Weeks after the Burleigh County Commission voted to accept 25 refugees, the debate continues among some North Dakotans. Others are focused on addressing issues raised at the commission meeting, like homelessness and poverty. I commend the Missouri Slope Areawide United Way for completing its weeklong fundraising campaign, “Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth is for Homelessness.”
As the dust settles and our community moves onward, I feel compelled to set the record straight on some lingering questions. Namely, why was North Dakota Rep. Rick Becker so interested in this county commission issue? Why did he facilitate so much anti-refugee sentiment online? What, if anything, did he have to gain from misdirecting fear and resentment of voters/donors?
First, I can tell you that Rep. Becker betrayed his free-market patron saint, 19th century French legislator Frédéric Bastiat. One might expect that a prominent member of our Legislature’s own “Bastiat caucus” would share Bastiat’s views. I guess it’s easy for politicians to claim affiliation with Bastiat’s legacy. It’s something else entirely to walk the walk.
In the 1830s, some Polish exiles sought refuge in France. Bastiat used his platform to generate support for these refugees. To Bastiat, refugees without freedom of movement are “prisoners of war.” He felt that all Frenchmen with “some spark of humanity and justice in their hearts” should welcome free movement of refugees. Bastiat also saw the government as “satirizing” itself when politicians claim public order is threatened by refugees. In other words, Bastiat thinks it’s a bad joke -- and dishonest -- when politicians treat refugees like boogeymen.
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Deputy Bastiat saw free movement as necessary for refugees’ economic recovery. He also welcomed refugees’ participation in the French workforce, arguing that free movement of refugees would increase efficiency. Thus, rejecting refugees is far from “pro-market.” If it was, why would an influential pro-market thinker have spent energy defending refugees?
Ultimately, it’s safe to say Rep. Becker’s interest in the resettlement of refugees in Burleigh County wasn’t Bastiat-inspired. If it was, we’d have seen very different behavior from Dr. Becker. Instead, we were repeatedly told that he’s “just asking questions.” This trick gives Becker “plausible deniability” if accused of scapegoating refugees and manipulating voters/donors with fear. Stated plainly, the District 7 House representative used social media and a public podium to encourage voters/donors to fear and resent refugees. However, he did so while pretending he was merely asking innocent questions. It’s as if Becker bears no responsibility for constituents’ false beliefs about safety or refugee resettlement costs.
Why would a politician manipulate voters/donors into fear, distrust, and resentment based on falsehoods? The answer, of course, is to increase campaign donations, electoral gains, and personal power without having to engage in the real demands of public service. That sure seems like what Rep. Becker is up to, and you know what they say about shoes that fit. This sleight-of-hand manages to be anti-market and anti-democratic at the same time. Impressive.
I’ll close with a quote from Bastiat on his support for free movement for refugees. I hope it counters the erasure of real-life Bastiat, and that it encourages humility in us all:
“It is a question of justice and humanity toward our unfortunate brethren.” Bastiat continues poetically, “It is a question of not pouring absinthe and bile into the cup of exile, which is already bitter enough.”
Ellie Shockley is a social scientist and education researcher. This column represents her personal views and not the views of any organization. She completed a doctorate at the University of Chicago and postdoctorate at Nebraska. She lives in Mandan.