Titles of Nobility: Poverty, Immigration & Property in a Free &
Joseph William Singer*
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DR. WATSON go on a camping trip. They set up
their tent, have a modest meal, and go to sleep. In the middle of
the night, Holmes wakes Watson up and asks him, "What do you
see?" Watson looks up and sees the night sky and he tells Holmes
so. "What does it mean?" Holmes asks. Watson looks at Holmes,
trying to figure out what he's getting at. He's sure to be wrong, of
course, whatever he says, but he gives it a try nevertheless: "It
means," Watson says, "that the universe is vast and mysterious
and our knowledge limited. It means that we only understand
what we can observe and that—" Holmes interrupts him. "No, you
idiot," he says. "It means someone has stolen our tent."
Sometimes it is important to state the obvious, to confront
truths so fundamental we have forgotten to see them. Here is a
simple truth. Human beings have needs, and we cannot live
without access to the things we need. Here is another truth: both
sovereignty and property are premised on exclusion.1 That leaves
us with a problem. How do we reconcile our needs and our
The American tradition emphasizes the equal status of all
persons. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [human
beings] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator
with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness." If all human beings are free and
equal, then each person is entitled to belong somewhere and to
obtain the things they need to live and to be free. Yet not all
sovereigns enable their people to live in freedom; nor do they
ensure that their people can obtain basic sustenance, much less
live fulfilling lives. If people cannot obtain what they need where
they are, or if they have no place where they are entitled to be,
then our exclusion of them denies their humanity.
What do immigration and poverty have in common? They
concern the economy of belonging; they distinguish insiders and
outsiders. I am the son of an immigrant and the grandson of
immigrants. My father was born in Poland, but if anyone asks I do
not say I have Polish ancestry. I am Jewish and the Jews in Poland
were a people apart. They had been welcomed and flourished for
hundreds of years but by the twentieth century, the welcome had
worn away. At the time of my father's birth in 1919, Jews were
increasingly subject to racist violence and discrimination. They
were in constant physical danger. They had lived in Poland for
centuries, but they were not at home.
My grandparents escaped the pogroms and brought my father to this
country as a small child in 1922. My grandparents left
their brothers and sisters behind. The Nazis came to power and
my father's cousins – my cousins – all died in the Shoah, the
Holocaust. I am lucky my grandparents passed through Ellis
Island when they did.
A few years ago a politically conservative man in our
synagogue was bemoaning taxes and regulations. He said, "what
has the government ever done for me?" I was astonished to hear
him say this. I asked him when his family came to United States.
They came around the time my father came with all the other Jews
escaping oppression and poverty in Europe. I thought of my
cousins and I said to him, "well that's one thing the US
government did for you – it let you in. You think the US
government never did anything for you? It saved your life."
The problem of access is not limited to entry to the land; it
also concerns entry to opportunity. I grew up in New Jersey. All
right, I've heard all the New Jersey jokes; I've even told a few of
them myself. And I admit it – the New Jersey Turnpike is one of
the ugliest pieces of real estate on the eastern seaboard. But I am
proud of my roots. New Jersey is called the Garden State and for
good reason. I grew up near woods and farms and sandy beaches.
My parents moved to New Jersey in the 1950s because my
father could not find an engineering job in New York City. At that
time, many companies in New York would not hire Jewish
engineers. Discrimination was widespread. But Monmouth County
in New Jersey was home to Fort Monmouth and to Bell
Laboratories and both of them hired Jews. I grew up in New Jersey
because it let us in. I grew up in New Jersey because the United
States gave my father a job; he was not turned away because he
was different. New Jersey saved my father's life.
And yet no sovereign has open borders and no owner can let
everyone in. Owners and non-owners are not on equal footing; nor
are citizens and noncitizens. Equality before the law does not
mean that we do not allocate entitlements; I have rights in my
home that you do not have. And this does not, by itself, treat you
unequally or deny you equal concern and respect. The law makes
distinctions and the distinction between those who are entitled to
be in a place and those who are not is one of the most fundamental.
It is a core norm of both sovereignty and ownership.
Borders protect those who are entitled to be inside but they
leave others out in the cold. Jeremy Waldron teaches us that
"[e]verything that is done has be done somewhere."2 If a city
prohibits homeless persons from sleeping in public parks, and it
does not provide sufficient shelters for them, then it has
effectively passed a law forbidding the homeless to sleep. If all
cities can do this, they would turn homeless persons into outlaws.
Denying a person a place to be denies that person's humanity.
Nations cannot make it illegal for a person to exist but neither
nations nor owners can open themselves to all comers.
