What About the Bedroom-men?

by Don Boudreaux on December 9, 2005

in Law

Proponents of immigration restrictions, and especially of the so-called “Minutemen” who police against “illegal” immigrants, often make the following argument:

Whether current levels of immigration are good or not, the fact is that many immigrants are in the United States illegally – that is, without the permission of the government.  Breaking laws is wrong.  Therefore, anyone in the U.S. illegally is a wrongdoer and should return to his own country.  If he then applies for and receives permission to enter the U.S. legally, then he’ll be welcome.

Minutemen help government enforce laws on the books; therefore, they should be applauded.

(The wording above is mine, but if you survey much of the anti-immigration, pro-"Minuteman" literature — including some of the comments on this blog-post — you’ll find it, I believe, to be a fair rendition of a much-used argument.)

This argument is weak.

First, it fails to appreciate the fact that unjust laws deserve to be broken, or at least don’t deserve to be obeyed.  Wasn’t it noble to violate the fugitive-slave laws and Jim Crow legislation?  (I understand, of course, that there’s some danger in a decentralized system for deciding which laws are worthy of respect and which laws aren’t.  But there’s also danger in a centralized system for declaring which laws should be obeyed.)  My moral sense is that politicians, bureaucrats, and “Minutemen” have no business telling me which peaceful persons I can befriend or make love to in my own home or hire in my own factory.  My moral sense tells me also that foreigners are not morally obliged to obey American politicians who would keep them from engaging in consensual capitalist acts on these shores.

Second, the “if-government-says-it,-we-must-obey-it” mindset does not support “Minutemen” interventions.  Government determines “law” not merely by what it says (usually in the form of statutory language), but also by what it does.  If government chooses to devote an amount of resources to “immigration control” that is inadequate to prevent substantial amounts of illegal immigration, shouldn’t we – by the “Minutemen’s” own logic – respect this government decision and not interpose our own opinions about what the level of immigration enforcement “should” be?  Who are we, mere private citizens, to dare to second-guess with our actions a decision on the level of immigration control made by our leaders?  Aren’t the “Minutemen” breaking the law just as illegitimately as are persons who come to America without formal approval of our leaders?

Just because words are written on paper and subjected to hocus-pocus beneath a soaring marble dome does not mean that these words are truly “law,” or even that the government officials who wrote and voted for them want them to be taken literally.

I believe that several states still have on the books “laws” declaring sex outside of wedlock to be a criminal offense.  How many of us would applaud a private group calling themselves “Bedroom-men” snooping around our residences trying to prevent unmarried adults from having consensual sex with each other?  Would we excuse the “Bedroom-men” by saying “Well, like it or not, because Dick and Jane aren’t married to each other, it’s unlawful for them to make love to each other.  The law’s the law, and the Bedroom-men are just assisting government in upholding the law.”

How many of us would respect the Bedroom-men?  How many of us would believe that the members of such a group have no selfish, unsavory reasons for doing what they do?  How many of us would wish that any unmarried adults consenting to have sex with each other be jailed or fined simply because some statute book declares their behavior to be “unlawful”?

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Ivan Kirigin December 9, 2005 at 1:59 pm

"How many of us would applaud a private group calling themselves “Bedroom-men” snooping around our residences trying to prevent unmarried adults from having consensual sex with each other?"

This is unfair, given the actual practices of the minutemen are to sit around in public with binoculars. No privacy violations, no violence, and not even enforcement, just information pass to authorities.

Comparing them to sex prudes is a bit of an ad homonym attack, isn’t it?

Further, this doesn't address that which is IMHO a stronger argument: illegal immigrants are more likely to be a burden on society through higher taxes.

Yes, as has been pointed out, these burdens are mainly caused by the initial coercive action of the government. But if those things are unlikely to change, shouldn't we pursue secondary reform?

Don Boudreaux December 9, 2005 at 2:04 pm

My point was not that the "Minutemen" are snooping (although, in fact, they are to a large degree). My point instead was to argue that just because some behavior is declared illegal by the state doesn't mean that private enforcers of restrictions on that behavior are to be applauded.

Ivan Kirigin December 9, 2005 at 2:11 pm

"My point instead was to argue that just because some behavior is declared illegal by the state doesn't mean that private enforcers of restrictions on that behavior are to be applauded."

I agree. The legality issue is similar to drug or prostitution laws.

Also, really bad laws should be repealed. If they can't be, conscientious objectors should break them, though they should be ready to go to prison.

Moving away from the Minutemen (who are only a small part of the story), what about the other issue I mentioned? Other blogs have plenty of numbers to show the increased likelihood for very high costs when uneducated, unskilled immigrants meet our state sponsored programs, from prisons to schools to ERs.

I would love to believe all immigration is good. In context, it’s difficult.

