Social contracts have long been held by political philosophers to be a just foundation for civil societies. Such contracts are supposed take into account the interests of citizens by ensuring that the state is governed by rules that society has accepted. The fundamental problem with social contracts throughout history, however, has been that actual contracts are not reached in a way that takes into account the interests of everyone. Instead, they are formed by and only take into account the interests of a smaller group of people who seek mutual benefit for themselves by uniting their power. These people then use the contract as a basis for oppressing others; for dictating to them what they can and cannot do, and using the power of the group the contract is designed to serve to control the behavior of the rest. Such acts prevent the oppressed groups from choosing any actions that could improve their state in the world or free them from their suffering. We have seen this with rulers and fiefdoms controlling subjects and serfs, with men uniting to control and limit the opportunities of women, with whites coming together to enslave other races to work for them; in many respects, the history of the world is the history of one group of people obtaining power and collectively using their prestigious state in a way that needlessly and unjustifiably perpetuates the suffering of others.
What is so shocking about these societies is that even though the situation is clearly little more than a mask for oppression, at the time they exist, such societies is broadly accepted, both by those in power and by those who suffer. Even good and decent people find rationalizations or excuses for the perpetuation of unjust suffering. These range from the idea that it is good for those who suffer to be under the control of those in power, to the idea that society would greatly suffer from any change to the existing structure, to the idea that if those in power sought to include others in their group it might harm some in that group, and so, unfortunately, it is necessary to maintain the oppression and suffering of the rest. John Stuart Mill did a brilliant job exposing the mendacity of such assertions in his work “The Subjection of Women,” showing how the pretenses of defenders of such subjection were shallow and hollow, and amounted to little more than the rule of those who are mighty without any moral justification.
We like to think that we have moved past this as a society, that we are now inclusive and see the benefits of others. We think we have moved passed arbitrary distinctions and seen that our fellow brothers and sisters have a place with us, and have the right to control their own lives. We see now that they, too, should be party to our contract, and be permitted to share in its benefits. Of course, not everyone feels this way. Some still think that those of another sex or another race aren’t “one of us,” and so aren’t really entitled to the benefits of our society. But the rest of us have come to see such expressions for the mindless bigotry that they are, and words like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ have come to be filled with the disgust and condemnation they deserve. However, patterns of human behavior that persist for millennia should never be confidently felt to be behind us. And, sadly, our own society is not different from those of the past. We include more people, but our contract is not all-inclusive. To see the pattern, we need merely look at who we include in the title “one of us,” at which groups of innocent people suffer from a lack of inclusion in that group, and at where we find a sense in those who have prestige that they can use their power to keep that innocent group in a position of needless suffering. Today’s label for “those it is okay to keep suffering needlessly because they aren’t part of our group” isn’t one of race or sex, it is one of nationality. ‘Foreigner’ is label people use to justify the same attitudes and behaviors in today’s society that those in power have always used to justify the unjust treatment of others who aren’t “one of us.” The consequences are at least as horrific, and the blind sense of justification by the perpetrators of the needless suffering of innocents all the more vociferous and self-satisfied because they think themselves above such acts.
Controlling where another human being can or cannot live despite the fact that they are innocent, that they have the means to relocate, that there are available places to relocate to and persons willing to rent or sell to them, and that their relocation would do more than anything else could to ease their suffering and improve their lives and the lives of their families is something so horrific that if we saw it done to an American citizen we would be outraged. When people hear of imminent domain cases where someone has been thrust out of their own home most people are outraged. Who is the government to tell someone where they can and cannot live, to prevent them from owning a spot of land someone was once willing to sell them merely because some powerful company or group wants to use it for a cause the people in power prefer? Our sense of outrage is just, but baffling, because that is precisely what we do when we prohibit immigrants from moving to our shores. The only real difference is that the consequences are far, far worse for the potential immigrant.
We see ourselves as party to the contract; the foreigner as “not one of us.” We have nothing but luck to account for fact that we have a position of prestige and power. They have nothing but bad luck to account for the fact that the country of their birth was full of suffering and poverty. Yet, because they aren’t a part of our group, we think it right to control their movements and their behavior, knowing full well this will cause them great hardship, because we are powerful and we can. We are no different from the oppressors of the past, and no less blind to our own unjust actions. We also use the same, hollow excuses; pretending that minor harms to those in our group justify great suffering in those we choose to exclude from it. Pretending that society would falter if the group were expanded. Pretending that somehow they are different from us in a way that makes us better. The perpetuation of the suffering of innocents throughout the world through the establishment of immigration restrictions by those in more prosperous lands is a moral crime. It is as great a moral crime as the history of oppression of women, of the enslavement of others to serve the needs of those in power, or of any other act of unjust control over the life of another that those with power have always engaged in to serve their own interests. Such a crime is unconscionable, no matter how comfortable we feel with it. Hopefully one day people will look back on us as see us with the same contempt as we now see those who abused their power in the past. Hopefully one day ‘nationalist’ will join terms like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ in expressing great disgust and condemnation. And hopefully it will happen soon so that the needless suffering of millions can begin to be eased, and the recognition of their basic rights to control their own lives and to pursue their own happiness can be recognized throughout the world.