What happens if we let someone in or they happen to find
their way in What then? The subject of the stranger is an old one.
The book of Leviticus says something about it. "When a stranger
resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The
stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your
citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in
the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God."3 This famous passage
does not require us to erase the distinction between strangers and
citizens; what it requires is love.
What does love mean in this context? The reference to Egypt
is a clue. At the very least, treating a stranger with love means that
you cannot treat the stranger as a slave, as something less than
human. Yet love is something more than this. The Bible talks over
and over again about our obligations to the stranger. We are told
that Abraham and Sarah were sitting at the entrance of their tent
at the hottest part of the day, and they saw three strangers
approach. Abraham ran to greet them and invited them in. He and
Sarah fed and sheltered them. They did not invite the strangers to
stay permanently, but they did what was necessary for people far
I am from Boston and I lived through the recent Marathon
bombings. One of the gunfights in Watertown took place about a
mile from my home. I have read the anxious musings about the
fact that the bombers came from elsewhere and somehow rejected
American values. I have read with distress the few stories about
people who have been accosted or attacked because they were
thought to be Moslem and some idiot thought that meant they
must be terrorists. But these anti-immigrant feelings have been
scarce. It was a pair of immigrants, after all, who showed
extraordinary bravery in helping capture the bombers. It was
immigrants who rushed to help strangers injured by the bombs. It
did not matter whether those strangers were from Boston or
Ethiopia, from Texas or Mexico. At that moment, they were people
in need; at that moment, it did not matter if they were from
Boston or from elsewhere. At that moment, they were our people.
Whenever I am depressed about the state of the world, I reread
a book by Philip Hallie about a small town in France called Le
Chambon-sur-Lignon. That town sheltered thousands of Jews
during World War II, protecting them from the occupying Nazi
forces. When Jews appeared at the doors of the homes in Le
Chambon, the people let them in, at great risk to themselves.
Years later, when they were asked why this did this dangerous
thing, the villagers were annoyed. "Look," one of them said, "who
else would have taken care of them if we didn't? They needed our
help, and they needed it then."4 Jews appeared at their gates and
the villagers did not see strangers; they saw human beings,
standing outside, in need. They invited them in.
The strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah were actually
angels. The word angel in Hebrew means "messenger from God."
The angels were there with a message, that Sarah would bear a
child. The news they brought made Sarah laugh. If she and her
husband had not invited them in, they would not have received
the message and perhaps there would have been no Isaac and
perhaps there would have be no laughter. The people of Le
Chambon saw the refugees flooding their town and knew the
danger they brought with them, but the villagers did not turn them
away. They had read that "you shall not oppress a stranger, for
you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been
strangers in the land of Egypt."5 The townspeople of Le Chambon
were Protestants in a Catholic country and they had themselves
suffered many years of oppression and been refugees themselves.
They remembered. There were strangers at their gates whose very
presence put them in danger, and all they could think of was that
they should love them as themselves.
The line between lawful and unlawful residence in a place is
more complicated than we may assume. When Suzette Kelo's case
was decided by the Supreme Court, there was an outcry by many
in the country. Never before, many claimed, had the government
taken the property of some to transfer it to others simply because
the new owner would make a better or more productive use of the
land. I specialize in federal Indian law and I can tell you that when
I heard that argument, it made me cringe. The origin of land titles in
the United States rests on this very principle. Land was taken from the
few for redistribution to the many because Indian nations were
thought to have more than they needed and because they were
using the property inefficiently; the colonists thought that if the
Indians adopted a different lifestyle, then more people could live
on less land. The colonists needed that land and they thought it
would be selfish of the Indians to continue their inferior lifestyle
while withholding land that good Christians needed.
The hue and cry about so-called "illegal immigration" should
lead us to a greater humility than we may yet have found. After all,
if the forced seizure of land from Indian nations cannot be
justified from a moral point of view, then illegal immigration is a
greater problem than we have imagined. But it is not Mexican
immigrants we should be worrying about; it is the ninety-eight
percent of us who are non-Indians occupying tribal lands.
We do not like to think about this painful fact from our
history. After all, the land seizures happened long ago. Well, how
long does it take before a resident has the right to be treated like a
citizen? This is a question that millions of undocumented persons
would like to know. If time heals no wounds and confers no rights,
then the entire country is in jeopardy. Our nation was founded on
illegal immigration. The arguments against rewarding wrongdoing
and law breaking are ones we should be hesitant to make; they
may come back to haunt us.
