Personal Responsibility, Moralism, and The American Right

Consider the idea that individuals ought to try to be self-reliant, willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their loved ones.  This used to be thought of as a reason to oppose state assistance (welfare, food stamps, etc.), and so a reason to oppose “liberals” of the sort in the US Democratic party.  Those liberals, the story goes, pushed the view that the government was there to ensure your well-being, enabling you to reject personal responsibility. 

Notice, though, that a central tenet of the new American right—common to former President Trump’s followers and many of those who rejected him—is a hostility toward and skepticism of immigrants. Those with this skeptical stance seem to believe immigrants are somehow likely to be criminals, simply too different from us to be allowed to join our society, likely to try to replace Christianity as the main religion, or likely to take “our” jobs.

This anti-immigrant stance, it seems to me, is quite opposed to an ideal of self-reliance. Instead of relying on themselves for their well-being, these opponents of immigration allow themselves to be upset about immigrants and happily rely on the federal government to keep out foreigners—as a way of (supposedly) protecting their (or what they see as “our”) well-being, which it seems, is too fragile to deal with immigrants.

While protection from genuine (harmful) criminal activity is always a reasonable concern, there is little reason to believe immigrants are more likely to engage in such behavior than are than non-immigrants. (See this and this, for some discussion.) But leave that aside; it’s clearly not the only concern and its not an invocation of a nanny state (nor of moralism).

Many of those who oppose immigrants seem to think they are simply too different from “us” or are likely to be committed to a religion that would compete with Christianity in some problematic way. They think that their (or “our”) way of life must be protected; they may think our Christian (or, they might say, “Judeo-Christian”) values must be protected.

Finally, these opponents of immigration may think immigrants will take their jobs (or the jobs of other compatriots)—and thus want the government to keep out immigrants as a way of protecting “American jobs” (and salaries), and thus, their well-being and that of their fellow “real” Americans. Such people seem to fear they cannot compete with immigrants in the picture—either for the jobs they currently have but fear immigrants will take, or for other jobs they might apply for.

My point here is that those on the right adopting an anti-immigrant stance seem happy to rely on the federal government to guarantee or at least promote their welfare. They worry about the erosion of “the American way” and want the federal government to assist them in fending off that erosion. This is not being self-reliant. Self-reliance in this picture would be to think something like “well, things change; I will change along with them as needed.”

One possible response to what I’ve said would be something: “Look, one happy side-effect of keeping out immigrants is (we think) that we do better, but that isn’t why we want them kept out (or ‘limited to legal immigration’—but when the laws are made more and more constraining, there is no real difference). We don’t want them kept out to protect us as individuals, but to protect (as you said) the American way and Christian values. So it’s not about rejecting personal responsibility at all.”

If the response works, it shows that the criticism of rejecting self-reliance and welcoming the nanny state (that the right has traditionally criticized) is not a fair criticism of the anti-immigrant right. It would, though, leave the anti-immigrant right wholeheartedly endorsing a moralism of the sort that I have discussed in previous posts (for example, here). It leaves them committed to a goal of getting other people to do, believe, or live as they want, without any concern for those others as individuals or the rights they supposedly believe we all have. The goal is just to impose their preferred way of life on others. The desire some of us might have to marry or hire someone from another country is simply deemed unworthy.

In a nutshell, the anti-immigrant stance by those on the right commits them to either preferring a particular sort of nanny state that protects them from cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and competition for jobs OR its a disturbing moralism that demands legal assistance to protect the “moral fabric of society” where that “fabric” is really just their preferred way of life without those cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and increased competition for jobs. Stated that way, the two options seem not very different. The moralism is, after all, an insistence that the their desired way of life be imposed because they like it and the way of life it provides them–so the nanny state ought to protect it. It might be pitched in terms of what is good for society overall rather than what is good for some group of individuals, but that pitch is exceedingly weak. None of this should be acceptable to those advocating personal responsibility, self-reliance, and individualism.

*Note: Thanks to A.I. Cohen and J.P. Messina for comments on a draft of this post.

For more on immigration, see Bryan Caplan’s book and, very soon, Chandran Kukathas’s. (RCL earns commissions if you buy from these links; commissions support this site; we make no profit from them.)