Who can ever know?

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, January 20, 2014 at 17:15

Posted in Society and polity


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When I was a girl growing up in Syria and Saudi Arabia, I used to dream of someday living in the West, so I could experience all the freedoms that exist in Western societies, especially for women. When I finally got the opportunity to study in the West, my biggest disappointment was seeing how people squander their freedom of speech. There are so many things that one could talk about, but 95% of the conversations I heard among my fellow students were about food and sex and buying things. (Afra, a former student at McGill University, reflecting on her four years as an undergraduate)

Some of the most meaningless words are also the most emotionally charged. One of the most vacuous words commonly used in American society is also one of the most explosively emotional: “Freedom.” Anyone who has seen an automobile from the state of New Hampshire has witnessed the enigmatic slogan stamped on the license plates, “Live Free or Die.” The form of the phrase is that of an imperative sentence, a command that one must either live free or die. But if the only alternative to living free is death, then it is reasonable to ask whether while alive one has the freedom to choose not to live free. Apparently not, at least in New Hampshire. The command seems to be firmly rooted in self-contradiction and therefore meaningless, but that makes it no less capable of stirring emotions into a pointless frenzy of enthusiasm for an abstract idea that few people bother to think about beyond registering some sort of positive response. “Hooray for Freedom! Whatever it is, I’m all for it!”

Philosophers have traditionally distinguished between two kinds of freedom, often informally called freedom to and freedom from. In an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ian Carter writes this about positive and negative liberty:

Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities.

It seems fairly clear that when the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America wrote of freedom, it was positive liberty that they had in mind. They were preoccupied with having the capacity to make decisions collectively that reflected the realities of life on the North American continent, and they hoped to make those decisions independently of the will of the King of England and the British Parliament.

Those early Americans who opposed the new constitution, on the other hand, were preoccupied with individual liberties, the negative liberties such as the absence of constraints on individual behavior. Those who opposed the ratification of the newly written constitution were called anti-federalists, and they had their greatest strength in New York, southern Virginia, and the Carolinas, but they were also well represented in New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts (which in early days included the present state of Maine). The anti-federalists were vehemently opposed to the idea of a President of the United States, which they feared would evolve into a position hardly distinguishable from that of a monarch. They opposed a centralized federal government, favoring instead strong state governments, which were perceived as less likely to abridge the freedom of individuals to do what they wanted to do without governmental restraints. The anti-federalists tended also to oppose taxation, which they viewed as an instrument of tyranny, and therefore a threat to individual liberties. Many of the concerns of the anti-federalists found their way into the first amendments to the Constitution, called collectively the Bill of Rights. While initially skeptical of the prospects of successfully writing provisions that would limit the degree to which a government, whether at the federal or the state level, could interfere in the private life of a citizen, even such strong federalists as James Madison eventually came to see that without this concession to anti-federalists there was no hope of the new constitution being ratified. And so the Constitution originally written in 1787 came to have a Bill of Rights in 1789. (People who call themselves Constitutional originalists should probably take care to specify whether they favor the original constitution of 1787 or the amended Constitution of 1789. And when they heap praise on the so-called Founding Fathers, they should probably specify whether they mean strong-central-government federalists such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton or the states-rights anti-federalists such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, Robert Yates, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee and James Monroe.)

Most of the religious systems that have evolved in India—Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism—are also preoccupied with freedom, but their focus is not so much on freedom from constraints imposed by governments as on limitations imposed by one’s own damaged psyche. The human mentality, they say, is damaged by vicious tendencies such as greed, hatred and delusion. These vicious tendencies imprison the person who has the them. One who is in the throes of attachment to acquiring and holding onto possessions, power, recognition and approval is no more free than an addict to walk away from the pursuit of these ultimately unsatisfactory commodities. One bound in the chains of hatred is not free to interact productively with other sentient beings (or with a God whose nature is supposed to be unconditional love). One wearing the fetters of unwarranted assumptions and prejudices is not free to explore avenues that lead to truth. As pitiful as the condition of one encumbered with greed, hatred and delusion may be, it is, say most Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, precisely the condition almost all human beings are in. As individuals, they say, most of us are in those conditions because we live in societies that are based on the cultivation of collective greed, hatred and delusion.

