What we can learn from Glenn Beck’s humane gesture and the response

Glenn Beck (website, Wikipedia) is a political pundit in the United States who’s been described as a conservative with libertarian leanings. Beck has a large fan following. His shows can be quite mesmerizing, even if you don’t agree with him. He’s able to convey a mix of curiosity and honesty even when his statements are all wrong, and one often gets the sense that he’s sharing his own inner struggles with his viewers.

Beck has a streak of independence from mainstream wisdom that can be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, this independence attracts him to conspiracy theories that most people dismiss, and that are often false, and exaggerated even when true. On the other hand, he can sometimes stick his neck out to courageously make an important and true point despite the fact that this would be detrimental to his ratings and subscriptions.

The story

In late June 2014, there were a couple of stories in The Blaze (a website owned by Glenn Beck) about Beck asking his audience to show compassion to the children who had been crossing the U.S. border illegally. His foundation, Mercury One, was accepting donations to help feed and house the children, and was targeting to raise $300,000. One article noted:

Beck has stated that the Obama administration is “directly responsible” for the recent flood of illegal immigrants from Central America. And though he believes every person who crossed into the United States illegally must be sent home, Beck and the charity he founded, Mercury One, have chosen to do all they can to help ensure the refugees have basic necessities like food and water.

An earlier article noted:

Beck said the American people have to make a choice. They could “run down to the border” and secure it themselves, but “that doesn’t fix the humanitarian crisis, and we have to err on the side of humanity.”

“If we’re going to be Americans, a choice has to be made. And we always make the right choice,” Beck said. “As people, we always do. We would rather extend ourselves and see the life of a child protected than err on the side of being silent, still, and [seeing] harm come to a child. … Acting in a compassionate way is what makes us human. It’s what makes us Americans.”

Beck said the tens of thousands illegal immigrants flooding our border “have to be sent home,” but that we can’t stand by while so much suffering is happening “on our side of the border.”

“I’m not talking about, we’re going to send them into our cities,” Beck said. “I’m saying, can we please get them port-o-potties? Can we get them portable showers? Can we feed them? You want to show the world what it means to be an American? Then let’s do that. Let’s put the well-being of others on the highest pedestal.”

On July 8, 2014, The Blaze published an article by Erica Ritz about Glenn Beck’s announcement that he would be “bringing tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls to McAllen, Texas on July 19 as a way to help care for some of the roughly 60,000 underage refugees who have crossed into America illegally in 2014.” Here’s the video segment:

Issue Hawk noted (based off of the same video):

Beck plans to go to the border on July 19, bringing with him, according to Mediaite.com, “tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears, and soccer balls.” He will be joined by religious leaders and two Congressmen who could stand a lesson or two in compassion, Reps. Mike Lee of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas. He then said this decision has cost him money (vis-à-vis subscriptions/donations) and garnered “violent” hate mail from his audience.

Beck’s attitude on immigration is much different than is currently espoused on conservative media. “The best way to secure our borders and to make America a safe place,” he says, “is to make it accessible to all those fleeing poverty, oppression, and violence. Anybody in search of a better life.” He mocked those (like Sarah Palin) who claim that this is solely the President’s fault (or part of a secret agenda).

Beck’s announcement met with a lot of critical pushback in the comments on the Blaze story, mostly expressing strong disapproval of Beck for lending any sort of helping hand to the “illegals”. It was also covered in a few other sources:

  • The Huffington Post also published the story, and responses there were mixed: some viewed Beck’s approach as cynical and insincere, some expressed reactions similar to those common on the Blaze, and some expressed admiration of Beck.

  • Gawker covered the story with the title Glenn Beck Angers Conservatives by Being Humane to Immigrants, pointing out how Glenn Beck’s humane gesture got heavy pushback from conservatives, including legislators.

  • Jonathan Topaz covered the story in an article titled What Glenn Beck fears could destroy him for Politico, July 9, 2014.

  • Over at Big Journalism, John Nolte offered a more sophisticated criticism of Glenn Beck, arguing that showing compassion to the illegal immigrants only incentivized more of them to cross, and to risk their lives in the dangerous journey. While his own criticism was prima facie reasonable, Nolte seemed oblivious to the statements of other critics of Beck, as evidenced in this paragraph (emphasis mine):

    Beck’s desire to help kids caught in a geopolitical crossfire through no fault of their own is laudable. We all want to help. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that it’s wrong to use American taxpayer dollars to feed, house, and offer medical care to these children. No one opposes that.

