FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
The stress of citizenship
I once worked for a company that put its employees through one of those lengthy performance evaluations that included psych-test essay questions, such as “How do you define ‘stress,’ and how could you reduce the amount of stress in your workday?” I was young and new to such evaluations, so I’d never really thought much about “stress” before. I was convinced it had nothing to do with hard work, because I was always a pretty hard worker, and had rarely felt anything I would describe as “stress” because of it. Tired, sure, but not stressed-out.
Eventually I wrote down the answer that I have used as a working definition for stress over the ensuing twenty-five years: “Stress is responsibility without authority.“
A job that involves hard work isn’t necessarily stressful. What really burns out my wiring is being held accountable for the results of a job I couldn’t possibly do, because I wasn’t given control over the situation I’m on the hook for. It happens to all of us, in a variety of ways, but the specific position I held when I formulated that definition of stress was a management position, and the only thing that really gave me jittery-hands levels of stress was getting held responsible for the actions of people who weren’t under my direct authority. I also hated being forced to obey rules and procedures I knew weren’t right, but were imposed on me by managers who weren’t interested in my input on the matter. Everything else that hit me during the workday felt like a fair challenge, even when it was an immense challenge. All I really wanted was a fair shot at getting things done – credit for my achievement, and responsibility for my mistakes. We don’t always get that, either at the office or in our personal lives, and it leads to enormous amounts of frustration.
I think of that definition of stress when I see things like the border crisis play out. The entire immigration debate amounts to the legal citizens of the United States getting loaded down with responsibility for people we have no power over. This could be said of many other social and government issues too, but it’s particularly acute in this example, because we’re talking about demands to accommodate people who did not meet our clearly-understood legal requirements for citizenship. They began their experience in America by collecting benefits without accepting the attendant obligations. It is not unreasonable to suspect that such a relationship is not likely to end well.
Immigration is but one aspect of a great battle over the definition of citizenship, which has been raging for decades now. Many of our domestic policy disputes can be understood as an argument over what the benefits and obligations of American citizenship would be. Introducing a large number of people who obtain permanent residency without meeting the requirements of citizenship puts those arguments in sharp relief. Among other things, it painfully illustrates the point that our Ruling Class – describing them as “public servants” is as absurd as describing a modern totalitarian leftist as a “liberal” – is no longer interested in performing its duty to the rest of us. The Ruling Class, which includes loads of people in the private sector who profit from government power, is more interested in fulfilling its ambitions than attending to its duties.
Protecting citizenship is an unpleasant duty they have no interest in, because it has no profit for them. In fact, it cuts into their profits, quite literally in the case of open-borders corporate lobbyists who desire cheap labor. For the political class, there is profit from accepting new wards of the State who don’t bother with all the messy obligations of citizenship. That’s because government has effectively unlimited power and money for the moment. Those calls for amnesty and wild, unrestrained immigration would grow very different if the federal government went on a strict balanced-budget low-tax diet, and your friendly neighborhood illegal-alien activist had to directly compete with the rest of Big Government’s dependents for every dollar of benefits. As it stands, the Ruling Class sees zero logic in taking the political hit from standing firm on the defense of American citizenship. More clients for the State means more money to spend. It’s happening already, as the Administration’s demand for taxpayer money to address the border crisis ballooned in a matter of weeks from a few hundred million dollars, to $2 billion, and now to $3.7 billion. Anyone who says “no” will be savaged as an inhuman monster who wants little kids to die. Where’s the downside, from the perspective of a big-spending politician who loves nothing better than irresistible moral demands for bigger government?
