As people who are blessed to be citizens of highly developed countries—such as Australia or the United States, my own homeland—we have a long list of privileges we did little or nothing to earn. Some of them, such as natural resources, are the gifts only of God. But most of the others came from our fellow man. They are less like a landscape than a legacy, a trust passed down from father to son, mother to daughter, across the centuries. These gifts came from our ancestors, either personal or political, who painstakingly built up the peaceful and orderly, free and dynamic countries in which we live.
We are moved by a sense of compassion, and even of justice, to wish that we could share these blessings with people in other countries—if only by letting them come and live in ours. That’s a laudable sentiment, but it must be counter-balanced by a realistic understanding of where these privileges come from, how they are maintained from one generation to the next, and how fragile they really are. In fact we can overstrain our societies and destroy the very institutions that we so treasure, if we are reckless and overconfident in our acceptance of large numbers of new citizens from societies with hostile or alien values and incompatible civic habits. We can choke the goose that lays all these golden eggs.
If we follow the carefully documented arguments of Daniel Hannan in Inventing Freedom (2014), we will see that some of the greatest blessings which we residents of the “Anglosphere” (from Canada to India, from Australia to the Falkland Islands) enjoy are the fruit of the political principles, personal sacrifices and prudent decisions of particular people—the rebels and preachers, barons and burghers, who resisted the arbitrary power of kings, and fought for religious, political and economic freedom. These distinct people, at distinct times and places, undertook political actions with enormous moral consequences, which generations of schoolchildren used to be dutifully drilled to remember: Runnymede, the Glorious Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade. All these political events were the fruit of certain stubborn beliefs, which we can boil down to one: that the dignity of each human being affirmed by Christian theology has political implications, which philosophers such as John Locke presented in secular form as “life, liberty and property”.
As we study less history with each generation, it is all too easy for us to take these privileges for granted, to assume that because (as our theology teaches us) every person deserves them, that it is only natural that they enjoy them. But in fact, as we read the chronicles of the centuries, and survey not just non-Western civilisations, but most Western nations for most of their history, we will learn something quite different: that it is highly unusual for human life to be treated with unconditional respect; for citizens to be protected from arbitrary arrest and to be free to speak their minds; for the work of our hands and our brains to belong to us and our families, exempt from unfair confiscation. If life, liberty and property rights are what God intends for us—as we Westerners grow up believing—in cold fact, murder, bullying and theft are too frequently the norm.
The political tradition which affirms basic human rights, which is traditionally called “liberalism”, is a fragile golden thread extending through centuries, which has on many occasions come close to snapping—for instance in 1940, when a seemingly unstoppable Nazi Germany was dividing the world with its allies in Japan and the Soviet Union. As the historian John Lukacs documented, it was a near-run thing: Winston Churchill and his circle were under enormous pressure to negotiate a peace that would have handed the British Navy to Hitler and world dominance to totalitarian powers, putting freedom and human rights into an eclipse that might have lasted for centuries.
Our ancestors knew that societies hoping to put their fragile, precious tradition into action would face many challenges. They had seen that Locke’s political trinity was not a package deal: societies that valued human life didn’t always treasure liberty, and those that accepted liberty might not account for property. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has documented the fact that most of the poverty in the developing and post-communist world is the fruit not of colonialism or even of wilful exploitation, but of the failure of such societies to formally recognise and legally protect the property rights of the poor—leaving them subject to the vagaries of corruption and confiscation. The answer de Soto offers is not one that appeals to revolutionaries, but it would have resonated with our liberal ancestors: citizens of such countries must make a careful, determined effort to fundamentally reform their laws and policies to recognise the property rights of the poor, and allow them full access to the national and global economy. That doesn’t sound exciting, and you won’t see college students sporting T-shirts with icons of Dr de Soto. But it’s the only approach that will work.
More radical efforts that offer greater ethical “uplift” have been tried many times and failed, from Peron’s Argentina to Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela. Rather than doggedly working to extend the blessings of private property rights to the poorest people in such nations, impatient leftists and romantic Christians with a distorted conception of “social justice” have attacked private property itself, agglomerating more wealth and power in the hands of the few—those backed by the guns and jails of the state. Instead of extending protection to the work and wealth of the many, as de Soto advised, these regimes have wrecked the middle classes and crippled private enterprise, sharing not wealth but misery more even-handedly.
Too many today, even well-meaning religious people, take the same reckless approach to immigration. We have seen in the past year the effects of romanticism in action. Pope Francis went to the Italian island of Lampedusa and called on citizens of the West to welcome migrants from the Muslim world as brothers, to see each would-be immigrant as the Good Samaritan saw the robbery victim on the road. His statements have been echoed by many clergy throughout most major Christian denominations.
And Angela Merkel listened. Instead of insisting that under international law the Syrian refugees be accepted by the “first safe country” which they had reached, which was Nato member Turkey—a comparatively prosperous Sunni Muslim country where they could have been easily integrated, and one which bore some responsibility for the war in their native land—Germany followed the dictates of post-Christian, post-Western multiculturalism. With high-minded abandon it accepted more than a million Syrian migrants, in effect forcing much of Europe to follow suit.
