The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Tim Lee on Pie


Tim Lee writes, in response to Dan Foster, the following:

Apparently, when the topic turns to people born outside the United States, all that stuff about expanding pies and inalienable rights goes out the windows. Now the pie is fixed—a “scarce resource”—and it’s up to the government to decide who is eligible for a slice. People are no longer endowed by their Creator with the right to keep the fruits of their labor. Rather, the freedom to earn a living must be carefully “distributed” by the government only to those it deems worthy.

Liberals like my friend Matt Yglesias like to argue that conservative rhetoric about freedom and individual rights is a cynical cover for policies that serve the interests of the rich and powerful. I think he’s wrong, but passages like this one do give his argument a certain plausibility.

Yes, I think it is fair to say that a large majority of American voters, including a large majority of self-identified conservatives, believe that not all women and men are entitled to settle in the United States.

Tim argues that this is in tension with other conservative beliefs:

There’s a long-running argument between the left and right about whether economic policy should focus more on efficiency questions or distributional questions. At the risk of oversimplifying, progressives tend to focus on inequalities of income and wealth, and they worry that unfettered free markets will funnel too much money to the wealthy few and leave the rest of us behind. Conservatives counter that the economic pie is not fixed. Leaving people free to innovate will expand the pie and ultimately benefit everyone. And conversely, government interventions in the economy designed to to make peoples’ slices more equal in size will shrink the pie and leave everyone worse off.

And conservatives have another powerful argument against the government picking winners and losers. Like Jefferson, they believe that our rights come from God, and are only recognized, not granted, by governments. They reject progressive theorists like Cass Sunstein who argue that our rights are granted to us by government. This is why they’re so vehemently against progressive taxation; they believe that everyone is entitled to the fruits of their own labor, and that it’s unfair for the government to take from some to give to others in the name of fairness.

A few points:

(a) Dan referred to me in his post:

Punishing a minor by removing him from the culture he’s adopted as his own, for the crimes of his parents, does strike me as fundamentally unfair. But what liberals leave out of this story, time and again, is a competing — and in my view overriding — unfairness. Reihan has argued repeatedly, and effectively, that we should treat access to the U.S. economy, not to mention its extensive welfare state, as a scarce resource. We can debate and debate the best way of distributing this resource– from “not at all” to “come one, come all” and everywhere in between. But distributing it based on who manages most successfully to violate the law, at the expense of would-be immigrants who are honoring the process, is surely not a valid option.

So allow me to clarify: I’m less interested in the question whether or not we should treat access to the U.S. economy as a scarce resource as a normative matter. Rather, I think that access to the U.S. economy is commonly understood as a scarce resource or a fixed pie. Moreover, my sense is that many people have, for many years, tried arguing that access to the U.S. economy should not be treated as a scarce resource, yet these arguments have not gained much traction.

In a similar vein, many on the right have argued against labor market regulations, social insurance programs, and a variety of other government interventions. Yet over time, as these interventions have become entrenched and as individuals and families have built their expectations around them. And so even the most die-hard self-described conservatives will often defend the existence of federal social insurance programs, a stance that would have once been considered anathema. 

Does this represent a concession to fixed pie-ism? Yes and no. My understanding of anti-fixed-pie-ism is that it derives from a sufficientarian rather than an egalitarian impulse, i.e., once a basic social minimum is achieved by all participants in a fair system of social cooperation (“shirkers” might be excluded, etc., we shouldn’t be troubled by the fact that some will make vast fortunes because we live in a non-zero-sum world. So the fact that one person makes a fortune doesn’t mean that he is necessarily taking something from someone else, though of course this introduces the complication that there are rent-seekers and access capitalists in any sufficiently advanced society, a development we need to guard against (and rarely do).

But even if we embrace anti-fixed-pie-ism, does that mean there are no discrete fixed pies or that fixed pies are never an appropriate way to think about public policy? Conservatives tend to reject the cap-and-trade approach to carbon pricing, in part because they resist the idea of an arbitrary cap on carbon emissions. Who decides what the cap should be? Though I’m not a fan of cap-and-trade, I do think it is reasonable to suggest that there might be a level of carbon emissions above which we really don’t want to go. Perhaps that level is much higher or much lower than the levels we’ve reached. Regardless, I think it is perfectly coherent for a conservative to be anti-fixed-pie in most instances, but pro-fixed-pie in the case of carbon emissions.

You can probably see around the bend to my next analogy, and perhaps you are already pre-outraged: People aren’t a form of pollution! That’s absolutely right. There are, however, congestion and other costs associated with an increase in the size of the population, which vary according to the demographic characteristics of the population. Given that the United States is a mixed economy in which we devote a large share of public resources to educating children, incarcerating criminal offenders, providing health services to the indigent, etc., one can raise legitimate questions about what constitutes an economically sustainable population influx consistent with maintaining public institutions in some recognizable form.

I use “some recognizable form” advisably: I’m of the view that we can radically reform our public institutions so that we can deliver services of acceptable quality at much lower cost, which might, in theory, allow us to increase the size of the influx. Another factor that could increase the size of the sustainable population influx would be a turn away from egalitarianism. If we collectively decided that upward mobility for the global poor via migration to the United States were a higher priority than, say, reducing the domestic child poverty rate, one can imagine a very different immigration settlement. As it stands, however, many Americans are alarmed by our high rate of child poverty, which would increase markedly if every family that applied for the diversity visa lottery — which is limited to people who’ve completed secondary school — for the last ten years and every year going forward were allowed to work and settle in the United States.

