For many Americans, the bungled attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran felt like the last straw. "My God," one acquaintance remarked the next day, "can't we do anything right any more?" A numbing malaise has spread across the land, as failure after failure in foreign policy parades across our TV screens and daily newspapers.
Yet it would be a mistake to identify the failings of a president with a failing of America. At the very moment when three RH-53 helicopters were breaking down in the desert, hundreds of small boats were setting out across the Florida Straits to bring Cuban refugees from the port of Mariel to this country. Day by day the numbers mounted: 350, 1,500, 3,500, 8,000, 15,000, 30,000, 43,000, 55,000…and the total continued climbing at press time.
Talk about foreign policy victories! Here was the socialist paradise of Fidel Castro—self-styled leader of the Third World, darling of leftists everywhere—hemorrhaging away its individualists once again. The country that seeks to export its "revolution" to the Caribbean and Africa is now described by former Castro aide and propagandist, Carlos Franqui, as "the mother prison, totally surrounded by water" (American Spectator, May 1980). Every Cuban must carry an internal passport at all times or be thrown in jail. Thousands are detained in prisons and labor camps. The economy is a disaster: the meat ration has been cut from 12 ounces every nine days to 12 ounces every 45 days; even black beans are in short supply, and tobacco must now be imported from Spain. Cuban officials in Washington estimate that as many as 200,000 people would like to emigrate to this country; that's on top of the 800,000 who have come here in the past two decades (out of 9.8 million people).
Handed this golden opportunity to contrast freedom with socialism, the Carter administration blew it again. First the State Department ordered boat owners not to go to Mariel to pick up refugees. When that had no effect, it hinted that only the first 3,500 people would be accepted, the rest deported. Then it agreed to accept them all "conditionally" for 60 days, to give immigration officials time to decide who is unacceptable. It has also begun handing out citations to boat owners, carrying penalties of up to $1,000 for each refugee carried!
The actions of the Cuban freedom-seekers—State Department morons not withstanding—are a ringing affirmation of the continuing attractiveness of America, a country founded on the idea of individual rights. Third World demagogues can harangue and denounce all they want, but the fact remains that individuals everywhere seek political and economic freedom—the opportunity to build a better life, with some reasonable chance of success and without fear of repression.
The United States once based its foreign policy, such as it was, on being a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world. Instead of propping up favored dictators and overthrowing disfavored ones, the US government minded its own business. And in those days that business consisted largely of providing a federal court system and maintaining sufficient defense forces to deter attacks. The results were twofold: the American idea attracted immigrants who wanted to build better lives here, and it inspired revolutions—not socialist revolutions, but revolutions against tyranny.
We could overcome America's malaise by restoring this country as a beacon of hope to freedom-seekers everywhere. That would require more than just giving up largely futile attempts to stage-manage world events. Specifically, it would require both a determined effort to restore real personal and economic freedom in this country and a willingness to open our doors to all who are willing to risk everything to get here.
What would this latter entail? To begin with, it would mean a complete reversal of the State Department's hostility to refugee sealifts like that from Mariel. It would also mean abolishing the untenable distinction between political and economic refugees. Under this doctrine, refugees from Haiti, for example, have been harassed and jailed after making the perilous 800-mile voyage to Florida. Apparently, because brutal dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier is not a Communist, the Haitians are considered to be "merely" seeking economic gain (such as three meals a day instead of starvation)—not unlike, incidentally, most of the Cubans arriving from Mariel. (This distinction perpetuates the false dichotomy between personal and economic freedom that underlies so much government meddling in our society.)
To be sure, many Americans are honestly fearful that under such a policy this country would be swamped by people who would become both a burden on the taxpayers and a social problem. Already, cries of fear and resentment are being heard from south Florida. To reassure such people, it would be reasonable to couple the new immigration policy with specific reforms along the following lines:
- Limit taxpayer-funded assistance to noncitizens to a relatively brief period after arrival.
- Repeal minimum wage laws so as to expand the market for labor.
- Abolish government programs mandating bilingualism.
Such policies would make it clear that the United States welcomes people who will take responsibility for their own lives and be productive citizens—as it did in the 19th century when most of our grandparents came here.
Fair-minded people of all political persuasions—liberal, conservative, libertarian—should support this kind of open-door policy. Conservative columnist George F. Will is one who would. In his syndicated column, Will had this to say about the exodus from Mariel:
Such people are a resource more precious than all the oil under Saudi Arabia. They are the kind of people who built America, who made it a beacon to the world, and who can help revitalize it. America can never have enough of them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Relight the Beacon of Liberty".