Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fair yet Unjust

I enjoy a blessedly short commute. On a bad day, it takes me twenty minutes to get to work. One of the upshots of this is that I infrequently have to test my patience when I accidentally tune in to politicians being interviewed.

Today was a curious exception.

Here was the sentiment, paraphrased: we (our government) can't grant amnesty to undocumented workers (or whatever the euphemism of the day might be) because it wouldn't be fair to the immigrants who waited 18 years or more to get here through the "proper" channels.

We here at EE (well, I do anyway) like to try to estimate the moral intuitions behind folks' willingness to interfere in the peaceful transactions of others. The fairness heuristic comes up pretty often. Egalitarian instincts are pretty useful in a lot of instances. For example, suppose four fleshy, florid foragers find fifty four figs. Three of them theatrically throw the thankless thane thirty figs. This leaves half a dozen each for the gathering party. Obeisance to the elite leaves them destitute. A fairness norm helps all of them fend off starvation. Fairness conquers the hardscrapple brutality imposed by Ma Nature. But is the scarcity imposed by the conditions of nature the same in kind to the scarcity imposed by legislation?

Immigration visas don't grow on trees. The fruit of a tree is limited by the strength of its branches, the fecundity of its soil, the bounty of the rain, the vigor of the sun. The flux of migrants is limited by the caprice of the elected official, the clench of the border authority, the ire of the electorate, the swerve of the lobby. It is a false equivocation to apply the same fairness calculus to each case. Heaping injustice on the heads of peaceful people for the reason injustice has already been piled on the heads of similar people is a perversion of the notion of fairness and an insult to the sensible moral prescription that two wrongs don't make a right.

Immigration isn't euvoluntary. Punishing people for the crime of trying to improve their lot in life is an awfully peculiar way of reacting to a non-euvoluntary situation.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?