Thoughts on the UMich Immigration Debate
By Bryan Caplan
Thoughts on my latest debate:
1. Hans von Spakovsky was the most lawyerly opponent I’ve ever debated. His first (and second) approach to almost any issue was simply to describe the law. In most cases, he didn’t even defend its wisdom or justice. Instead, he simply exhorted people to obey the law or convince Congress to change it.
2. Still, after a great deal of legal description, von Spakovsky finally shared his actual view: low-skilled immigration should be sharply reduced in favor of high-skilled immigration. When asked about refugees, he refrained from calling for outright cuts in the quota; instead, he maintained that existing numbers are roughly the most we are capable of handling.
3. The debate was explicitly about Trump’s views on immigration, and von Spakovsky has pretty close ties to the administration. But von Spakovsky said almost nothing about Trump or his policies – and studiously failed to defend the president I repeatedly called “intellectually lazy and irrational.” Perhaps he respects Trump so deeply that he considered my claims unworthy of a response. Or perhaps – like many elite Republicans – he avoided the topic because he is well-aware of Trump’s glaring epistemic shortcomings.
4. The most engaging part of the debate, at least for me, began when my opponent spontaneously described his traffic tickets. This seems to show that – contrary to his grandiose claims about its sanctity – he’s often not ashamed to break the law. In other words, he’s an normal American driver. You could argue that traffic laws are uniquely bad, but that’s silly. They plausibly protect other human beings from dangerous driving – and compliance is usually only a minor inconvenience. Why, then, would it be wrong to break immigration laws – which immensely harm would-be immigrants at great economic cost to natives? If anything, we should enforce traffic laws far more strictly than immigration laws.
5. During Q&A, Reason‘s Shikha Dalmia amplified my point by referencing the slogan that Americans commit three felonies a day. Von Spakovsky did not dispute her claim, but drew a strong distinction between natives’ accidental law-breaking and illegal immigrants’ deliberate law-breaking – an odd retreat for such a lawyerly thinker. When I pointed out that natives often knowingly break the law, my opponent declined to call for a strict crack-down on said scofflaws.
6. I repeatedly pointed out that governments selectively enforce laws all the time. Indeed, they have no choice; there aren’t enough resources in the world to enforce all the laws we have. Furthermore, governments often officially announce their enforcement policies, so people know what to expect. Given this, I don’t even see what the legal objection to DACA or DAPA is supposed to be.
7. I argued that Trump’s travel ban bears little connection to the problems he claims to be worried about. Saudi Arabia isn’t on the list, even though 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers were Saudi. Von Spakovsky dismissed my claim by by providing details about how the administration formulated its new policy. He even urged listeners to go to the White House webpage. This morning, I took his advice. A typical passage:
The Secretary of Homeland Security assesses that the following countries
continue to have “inadequate” identity-management protocols,
information-sharing practices, and risk factors, with respect to the
baseline described in subsection (c) of this section, such that entry
restrictions and limitations are recommended: Chad, Iran, Libya, North
Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. The Secretary of Homeland Security
also assesses that Iraq did not meet the baseline, but that entry
restrictions and limitations under a Presidential proclamation are not
I am perfectly happy to admit that there is a bureaucratic process at work. There always is. But if an intellectually lazy, irrational president wants X, are his functionaries going to tell him he’s wrong or unfair? Of course not. Instead, they’ll go through a flurry of procedure to get the “right” answer. That’s how committees work: Busywork + Legalese = Foregone Conclusion.
9. I am a weird human being, but I am self-aware. This routinely leads me to wonder how other people perceive me. Von Spakovsky was very polite to me both publicly and privately, but he must think there’s something very wrong with me. What exactly would that be? Partly, I’m an Ivory Tower professor who doesn’t understand – or just can’t accept – how the “real world” works. Partly, I’m out of touch with America. He didn’t seem to mistake me for a bog-standard leftist, which was nice. On reflection, I’m probably far worse in his eyes than he ever realized. But seeing yourself through the eyes of another is no mean feat.
10. Did either of us change anyone’s mind? I suspect I persuaded a few people to rethink the sanctity of the law. Von Spakovsky, for his part, might have spurred a few people to read some laws for themselves instead of accepting media summaries of them. But overall, I’m afraid even the short-run effect on people’s thinking was minimal. Changing minds on this issue is going to require a lot more than a debate.
11. Still, as far as intellectual experiences go, the debate was a far better than a protest.