Gelman’s Law

by Henry Farrell on April 26, 2018


A quick rule of thumb is that when someone seems to be acting like a jerk, an economist will defend the behavior as being the essence of morality, but when someone seems to be doing something nice, an economist will raise the bar and argue that he’s not being nice at all.

I’ve spotted two instances already on Twitter since seeing this post this morning. See how many you can find!

In the UK we are living through one of those moments when the public briefly realises that immigration control has significant human consequences and can be bad not just for the stock “illegal immigrants” of tabloid caricature, but for citizens too. The background is that Theresa May, now Prime Minister but then Home Secretary progressively [introduced what she called “a really hostile environment” for “illegal immigrants”](, a regime continued by her successor, Amber Rudd. [This has involved turning ordinary citizens and civil society institutions into border guards so as to deprive people without the proper documentation of the means to live a tolerable existence.]( So those who cannot prove their right to be in the country, by producing, say, a passport, can lose their job, their home, their bank account and be denied medical services. Well, guess what? Thousands of people, particularly people born overseas as British citizens but legally resident in the UK for decades, lack the documentary proof required. So they have indeed lost jobs, homes and been [denied cancer treatment]( Others have been subjected to detention in immigration removal centres, some may have been removed or deported from the country, and others have gone abroad and visited relatives only to be refused readmission.

This has not had an even impact on all sectors of the population. It turns out that having a black or a brown skin makes it far more likely that you will be left destitute and without healthcare or that a prospective landlord with be inclined to check your identity and leave you homeless. So much for all citizens being equal before the law. Indeed, so much for the “rule of law”, much promoted by the Conservatives as a “British value” under the Prevent Strategy. The rule of law requires not just that people obey the law (as Tories seem to think) but that it be possible for people to regulate their conduct on the basis of laws that are reasonably knowable and that they are able to assert their rights effectively in the face of state power. This is totally undermined by the fact that those people caught up in the hostile environment are often poor and vulnerable and lack the means effectively to challenge the bureaucrats who have wrecked their lives. The rules people are expected to follow are complex and ever changing and the evidence they are expected to provide is often refused as inadequate by civil servants who hold onto essential documents for years on end and often lose them. To further undermine the ability of citizens and migrants to defend themselves, the UK government removed legal aid for immigration cases. Unable to establish their status to the satisfaction of the Home Office, people have been left in limbo for years.
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