Xenophobia, Autarky, Culture, and Nicolas Sarkozy

*Originally published March 12, 2012

“I want this many foreigners in my country.”

In the last fortnight French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been waging a campaign to “save the European way of life.” He recently warned that if the flow of immigrants into Europe is not abated, France will withdraw from the Schengen Agreement, which allows citizens of member nations to travel anywhere within the European Union without a passport or visa. He has also intoned that the French “have too many foreigners on our territory.” Furthermore, Sarkozy is advocating a “Buy European” agreement be adopted by EU member states, explicitly echoing similar legislation in the United States. He has pledged that France will adopt the policy whether or not other European nations do so.

These moves have been interpreted as political gambits born of and destined to die with the French presidential campaign, though a ban last fall on facial coverings in public targeting Muslim communities leaves room for uncertainty. Even if they ultimately lack substance, Sarkozy’s statements are dangerous. They validate an insular nationalism incompatible with economic and cultural development as well as the basic values of a free society.

Distinctions of nationality are fundamentally arbitrary. We may choose to think of ourselves as American or identify with Italian culture, as I have in my own life, but it is our personal choices and individual character that define us. Focusing predominantly on collective identity, be it ethnic or national, is ultimately dehumanizing. It reduces individuals to faceless members of the ‘other.’ This simplifying device lends itself to shrill “us versus them” narratives and scapegoating revenge fantasies. No matter how sophisticated a policy argument (about immigration or any other issue) may be, if it deals in collective terms and broadly attributes certain qualities, especially negative qualities, to a conveniently-identifiable group, it is tribal, appealing to base instinct. As Ayn Rand put it, “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”

“Buy American” was a bad idea, and so is “Buy European.” As I have written elsewhere, the concept of economic nationalism is very silly. My point was then and is now that economic distinctions made on the basis of political borders are despairingly arbitrary—imagine the citizens of Kansas City, Missouri rallying together to protect their Starbucks franchises from the competition of foreign Starbucks franchises in Kansas City, Kansas. Such a mentality is antithetical to the nature of economic individualism, one name for the system of personal liberty and private property rights discussed by Scottish Enlightenment luminaries such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill.* In so many words, markets function most efficiently and impersonally when economic actors regard each other as individuals on the basis of perceived merit.

Foregoing opportunities beyond an arbitrary political boundary is irrational. Protectionism may satisfy some psychographic desire (see above for examples!), but it will only economically benefit domestic producers who would otherwise face an incentive to increase the value proposition of their market offerings (or find a more productive use for their resources). That Sarkozy proposes national limits on the movement of individuals but only regional limits on the purchase of goods and services illustrates the ad hoc nature of such distinctions.

His Serene Highness would perhaps reply that the burden placed on the French welfare state by illegal immigrants is the pressing issue—the practical reality that justifies his view—yet that is not a matter of immigration policy. If la Grande Société were truly functional and sustainable, providing the net socioeconomic benefits its defenders claim, an increase in its use would only strengthen it.

Granted, the structure of the taxation regime used to fund the system may complicate efforts to gather revenues from certain users, namely undocumented immigrants, but that is not an immigration problem per se. The volume of undocumented, illegal immigration in France, or anywhere, is symptomatic of a failure of the legal immigration policy regime. Citizens of France, or any other nation, face a choice between closing themselves to the outside, risking any civil liberties they possess in the bargain, or opening themselves to the world in all its possibility.

Immigrants built this country

France is popularly known as a vigilant guardian of her considerable cultural heritage. It is thus ironic that President Sarkozy is hostile to foreign influences. External influences are the lifeblood of a culture. The most vibrant cultural flowerings of history were at crossroads and in melting-pots: Hellenistic Alexandria, republican Rome, Moorish Spain, Renaissance Florence, the Dutch Maritime Republic, the United States of America. Cultures breath and evolve or die. In the final analysis, the state of a nation’s culture may serve as the clearest indicator of its vitality. Unless and until she reverses the social and economic policies that stymie the integration of newcomers, including an inflexible, unrealistic immigration policy, France deprives herself of immense potential cultural vitality.

France and Europe and indeed the United States risk the promise of the future by fearing the outside world. Progress depend on myriad individuals and ideas coming together to beget unexpected marvels. Well into the Middle Ages, Han China was the most sophisticated, innovative civilization on earth, producing inventions including paper, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass. Yet it was left behind by a world from which it repeatedly cut itself off. Nicolas Sarkozy—the son of a Greek Jewish and French Catholic mother and a Hungarian father—whose industry and guile allowed him to overcome the prejudices of French oligarchy to achieve immense success, should draw lessons from the Chinese story, not to mention his own.

*For those playing for keeps, John Stuart Mill is indeed a Post-Enlightenment figure. Everyone relax.

Update: As the Skeptical Libertarian has noted previously, Europe continued to enforce their border restrictions even as Britain and France bombed Libya, creating thousands of refugees. Amnesty International reported that “While neighbouring countries, most notably Tunisia and Egypt, have received hundreds of thousands of third-country nationals fleeing Libya, member states of the European Union (EU) continued to enforce their border control policies and failed to guarantee safety for those escaping conflict. Since March, more than 1,500 fleeing men, women and children have perished at sea trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.”