The Agenda

Dara Lind on Storytelling

Dara Lind and I disagreed pretty strongly on the DREAM Act, but I think she makes an excellent point in this post at TAPPED:

It’s incredibly hard to talk about sympathetic immigrants without reinforcing the notion that the ones you’re not talking about are unsympathetic. Just think about supporters of the DREAM Act during the debate last fall, who talked about young people “who are here illegally, through no fault of their own.” Even though many of these politicians also support comprehensive immigration reform, which would give both DREAMers and many of their parents a path to citizenship, they couldn’t avoid the implication that the parents were at “fault.”

The other problem is one of policy: It’s easier to create an exception for an immigrant with a sympathetic story than it is to change the unjust rule that put him or her in that situation to begin with. In December, for the first time since 2006, Congress passed a pair of private laws — laws to help a particular individual “when no other remedy is available” — to give two Japanese citizens legal status in the U.S. Both of their cases were unusual, and Congress could have saved itself some trouble — and some people some suffering — by taking the opportunity to make laws for such cases in the future. But “because immigration policy has become such a thorny political issue,” the Washington Post reported at the time, “lawmakers couldn’t agree on a way to change” even the specific laws in question. In other words, it was easier to save the two people who’d been able to lobby their legislators and avoid the “thorny” issue of large-scale injustice.

(1) Dara’s post gets to the heart of why I found the arguments for the DREAM Act so frustrating: virtually all would-be economic migrants have compelling stories. The argument from compassion or justice in the case of the proposal’s intended beneficiaries struck me as extremely unconvincing relative to the argument from compassion or justice on behalf on many other “deserving” migrants, e.g., people from the world’s poorest, most highly-indebted and resource-stressed countries. 

(2) I’m wary of argument by anecdote in any domain, but it is a highly effective strategy and I imagine we’ll never hear the end of it. A central disadvantage of those who make the case for decentralized, competitive markets is that it relies more heavily on counterfactuals — think of how much richer we’d be if we used a trial-and-error discovery process rather than command-and-control, or think of how much worse off we’d be if we moved in the opposite direction — than vivid personal stories.

(3) Dara’s post reminded me of the case for a comprehensive effort to streamline, consolidate, and eliminate regulations rather than, as the president seems to prefer, calling upon agencies to self-review to identify particularly egregious regulations. There is enough slack in the system for firms to work around a discrete regulation, but it is the accretion of regulations — and the way various regulations interact in complex and unpredictable ways — that is the real problem. While I tend not to frame things in terms of justice, I’m drawn to policy arguments that focus on a system-level view.


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