My colleagues and students often ask me why we have tribal
sovereignty. Why should Indians have special rights that no other
Americans have? I understand why people ask this question but I
have to complain about the way it is framed. The question shows
ignorance of both US history and law. It suggests that the US
conquered the Indians long ago and that tribal sovereignty is a
recent innovation by liberals in Washington DC. The truth is that
conquest was never complete. There are 566 federally-recognized
Indian nations within US borders and their sovereignty precedes
that of the United States. The US recognizes their sovereignty
because it was diminished but never abrogated.
If you ask why we should have tribal sovereignty, you are
really asking, "why don't we get rid of it?" And, although you may
not realize it, that is the same as asking "why don't we invade
Canada"? To ask that question is to answer it. The current debates
about immigration reform should lead us to reflect on – and to
better understand – the historical origins of tribal sovereignty and
its place within the United States. If we do that, we will recognize
that almost all of us are immigrants and that we settled this land
illegally; colonialism violates international law as we now
understand it. The Indian nations who were here before the rest of
us have been more than hospitable and we should be grateful that
we can share the land with them.
The image of the immigrant as the poor supplicant ignores
the economic reality that the United States is dependent on
immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented. The low
wages paid to many workers brings us to the problem of poverty.
We should worry, not just for those who cannot work or who
cannot find work, but for those who work for wages inadequate to
a comfortable and joyful human life. In her book Nickel and Dimed
Barbara Ehrenreich describes her attempt to live on the minimum
wage for a year. She tried valiantly to do this but she failed. She
simply could not do it. "We should feel "shame," she says, "at our
own dependence… on the underpaid labor of others."
When someone works for less pay than she can live on—
when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more
cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great
sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her
abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they
are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists
of our society. They neglect their own children so that the
children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard
housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they
endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices
high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an
anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.6
Poverty has been surprisingly hard to abolish. Yet if we
understand the ideals on which our country was founded, we will
discover that doing so is a moral imperative. Our nation was born
in a fit of idealism. While failing to abolish slavery, the Founding
Fathers firmly rejected feudalism. My own state of New Jersey was
born a feudal domain in the 1660s with two lords and many
tenants. Yet for a hundred years, many of the tenants refused to
submit to the lords or to pay their feudal rents. They claimed
freehold title to their lands and independence from feudal ties.7
The conflict ended about the time of American Independence. To
this day, the governing body of my home of Monmouth County is
called the Board of Chosen Freeholders. Our county seat, where
Bruce Springsteen went to high school, is called Freehold. The
freeholders in New Jersey threw off lordly rule and helped invent
democracy. But they also helped invent and propagate the idea
that all human beings are created equal.
We may have titles to land but we have no titles of nobility.
In two little-noted clauses, the US Constitution absolutely
prohibits both states and the Congress from granting any titles of
nobility.8 The nobility clauses are not outdated relics; they embody
the core values of a free and democratic society. To outlaw titles of
nobility is to outlaw the practice of distinguishing human beings
into classes or castes, of treating some as nobility and others as
commoners, of distinguishing between gentlemen and the
"meaner" classes.9 As Gordon Wood explains in The Radicalism of
the American Revolution, our nation extended the concept of dignity
from lords and gentleman to the people.10 It took later generations
to extend it from masters to servants, from slave owners to slaves,
from men to women, from Christians to non-Christians, from the
temporarily abled to those with disabilities, and from the rich to
I recently visited South Africa and attended a conference of
property law professors. That nation is wrestling with the problem
of how to respect property rights while redistributing them to
undo decades of racial oppression. How can the rights of owners
be respected while righting the historic wrongs of apartheid? How
can one protect property while taking it away? The question begs
the question; that is to say, ownership of property is only
presumptively legitimate and lawful. Possession may be nine-tenths
of the law but that other tenth matters. Property rights in a free
and democratic society cannot be justified unless they are open to
There is a moment in the second Harry Potter book where
Harry is talking to a house elf named Dobby. It is the first time
Harry has ever seen a house elf; indeed, he did not even know they
exist. In the course of things, Harry does a simple, ordinary act; he
says, politely, "Sit down."11 A simple thing, not the stuff of legends,
not an astonishing act of wizardly power, but an act of ordinary
kindness. Yet this simple, seemingly innocuous act drives Dobby
into convulsive tears. Dobby has never met a wizard who treated
him with common decency; the only wizards he has known look at
him with contempt. And as the story develops, Dobby plays a
larger role until, one day, he frees Harry and his friends from
prison and saves Harry's life at the cost of his own. Harry sees a
creature very different from himself, someone who is not even
human, but Harry does not see someone who therefore does not
deserve respect. Quite the opposite. He sees a stranger in distress
in his house and he asks him to sit down.
