Thursday, August 14, 2014

Immigration and inductive reasoning

Immigration reform is a hot topic and has been for at least the last 10 years, which covers the time that I have been paying attention to it. One of the things I have noticed when I discuss immigration with other people is their desire to make general statements about immigrants, particularly immigrants from Mexico, based on their own experiences. This type of reasoning is inductive reasoning as opposed to deductive reasoning.

Inductive reasoning can be useful. Drawing on personal experiences when discussing larger topics is something that we all do and often is useful for moving a discussion forward. But inductive reasoning does not establish truth. It can only provide evidence that the more general statement that follows from the premise is possible with varying degrees of certainty. The degree of certainty depends on the strength of the premise and other evidence.

In the context of immigration, an inductive argument I hear a lot is of the type:

"All illegal Mexican immigrants I have heard of or have interacted with are only in the U.S. to mooch off of our social safety net. Therefore, all illegal Mexican immigrants are probably here to mooch off of our safety net rather than work."

The premise, that Mexican immigrants are in the U.S. to take advantage of our welfare programs, is based on a limited sample size, namely what the person has read about or seen. The conclusion, that all Mexican immigrants are probably identical to the sample in the premise, extrapolates what the person has experienced into a general statement about an entire group of people. Note that the conclusion may or may not be true; the argument itself does not establish truth.

Deductive reasoning starts from a principle that has been established as truth (or is at least widely believed to be true) and then logically works towards a second truth. A conclusion based on a correctly specified and coherent deductive argument is necessarily true.

For example, a deductive reasoning example of thinking about Mexican immigrants could be:

"People want to obtain the things that they desire at the least possible cost, where costs include not only pecuniary costs but also time, effort, and hardship. Therefore, illegal Mexican immigrants that come to the U.S. and take advantage of our welfare program will only do so if it is the least costly way of obtaining the goods and services that they desire."

Rather than assume that Mexican immigrants are here to mooch off of U.S. taxpayers, the argument above assumes that they respond to incentives, which is more certain. When the argument is presented this way it is more clear where solutions to the welfare problem may be found.

If we raise the relative cost or lower the benefit of being on welfare, less Mexican immigrants would see it as the solution to their economic problem. One way to do this is to make it easier to obtain a green card so that more immigrants can work legally. This lowers the cost of work relative to that of hiding out illegally and mooching off the system. If illegal Mexican immigrants could come out of the shadow economy and get legal permission to work they would be more likely do so. As it stands now, to the extent that they mooch of the system, it is because it is less costly for them to hide underground, draining local resources such as public schools, local hospitals, food banks, churches, local welfare programs, etc. without contributing any tax dollars or donations to the upkeep of such services.

I try to avoid inductive reasoning when possible but like anyone I rely on my own experiences and observations to make sense of the world. Inductive reasoning is not bad, but when a person uses it they should be sure to acknowledge to both themselves and others that their conclusion is only a possibility rather than a certainty. If it is truth that is being sought, deductive reasoning is the only way to get there. And even if the truth proves difficult to get at, deductive reasoning often provides a better framework for analyzing the situation.


  1. So...your conclusion from your example of deductive reasoning doesn't follow its premise. When you say "Therefore, illegal Mexican immigrants that come to the U.S. and take advantage of our welfare program will only do so if it is the least costly way of obtaining the goods and services that they desire," you are also implying that if an immigrant takes advantage of a social program, then that was the only reason he or she came to the U.S. in the first place.

    That is obviously false. An illegal immigrant could have come to the U.S. for a job, to be with family, or maybe just to go on an adventure, and then later on decided that while they are here perhaps they should then take advantage of our social assistance.

    It's an important distinction because many conservatives argue that if we do away with social programs (which may or may not be a good idea for other reasons), we'll stem the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S., since all they really care about is mooching. I think that is demonstrably false. In reality, there isn't much of a difference between this modern wave of immigration from Latin America and the wave of immigration from Western Europe this country experienced in the mid-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of the same arguments used by natives back then to try and stop immigration are being regurgitated today.

    The reason for much of the immigration we see today is the same as it was 150 years ago: our country is richer than theirs (regardless of wherever their home country may be), and they want to live, work, play, what have you, in a richer country. Plain and simple.

    1. Being with their family or going on an adventure could be the goods that they value. They came here to consume those goods and upon arrival calculated that the least costly way to do so was to take advantage of local public services. I am not implying anything about the hierarchy of their reasoning or the order of their choices. I just made a simple example that didn't assume that all immigrants, both legal and illegal, are here to mooch.

      To the rest of your post, I agree with you. I am for a largely open border policy; a green card for anyone who wants one provided that they are not a felon in their own country or have a communicable disease that has been eradicated in the U.S. (ebola, tuberculosis, measles, small pox, etc.). As long as that is the case take the necessary time for a background check and let them work.

      I don't think they should be able to receive welfare or medicaid and they are not citizens so they cannot vote, at least at first. But while they have a green card they can work and apply for citizenship. They can go to local food banks like anyone else, join a church community, have health insurance from their employer or that monstrosity that is Obamacare etc.

      I think that most immigrants want to work and make money for a while and then go back to their own country to be with their families and around a culture that is familiar to them. But if they want to move here and just be on a green card permanently that is fine too. Or if they want to eventually become a U.S. citizen that is also fine.

      Efficiently allocating labor across international borders is not only the correct humanitarian thing to do, it is also the correct economic thing to do.