Todd Purdum Quotes Orwell, but So Do We in Response to His Article “Prancing on a Volcano”

Todd Purdum, whose views on immigration and role in the Washington establishment have been the subject of two earlier posts (see here and here), last year referred to the immigration-policy deadlock as an example of our political leaders’ lamentable inability to come to grips with a host of pressing issues.

In an article headlined “Prancing on a Volcano”, Purdum’s thesis was that revolutionary advances in technology and science have given us the tools to understand comprehensively our most pressing problems and shape the policies to address them.

This he contrasted with previous epochs when “information was hard to come by, and causation often went uncomprehended.” For example, he said, 16th century Chinese peasants suffering from runaway inflation “could not know that it was caused by the silver-mining policies of imperial Spain in South America.”

By contrast, Purdum writes, “Today we know almost everything, but can’t seem to act on the knowledge or even take it seriously. As Orwell famously observed, ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.'”

Purdum invokes both the divide between rich and poor and immigration policy to illustrate the point: “We have hard data on the deleterious effects of decades of income inequality — and on the benefits of immigration — but can’t agree on policies that might ease the former or productively manage the latter.”

But productively for whom? Different answers to that question are embedded in different policy alternatives.

If we opt for economic growth above all else, and provide visas to hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to enter our labor markets, we benefit employers and the GDP while subjecting American workers to job competition and downward pressure on wages.

That is the preferred option of many who want “comprehensive” immigration reform, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. As we have already noted, Zuckerberg engaged former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart to design an ad campaign to promote the “comprehensive” approach. Lockhart is a founding partner at the Glover Park Group in Washington, where Purdum’s wife, Dee Dee Myers, is a managing director.

This is not to suggest that Purdum or Myers have cynical motivations about immigration policy. The “comprehensive” approach is broadly supported within their liberal circles.

But it is to say that despite what Purdum seems to think, immigration policy is not a matter of fashioning elegant logarithms from available intellectual materials. Nor should it be guided solely to ensure maximization of the GDP.

We are a nation, not just an economy. And immigration policy involves philosophical and value judgments shaped by considerations of culture and community and citizenship, as well as moral and religious concerns about our duty to the less fortunate both at home and around the world.

Yale law professor Peter Schuck has looked deep into these issues, citing political scientist Carl Friedrich’s observation that the idea of community is “the central concept of politics”.

If that is so, Schuck writes in Clamor at the Gates, “it follows that immigration law is one of the polity’s chief architects.” Then he quickly traces the dimensions of that project.

Writes Schuck:

Immigration law seeks to answer the very first questions that any society must put to itself: What are we? What do we wish to become? Which individuals can help us to reach that goal? And most fundamentally, which individuals constitute the “we” who shall decide these questions. In the course of answering them, the American community is defined.

Purdum’s article brings to mind another Orwell observation, one that describes these questions’ effect on the immigration debate, particularly on those of us who want to limit immigration.

Wrote Orwell:

At any given moment there is orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Or to paraphrase Hamlet: there are more things in immigration policy than are dreamt of in Todd Purdum’s philosophy.

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