Thursday, September 2, 2010

Immigration & Entitlement

I have found that most government entitlements develop along common patterns. After analyzing recent debates on immigration, it appears that immigration fits these patterns.

First, the state intervenes to address a problem, such as addressing the needs of families who cannot afford medical care. At first this elicits appreciation from the recipients, because they previously did not believe that it was the responsibility of the state to care for them. And on a deeper level they and most of society recognized that the norm was for individuals to care for themselves and if they could not do so, the responsibility fell on their family and friends, followed by their church or community. Dependence on the state was a temporary exception, brought on by dire circumstances. As soon as possible, all parties recognized the need for the individual to return to the default setting of self sufficiency or at least mutual assistance with family, friends, churches, charities and local governments.

Even though state assistance may have been viewed as noble or even necessary, it was not widely regarded as a right or entitlement. Why? Because of the recognition that state funds spent on one individual or group has to be seized from another. And by definition, a rights cannot be contingent upon the fruits of labor of another. Not only does this pose philosophical problems, but also economic ones. The North Korean government can declare that all citizens of the "workers paradise" have a right to three square meals a day, but if its moribund economic system cannot produce sufficient food, that right is for nought. Or, if the only way to ensure a "right" is to infringe on the liberty of another group or individual, the ethical foundation of that right is questionable to say the least.

In the second stage, the noble state intervention begins to pose a moral hazard, in other words, these programs and policies increase the occurrence of the phenomena they were created to address. The majority of the initial recipients of state assistance were those who had no other option. But, as time goes on the program offers perverse incentives to engage in economic behavior that expands the number of dependent individuals. For example, a previous tenant of mine who received section-8 had a flat screen TV, an X-Box and an automobile. In other words, had section-8 not existed (or been more judicious in its requirements), this individual would have been able to pay her rent. While it is difficult to calculate what percentage of recipients are products of true need versus perverse incentives, there is no question that most examples of state intervention have increased the occurrence of unsustainable social and economic behaviors.

The next stage involves more of a cultural, rather than economic transformation. Rather than view dependency on state welfare as a temporary exception to the norm, it's viewed as an indispensable facet of life. Examples of programs and policies that once elicited gratitude are now taken for granted as basic rights and entitlements. Talk of limiting them or even questioning their sustainability, elicit anger and protests from their recipients. And the growth of dependent individuals has grown, so has their power as a voting block, making reform very challenging.

The systematic non-enforcement of immigration laws that has occurred in many cities and states over the last 30 years falls under similar patterns. Initially it was a given that under democracy and the rule of law, the internal enforcement of immigration laws must be the norm. But, over time lax control of the border and the lack of serious interior enforcement by the federal government allowed for the population of undocumented individuals to balloon in several key cities and states. Faced with these facts on the grounds, many of these localities chose to make an exception to the rule and ignore clear and widespread violations of the law. And out of goodwill, they decided to offer opportunities for free or subsidized health care, housing and educational services to undocumented immigrants and their children. We can assume that the majority of the recipients viewed this with gratitude, because in most cases the elites of their countries of origin were unwilling to share their wealth by offering basic government services to their poorer countrymen.

As with other examples of state intervention, these policies created perverse incentives that led to a rapid expansion of the very phenomena that they were created to address. In other words, the systematic non-enforcement of the law created a magnet for even more undocumented immigration and in the matter of 20 years their numbers grew five fold. And even those who view most undocumented immigrants as good, hard working individuals recognized that this was as an economically and socially unsustainable phenomena. This led more Americans to push for the enforcement of existing laws and limits to the use of government services for undocumented immigrants. Such actions prompted anger and protests, indicating that many individuals now view immunity from the enforcement of immigration laws as a fundamental right and a basic entitlement. This has lead to greater intransigence in individuals who fear than an amnesty would expand the voting power of this new entitlement group and its supporters, making future efforts at law enforcement even less politically feasible.

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