Published June 29, 2023
As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis starts his run for president, he is seeking to burnish his foreign policy credentials by taking a tough line on China. Last month, he signed into law SB 264, a bill banning Chinese citizens from owning real estate in the State of Florida, announcing, “Florida is taking action to stand against the United States’ greatest geopolitical threat—the Chinese Communist Party.”
The law makes specific exceptions for Chinese immigrants who have earned U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent resident status, and allows temporary visa holders from China to buy one property, so long as it was less than two acres and not within five miles of a military installation or critical infrastructure facility. Although the bill earned huge bipartisan support, passing the House 95-17, it came under immediate withering fire from progressive groups, with the ACLU announcing a lawsuit two weeks later.
Opponents of the law have hastened to compare the law to Jim Crow-era race laws, or even to the mass internment of Asian Americans during World War II. As with nearly every attempt by conservatives to secure American borders and resources, progressives have responded with a chorus of “racism,” “xenophobia” and “discrimination.” While no law is perfect, and there may be ways of improving SB 264, the furor it has provoked suggests that some of us need a lesson in the basic purposes of politics, beginning with that ugly word “discrimination.”
Properly speaking, to “discriminate” means simply to discern a difference between two options. Given that this is the starting point for all logical reasoning and decision-making, discrimination used to be considered an intellectual virtue. There are still a few contexts where we use it positively (“he’s gained a wide following for his ‘tough-guy’ image, but more discriminating voters still favor the more experienced candidate”), but by and large, the word has become a catch-all insult, a way of dismissing any value judgments that progressives do not share.
But surely what matters when it comes to “discrimination” is whether two things really are different in a relevant sense. When it comes to politics and law, skin color should not be relevant. But citizenship? That’s another matter. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything more relevant for political decisions than whether an individual is an American citizen or a foreigner—and if a foreigner, whether the nation in question is friendly or hostile to the United States. A nation that fails to discriminate in a meaningful way between citizens and non-citizens or friends and enemies is a nation that won’t be around for long.
However, in a virtual reductio ad absurdum of progressives’ repudiation of nationhood, a senior attorney at the ACLU involved with the lawsuit, Ashley Gorski, declared, “Everyone in the United States is entitled to equal protection under our laws, including citizens of other countries.” To be sure, there are plenty of constitutional rights that we extend even to non-citizens, such as the rights of legal due process if accused of a crime. But there are others that we rightly recognize to be privileges of citizenship, such as the right to vote. In which category does property ownership fall?
According to the ACLU’s reasoning, it is a basic human right for me to be able to own property anywhere I want on the planet. And to be fair, many conservatives in the 1990s, in their enthusiasm over the global expansion of free markets following the fall of the Soviet Union, fell into the same way of thinking. But older generations of conservatives recognized the close link between property-ownership and citizenship. To own landed property in a country is to have a claim on its soil, its resources, its infrastructure, and its protection—which is ordinarily the prerogative of its citizens. To be sure, a nation can extend this privilege to friendly non-citizens, but it has no obligation to declare its land free for the taking by investors from hostile nations.
Of course, not every Chinese national trying to buy a home in America comes with hostile intent. And clearly, multi-generational Chinese-Americans, who may face extra scrutiny from realtors in the wake of SB 264, do not deserve to be lumped in with CCP agents. The lawsuit rightly complains that some individuals will suffer “unfairly” as a result of this law. However, that is true of every law. Law is a blunt instrument; it cannot discriminate perfectly between the deserving and the undeserving. That is something to lament, and we should work for the fairest laws we can. But a law that hastened to extend privileges to adversaries while failing to adequately protect American citizens would be the unfairest of all.
Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.