Randy December 9, 2005 at 2:17 pm

This sounds remarkably like the argument I used to make when people told me that smoking a joint was wrong because it was against the law. The 70s were great…

As for the minutemen, they're just demonstrating at the border. There is a strong feeling in this country that we are under invasion and the government isn't doing anything about it. This being a democracy, if the majority decides to stop immigration, then we will stop immigration. And, as the laws are on the books, I think it is fair to say that the people have already expressed their opinion, and that what the government is doing is ignoring the will of the people.

Now, should we change the laws? Should we allow massive immigration, legal or illegal? That's another debate. What the minutemen are doing is simply free speech.

Rick Schamtz December 9, 2005 at 2:33 pm

Here is where your arugment is weak: The people that want to enforce the law ALWAYS believe it is a just law.

The uproar to enforce the law is not merely because it is a law, but precisely because they believe it is just.

Of course, your example proves the point. No one is against the bedroom law because they believe it is unjust.

Rick Schmatz December 9, 2005 at 2:35 pm

sorry, my last sentence should read:

No one is in favor of enforcing the bedroom law because they believe it is unjust.

anomdebus December 9, 2005 at 4:38 pm

I am usually with you on immigration issues, but you haven't convinced me that the minutemen are a bad idea.
First, if they are on public property or private property with permission, looking at things within eye shot, then that is not snooping.
I don't see how it is breaking the law to devote resources beyond what the government wants to allocate. Does that mean it should be illegal to pick up trash by the side of a highway because the government allocates some but not enough resources?
I would say it is an open question about whether the sex laws you refer to are even enforceable. If the right to privacy is powerful enough for a medical procedure, what you do in a private residence with no extra gadgets should be a no-brainer.
So, in the end, should anyone who wants to enter the United States be allowed to with no knowledge of anybody? I am not sure we can afford to do that right now. I think we can afford to make legal immigration a more attractive option.

lj December 9, 2005 at 7:41 pm

Personally, I don't think what these people are doing is that morally wrong. However, IMO these people don't understand that businesses try to increase profit margins and the best way to do that is by decreasing labor costs. Therefore, there will always be market forces pushing people into this country illegally, and basically any strategy to thwart this is moot.

Camilo December 9, 2005 at 10:11 pm

The issue of obeying the law and the issue of immigration hit close to home and so I would like to share the following:

I am Mexican and live in Mexico. Mexicans, unfortunately, have a very hard time accepting rules. From my perspective, laws are very important. Perhaps they are even the difference between a developed nation and an un-developed nation. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish my fellow citizens obeyed the law and other rules conducive to social well being.

The adherence to laws and social norms benefits everyone. Usually, at least in so called “democratic” states, they represent everyone’s best interest. Why is it important to stop at red lights? If I look both ways and clearly see that no one is coming, why can’t I ignore a red light? Because it only takes being wrong once to possibly kill someone and so it is in everyone’s best interest that everyone stops at red lights.

Mexicans don’t stop for red lights. Mexicans don’t stop for anything. Mexicans are raised to do everything and anything they want. Hegel defined true freedom as adherence to the law and caprice as its opposite: the very worst of all oppressions. I tend to agree. There are few things more oppressive than the knowledge that you are one of the few paying taxes and stopping at red lights when it’s every man for himself all around.

I have seen with my own eyes what Latin Americans, legal and illegal, are capable of in the U.S. If I were an American citizen and I had to put up with the lack of respect for others that Latin Americans typically display, I would want them thrown out as well. Human emotions are, well, human, and therefore understandable.

On the other hand, many of the people crossing the border are, sadly, are among our best. I say sadly because the ones that risk life and limb to live and work in a nation that holds laws in high regard (normally) are exactly the people we need to keep. These entrepreneurs take the most menial and thankless jobs upon there arrival. Many of them save their money and start businesses of their own and their children often continue the upward movement.

Those immigrants contribute positively to the U.S. They consume, they pay taxes, they put money into social security (without getting anything in return), and they even employ. They are assets and it is a tragedy that we cannot retain them here at home.

The issue isn’t, I believe, that illegal immigrants and/or their employers have the right to break certain laws. Instead, I would phrase it this way: the laws should be changed. These employees and entrepreneurs should not be illegal because what they are doing should not be contradicted by law. Productive behavior should not be contradicted by law. The parasites and the delinquent should be expelled. But it is in America’s interest to adopt the others. If only their own country would.

BinaryPhalanx August 13, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Okay, but think about this. Illegal immigrants aren't required to be paid the same minimum wage American citizens are, and can therefore be hired cheaper, displacing jobs that Americans would otherwise have. They don't pay taxes, they don't pay social security, and they're bad for the economy. It's not "moral" to break immigration laws just because they're friendly, they're still doing a huge disservice to all of us (except for the penny pinching CEO's).

They come to the states and they take money from the government that SHOULD belong to talented, but poor, American kids going to college, or other *domestic* things. Not illegal immigrants that haven't earned it. I'm sick of hearing about joe foreigner sneaking into the country and then leeching off of our hard work because its cheaper to let them stay than to deport them most of the time.

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