In an essay for Politico, David S. Glosser launches into a sharp-tongued critique of the immigration views of Stephen Miller, who is both his nephew and a top Trump aide. With a headline calling Miller a “hypocrite” on immigration, Glosser’s essay tells the rags-to-riches story of Miller’s own ancestors, who arrived in the U.S. as poor Jewish immigrants but ended up owning a number of supermarkets and department stores. This inspiring family history is meant to disqualify Miller’s skepticism of chain migration and current refugee programs.
We see this accusation of “hypocrisy” on immigration a lot. It’s been trotted out against Miller, President Trump, and others. So perhaps it’s worth spending a few minutes looking at the limits of the “hypocrisy” charge.
First of all, the current immigration system would also have excluded the ancestors of many Americans. Family preferences constitute the bulk of new immigrants to the United States; these preferences would have excluded past immigrants who had no family connections in the United States when they first immigrated. This is one of the major reasons why accusations of “hypocrisy” on immigration are not a particularly compelling argument against shifting to a skills-based immigration system. Skills-based migration would exclude many would-be immigrants, but so does our current immigration system.
The “hypocrisy” argument falls short on other grounds, too. Saying that you can’t support changing a policy that benefited your ancestors (or even you) would create a bizarre paralysis in political debates. The robber barons of the Gilded Age benefited from a relative lack of inheritance, income, and capital-gains taxes. Does that mean that Vanderbilt and Rockefeller scions can’t support any of those taxes? What about the people who work at the schools, libraries, and other organizations that industrial magnates donated to — are they allowed to support a taxation system that would have shredded the mega-fortunes upon which their institutions relied? Similar arguments could be applied to other policies. The ancestors of some Americans enjoyed higher wages due to the protective tariff, so can they support cutting tariffs? Should someone who benefited from coal technology block the development of other energy sources?
This paralysis points to one of the deepest methodological problems with closing off policy debate through claims of prior benefit. Part of serious politics is about the common good, the achievement of which can sometimes entail personal sacrifices. A soldier goes off to war knowing he might die, but he takes that great personal risk because he thinks that the common good outweighs that danger. Even if a change in regulations or taxation might hurt a voter, that voter might still support those changes because she believes they are best for the nation as a whole. If politics is to be more than self-dealing, policymaking needs to take into account what is in the national interest. (It’s worth noting that claims on behalf of the common good and the national interest do not necessarily oppose claims on behalf of individual liberty; one might believe that defending certain liberties is part of the common good.)
Now, one might argue that Miller’s preferred policy changes are not in the national interest. But the “hypocrisy” charge detracts from this argument.