Immigration, Islamism, and The Nature of Individual Rights

by | Mar 28, 2017 | Immigration

Do all people have a right to immigrate to the U.S.?

Do all people have a right to immigrate to the U.S.? There are three ways that we tend to conceive of rights, and which one you adopt will affect how you answer this question.

One way is to view rights as an essentially arbitrary agreement we construct and maintain through political traditions. On this view, rights tend to be seen as an unnecessary constraint on our policy toolkit. Immigration is regarded not as a question of rights but of whether or not, and to what extent, we have a moral obligation to help poor foreigners.

Another way is to view rights as inherent within each individual human being, fixed attributes endowed by God or Nature. This view leads naturally to the answer that all people have a fundamental right of movement across any political borders they please, with possible narrow limitations relating to such things as disease transmission and prior criminal activity.

This view, while an advance over the previous one, is still wrong enough to be dangerous. Fundamentally, it is founded on a category mistake. A lone man on a deserted island cannot possess any rights. There is no one else against whom to impose a moral claim constituting a right — the point of rights being to dissuade others from interfering with your person or property. Snakes and trees are not capable of being dissuaded in that manner. And so, on a deserted island, you would have no reason to conceive of rights in the first place.

Rights are a way of structuring a system for interacting with other people such that you can concentrate on creating value and trading it with them, rather than constantly looking over your shoulder and worrying about who might run off with what you have previously created. A right is not a simple attribute of the individual — it is about a chosen relationship you have with others for the sake of living a good life. What the concept of rights adds is the recognition that everyone following certain simple rules limiting how they interact with others is demonstrably and by far the most productive way for you to pursue your own interests in the midst of everyone else pursuing theirs.

And it is this recognition — not our perception of some attributes intrinsic to individual human beings — that prompts you to respect the rights of others. Rights are premised on a basic harmony of interests. One can imagine a society in which you are getting away with murder and theft, while no one dares assault or steel from you. But even if you were the one lucky enough to be dictator, it would be an extremely fragile and likely temporary state of affairs. You’d be constantly worrying about when it will all come crashing down, as the peasants revolt, or the generals stage a coup and string you up. Ultimately, for any rational actor with a long horizon, opting to live under a rights-based system is the smart choice.

But consider for a moment the following thought experiment. Suppose that a virus emerged and were transforming 50% of the population with a certain genetic susceptibility into sociopaths devoid of any compunction to respect others’ rights. Whenever they can avoid getting caught, they break into homes, they steal cars, they enslave children in their basements, etc., without a second thought. Rights would no longer exist in such a society — not merely that there would be rampant rights violations, but the very concept of rights would cease to be meaningful. Every other person you encounter, including the police, would be fine with murdering you for a slice of pizza if he could get away with it. Your entire sphere of concern would be reduced to the pursuit of physical safety and securing basic food and shelter resources.

Now suppose it weren’t 50% of the population, but 5% or 0.5%? — which is essentially what we have with the frequency of sociopaths in society today. At some point, you pass below a critical rate of violence, under which you can start to form robust expectations of safety and shift your focus to producing new values rather than erecting a fence around your house. This is a kind of phase transition in society, like when a liquid freezes into a solid. The two states of society — above and below the critical sociopath frequency — are structurally different just like H2O is different above and below 32 degrees. All the concepts you use to characterize society are therefore different depending on which state you are in. “Rights” is a powerful and explanatory concept in the sub-critical (low violence) state. In the super-critical (high violence) state, it is as meaningless as the concept of “elasticity” is in characterizing a liquid.

Islamism — the desire to impose Islam on society by force — is an ideology that effectively transforms its adherents into sociopaths in certain important areas of life. According to reliable surveys, a significant fraction (20% would be a conservative estimate) of Muslims globally exhibit core Islamist beliefs. It is not that these 300 million people have actually become sociopaths in a clinical sense, but that they embrace values that legitimize behavior indistinguishable from sociopathy as far as infidels or liberal Muslims are concerned: honor killings, murder of apostates, murder of adulterers, murder of cartoonists, subjugation of non-Muslims. Islamism is uniquely threatening in this respect among all ideologies in terms of the two important metrics: (i) inherent dangerousness of the ideas themselves, and (ii) current number of adherents.