The kinds of social and political freedom that many modern Americans seek are diametrically opposed to the kind of psychological freedom that Indian religio-philosophical practices are designed to cultivate. For many modern Americans who are obsessed with freedom, what they seek is summed up in the words of a character played by Peter Fonda in a forgettable 1966 motion picture called The Wild Angels:

We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man. We want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to have a good time. We’re going to have a party.

Freedom, in this view, means not freedom from greed, hatred and delusion but exactly the opposite. It means freedom to act without constraints—even the constraints of self-discipline—on one’s greed, hatred and delusion. That this is so becomes clearer if one looks at the kinds of freedom from government interference that many people are calling for these days:

  • Deregulation. The self-proclaimed freedom-lovers say they oppose governmental regulations that were designed to protect the environment from degradation wrought by the extractive and manufacturing sectors of the economy, regulations that were designed to protect consumers from unscrupulous business practices, and regulations that were put in place to protect the health and safety and economic viability of workers. Ridding the nation of environmental regulations, safety regulations and minimum wage and worker safety regulations would, so the argument goes, allow the economy to grow and provide jobs. In short, people who advocate for less governmental regulation are seeking to guarantee the right to be greedy, the right to acquire wealth without any regard whatsoever to the consequences that acquisition may have on others.
  • Right to bear arms. It may have made sense in a time when people shot squirrels for their dinner to make sure that governments did not limit access to efficient methods of killing game, but it is dangerous and ridiculous to extend the right to bear arms to include assault rifles and semi-automatic firearms that are designed to kill human beings rather than squirrels. Some argue that the right to bear arms is meant to give people a method of overthrowing tyrannical governments. The assassins of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John Kennedy no doubt thought in those terms. In her recently published autobiography, Condoleeza Rice staunchly supports the right of all citizens to bear arms with her claim that if the state of Alabama had required the registration of firearms, Bull Connor would have confiscated all the weapons of African Americans, thus making it much more difficult for them to achieve freedom from the limitations of racial segregation. Given that it is impossible either to shoot someone or to threaten to shoot them without wanting to eliminate them from one’s life, and given that the definition of hatred is the desire to eliminate what one finds unpleasant or obnoxious, those who cling to their second amendment rights are in effect seeking to guarantee the right to be hateful.
  • Right to do what one wants to do. Not everyone wants to do stupid and dangerous things, but many do. While it may be quixotic to try to protect people from their own folly, many laws are designed to promote public safety. Laws requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts in cars and helmets on motorcycles are examples of such laws, as are speed limits, laws against driving while using cellphones, laws requiring pedestrians to cross at crosswalks, laws requiring vehicles to signal before making turns and so forth. Laws requiring people to carry various kinds of insurance (including health insurance) and to pay into the Social Security system are other examples. People who find such laws offensive are seeking to guarantee the right to be foolish. It may seem harmless enough to allow people to be foolish, but rarely is it the case that the fool is the only one who suffers the consequences of his own folly. Causality does not honor the fictitious boundaries of personal identity; the consequences of actions leak out into the world at large. While it is undeniably true that many governmental regulations seem stupid, it should be borne in mind that most of them came into being because there are so many dangerously stupid people to govern.

While I am sympathetic to those who would prefer not to live in tyrannies and totalitarian states, or even in small towns in Nebraska where one’s every move is monitored by well-meaning busybodies, I have not yet managed to be sympathetic to the American craving for undisciplined and excessive lifestyles. If demanding pointless forms of personal freedom to be greedy, hateful and deluded is un-American, then I am not at all unwilling to be considered un-American. My preference is the kind of freedom that the Buddhists (and sober-sided Quakers) have taught me to seek.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 at 16:27

Posted in Society and polity

Whose money?

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Many claims that sound sensible on first hearing evaporate into nonsense if one takes the trouble to think about them a little more carefully.

