Robert Taft Club Report

So what is the Robert A. Taft Club? Well, it's nothing very formal as yet. My friend Marcus Epstein noted a while back that there were enough paleoconservatives, traditionalists, libertarians, and other non-neoconservatives in the Washington, D.C. area to make an informal gathering worthwhile — as a sort of old-school Philadelphia Society in miniature, debating not just what would make effective politics but what principled divisions exist on the right. Last night was the outfit's first event, a panel discussion of civil liberties vs. immigration restriction. Panelists were myself, James Pinkerton, Carl Horowitz, and William Anderson.

And how did it go? Reasonably well, I thought, considering it was all very experimental in nature. I spoke first, outlining — analyzing rather than arguing — what the fault lines between civil liberties and immigration restriction were: ID cards, RICO as an enforcement measure, and in general the hazards to citizens' liberties of giving any kind of police or investigative agency additional powers to examine individuals and businesses in search of illegal immigrants. At the same time, I pointed to the many dangers that illegal immigration itself poses to civil liberties, including emergency rooms overcrowded and underfunded to the point of collapse, larger potential constituences for affirmative action and welfare services, and some degree of increased crime. I argued that the political class was unlikely to come up with a solution that both spares liberties and enforces the law — most likely, I feared, we would see the worst of both worlds: clampdowns on civil liberties, more ID-bureaucracy, and ineffective immigration restriction measures. My own preferred solution was to treat illegal immigration as a chronic, rather than acute, problem, something that had to be managed consistently over time, with border enforcement that is minimally disruptive to citizens' liberties, rather than treated as an acute problem to be addressed after it was already practically too late to be amenable to no solutions short of drastic investigative and police measures within the country — measures sure to have some blowback for us all.

It was a hastily composed talk, and there are a good many points I would refine with a bit of time. But perhaps it did reasonably well along the lines of addressing the debate topic. A few attendees commented on my bloodshot eyes — I was going on perilously few hours of sleep from the night before and I'm afraid it showed. A friend remarked that I seemed more subdued than usual.

The other panelists were more spry and had more detailed, comprehensive arguments. James Pinkerton made a case along the lines of this column in favor of assimilation and acknowledging the benefits that immigration has provided in the past — it was an upbeat, optimistic approach after my downer of a talk. (I'd ended with some remark about "This is what the political class has given us.") I hope Jim's case turns out to be correct, because it would certainly lead to the best results for all.

William Anderson, a true gentleman in person, brought out just how undersirable the idea of jailing either businessmen or immigrants would be and called attention, even more than I had, to some of the potential negatives of strict enforcement. Carl Horowitz, rounding out the panel, took a different tack, discussing the Patriot Act and immigrant, particularly Muslim, profiling. A very provocative talk, one for which I wasn't prepared to make a cogent rebuttal. All four panelists actually addressed different dimensions of the immigration and civil liberties question, but that made it all the more interesting: rather than a rote thesis-antithesis dichotomy, there was a real diversity of emphasis and approach. We had some very good questions from the audience (about 15 to 20 people) as well, which rather than mangling from memory I will pass over altogether. The whole thing was stimulating and unpredictable in a way that more formal events, especially within the Beltway, rarely are — even if my own talk was rather shambolic.

I expect there'll be further Robert A. Taft Club events in the future.

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