The results have been an unmitigated catastrophe, as hundreds of thousands of military-age Muslim males, unaccompanied by the “women and children” which leftist media and church bulletins love to highlight, have flocked to West European countries. ISIS recruits have already been found among the migrants, one of whom was involved in the most recent Paris attack. There have been grotesque incidents on a large scale, such as the “rape mobs” in Cologne which subjected Western women to sexual assault; there are countless reports of lesser crimes leaking through the mesh of a partly censored press, which is cowed as Western governments are by the fear of offending multiculturalist pieties.
Already hard-pressed public welfare systems are cracking under the strain of hundreds of thousands of foreigners whose ancestors never paid into them; countries such as Spain and Germany and Italy where youth unemployment is staggering are being flooded with low-skilled workers who don’t speak the native language. Governments are responding not by reconsidering the wisdom of their refugee policy, but by cracking down on the right to free speech of Europeans who question it. Water cannons in the streets of Cologne were turned on the demonstrators who responded to the “rape mob”. Christmas trees and carnivals, crucifixes and classical statues are disappearing from public spaces, lest they offend the puritanical sensibilities of the intolerant newcomers. The president of a German university in Hamburg has proposed that every young German be required to learn Arabic, to prepare for the “multicultural” society which that country’s government has imposed on them.
Some will read these arguments and see the sense in them, but fear that in using their reason they are not being “really Christian”. Certainly, they will feel this way if they subject themselves to the non-stop flow of sentimental rhetoric that is pouring out of the churches. Here are just a few examples of the statements coming from religious leaders in Australia.
From Gosford Anglican Church:
[The] Kingdom of God manifests itself in compassion and justice and true humility and there are lots of things going on in our society at the moment that aren’t about those things, like the way we treat gay people by not allowing them to be married, the way we treat our planet and the way we treat asylum seekers. These are the things Christians should be seeking—justice and compassion.
From Pope Francis, during his talk on World Migrants and Refugees Day:
A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalisation towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world.
From Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart:
The Bishops’ Social Justice Statement addresses the divisive national debate over asylum seekers and reminds all Australians of the need to welcome and comfort those who have fled here from terror and danger, and to live out the example of Jesus, who never turned his back on those who were lost or suffering.
Such statements exert a powerful emotional appeal. They tempt us with the chance to join the elect of enlightened and compassionate “genuine” Christians—who just happen on this issue to agree with the dominant forces in the media, international elites at the United Nations and European Union, and the faculty of prestigious universities. These statements threaten us that if we employ our reason in discerning the wisest policies for our fellow citizens, we might be punished eternally in hell—along with the scribes and Pharisees, who also calculated and counted, rather than engaging in reckless generosity.
In fact, there is nothing genuinely Christian in refusing to use our reason, to account for the predictable effects of our actions, or to plan wisely for the future for our families and our communities. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church does not demand open borders, but asks wealthy countries to accept newcomers insofar as they find it “possible”, and insofar as migrants obey their laws, honour their heritage, and bear civic burdens equally.
If Christianity really were the antinomian, irrationalist cult that today’s liberal Christians pretend it is when it suits them, it would never have spread beyond a tiny circle of believers, and would have died out long ago. Every nation that has accepted Christianity has in fact policed its borders, limited the franchise to citizens, and directed public welfare first to those who had contributed something to their societies.
When large numbers of Sunni Muslims attempted to colonise much of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians energetically organised to prevent them from doing so—as students of history will remember from the Battle of Lepanto and the sieges of Vienna. Now the Islamic world is employing a different tactic for expansion. Instead of sending armies waving banners, it sends armies of “refugees” waving asylum claims—marching them straight through Turkey, into the heart of once-Christian Europe. If accepted, these migrants will someday gain the rights of citizens—the power to vote in laws that fit their values instead of ours. We have seen those values in action, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan. Their fruit is honour-killings of women, execution of homosexuals, the death penalty for “apostasy” from or “blasphemy” against Islam. There are plenty of countries where people can live if they wish to be ruled by sharia law. Why should we inflict that illiberal creed on our children? Is that what Christ called us to do?
When we inflict such radical changes on our society, we should ask ourselves whether we are being faithful stewards of the prosperous, free societies for which our ancestors struggled, fought and sometimes died. Perhaps instead we are squandering our inheritance, for the sake of that happy frisson we experience when we do or say something supporting “openness”, “tolerance”, and “social justice”. We are purchasing approval from our fellow upper-middle-class citizens, with social capital stolen from our children and grandchildren. We are feathering our own cosy nests, while making life even more wretched for our own nations’ native poor—whose ancestors did fight and die, alongside ours, for their descendants’ stakes in the nation. We are stealing the precious gifts of freedom and order from our least-advantaged fellow citizens—the blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the troubled war veterans—in order to salve our confused consciences, and feed our self-esteem.
John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of the Stream (stream.org) and co-author of The Race to Save Our Century (2014).