Bryan Caplan  

Thank Obama for All He's Done

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While I still harbor doubts about implementation, Obama's recent executive order on immigration exceeds my wildest hopes from two months ago.  Yet to be honest, I'm having trouble feeling thankful.  Not because I'm afraid he's "undermined the rule of law."  Legal arguments aside, I strongly believe that unjust laws should not be enforced and broken whenever expedient.  No, I'm having trouble feeling thankful about Obama's executive action because:

1. Philosophically, I think Obama should be judged relative to what he was morally obliged to do, not relative to what presidents usually do.  And he was and remains morally obliged to do far more. For starters, it is in his power to extend lifelong deferred action to every illegal immigrant, and pardon everyone in prison for immigration offenses.

2. I strongly oppose almost everything else Obama's done, leading to a reverse-halo effect.  On an emotional level, I dislike the man and what he stands for so intensely that I find it hard to give him credit where credit is due.  Not that I consider Obama especially awful for a politician; every successful politician of every party makes my flesh crawl.

3. To avoid feeling miserable about politics all the time, I've cultivated a mentality of detachment from public affairs.  I haven't simply lowered my expectations; that would make me appreciate Obama's actions all the more.  Instead, I've inwardly given up.  The downside: Good news tempts me to start caring, a prospect that fills me with dread given the daily travesty of politics.

Are any of these good reasons to not be thankful for what Obama's done?  Not really.  Reason-by-reason self-criticism:

1. Yes, Obama ought to do much more, but millions of innocents have still received a major reprieve.   

2. The reverse-halo effect is a cognitive bias that we must strive to resist.

3. Emotional detachment is no excuse for factual denial.  Caring too much about what Obama does is hazardous for my peace of mind, but I still have to admit that he's given genuine hope to millions of innocent people.

The upshot: Despite my odd personal issues, I wholeheartedly thank Obama for all he's done for illegal immigrants.  He should do much more.  But most men in his position would have done nothing or worse than nothing.  This Thanksgiving, millions are thankful that they may finally be allowed to legally work.  Their entire families are thankful.  And so am I.




COMMENTS (13 to date)
Robert Franklin writes:

Curious ... "On an emotional level, I dislike the man and what he stands for so intensely that I find it hard to give him credit where credit is due" ... what is it that you think he stands for that you find so odious?

John T. Kennedy writes:

I see no need to thank him, though I still appreciate the benefit.

vikingvista writes:

When someone does a good thing for sinister reasons, I am happy to stay out of his way for that thing, but awarding him gratitude only encourages his sinister reasons going forward. It does not encourage good reasons, and it certainly doesn't encourage accidently doing even more good for his persistently sinister intentions.

You don't praise a wolf for snacking on garden vermin in between devouring your children. Bringing up silver linings really can be ridiculous, even if true.

Carl S. writes:

The "reverse halo effect" has a standard name: the horns effect.

michael svehla writes:

..........but millions of innocents.......

Who is innocent?

Mike H writes:
..........but millions of innocents.......

Who is innocent?

Anyone who breaks immoral laws.

George White writes:

[Comment removed for crude language.--Econlib Ed.]

bobroberts17e1 writes:

"I shall on all subjects have a policy to recommend, but none to enforce against the will of the people. Laws are to govern all alike—those opposed as well as those who favor them. I know no method to secure the repeal of bad or obnoxious laws so effective as their stringent execution."
-Ulysses S. Grant, often accredited to Abraham Lincoln

awp writes:

"Legal arguments aside, I strongly believe that unjust laws should not be enforced and broken whenever expedient."

"every successful politician of every party makes my flesh crawl."

I agree with all of the post's sentiments.

This is my difficulty. When, invariably, the person who has the power to decide whether a law shouldn't be enforced, is someone who makes my flesh crawl, I am a little wary of giving them the power to pick and choose which laws should be enforced.

Nathan W writes:

If the president has the right to pardon one person, does he therefore have the right to pardon one million people, and moreover to pardon them continuously for contravening laws and practices which remain on the books?

I'm totally with you on a moral obligation to not enforce unjust laws, and to resist their enforcement in any sociably reasonable manner, but I'm not sure whether the right to pardon even a few hundred people is the same as the right to essentially rewrite the application of law by writ. I shudder to think of the absurdity or oppressiveness with which some future president could apply the legal logic were the practice to become normalized. I really think it's a matter of leaving police to prioritize their own resources and focusing on process to formally get something ethically and legally coherent to make all this nonsense sensible. But then with the amount of incoherent mumbo jumbo and in cases borderline brainwashing on matters of supposed immigration dangers which prevail in some areas, it is hard to see how there will be much consensus on the matter any time soon. Those whose forefathers who were ready to make war to defend the right to enslave "lesser" men are now unwilling to share it with those who would work harder for less.

LD Bottorff writes:

I don't understand how the President could extend lifelong protection to any undocumented immigrant. Once he is out of power, the next president can choose to enforce laws written by Congress. Enlighten us, Professor.

jcee writes:

One reason Obama is especially dangerous and his betrayal of principle so especially shameful, is because he was invested with the halo that came with being a minority outsider and an alleged agent-of-change. In the course of the 2008 campaign he charmed and seduced millions of voters into believing that he was substantively different and would in some way revolutionize politics in America. But over time he has resorted to capitulation and accommodation of the very demons he was supposed to exorcise - while of course continuing to front the lib-dem rhetoric of "hope" etc.

Wall Street has gone effectively unpunished... he has catered to all types of reactionary corporate interests... he has doubled down on some of the most repellent aspects of Bush foreign policy - particularly the use of predator drones that have caused large numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. Washington's complicity in the coup in Kiev earlier in the year is another example of the type of interference and destabilization he preaches against when attacking Putin. Meanwhile Libya, like Ukraine, is now worse off and with much larger problems than before the Western powers decided to "improve" the situation.

Obama is a deeply conflicted man who decided at some point in the early going that survival with his "legacy" intact would require certain key compromises. He sold out a long time ago. Now he's doing a salvage job for history and the prospect of post-presidency years with the prospect of rewards, speeches and a book or two.

Hopaulius writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

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