David Brooks gets this analogy right:
Harvard is tough to get into. To be admitted to a school like that, students spend years earning good grades, doing community service and working hard to demonstrate their skills. The system has its excesses, but over all it’s good for Harvard and it’s good for the students beginning their climb to opportunity.
The United States is the Harvard of the world. Millions long to get in. Yet has this country set up an admissions system that encourages hard work, responsibility and competition? No. Under our current immigration system, most people get into the U.S. through criminality, nepotism or luck. The current system does almost nothing to encourage good behavior or maximize the nation’s supply of human capital.
Our immigration system is unaccountably weird, relying, as it does, on family ties and lotteries. Just about all the discussion over the immigration bill has focused on the guest worker and citizenship programs, but the conversion to a points-based immigration system wherein applicants are judged across metrics of talent and economic potential is huge. Expect that system to expand in the House bill, where Silicon Valley Democrat Zoe Lofgren runs the relevant committee, and will undoubtedly jack up the allowance for high-skills visas.
That is actually the only thing about the bill which I don't like (yes I like the guest worker program *because* I assume the guests will overstay and become undocumented aliens without risking their lives in the Arizona desert). I think the USA can afford to train it's own high skilled technicians and professionals and shouldn't go out of its way to selectively admit those trained by poorer countries.
I think part of the appeal of the points based system is the sense that something valuable (an immigration visa) should be awarded on the basis of merit, because that is more fair. I don't think so. Harvard admitting people who demonstrate that they are smart and have served the community is fine as Harvard students have a high chance of being powerful and we have plenty of selfish powerful idiots (I did zippo for the community before going to Harvard and am totally powerless but hey even Byerley hall isn't perfect). That is, Harvard's admissions process has a sensible utilitarian basis totally aside from the question of whether someone deserves to be admitted.
The utilitarian effect of a points based visa system is that it takes from poor countries and gives to the USA. I think that is a terrible thing. I believe that highly trained people have the right to emigrate, but I don't think we should specifically aim to admit them and not their less advantaged country people.
I think Brooks's argument is useful, because it shows just how bogus arguments about incentives really are. Does Brooks really think that US immigration policy will have a significant effect on world wide "hard work [and]responsibility" or that Harvard's admissions policy has a significant effect on hard work, responsibility and community service in the USA (right now try to guess what fraction of American high schoolers understand that given financial aid at a university where middle class students are relatively poor they can afford to go to Harvard). This is nonsense. Brooks believes hard work and responsibility should be rewarded as a fundamental moral principle, not as a means to achieving useful incentive effects.
He's also clueless about the relative importance of hard work and responsibility and choosing the right parents, but that is not my point.