Monday, 17 July 2017

To what extent should a party's policies be decided by self-interest?

Let us confine ourselves political parties in democracies and let us assume that the electoral and financial success of a party is at least to some extent determined by its policies. To what extent should a party choose policies simply in order to benefit itself?

There is clearly no simple answer. It is not right to say that parties should be defined by eternal and unchanging principles and never change policies: even unchanging principles require new policies in new situations; and we might even say that a party committed to democracy is required at least to reconsider its views in the face of electoral defeat.

Equally, it not right to say that there is no dilemma. For example, one might say that any party that betrays its principles will lose votes, but history gives us too many examples to the contrary to believe that. Or one might say that the dilemma does not affect the party that considers being in power itself (or excluding the other party) to be a matter of principle; but a principle stated as baldly as that, with no account taken of the nature of the party (or its opponent), does not deserve to be called a principle.

Even if there is no simple answer, I am certain that we can do better than saying that anything goes. It is possible that a policy can be so obviously adopted by reason of a naked appeal to votes and financial support that the party adopting it has crossed a line between democratic evolution and outright corruption.

These thoughts have been prompted by the change in policies on immigration in the US. (See further below.)

To a foreigner's eyes, US political debates on immigration look very odd. For example: why is it taboo in large sections of society to propose enforcing the existing law? Why is it a matter of principle that there not be physical barriers to illegal immigration?

My view was that the US is an outlier in so many ways (e.g. deep-rooted protections for guns and free speech) that we shouldn't be surprised to find another.

Then I read this article.

"In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

That was then. This is now:

"In July 2015, two months after officially announcing his candidacy for president, Sanders was interviewed by Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox. Klein asked whether, in order to fight global poverty, the U.S. should consider “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders reacted with horror. “That’s a Koch brothers proposal,” he scoffed. He went on to insist that “right-wing people in this country would love … an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country.” // Sanders came under immediate attack..." and the article goes on to give details of the pressure placed on Sanders to recant.

I suspect you don't need other examples to make the point.

So the policy - and the surrounding mood music - has completely changed. The interesting thing to my mind is that the policy change appears to have been self-interested rather than the result of a change of thinking. More from the article:

"As the Democrats grew more reliant on Latino votes, they were more influenced by pro-immigrant activism. While Obama was running for reelection, immigrants’-rights advocates launched protests against the administration’s deportation practices; these protests culminated, in June 2012, in a sit-in at an Obama campaign office in Denver. Ten days later, the administration announced that it would defer the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 and met various other criteria. Obama, The New York Times noted, “was facing growing pressure from Latino leaders and Democrats who warned that because of his harsh immigration enforcement, his support was lagging among Latinos who could be crucial voters in his race for re-election.”

Alongside pressure from pro-immigrant activists came pressure from corporate America, especially the Democrat-aligned tech industry, which uses the H-1B visa program to import workers. In 2010, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with the CEOs of companies including Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Disney, and News Corporation, formed New American Economy to advocate for business-friendly immigration policies. Three years later, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates helped found to promote a similar agenda.

To be clear, I am not saying that the policy change in this case crossed the line between democratic evolution and outright corruption. But the fact that there is such a line was brought home to me by this story of how an important voter bloc and corporate interests combined to effect a relatively swift volte face in attitudes to immigration.

It also has to be pointed out two big parts of Trump's appeal were the famous wall and his contention that there was something overly cosy about the relationship between big business and existing political leadership. The article I link to above does nothing to persuade me that Trump was concocting these concerns from nothing. Indeed, it suggests that the two issues were connected not only by Trump's rhetoric but also in reality.

(PS. A quite separate question is what reaction is appropriate to a political party that changes its mind for a bad reason. The Democrats might be in Zuckerberg's pocket but nonetheless right about immigration. Again, there's not a clear answer. If there are only two parties and one of them has been bribed to end an unjust war supported on principle by the other party then you should vote for the corrupt lot. But if support for, say, Heathrow expansion or HS2 were shown to have been corruptly obtained then I would say we should go without both the party and the benefits of the policy. Where you think immigration liberalisation fits into this spectrum is itself a highly contested issue.)

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