(b) Tim talks about vehement opposition to progressive taxes among conservatives. My guess is that most self-described conservatives in the United States accept the idea that federal income taxes should exist and that they should be progressive, if perhaps somewhat less or somewhat more progressive than they are at present. These conservatives, to generalize for a moment, tend to oppose steeply progressive taxes because they think steeply progressive taxes are bad for the economy and they represent too much of a burden on the exercise of private economic liberties, which are not absolute but which merit at least some consideration.

The conservatives who do oppose progressive taxes as an infringement on our God-given rights might be somewhat more vulnerable to Tim’s argument.

(c) My basic frustration with my interlocutors on the immigration question is this: is access to the U.S. economy a fixed pie or not? If you’re arguing that it’s not, you will lose every political debate, because U.S. citizens don’t believe, rightly or wrongly, that everyone in the world should, by virtue of being a free and equal human being, be allowed to work and settle in the U.S. If you’re arguing that it is, we get into thorny questions of what kind of immigration policy we should have and how we should go about implementing it.

(d) In an earlier post, Tim wrote the following:

I predict Ezra Klein will live to regret writing posts like this.

I clicked through to the post and here is what I found:

My general take on immigration is that we need more legal immigration, better enforcement against illegal immigration, and more leniency toward illegal immigrants. Yes, we should have more immigrants, and yes, we should create a path to legalization for the immigrants who are already here, but the cost of that, I think, is going to be persuading Americans that the policy won’t result in vastly more illegal immigration. And that’s probably how it should be. We need a policy that recognizes that the problem — both for us and, potentially, for Vargas — was when Vargas was brought here illegally, not that, decades later, he’s still here, writing Pulitzer-prize winning articles and supporting his family and contributing to his adopted home.

Though I don’t agree with Ezra in all of the particulars, my guess is that Tim is objecting to the fact that Ezra seems to be endorsing better enforcement against illegal immigration. I’m not sure what will make him regret that in the future, but I’d like to know.

(e) Tim finds it strange that people believe that his opposition to enforcing (some) immigration laws makes him an open-borders zealot, and he makes a characteristically intelligent argument:

Entering the country without government permission is illegal, and probably should be so. The federal government has any number of powers to enforce the law, including refusing to let you cross the border (leave the airport, etc), investigating over-stayed visas, limiting access to driver’s licenses, auditing employers, deporting people, and so forth. Objecting to any particular immigration enforcement mechanism isn’t the same thing as objecting to immigration regulations altogether. It’s perfectly coherent to say that the government should make a reasonable effort to prevent people from moving here illegally, but that certain types of particularly invasive enforcement methods (like employer verification) should be off the table. This is just how our legal system works.

But I also think speeding cameras are a bad idea because I sometimes think the posted speed limit is too low and I like the fact that I can ignore it and (mostly) not get caught. Similarly, our copyright laws are too strict; it’s a good thing that people can sometimes share content in circumstances that a strict reading of the law wouldn’t allow. In other words, the fact that people can mostly get away with breaking certain laws is a feature, not a bug, of our legal system. It provides a “safety valve” that ensures that stupid legislation doesn’t do too much damage.

The same point applies to immigration law. Obviously, we ought to enact sane immigration laws that make it easy for people like Jose Vargas to get a green card. But given that we haven’t done that, it’s a good thing—both for him and for the rest of us—that our enforcement system wasn’t effective enough to prevent him from taking a job here.

Again, there’s a huge double standard here. We American citizens take a strictly moralistic tone toward laws that we don’t personally have to follow. But “the rule of law” goes out the window when it comes to that pot you smoked in college, or the use taxes you haven’t paid on your Amazon purchases, or those pirated MP3s on your hard drive. When we’re talking about laws that actually affect us, we’re glad there’s some breathing room between the law on the books and what people actually get punished for.

This is a subtle and important point. I think Tim and I have a fundamental disagreement. When we violate copyright laws or when the authorities are lax in enforcing the speed limit, we don’t create a situation in which people are forced to lead a shadow life that will contribute to larger social problems. These infractions are of a fundamentally different kind. Now, one might object that we could then just give said people in the shadows a path to citizenship, thus solving the problem. But this would mean ceding authority over our immigration laws to those who are willing to break them.

As a show of good faith, I’d like to read Tim’s thoughts on what he would consider an acceptable immigration enforcement regime. What would it look like and what should be the broad principle governing who we allow to work and settle in the United States and who we do not?

My recommendation is that we allow for more skilled migrants to settle in the United States, shifting away from family reunification; and that to the extent that we welcome less-skilled migrants, we should place a heavy emphasis on admitting migrants from highly-indebted poor countries, where the prospects for mobility are bleak, rather than less-skilled migrants from middle-income countries. If anything, I am an “immigration dove” when it comes to the number of migrants we should allow to settle in the U.S. I am an “immigration hawk” in that I believe that we should as a general rule enforce existing immigration laws and I’m skeptical of measures like the DREAM Act.


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