The Agenda

Paternalism and Immigration Policy

Recently, a few friends of mine were discussion a familiar issue from the immigration debate. The balance of the evidence suggests that while less-skilled immigrants tend not to directly compete with less-skilled natives, they do tend to compete with other less-skilled immigrants, including those who arrived in the country earlier on. I have often argued that this is actually a good reason to restrict less-skilled immigration. Yet another view is that since less-skilled immigrants currently residing in the U.S. tend to favor an increase in less-skilled immigration, in part because they believe it will benefit people like them, including relatives and friends and other coethnics, we shouldn’t weigh the possibility that the arrival of new less-skilled immigrants will tend to depress the compensation of old less-skilled immigrants too heavily. This argument doesn’t make much sense to me.

Consider, for example, how we approach redistribution. One of the chief instruments through which we redistribute income in the U.S. is through SNAP, a program that provides low-income households with an in-kind benefit. One assumes that most low-income households would prefer an unconditional cash transfer, yet one also assumes that taxpayers and voters more broadly might be more amenable to an in-kind benefit, as they want to be reassured that the resources being distributed are being put to good use. As a general rule, I’d prefer that we redistribute through conditional programs like the EITC over in-kind benefits like SNAP. But it seems perfectly coherent and sensible that taxpayers might want some say in the form redistribution takes, regardless of the preferences of the beneficiaries.

Jane Black reports on new efforts by “high-profile nutritionists” to revise the SNAP program by empowering state and local officials to limit the types of food SNAP beneficiaries can purchase with their benefits, an idea that has (not surprisingly) been embraced by lawmakers. The obstacle to a revision along these lines, however, is that anti-hunger groups are adamantly opposed. Black observes that low-income families are more likely to suffer from obesity-related chronic diseases than hunger. Yet anti-hunger activists, represented in the piece by Ed Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center, strenuously object to the idea of restricting food choices:

“Our view is that people have the smarts to purchase their own food, and we’re opposed to all limitations on food choice,” Cooney told Food Safety News after the mayors’ letter was released. “There’s no study that I’m aware of that links SNAP participation to obesity.”

It seems silly to talk about “smarts” when we could instead talk about hyperbolic discounting. People might have the “smarts” to purchase their own food, but they might also have a strong preference for immediate gratification, which will also shape the kind of food they purchase and consume. This isn’t to suggest that the limitations high-profile limitations have in mind are wise or politically attractive. But some degree of paternalism is baked in to programs like SNAP, which is, after all, an in-kind benefit premised on the idea that its beneficiaries can’t be trusted to feed themselves or their children if given cash. 

In a similar vein, one could easily believe that even if less-skilled immigrants favor more less-skilled immigration, these individuals might be better off if less-skilled immigration were restricted. Moreover, one might also believe that raising compensation levels for less-skilled immigrants is an appropriate public policy goal, as it might facilitate economic and social integration and reduce dependence on means-tested transfers. What I find strange about the argument that we ought to weigh the preferences of less-skilled immigrants very heavily is that any number of means-tested social programs — SNAP, Medicaid, the ACA exchanges, etc. — are based on the (not entirely unreasonable) notion that many people, particularly poor people, will tend to underinsure themselves against various risks, and so the public sector ought to step in to protect people from themselves. This idea is obviously anathema to libertarians, and so the libertarian objection to what we might call a paternalistic immigration policy is consistent. The left-liberal objection is much less so, at least when we bracket arguments from identity politics. 

Black’s SNAP article and the argument that we should heed the opinions of less-skilled immigrants on less-skilled immigration remind me of Philip Schrag’s argument, which we discussed yesterday. But instead of just applying Schrag’s argument to advocates for immigrants, we can apply it to advocates for the poor more generally. Advocates for the poor are keenly aware of their lack of legitimacy, as they are unelected, etc., and so they “perpetually doubt their right to take less than an absolutist position.” 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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