    Beck thinks more needs to be done.


  • In a post on Hot Air titled Glenn Beck, the border crisis, and the Republican Party’s empathy gap, Noah Rothman argued that conservatives had the problem of being and/or giving the impression of lacking empathy for suffering people, and Glenn Beck’s gesture was a good counterexample, but the pushback against him illustrated the problem again. He also pointed out many instances of lack of left-wing empathy, but said that conservatives needed to take more proactive steps to turn the narrative around.

  • In a post titled Glenn Beck Trucking Supplies to Border for Illegal Immigrants, Surprising People Who Base Their Opinions on Stereotypes at Reason‘s Hit and Run blog, Ed Krayewski wrote:

    Beck appears to be the only prominent figure, left or right, interested enough in the crisis at the border to do something himself and not just use it as a political opportunity to push for his preferred policy solutions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to Beck over the years.

  • In an article titled What Glenn Beck Got Right About The Border Crisis in The Daily Caller, July 11, 2014, Matt K. Lewis praised Beck’s humanitarian decision, and also noted:

    Personally, there are a lot of things I like about what Beck is doing. Conservatism shouldn’t be just about politics, and, of course, it isn’t. Conservatives (even the evil Koch brothers!) tend to be charitable — at least, in terms of giving money.

    Nolte argues that Christian charity should be done in secret, and to a certain extent, I agree. But isn’t there something to be said for leaders who are willing to set a positive public example? Isn’t there something gained from Glenn Beck challenging his audience to put aside politics and anger — and instead react to a humanitarian crisis simply as humans and people of faith?


    Additionally, isn’t it possible that Beck and Gohmert and Lee will — having seen the plight of these refugees — come away changed or have a different perspective? One wonders how bad things must be in Guatemala or Honduras for a mom and dad to pay a coyote to smuggle their child into a foreign land. Perhaps this will result in some introspection.

The analysis

  1. Whether Beck’s approach will actually help the children he intends to help, and whether his method of doing so is cost-effective, are questions I have no idea on. I am generally skeptical of gifts in kind, and I also have no reason to believe that Glenn Beck has a good track record of effective use of charitable donations. Finally, even if it were effective, an altruistic donor should still compare it against other, perhaps even more cost-effective ways of doing good. I have no specific evidence against Glenn Beck, but my general Bayesian prior suggests it’s highly unlikely to be a good place to donate money.

  2. The main value of what Beck is doing is symbolic: it raises the status of the issue, and makes the point that private individuals can (and arguably should) extend a helping hand. It elevates the humanity of migrants over their “illegal” status. Seeing a major figure (hitherto) respected by a large number of restrictionists make this point publicly has huge value, even if his specific actions are not that helpful.

  3. Of course, one can read this cynically and say that Beck is just looking for publicity, perhaps sacrificing short-term financial interest for long-term gains with a new demographic or target audience. Another possibility is that Beck was influenced by a big donor who made donations to Mercury One conditional to Beck using the money to take these actions (Beck does indeed mention an anonymous donor who gave $100,000, but there’s no evidence that the donor provided explicit input to Beck’s decision). I don’t have enough inside information to know the extent to which either of these is true. However, it is largely irrelevant to the analysis here: I’m interested more in the symbolism of the action itself rather than Beck’s possible ulterior motives.

  4. On the other hand, as my co-blogger John Lee pointed out eloquently a few days ago, the issue is primarily one of justice, not compassion. The presumption of freedom of movement across borders should be built on basic rights rather than on special pleading based on extenuating circumstances. The Libertarian Party agrees, saying:

    Ultimately, the fact that many of these children are fleeing dangerous situations isn’t the issue. Even if they were coming to the United States for fun, we should still allow them to enter. All foreigners should be allowed entry into the United States unless the government can produce positive evidence that they pose a threat to security, health, or property.

