Arnold Kling  

A Good Line

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From Intuitionism to Contraria... Styles of Thought in Economics...

From Jeff Jacoby


Those immigrants didn't come here in order to be lawbreakers; they broke a law in order to come here.

If you had a store that was the only place people could go to buy bread, and people had to wait for hours to get to the checkout counter, some ordinarily honest people would end up stealing out of frustration. We need to fix the checkout counter in our immigration store. Right now, the people our system hurts the most are the people who try to get in legally.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Tom West writes:

As a pro-immigration Canadian, I'm not certain that's the analogy you want to use. If you have a natural monopoly, it's still your right to serve however and whoever you please and tough luck for the rest. Those who stole bread out of frustration would be expected to be punished despite the unreasonable policy.

As an aside, I think it really comes down to whether one considers the citizenry to be the current "owners" of the country, and thus have the moral right to use whatever criteria they choose to award right of entry.

Consequently, I believe the citizenry has the *right* to enact pretty much any policy they choose, even if I disagree with the policy itself.

John Personna writes:

I think we have to start with the acknowledgement that every nation has an immigration policy, and any such policy must needs-be arbitrary. It's a value judgement on which of the earth's six billion people you want. No one can take them all.

Immigration protesters want the "wider" view that we are all North Americans, and there should be no barrier between us. They presumably draw the line in the Pacific ocean, between "us" and China.

Given that every country can make their own rules, I'd make some which valued productive and successful people. That might be harsh. A "fair" alternative would be a lottery for all those billions looking for a better life ... but I'm not really sure we are under an obligation to do that.

Some of those folks might have an obligation to make success (and good government) where they are.

ajb writes:

We can't fix the system till we do a better job of kicking out illegals and those who have violated the laws. A law abiding foreigner applying to enter legally can be denied a visa for the most routine or arbitrary of infractions. Or even on a whim of the interviewer. Often with minimal appeal. In contrast, an illegal who sneaks in, flouts the rules, and even commits a crime cannot be easily expelled under the current system. Assuming we continue to have any immigration restrictions, we should be fairer to the legals (i.e. those desired by the US according to the system we setup) and tougher on the illegals (those who came in despite formal restrictions on their admission).

Richard A. writes:

Burglars don't enter a building in order to be lawbreakers; they break the law in order to enter a building.

ruddyturnstone writes:

There are other things to eat besides bread. But, let's say you meant food instead of bread.

Still, the analogy fails.

There are other places on this Earth where one can live, including the country of one's citizenship, besides the USA. The US has a monopoly on nothing, never mind on a can't be replaced, actually must have to live item like food.

Gavin Andresen writes:

RE: Richard A's comment:

Of COURSE burglars enter buildings to break the law; they enter buildings to steal stuff, which is most definitely against the law.

If they weren't there to steal stuff, then they're just trespassers, which is a much lesser crime.

Illegal immigrants are trespassers on "our" public property; I don't think that should be illegal, because I don't want to have to show my citizenship papers every time I walk across a public park and because I think the benefits of open and free immigration outweigh the costs.

Dr. T writes:

Arnold Kling's analogy would work better if the USA were the only bread store. It isn't. I agree that the check-in system needs a complete overhaul, but those who wanted a better opportunity did not have to break the law to get it. For example, Costa Rica is democratic, allows immigration, has a good economy, and has a generous public safety net. For most immigrants, working legally there would yield a higher net income than working illegally in the USA.

ThomasL writes:

I think there is a generally corrosive moral effect in living outside the law while simultaneously observing other people which are constrained to live within it.

That is, one group of people (citizens and legal immigrants) must pay taxes, abide by employment law, insurance regulation, traffic licensure, &c. and another group of people (illegal immigrants) need not abide by any of them.

I don't agree with many of the tax, insurance, and labor laws in play, but there is no moral justification for carving out a single group to be exempt while bringing the full weight of government to enforce against the other.

In no way by that list do I mean to say that the "beyond the law" problem is not limited to those, mostly administrative, types of law. The incentives that arise from realizing one is not bound by the laws of society are more comprehensive than tax law. The counter argument usually holds that most the people that come illegally are nonetheless good people just trying to make a living. This quote from Jacoby makes that very assertion. It may begin that way, but it is not enough to leave it there. Such a case must either the completely dispute the effect of these disturbed incentives, or carry an tone of the superlative. That is, it isn't enough that illegal immigrants be as good as anyone else, they most be the better than anyone else, able to resist any symptom of moral corruption that living outside the law might have upon any other person.