Jeremy Waldron has argued we should support the
institution of private property because it promotes liberty. But
because we also believe in equality, we must enable every person
to become an owner so every person can be free.12 Poverty is, in
principle, incompatible with democracy. And we will not solve
poverty simply by redistributing money from the rich to the poor.
The poor do not need charity; what they need is equality. What
they need is what the United States and the state of New Jersey
did for my family; they let us in. We tend to naturalize the results
of the market economy, contrasting the free market and
government regulation. But markets do not exist in nature; they
are established and defined by law. Poverty results not from
natural market forces but from the way we have shaped corporate
law, labor law, employment law, trade law, education law, and yes
property law. Poverty is neither a natural disaster nor an act of
God. It is a preventable disease. The question is not whether we
can do anything about it; the question is whether we want to.
There is a story about a rabbi who enters the sanctuary
before the High Holy Days and who prostrates himself on the floor.
"Oh God before you I am nothing." The cantor sees the rabbi
praying on the floor and what does he do? He throws himself
down next to the rabbi, and echoes "before you God I am nothing, I
am less than the dust in the wind." The janitor in the back of the
room sees the rabbi and the cantor on the floor and what can he
do but copy them? He too throws himself down on the floor and
says, "Oh God before you I am nothing; I am less than the squeak
of the door." The cantor nudges the rabbi and points back to the
janitor and says, "look who thinks he's nothing…"
We have no titles of nobility in America; we have no lords,
no commoners. And yet we continue to treat some as more worthy
than others. Some of those distinctions can be justified, but others
cannot be defended from a moral point of view. We may have title
to land but we have no titles of nobility. We cannot benefit from
the labor of millions of immigrants and then deny their humanity.
We cannot organize our economy so that its bounty is captured by
the top one-tenth of one percent. We cannot allow poverty to
persist and then call ourselves a democracy. We cannot claim we
have an immigration problem while refusing to recognize that we
are the immigrants. We cannot wrong the stranger while
forgetting that we are strangers ourselves.
Thomas Paine wrote that "dignities and high sounding
names…over-awe [and] bewitch" us.13 He thought that we sacrifice
common sense, as well as our liberty, when we treat some as
inherently more worthy than others. We should be especially
careful if the ones we glorify are ourselves. There is nothing wrong
with calling ourselves by high-sounding names, as long as we
deserve it. But there is something wrong if we find strangers
among us who are in distress and we forget to ask them to sit
* ©Joseph William Singer 2013. Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. Thanks and
affection go to Martha Minow, Mira Singer. This talk was delivered at
the AALS Conference on Poverty, Immigration, and Property held in San
Diego, June 2013.
1 LAURA S. UNDERKUFFLER, THE IDEA OF PROPERTY: ITS MEANING AND
POWER 141 (2003)(“The very nature of these resources, and of individual property
claims to them, means that the extension of property protection in such
resources to one person necessarily and inevitably denies the same rights to
2 Jeremy Waldron, Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom, 39 UCLA L.
REV. 295, 296 (1991).
3 Leviticus (Vayikra) 19:34.
4 PHILIP HALLIE, LEST INNOCENT BLOOD BE SHED: THE STORY OF THE VILLAGE
OF LE CHAMBON AND HOW GOODNESS HAPPENED THERE 127 (1994).
5 Exodus (Shemot) 23:9.
6 BARBARA EHRENREICH, NICKEL AND DIMED: ON (NOT) GETTING BY IN AMERICA 221 (2001).
7 See BRENDAN MCCONVILLE, THOSE DARING DISTURBERS OF THE PUBLIC PEACE: THE STRUGGLE
FOR PROPERTY AND POWER IN EARLY NEW JERSEY (UNIV. OF PENN. PRESS 1999).
8 U.S. CONST. art. I, §9 ("No Title of Nobility shall be granted by
United States"); U.S. CONST. art. I, §10 (prohibiting the states from
granting any "Title of Nobility").
9 GORDON S. WOOD, THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION 23
10 Id. at 229–286.
11 J.K. ROWLING, HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS 15
12 See JEREMY WALDRON, THE RIGHT TO PRIVATE PROPERTY 329 (1988)
(stating that “people need private property for the development and
exercise of their liberty; that is why it is wrong to take all of a person’s private
property away from him, and . . . why it is wrong that some individuals should have no
private property at all”). See also JOSEPH WILLIAM SINGER, ENTITLEMENT: THE PARADOXES OF PROPERTY
167-71 (2000) (asserting that everyone deserves the right to private property).
13 Thomas Paine, 1 THE WRITINGS OF THOMAS PAINE 46 (Moncure Daniel
Conway ed. 1894)(original in PA. MAGAZINE (May, 1775))