    Beck, on the other hand, seems to be motivated largely by compassion. He urges us to “err on the side of humanity” and says that when America is no longer good, it stops being great. So clearly, Beck is quite far from an open borders advocate. But compassion can be an important first step in recognizing the humanity of other people. This isn’t to say that restrictionists don’t recognize the humanity of potential migrants in theory, but many of them seem to forget it in practice or deprioritize it relative to other considerations. By highlighting the issue, Beck is trying to force people to more explicitly confront the dilemma. Some, like John Nolte, rise to the challenge by arguing that the treatment of migrant children is unfortunate but is the lesser of two evils. The more common response in the comments is to continue to refuse to confront the dilemma, and to shout Beck down.

  5. All that said, Nolte’s general class of criticism is correct in a broad sense, although it may very well not apply here. Namely, being more welcoming to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization. On the other hand, raping people who crossed borders without authorization reduces the incentive to cross borders without authorization. Offering amnesty to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization, whereas shooting them on sight reduces the incentive. It may well be the case that the primary reason for the recent surge of child migrants was worsening conditions in Central America. At least that’s what Dara Lind suggests on Vox.com. The other hypothesis is that a 2008 law passed to protect sex slaves has meant that children are less likely to be deported, and therefore incentivizes more child migration (more here). Whatever the reason, there should be a Bayesian prior that changes to the level of welcome at the margin affect migration decisions.

  6. The above leads us to two closely related contradictions in the compassionate moderate approaches to migration championed by progressives and Glenn Beck. First off, it isn’t very logically consistent to show compassion to migrants once they have crossed the border, while having little concern for those outside (cf. territorialism). The inconsistency is even weirder if you simultaneously think of illegal immigration as morally wrong. Think about it: you’re saying that if somebody who does not matter does an action you consider immoral, he or she starts mattering a lot more! Related to the moral contradiction is the practical implication: territorialist compassion incentivizes more illegal immigration, thereby heightening the contradiction with continued emphasis on border security and the rule of law. These points were made by co-blogger Nathan Smith here and Joel Newman here.

  7. What I find personally heartening about Glenn Beck’s thinking is that even though he is clearly far from open borders, he is employing some of the core elements of reasoning used in establishing the open borders presumption, and his thinking appears to be evolving fast. As the quotes above show, on June 25, he was putting emphasis on the fact that after feeding people, it was important to send them home. But by July 8, he had dropped explicit reference to sending people home, and even suggested that, in an ideal world at least, the United States should be open to people fleeing poverty and oppression. This does not mean he favors open borders in the current world, but he seems to have acknowledged a presumption of freedom of migration, even if very vaguely and in passing. What’s perhaps even more encouraging is that this rhetorical shift occurred despite significant pushback from his fan following. Whatever Beck’s inner views, the fact that he saw an opportunity to evolve in a direction opposite to what his audience was incentivizing him to do suggests that his public statements on the issue might continue to try to push his audience to think of the humanity of migrants.

    All in all, I don’t expect Beck to become a champion of open borders any time in the near future. The best-case scenario I consider plausible is that he acknowledges a presumption of free movement, but rather than actively campaigning for it, blames politicians in a vague way for politicizing the issue for personal electoral interest. If pressed, he might retort with some of the reflexive libertarian retorts against open borders. Of course, I’d be happy if I were wrong about this and Beck went all the way to open borders, if he could do so while still retaining at least something of a public presence.

    At the same time, I consider it quite unlikely that Beck’s views, or his choice of emphasis, will move in a more restrictionist direction. It’s very hard to stake out a humanitarian position and then return to “illegal”-bashing rhetoric. Even if he wanted to, I think Beck (or anybody else, for that matter) would find it hard.

  8. Beck’s admittedly limited, confused, and compassion-heavy moves will probably do more for the open borders cause than other, more minor, political pundits (such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano) who embrace open borders far more completely. That’s because Beck connects with a larger audience at an emotional level. And going by Wikipedia views and Google Trends, Glenn Beck appears to be the most read-about and most searched-about pundit among top American television and radio pundits. Rush Limbaugh (website, Wikipedia) is the only other figure who performs comparably. So Beck is in a position to influence a lot more people than most pundits.

    There may be a lot of visible pushback against him right now, but Beck has set a precedent and next time around, there will be more open support for him from within the conservative flank (cf. Asch conformity experiments). Even if Glenn Beck fades out as a pundit himself (due to this issue or any other), it’s likely that future firebrands will pick up where he left.

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