The Other Ban

January 29, 2017

Well. I picked a bad time for my politics ban.

I did say in that post that I was more interested in the underlying mechanics of politics (meta-politics?) than in individual events themselves. Since making the abstract concrete is a great way of communicating it, I feel like a great opportunity just landed in my lap.

Unless you've been living in a cave for the last 24 hours, you doubtless know that President Trump has signed an executive order banning all nationals of certain countries from entering the US. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this, but at the moment, this rule appears to apply to two groups that have traditionally been exempt from rules of entry for nationals of countries with less than stellar relations with the U.S.:

  • Dual nationals of one of the seven countries and another country (say, Iranian-Canadians),
  • Green-card holders
  • Those with valid visas

This is to say nothing of the blanket ban on taking in Syrian refugees and the ethical issues around that.

I won't be the first to tell you that this ban is absolutely absurd, but as usual, many people I find on social media who are making the same statement are doing so for reasons I fundamentally disagree with. Since I'm not allowed to talk about politics on social media, I'm writing this post to break down what I see as the most detrimental aspect of this policy: erosion of trust.

I need to state this clearly upfront: to me, the only criteria for evaluating whether or not a particular piece of American policy is "good" is to gauge whether it is good for America - the same holds for any country of course. I don't think people who are not in the U.S. have any right to be considered by American statesmen in policy making. I also see countries allowing foreign nationals in their territories as a privelege for said foreign nationals, not a right. (Even though, yes, this policy may adversely affect me, the principle doesn't change).

Applying a ban like this to green card holders or to those who hold valid work or student visas is unmistakably bad for America. At the most basic level, a government has two jobs:

  • prevent violence
  • ensure contracts are honoured

Fail the first, and you'll be the Phillipines.

In this case, the U.S. government has failed the second by neglecting their side of a bargain. The rules that they themselves have established for green card holders and those with valid visas are suddenly being applied differently to different people. If reports are true, border agents are making a "case-by-case" judgement on which people with valid green cards and visas can get in and which can't.

Western countries are where they are today because they can run effective institutions at the national scale while maintaining a high trust in said institutions. Trust is a core component in creation of prosperous societies, and Trump's executive order is a direct assault on the trust in the U.S. government. This policy will now call into question all kinds of bargains that the U.S. government has agreed to uphold. You can't have a society in which the rule of law is applied differently according to the mood of a border patrol officer. As anyone from any of these banned nations will tell you, on a long enough timeline, the end result of such a policy is that the officers' mood will be directly proportional to the amount of 'favours' they receive. At that point, the entire point of having these institutions is negated.

To use a software engineering analogy: often people will write software components that many programmers will reuse in their own projects. The components (called "libraries" or "frameworks") that become popular are those where the community trusts the maintainers to do a good job (usually). The best maintainers of software (private or open source) are extremely careful about the changes they make to the public interface of their code because they know people are depending on it. They announce breaking changes far in advance and provide easy upgrade paths. This reliability and predictability is the only way the software ecosystems survive.

Governments usually operate by a similar metric - making sure to account for all types of people who may be affected by a new policy and adding appropriate provisions. This executive order doesn't do that. To continue the software analogy, the administration wrote a policy and pushed it straight to production with no test or review.

So even if there was irrefutable evidence that banning nationals of these seven countries is a net benefit to U.S. national security, making this change in a way that leaves upwards of 500,000 individuals in limbo is extremely bad governance. One can only imagine that the motives would be to either continue surprising the media and the opposition and stay one step ahead, a Trumpian negotiating technique whereby he starts at an extreme so that what he really wants seems more palatable later, or just pure incompetence.

As outrageous as the individual things that Trump says or does may be, I've always said that his biggest damage will be to American institutions. His candidacy demolished long-established norms of conduct for politicians. Now his policies - if they continue this way - may be slowly eroding away the very foundation of American institutions and the public trust in them.

Final Note

I'd be remiss if I didn't scream this one last factoid from the rooftops, since nobody is talking about it.

Many people have noted that this ban by the Trump Administration makes little sense, because it targets countries that have had no links to past terrorist attacks while nations that are well-known sponsors of terror (e.g. Saudi Barbaria) are exempt.

What you may not know, because your wonderfully incompetent media won't mention it (instead talking about irrelevant but more infuriating things such as Trump's business interests), is that Trump's executive order did not name the seven countries that are banned. It merely referred to countries that had previously been targetted by the executive orders and DHS policies under Obama. Remember all the outrage about racism those policies garnered under Obama? Me neither. So as always, if you're an American and decide this is unacceptable, I suggest you stop taking seriously sensationalist journalists who are slowly shedding all pretense of neutrality and devise a real strategy of opposition.