Further Thoughts on Immigration -- Why Invoking the Romans to Justify Immigration Restrictions is Dead Wrong
One of the reasons, I think, that we struggle so much with the immigration question is that we really only have two options to offer -- not letting people in, or giving them close to full citizenship rights. I think we would have the same debates on whether we should let people drive if the only two speeds a car could go were zero and 90 MPH.
For most of the people who are trying to get into this country illegally, the issue is not necessarily that they want full citizenship -- they just want to be present. They want to be able to live, and drive, and accept employment. While they would like it, they don't necessarily need to vote or be eligible for social security disability payments. We need new statuses that allow for presence and productivity but are short of full citizenship.
In this sense, I think many Conservatives are 180 degrees wrong when they invoke the experience of the Roman Empire. The modern argument is that the Romans are an example of what happens when you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by "barbarians" from the outside. But in fact, I have argued many times that the real Roman failure was that they lost their early ability to flexibly absorb people of other cultures. Here is what I wrote in my take on five reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire:
3. The Romans lost their ability to be innovative in including new peoples in their Empire. The Romans had a bewildering array of citizenship and tax statuses for different peoples who joined or were conquered by the empire. For hundreds of years, this innovation was hugely successful. But by the 4th and 5th centuries they seemed to have lost the trick. The evidence for this is that they could have solved multiple problems -- the barbarians at the gates and the abandonment of farm land and the need for more soldiers -- by finding a way to settle barbarians on empty farm land. This is in fact exactly what the barbarians wanted. That is why I do not include the barbarian invasions as one of my five, because it did not have to be barbarian invasions, it could have been barbarian immigration. Gibson's thesis was that Christianity killed the Roman Empire by making it "soft". I don't buy that, but it may have been that substituting the Romans' earlier incredible tolerance for other religions in their Pagan period with a more intolerant version of Christianity contributed to this loss of flexibility.
And if you really want a modern parallel with the fall of the (western) Roman Empire, try this other point I made:
4. Hand in hand with #3, the Roman economy became sclerotic. This was the legacy of Diocletian and Constantine, who restructured the empire to survive several centuries more but at the cost of at least an order of magnitude more state control in every aspect of society. Diocletian's edict of maximum prices is the best known such regulation, but in fact he fixed most every family into their then-current trades and insisted the family perform the same economic functions in all future generations. Essentially, it was Ayn Rand's directive 10-289 for the ancient world, and the only reason these laws were not more destructive is that the information and communication technologies of the time did not allow for very careful enforcement.