What is fair for migrant workers? – Stephen Colbert’s testimony to congress

My last post concerned moral maximizing and I believe the issue of migrant labor is one which relates.  As Stephen Colbert uses satire to relate in the below video, the pragmatic reality is that vegetables are not going to be picked by Americans in the United States through the invisible hand of the free market.

Want proof of this reality?  In June, the United Farm Workers union attempted an interesting experiment whereby it offered to train American citizens to replace migrant labor.  Colbert testifies that 16 people took them up on the offer (him included) and press reports indicate that only 7 people took the offer.  Whichever number it is, it seems fairly low.  Still, immigration reform seems unlikely to pass anytime soon as it seems to stimulate conflicting ideas of what is ‘fair’.  Migrant workers are virtually powerless and easily taken advantage of….but they are also breaking the law by coming to this country, and these conflicting considerations are differentially appealing to liberals and conservatives.

The below graph illustrates this differential appeal with data from yourmorals.org.  I asked individuals how ‘wrong’ different situations felt to them.  Some concerned equity (“A person who contributes more to society is not rewarded.), equality (“A bonus is given to a work team for good performance and the money is not divided equally.”), need(“‘A free meal is given to the rich, rather than to the hungry.”), retribution (“A person commits a crime and goes unpunished.”), and procedures (“A negotiation occurs without everyone completely understanding the process.”).  These situations may all be of varying severity, so it is difficult to interpret differences between dimensions, but one can make inferences about liberals and conservatives within dimensions.  Specifically, liberals (in blue below) felt that violations of equality and need (which formed one factor) were more wrong than did conservatives.  Similarly, conservatives (in red below) felt that violations of retributive justice principles were more wrong than did liberals.

Fair policies toward migrant workers depend on what you want to focus on….their lack of equal status, equal opportunity and need (which liberals seem to care about more).  Or their illegal entry into the United States (which conservatives care more about).  Colbert says as much in a rare break of character when responding to questions during the congressional hearing.

- Ravi Iyer

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