Monday, December 31, 2007

What and How to Think About Immigration

It’s Kerry Howley versus Megan McArdle on immigration. Kerry favors a guest-worker program, while Megan opposes it (see here, here, here, and here.

I won’t weigh in on the topic itself, fascinating though it is. I’m more interested in trying to parse why they disagree. One interpretation of Kerry vs. Megan is that they differ in their preference ordering. Kerry’s preferences look like this:
{more legal immigration}
pref {guest-worker program}
pref {status quo}
whereas Megan’s, apparently, look like this:
{more legal immigration}
pref {status quo}
pref {guest-worker program}.
That is, Kerry and Megan would both ideally like to see expanded legal immigration, but since that’s a political dead letter, they are consulting their second preferences. Their second preferences differ, because Megan thinks the negative consequences of a guest-worker program are bad enough to make it worse than the status quo.

But here’s an alternative interpretation of Kerry vs. Megan: They have the same preferences (both consider a guest-worker program superior to the status quo, as in the first ordering above),but they have different political strategies. Kerry, thinking that expanded immigration is not going to happen, pushes her second preference for a guest-worker program. Megan, thinking expanded immigration might still be in the cards, opposes a guest-worker program because it could siphon support from the superior alternative.

(Clearly, it’s Megan’s position that I’m less clear about. Without citing specific passages, I’ll just say I think there’s support in her posts for both interpretations.)

It might appear, from these two interpretations, that Kerry and Megan disagree on either their policy preferences or the political likelihood of their shared first-best option. But there’s a third interpretation that combines the two. Perhaps both have the same preference ordering (the first one), and both think there is some (small) chance of expanded immigration. But they differ in the intensity of their preferences: Kerry thinks a guest-worker program is a lot better than the status quo, while Megan thinks it’s just a little better. This preserves the shared preference ordering, but it makes Megan willing to gamble the benefits of a guest-worker program for even a small chance at expanded immigration. Kerry, given her more favorable assessment of the gains from a guest-worker program, is unwilling to take that gamble.

I find it useful to parse Kerry and Megan’s debate in this way because it relates to a broader question of philosophy-and-policy: to what extent should perceptions of “political reality” affect the positions we advocate? I’ve been pondering that question a lot lately, and the more I think about it, the thornier it seems. But that discussion will have to wait for a future post.

P.S. The syntax of this post's title is dedicated to Neal.


Jane said...

You asked, I answered:

Happy New Years

Ran said...

Re: "to what extent should perceptions of 'political reality' affect the positions we advocate?": This is a question the GLBT rights movement has had to take on recently, with serious disagreement. If we can get passed a bill that offers certain protections to GLBs, but we don't think we get it passed if it offers those protections to Ts as well, is it O.K. to back down and accept the lesser version? My lobby, the Human Rights Campaign, argued that something was better than nothing, and could be a stepping-stone; other groups considered this to be an unacceptable abandonment of transgender folks, and felt that giving Congress the "easy way out" of protecting only GLBs would hurt the chances of protecting Ts.

(The funny thing is, the great majority of Americans polled did support protecting Ts as well. Obviously, politics isn't a great way of implementing the will of the people.)

Ran said...

(To clarify: "My lobby" in that I donate to it, which makes me a member; but I don't have any say in it. Fortunately, it's never done anything I objected to.)