John Lee’s post on US visa policy is, for me, a reminder of how important it is for people to have rights. Rights can sound like an abstruse or arbitrary notion. “Natural rights” sounds like a ghost from the 18th century suddenly walking the earth again. “Human rights” sounds like newfangled UN-speak. But when a person is denied a visa for refusing to laugh at a consular officer’s joke, one feels a certain indignation, a certain repugnance, as if an injury has been done to something rather ineffable but very important. It is not proportional, not fitting, unjust. It is somehow intolerable. The ineffable something that has been injured is human dignity, or in other words, human rights. Rights are the only antidote to arbitrariness and discretion.
Anyway, one of the odd side-effects of an improperly discretionary regime that doesn’t give due respect to human rights, is that corruption can suddenly seem like rather a good thing. Which of the following is more offensive?
1. A visa applicant is rejected for not laughing at a consular official’s joke.
2. A visa applicant is rejected for refusing to pay a $5,000 bribe.
My intuition actually sort of tilts towards (1) being more offensive. I’m very tentative on this point. But at least in case (2), the applicant knows the process. He has more of a sense of being the author of his own life story, of having a say, of knowing the criteria, of being able to plan.
Of course, if I put on my “economist” hat, a very simple analysis suggests itself. If a visa applicant spends his time kissing up to a consular official by researching him and learning what, e.g., laughing at his jokes, puts him in a good mood, resources have been wasted. Perhaps the consular official likes being flattered, but probably he doesn’t value it much, and surely less than the effort to do it is worth. By contrast, if the applicant pays the consular official a $5,000 bribe, both parties clearly benefit. The consular official is $5,000 richer, and the visa applicant apparently values the visa more than his $5,000, or he wouldn’t have paid. Of course, the US public, of which the consular official is supposed to act as a representative, might be deemed to suffer by the decision. But whatever the US public’s stake in immigration may be, it can hardly be claimed that the willingness of visa applicants to laugh at consular officials’ jokes has anything to do with the interests of the US public. So if the consular official is given such discretion that he is entitled to accept or reject visa applicants based on whether they laugh at his jokes or not, then he can’t be injuring the US public by exercising the discretion that has been allotted to him in a fashion that enriches him personally. Efficiency is therefore served by consular corruption.
Now, what this leaves out is truth. I presume that consular officials who reject applicants based on an applicant’s not laughing at their jokes are not deemed to have done anything dishonest or illegal, but that consular officials are explicitly forbidden to take bribes. How does that consideration weigh against the greater efficiency of consular corruption?
One goal of my DRITI proposal is to remove such dilemmas by removing consular discretion. Only when the state seeks to discern and protect individual rights can true rule of law exist.