In politics, it is common to have disagreements over values and goals. What makes government decision-making even more difficult today is that we disagree not only on goals but also on facts.
Is the planet getting warmer? Are asylum seekers in danger if they are sent back to their country or if they have to wait in Mexico? Would a single-payer health care system bankrupt the government?
The easy problems are those on which we agree on facts and goals: the bridge has collapsed and needs to be replaced. There are a lot of additional issues that will need to be addressed (design, contractors, and how to pay for it), but we know how to build a new bridge. Agreement on facts and purpose makes subsequent decisions easier to make.
When we agree on facts but not on values and goals, then we need a political process.
For example, if a city has a million dollar surplus, what should we do with the money? We agree on the amount of the surplus, but not on what to do with it.
Disagreements over goals and values can only be resolved through negotiations, compromises or the exercise of power. We have the voices; you lost.
There are even political situations where we agree on goals but disagree on facts, or don’t know how to achieve the goal.
During WWII we wanted to defeat our enemies, but at the start of the war it was not clear how to do it. During the space race, we decided to send a man to the moon, but no one in Congress had the scientific and technical knowledge to do so.
In both of these cases, we brought in experts to investigate the problem, find solutions, and get the job done. This often involved trial and error until a good solution was found.
Research and science, however, are corrupted when people play quickly and freely with the facts. Bias researchers are usually funded by special interest groups who want the facts on their side. Politicians use “alternative facts” to back up their case. Disputes over fact have become so common that they have created a new branch of journalism devoted to fact-checking statements by politicians on both sides.
Saint Augustine believed that the prohibition of lying was absolute for Christians, even if it cost them their lives. In his eyes, lying was an inherent evil. Later moralists argued that one can lie to protect oneself from an evil person or state.
Today we are so far from Augustine that people are lying just to make an argument or make money. The end justifies the means. And when they are caught lying, they have no shame or a sense of guilt.
The immigration debate is one in which we see disagreements over values and facts, which makes it so difficult to resolve.
Values: What kind of immigrants do we want in terms of wealth, education, ethnicity, race and religion? Should we favor the reunification of families or immigrants who boost our economy? How should we treat those who have come here illegally? Should families be separated at the border?
But there are also disagreements over the facts: what happens to asylum seekers when they are returned to their country? Do immigrants commit more crimes than native born citizens? Are immigrants or native-born citizens more dependent on government assistance? Does immigration help or hurt the economy? Do immigrants pay more taxes than they receive government benefits?
Confusion over the facts makes decision making more difficult. Ignoring or lying about research already done makes things worse.
If we want to make progress in our country, we must value the facts and the truth. We must promote research and science.
There is no doubt that sometimes researchers and scientists are wrong. But science at its best is a process of self-correction, in which other scientists can critique and improve the work of their peers. But when politicians and the public reject scientific findings because they don’t like the results, then we’re in trouble.
The plight of asylum seekers worries me a lot. Asylum seekers are people who say they fear harm if returned to their country of origin. Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were a classic example of asylum seekers. Some Jews were refused entry and returned to Germany, where they were killed in concentration camps.
Today’s asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Central America claim that their lives have been threatened for political, religious or identity reasons or simply because they refused to cooperate with the gangs prevalent in their country. Some refugees are women fleeing domestic violence. Sometimes the government is the persecutor; sometimes he just looks the other way and allows the violence to take place.
The Trump administration claims that most asylum seekers are fraudsters who really come to the United States for economic reasons. The administration says they can be safely returned to their country.
It is a question of fact which should be studied. The Trump administration has already returned thousands of asylum seekers to Central America. What happened to them after their return? We have a few anecdotal reports of returned asylum seekers, but no comprehensive study.
Congress should demand that the Government Accountability Office, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department do research to find out what happened to these people after their return. were they killed? Are they still threatened? Did their governments protect them?
Academics, non-governmental organizations and the Catholic Church should also do this research. We need to know what happens to people who are fired.
Policy making must be influenced by facts. Making decisions ignoring the facts is irresponsible. It’s shooting in the dark when you don’t know who you’re going to hurt.
But our values must also be taken into account. When the facts are uncertain, when the research is incomplete, we must look to the solution that is safest for those affected. Playing with people’s lives is not acceptable.