I know it’s going to be the private sector that leads this country out of the current economic times we’re in. You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money. (George W. Bush)

George W. Bush’s folksy encomium of the private sector and derogation of government echoes similar sentiments repeatedly voiced by Ronald Reagan, who said:

Entrepreneurs and their small enterprises are responsible for almost all the economic growth in the United States.

Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets.

Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.

Such shallow one-liners managed to convince quite a few voters that they would all be much better off if private entrepreneurs were allowed to keep their money rather than being taxed. The assumptions behind this claim were 1) that wealthy people would invest their money in ventures that would employ people, and 2) that whatever money anyone has rightfully belongs solely to the person who has it. The first of these assumptions led to such incessantly repeated slogans as “job-killing taxation.” The second assumption led to the conviction that taxation is a kind of theft of honest people by essentially dishonest governmental policy makers.

Eight years of Reagan’s systematic dismemberment of the body politic showed how bankrupt the first of those two assumptions is. As commercial enterprises were deregulated and corporate taxation was reduced, the gulf between the wealthy and the poor increased dramatically. As predicted, wealthy entrepreneurs invested their money in ways that employed people. They showed a strong preference for employing people who lived in countries in which environmental regulations were feeble and where there were low standards for protecting the health and safety of low-wage workers. Workers in countries with laws protecting them from unsafe working conditions and assuring them a wage that did not keep them in perpetual poverty tended to be deemed greedy, and their skills were considered to be overpriced. The factories that used to employ them were moved to third-world countries. The majority of voters who swept Reagan into office, and then kept him there for a second term despite an unemployment crisis, were arguably not among those who benefited most from his faulty assumption. The minority of voters whose net worth placed them in the wealthiest 2% of the nation, however, fared very well under Reagan. They fared well again under Bush père and Bush fils. Even during the time of Clinton they did not fare badly. The extremely wealthy have been faring quite well in the United States since 1980.

The second assumption is that if money is in your bank account, or invested in your stock portfolio, then it is yours pure and simple. For a government to take it away from you is therefore a kind of theft. What this seductive assumption fails to take into account is that none of us would have any money at all if it were not for the social contract that forms governments and establishes currencies and regulates banks and investment institutions. All money is essentially social in nature, which means that none of us would have anything if it weren’t for the social fabric in which each of us is but a minor thread. Without the social conventions that underlie the monetary system, a $1000 bill is just a piece of paper with Grover Cleveland’s picture on it, and one’s balance in a bank account is nothing but a meaningless number in an electronic data base. Even if one’s life savings is in gold bullion or real estate, those things have only as much value as the rest of society agrees they have. Supposing one invests one’s money in the stock market and it increases in value, that increase would never have been possible without hundreds or thousands of other investors and the labor of a multitude of employees. That increase in the value of an investment no more belongs rightfully to the investor than to the host of people whose work and cooperation made it possible for the investment to increase in value. One of the most important factors that makes an investment possible is a functional government. So surely a substantial portion of what any investor considers his or her money in fact belongs to society at large, and to government in particular.

When one looks at the wide variety of ways that people choose to spend their money, some of them wise and many of them foolish, it is not at all obvious that George W. Bush was speaking accurately when he said “You can spend your money better than the government can spend your money.” Private citizens seem every bit as capable of squandering fortunes as governments. It is no less true of individuals than of governments that they find a need for all the money they get. Few people seem to feel they need less than they have. Even the very wealthy often seem to feel they need every bit of what they have; otherwise, they would not spend as much time and energy as they do to avoid paying taxes.

People who increase their wealth through investment, people who inherit wealth from their relatives, people who increase their wealth by selling goods and services for more than they pay for them—none of them can make the legitimate claim that their wealth is rightfully theirs alone. The wealth of all such people is conditioned by social mechanisms of which they are not fully in control and for which they therefore cannot claim full credit. Even those whose modest income comes to them as a result of selling their labor have what they have as a result of a social network that makes the selling of labor possible. The very idea that your wealth is really yours and that it need not be shared with the rest of society that made it possible is, when examined more carefully, a vacuous idea. Like all vacuous ideas, it makes a very poor foundation for a life worth living.

