Tag: Kent Conrad

Illegal Immigrants, Loyalty, Morality

by on Sep.14, 2009, under Politics

By now everyone has heard about Rep. Joe Wilson’s cri de coeur during Obama’s health care speech last week. He was furious that Obama would dare to deny that his health care plan might cover illegal immigrants. (The next day Sens. Conrad and Baucus announced plans to strengthen bans against illegal immigrant participation, thereby retroactively validating Wilson.)

That anger seems a pretty clear example of the loyalty phenomena studied by Enzo Luttmer (PDF):

I show that self-reported attitudes toward welfare spending are determined not only by financial self-interest but also by interpersonal preferences. These interpersonal preferences are characterized by a negative exposure effect—individuals decrease their support for welfare as the welfare recipiency rate in their community rises—and racial group loyalty—individuals increase their support for welfare spending as the share of local recipients from their own racial group rises. These findings help to explain why levels of welfare benefits are relatively low in racially heterogeneous states.

In other words, if you see benefits going to members of your own race, you support welfare more than average. If you see benefits going to members of another race, you support it less than average.

Illegal immigrants are only the current racial bugbear of much of the right. If it wasn’t them, you can be sure we’d be hearing fear about benefits being sucked up by some other unworthy group. My taxes going to pay for those people. Never mind that in fact it’d be more likely the other way around—immigrant taxes would pay for old white people:

According to a July article in the American Journal of Public Health, immigrants typically arrive in America during their prime working years and tend to be younger and healthier than the rest of the U.S. population. As a result, health-care expenditures for the average immigrant are 55 percent lower than for a native-born American citizen with similar characteristics. With the ratio of seniors to workers projected to increase by 67 percent between 2010 and 2030, it stands to reason that including the relatively healthy, relatively employable and largely uninsured illegal population in some sort of universal health-care system would be a boon rather than a burden.

Reactions like these are why I think I have to part with Josh K-sky on the desirability of ingroup loyalty as a moral principle, at least when it comes to those invoked in politics. A feeling of belonging may be important for mobilization, but the moral appeals of liberal politics rarely depend on it. I’d say it’s the difference between what you feel (solidarity) and the morals you invoke in your rhetoric. There’s plenty of “we are as good as you” or “we deserve the same justice as you.” Not so much “stick with your own.” Not constructively, anyway.

I suppose there might be some. But I don’t think it’s wrong to be reflexively suspicious of anybody who comes making those sorts of appeals. Highly suspicious.


Part of the problem I think I may be having with Haidt’s framework is that he seems to be conflating “moral judgments” with “things people care about.” Take, for example, this bit on bumper stickers Josh K-sky linked to in a comment:

The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops: Bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm — so liberals are patriotic!'” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic — or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war — is disingenuous.

“It just pisses people off.”

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere — they’re also fundamentally wrong.

But “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” isn’t an attempt to insist we all share the same moral values. It’s an attempt to recapture the concept of patriotism in a liberal, nonmoralistic context. To put it another way, just because I don’t believe love of country is a moral imperative doesn’t mean I don’t love my country. When Haidt insists that I’d be insincere to say so, it pisses me off.

This is how liberals conceive of identity and solidarity in a diverse society, too: I value my group, or my heritage, without appealing to it as a font of rectitude.

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