But for the rest of us, it’s pure stress: responsibility without power. We don’t know anything about the new arrivals, and we know the Administration’s pretenses of keeping track of them are a ridiculous sham. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) grilled a Health and Human Services official in congressional hearings today, and discovered no effort has been made to verify that the “family members” picking up the unaccompanied alien minors are themselves legal citizens:
So the kids are getting picked up by the very same people the Left has told us for years are enigmatic, un-trackable, un-deportable figures of “the shadows” – shadows which extend right up to major government facilities, which they can waltz through without showing much in the way of paperwork. That’s not easy for the legal citizens of the Republic of Paperwork to hear. We just got another 1300 pages of ObamaCare regulations dropped on us over the Fourth of July weekend. But the very same Department of Health and Human Services can’t be bothered to check the citizenship status of people arriving to collect unaccompanied alien minors from government facilities?
We’ll hear more cries of how “compassion” compels us to forget about how the children got here, and let them stay forever. They are indeed children, and human beings. Their parents are at fault for sending them. But their parents in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are beyond the reach of American law, aren’t they? All of our normal immigration restrictions have been brushed aside, allowing a tidal wave that includes everyone from little kids to tattooed underage MS-13 gangsters to march on in. In areas from health to education, the normal assumptions of American society do not apply – the new arrivals are suffering from health crises, right up to tuberculosis, that are largely unknown to American kids, and it’s a fair bet they haven’t been extensively educated in American citizenship, or even our common language. Responsibility without authority.
The United States has very generous immigration policies. We’re extraordinarily warm and welcoming to legal immigrants. It’s part of our national character. We love stories of the immigrant who becomes an American success story. (Consider that one of the most popular American myths, one of the most beloved stories we tell ourselves to define our culture, is about a man from another planet who landed in a Kansas cornfield as a baby, and ended up soaring through the sky dressed in the colors of our flag.) But we’ve always had both a moral and practical right to control the flow of immigration, to define what citizenship in America means. We are a nation with soaring ideals, not an idea with a vestigial nation attached.
One of the reasons we need the authority to control immigration is because the helps us attend to the responsibility of caring for them. We don’t have unlimited resources, and by definition we have little influence over the nations people are immigrating from. Our job market is currently unable to produce anywhere near enough full-time positions to satisfy the needs of the existing population. During airplane safety lectures, the flight attendants tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help anyone around you. That’s true of nation-states as well. Both our public and private resources are overtaxed, in no small part because the former literally overtaxes and over-regulates the latter. But even if we were rolling in clover during boom times, we’d still have the moral right and practical need to control our borders.
We have security concerns, to be sure. The warnings that Obama’s border invasion creates a huge opportunity for terrorists and gangs are growing louder. The sudden appearance of people with no paper trails in any population is cause for concern by law enforcement. Even basically well-meaning people are not getting off on the right foot when their first experience with America teaches them, beyond all question, that some people can get away with ignoring some laws, especially if they’ve got political power and activist muscle working in their favor. Because American citizenship has been devalued, the illegal immigrant steps into a country he knows for a fact is corrupt. Nothing else he learns about our government is likely to disabuse him of that notion.
A huge amount of societal stress is created whenever responsibility and authority are separated in any way. That includes people who assert authority without fulfilling the corresponding responsibilities of citizenship – from corporate big shots who buy political power to bend the rules in their favor, to people who soak up public benefits for years while providing very little in return. “Liberty” is a meaningless concept when divorced from responsibility – you are not “free” if you are not responsible for your actions. “Authority” is illegitimate without duty and restraint.
We hear much talk about “people who work hard and play by the rules” – it’s one of President Obama’s favorite phrases. But he spends a great deal of effort punishing people who played by the rules, and rewarding people who didn’t, especially when the results suit his goal of permanently rewriting the rules. It’s happening again, on the border, as those who did the hard work of lawfully immigrating, or adopting a foreign child, get to watch a surge of illegals roll right past them. Soon they’ll be told that they have no choice but to bend the rules again and open up that “pathway to citizenship,” plus copious benefits, for an enormous migratory population that the American people did not invite or approve of. They will be told they lack the moral stature to raise the slightest objection. I doubt any society can handle that level of stress indefinitely without blowing a fuse.