The shibboleths of the political and economic right in the United States are, with hardly any exception, the war whoops of plutocrats who are waging—and winning—a war against the middle-class and the poor. (Plutocracy is government of the people, for the wealthy, by the politicians purchased by the wealthy; it is the form of government now found in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Libya, and the form of government that used to be found in Tunisia and Egypt.) It is difficult to see the Wisconsin government’s newly passed law that strips public workers of their rights to collective bargaining in any other way than as a war on the general public by the plutocrats. It is difficult to see the proposed cuts in the public funding for health care, education, scientific research and public broadcasting in any other way. People who can think for themselves, and people who are well informed, and people who care about justice, and people who wish to have a voice in making decisions about policies that will affect their lives are not very good for a thriving plutocracy. Keeping people ignorant and complacent and so worried about their livelihoods that they will never speak up is what a plutocracy needs. And that is what an increasing number of elected representatives are delivering—policies that favor the wealthiest 2% of the population at the expense of the remaining 98%.

As long as we are remembering quotations by Ronald Reagan, it may be worth remembering that he said this:

We might come closer to balancing the Budget if all of us lived closer to the Commandments and the Golden Rule.

As far as I can tell, few of the ten commandments would have much impact on the budget. The only one I can think of is “Thou shalt not kill.” If that were followed, the military budget would probably be about one-tenth its current size, and there might then be sufficient resources left over to enable us collectively to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and to do unto others as we would have others to unto us—such as take care of us when we are ill or when we meet misfortune or when we are struggling to make an honest livelihood.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 17:02

Posted in Society and polity

Why is migration made illegal?

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There is a term in Buddhism, yoniśo manaskāra, which is translated in various ways, such as “principled thinking.” What the term refers to is focusing one’s attentions on the roots of a situation rather than on the superficial aspects. When one is trying to solve a problem or to heal an illness, then the expression means getting to the root causes of the problem and tending to those rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms. The opposite is ayoniśo manaskāra, which, of course, means thinking superficially, that is, dealing only with the symptoms and failing to tend to the root cause of a malady. Most of the avoidable forms of distress in human life, according to most Buddhist analysis, stems from the persistent tendency that human beings have of reacting to unpleasant effects rather than at eliminating causes.

One of the many examples of reactive, superficial thinking in the United States these days is the way many people are dealing with the fact of people crossing the southern border of the United States from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California to seek employment. On one level, this is not a problem at all. Mexicans and Central Americans need work, and plenty of American business enterprises need workers. Mexicans, as a rule, work hard and amply repay those who hire them. Mexicans who work for wages in the United States pay taxes and make social security contributions. Their overall contribution to the economy of the United States is substantial. By working in the United States at wages that are low by American standards but high by Mexican standards, Mexicans can send enough money back to their dependents and relatives to support them. There are many winners and few losers in this system. So what is the problem?

One problem is that the United States gives work permits to far fewer migrant workers than are required to maintain the work force that businesses in the United States need to supply their goods and services at affordable prices. This means that many workers are working without the necessary paperwork and are therefore technically not conforming to the law. When hundreds of people are not living in conformity with a law, then the community has a crime problem. When many millions of people do not operate within the requirements of the law, the community probably has poorly designed laws. If, for example, a law were passed making it illegal to brush one’s teeth before noon, millions of people would ignore the law. The law would be difficult to enforce, for many reasons, not the least of which being that it is a pointless law that serves no obvious purpose. Similar observations can be made about current laws governing the citizenship of those who work in the United States. The laws cannot be enforced for a variety of reasons, one primary reason being that there is no good purpose served by restricting who can work in the United States.