Just as society exhibits a phase transition above a critical rate of sociopathy, so it does above a critical rate of Islamism. A nation of 0.5% Islamists can likely sustain freedoms robust enough for normal citizens to lead good lives. A nation of 50% Islamists cannot. The critical rate is certainly well below 50%, and it would be a bad idea for us to probe its exact value experimentally.

The fate of freedom-loving people in a society — including liberal Muslims, who are the first targets of Islamist violence — depends on a mechanism for clamping down the Islamism rate to very low levels. It is clearly in the interest of free people to enact immigration laws with this in mind.

Any effective mechanism to this end will register a number of false positives, causing many non-Islamists to be accidentally excluded as well. It is a tragic loss that worthy immigrants are accidentally denied access to freedom. But in the long run the open-borders alternative leaves us vulnerable to mass Islamist infiltration and an unacceptable risk of everyone ultimately being denied such freedom.

A view of rights in conflict with our clear interest in excluding Islamist immigrants is a flawed view. To go beyond this view we have to understand rights as a harmonious, decentralized means of leveraging human ambitions — not as inherent characteristics of individual humans. Such a perspective highlights certain social preconditions, apart from which the concept of rights itself becomes meaningless. It is a legitimate function of the state to maintain these preconditions precisely in order to make a society of rights possible in the first place. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, and the rights it describes are not the Kool-Aid cups.

Originally published on Medium. Republished in CapMag by permission of the author.

Eric Dennis, Ph.D., Physics, studied at Caltech, Princeton, and University of California Santa Barbara. His graduate work involved the theory of quantum computers and simulating quantum systems. Transitioning to quantitative finance, he has built derivatives models on trading desks at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Swiss Reinsurance, where he pioneered a unified, state-of-the-art modeling framework for portfolio credit derivatives. He currently works in asset management at a major insurance company. His experience in finance, complemented by independent study of monetary economics, provides a unique combination of hands-on knowledge and theoretical insight to assess current macroeconomic issues. His interests include questions of central planning, free banking, the use and abuse of mathematical models, and the scientific fundamentals of energy.


  1. No, there a only way of looking at immigration, and that’s, that NOBODY has the right to immigrate anywhere.

    As far as letting your admitted enemy into your country, that should be a crime, and anybody allowing it should be charged with treason.

  2. Don’t worry, Amy Peikoff and Bosch Fawstin will create a graphic novel that clarifies everything.

  3. There is only one human right, to not have force initiated against you and it is inherent to our sapience. It in fact applies to any sapient being who relies on their mind to survive anywhere in the universe.

  4. Excellent explanation of rights that clarifies the immigration issue particularly as it applies to political Islam, which is inherently incompatible with western standards of civilized conduct. Rights are not self-evident or they would be universally accepted. As this author demonstrates, individual rights are highly complex concepts that are derived form an understanding of human nature and the nature of government. Many of the problems we are see domestically are the result of not teaching those highly complex concepts in our schools since they are the glue that holds western civilization together and are as basic to the survival of western civilization as teaching the three R’s.

  5. I notice morality is blanked out on a dessert island. And morality is blanked out in discussing rights and their relationship to morality. And there is no clear demarcation line defining the third way to view “rights? You jumped into the third way without the announcement. You are a careless jumper expecting me to just jump when you do … at times without rhyme or reason. Jumping upon stepping stone ideas only you are aware of but I have to take on faith. At times loosing sight of principles. Let me say this … in the jungle you have morality but no “rights”, and in society you have morality and you create “rights”. In society, “rights” being an extension of morality within said social context. In society, men create a constitution- the Constitution of the United States. The first “moral” country in the history of the world.

  6. I’m sorry, but this is a completely non-objective, subjective and arbitrary view of rights. Rights are most definitely an inherent quality in the nature of human beings. Rights are not a ‘way of structuring’, rights are a sanction to act for each individual in a society to gain and keep values, and an injunction against others to keep them from interfering with that process.

    Rights exist inherent in each individual, regardless of whether or not any particular individual recognizes them or not. Based on these significant errors in the premises of this article, I have not read the full article since any conclusions based on this beginning will not be founded. This article should be pulled from the site.

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