In practice, in "sanctuary" cities, tax and employment law is the least of the problems.**

It hasn't been uncommon in my city for illegal immigrants to be released many times on felonious as well as traffic and other minor disturbance violations.

In one incident recently an illegal immigrant, who had been picked up multiple times previously for DUI, killed a toddler while driving intoxicated. He attempted to flee the scene but was apprehended. Once again he was released within hours of his arrest. He was not retained until a local congressman became outraged and had the state police locate and arrest the man, since the city would not hold him.

It is inconceivable that any person here legally (citizen or immigrant) would have such a blank check, that driving with no license (obviously), multiple offenses, intoxicated, and attempting to flee a fatal accident, would be released RoR within hours.

** (Though even that holds in it the element of theft, since people are consuming and participating in services they do not pay for, which were arranged, payment schemes devised, and popular agreement secured when their participation was not expected. It was uncontested in recent debates between D and R in my own state, that the annual cost per illegal immigrant in services consumed was more than double the annual revenue collected per person.)

Steve Sailer writes:

That's exactly what I told the security guards who hauled me off the Augusta National Golf Course after I had dug under their fence and was about to tee it up on the famous 13th hole where the Masters so often hinges. I had put my application in for membership at Augusta National years ago, but the club kept telling me, "Don't call us, we'll call you." It's been years now!

I told the club's guards as they turned me over to the Augusta Police Department that they need to fix their broken application-for-membership system.

Doc Merlin writes:

Hear hear!

CJ Smith writes:

Argument by analogy - always a great way to confuse a topic. Let's change the analogy a bit, and see if it might impact the analysis, particularly when we attempt to factor in labor considerations.

Instead of a bread store, consider the U.S. a restaurant - the most popular restaurant in the world. There are other restaurants, and many people prefer the cooking and ambience at those other restaurants, but the demand for our particular food and atmosphere exceeds the seating capacity and our wait staff's ability to serve.

There are three types of diners in our restaurant: 1. regulars, people who have been dining at the restaurant so long that they are seated on appearance; 2. guests with reservations, people who are seated only because they specifically requested entrance, and agreed to abide by the rules in exchange for the meal, including wearing ties to dine (even though regulars are not required to); and 3. gate crashers, those who bribed the maitre'd, snuck in the back door or came on a reservation, but didn't leave when they were supposed to.

Type 3 diners will do just about anything to eat at the restaurant (and ship doggie bags home for the family): they will scrub floors, clean toilets, clean the smoke hoods and grease traps, etc. One of the ways they get in is because the people running the restaurant (as opposed to the people eating there) like having a clean-up crew that will work for a seat, rather than a seat and a wage, like most of the help (who are regulars on their nights off).


Why are we missing the obvious? Build a bigger restaurant, using the type 2 and type 3 guests to do so! Or expand into a franchise.

The "immigration problem" is only a problem if you accept two underlying premises (one for each side), neither of which I think stands up to scrutiny:

1. Citizenship in the United States is a limited commodity, and should therefore be treated like a commodity. If this was truly the case, why are there no (or so few) ways of removing the benefits of citizenship from those who are born to them (the regular customers and their families)? Why are natual born citizens not required to pass citizenship tests (that most would fail miserably)? Why can't citizenship be sold by the holders of the commodity (the citizens) rather than the distributor (the government)?

2. The economic benefits of U.S. citizenship can be divorced from the legal benefits and responsibilities. Thus, because the U.S. does treat citizenship as a scarce commodity, the ends justify the means in acquiring the commodity - "The point is to get in the door, not what type of diner you are." I have never been comfortable with a demand for all of the rights without a commensurate undertaking of all the responsibilities, or a cherry-picking of the rights and responsibilities to satisfy the present situation. Many (most?) illegal immigrants try to use this to validate their actions.

John Personna writes:

CJ, that's the first time I heard of citizenship as a marketable commodity. I think I like it.

... hmmm, I wonder what a Canadian swap would cost.

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