A law that cannot be enforced is a danger to a society, because it lays down the conditions for people having contempt for the law as a whole, and contempt for a government that would pass a foolish law in the first place. Much of the contempt that one finds for the Congress of the United States stems from the passage of laws that are not enforced, or are not enforced even-handedly, or are not enforced simply because they are impossible to enforce. The current immigration laws are so far out of line with reality that their inevitable non-enforcement makes people angry, disrespectful of the law as a whole, and contemptuous of legislators who, for whatever reason, fail to replace unworkable laws and regulations with viable counterparts. That America’s immigration laws are unworkable is made abundantly clear by the fact that thousands of people per day cross the borders without the legally required work permits and find gainful employment that is technically not legal for them to do. As the National Rifle Association has reminded Americans repeatedly during the past several decades, if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws have guns. Similarly, if working is outlawed, then outlaws will find work. As Americans should have learned when the constitution was amended to make drinking alcohol illegal, professional crime syndicates thrived by making alcohol available to those who wanted it. Nowadays, professional crime syndicates are thriving by smuggling people from Mexico into the United States, then prospering by blackmailing the very people whom they have smuggled into the country. People who want nothing but to earn an honest livelihood are forced by circumstances into dealing with gangsters, who then put their victims into a situation remarkably similar to slavery. Much of that criminality, and the violence that accompanies it, could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen signing into existence a well-considered and realistic law allowing the number of workers who cross into the United States to seek employment to come closer to the number of jobs there are to fill.

Having more workable immigration regulations would, however, still be addressing symptoms rather than underlying causes. A deeper solution to the pseudo-problem of workers working without proper documentation would require looking more carefully into the question of why people migrate in the first place. Even without doing any investigation at all, one can know that people migrate from places where no work is available to places were work is available. When life becomes difficult or impossible in one place, people move to places where life is possible. Mexico’s economy has traditionally been a labor-intensive agricultural economy. As a result of many factors, one of them being the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ratified in 1994, it is much easier for commodities to cross the borders that separate the United States from Mexico and Canada than it is for people. It is easier for corporations to set up operations in a foreign country than it is for workers to sell their labor in a country other than the one in which they have status as a legal resident. The impact of the agreement on Mexican workers has been harsh. In some cases, multinational corporations have acquired lands that were once agricultural and put them into other uses; in other cases, lands have been acquired by agricultural operations that are highly mechanized and require less human labor. The result has been that agricultural workers no longer have as much agricultural work to do in Mexico. Some displaced agricultural workers manage to find low-paid employment in the industrial sector producing goods, most of which are exported to more affluent nations. Others become street vendors or temporary workers. Still others end up working for organized crime syndicates. An increasing number are simply unemployed; according to a Reuters news report, the unemployment rate in Mexico hit a fourteen-year high in October 2009. The government-sponsored unemployment insurance plan is unable to compensate all unemployed workers at a level that sustains life, so workers have few options available to them. Fortunately, there are employment opportunities in the United States and Canada, but unfortunately the bureaucracies in both countries pose formidable obstacles to Mexican workers seeking work in any North American country other than Mexico.

The plight of Mexicans and Central Americans is not simply an economic and political problem. It is also a moral problem, and a spiritual problem. It is worth asking whether the NAFTA treaty serves human beings as well as it serves corporations—whether it serves peasants as well as it serves stockholders. If it does not, it is not a moral document by the moral guidelines of any of the world’s religions. Economic injustice is never moral. Any form of spirituality that does not work to address immoral situations is unworthy of being called spiritual. Any solution to a problem that involves punishing the victims of injustice by presenting them with even more hardships than they already have as a result of being victims of injustice is immoral and offensive. That so many people are deprived of the conditions that make honest and dignified work possible for them is in itself shameful enough. That shame is compounded by the superficial pseudo-solutions of sending more guards to the border to keep migrants from crossing to areas where work is available to them, or by building walls and fences, or by empowering local police authorities to inquire into whether foreign citizens are legally in the United States. The president of the United States, the United States Congress, the governor of Arizona, and the state legislature of Arizona have all done their part to compound the injustice and to increase the shamefulness of allowing a tragic situation to continue.

It is time to stop manufacturing ineffectual superficial solutions to a problem that exists in the first place because of short-sighted policies. It is time to look beneath the surface to the roots and to have the spiritual courage to act accordingly. Meanwhile, all you who have supported policies that compound the suffering of others, be ashamed.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, May 31, 2010 at 17:26

Posted in Society and polity