Your Papers Please

It’s not hard for me to take sides on whether police in Arizona should be able to stop people simply on suspicion that they’re in the United States illegally. I think this is one more step on the road to a police state. And the steps are happening quickly. This weekend, the Attorney General of the United States suggested dropping the Miranda warning for people who are suspected of being terrorists. This, despite the fact that old-fashioned law enforcement that respected Miranda was what led to the bomber’s capture.

But what’s particularly interesting to me is how a little methodological individualism, plus some grasp of the facts, go a long way to clarifying the issues. Many people on both sides of the issue have fuzzed it up by rejecting the idea of thinking about specific people being responsible for their actions and not those of others.

The Side That Likes the Law

Many of those who like the new Arizona law say that they want it because of the huge wave of violent crime engaged in by illegal immigrants. They seem to have in mind the recent killing of an innocent rancher and the alleged wave of kidnappings in Phoenix. Yet, if this is their difficulty–that is, if their goal is to change or avoid such things–doesn’t it make sense to go after the people doing such things and not illegal immigrants as a class? After all, according to Dan Griswold, as immigration rates have increased, crime has fallen. This is suggestive evidence that illegal immigrants, who appear to be the main source of immigration in recent years, do not have higher crime rates (putting aside the peaceful crime of being here illegally) than others here legally. If they kept their eye on the goal, wouldn’t they start wondering why illegal immigrants are increasingly entering via Arizona instead of the traditional California? Wouldn’t that lead them to wonder about the tightening up of the border in California, leading to the unintended, but totally predictable, consequence for Arizona? And, since another of their upsets seems to be the increasingly violent nature of the illegal drug business, something they would like to change, wouldn’t it make sense for them to look into why it got more violent? My own tentative answer is that the U.S. drug enforcement authorities have become more successful in fighting home-grown drug dealers and so the ones who come in to fill the gap are the ones who are more violent and more willing to kill police, informers, etc. At a conference in Canada I attended a few years ago, a police official told the attendees that the police had been increasingly successful at jailing Canadian members of drug gangs. What had replaced them, he said, were more-violent and more-ruthless foreign gangs. Paradoxically, therefore, the way to make the illegal drug industry less violent is to reduce enforcement.

But if you see all illegal immigrants as part of a big, undifferentiated mass, you are likely to fail to ask such questions.

The Side That Dislikes the Law

I wish I could say that the side I’m on has no collectivist thinking. But I can’t. Many people have responded to the law, not by holding accountable and protesting the individual legislators who voted for it and the Arizonans who favor it, but by calling for a boycott of Arizona. Boycotts are unlikely to be effective but, even if they were effective, they would tend to penalize the wrong people. They’re like sanctions. They don’t single out the specific people who did something the boycotters object to. Instead, they treat Arizonans as one undifferentiated mass.

Note: Mary O’Grady has an excellent column on these issues in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Update: As was pointed out by various commenters below, I misstated the law. In a follow-on post, I acknowledge that fact and try, somewhat successfully, to get the discussion back to what I wanted to discuss, which is not the law per se but the collectivism on both sides of the issue.