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When Do the Ends Justify the Means? Evaluating Procedural Fairness

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Abstract

How do people decide whether a political process is fair or unfair? Concerned about principles of justice, people might carefully evaluate procedural fairness based on the facts of the case. Alternately, people could be guided by their prior preferences, endorsing the procedures that produce favored policy outcomes as fair and rating those that generate disliked outcomes as unfair. Using an experimental design, we consider the conditions under which people use accuracy goals versus directional goals in evaluating political processes. We find that when procedures are clearly fair or unfair, people make unbiased assessments of procedural justice. When the fairness of a process is ambiguous, people are more likely to use their prior attitudes as a guide.

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Notes

  1. In the sample, 60% are female and 78% are white. Thirty-three percent are 18–30 years old, 40% are 31–50 years old, and 27% are 51 years or older. Like the surrounding community, our sample is left-leaning, as 59% identify as Democrats, 31% identify as Independents, and 10% identify as Republicans.

  2. The article was formatted to resemble the online version of USA Today. The study was not conducted in Arizona, but in a nearby state.

  3. In the case of representativeness, respondents were asked three items—how well they thought decision-makers on the council listen to different opinions on the issue, how much council members cared about citizens’ opinions about the ordinance, and how important the public’s opinions were to council members. In the case of accuracy, respondents were asked about their beliefs about whether people on the council wanted to find accurate information about the immigration issue and how much effort was put into researching how the ordinance would affect immigration. In the case of bias, respondents were asked to appraise the honesty of policymakers, their trustworthiness, and the degree to which making good policy was important to policy-makers. Each item was assessed on a four point scale and then averaged across the items for each manipulated factor.

  4. We find no significant differences in ratings of the representativeness of the process between the unfair and mixed fairness conditions. We also find no significant differences in views about the policy process as accuracy-oriented between the fair process and mixed fairness conditions.

  5. An entirely fair process is seen as significantly more fair than one that has fair and unfair characteristics (t = 7.20, p < 0.01) and one that is entirely unfair (t = 8.85, p < 0.01).

  6. We do this by relying on a pretest measure that asks participants asked if they support or oppose laws to fine businesses in their community for hiring illegal immigrants. Our sample is somewhat more likely to favor such laws than oppose them, as 24% strongly supported such laws, 35% somewhat supported them, 31% somewhat opposed the laws, and 10% strongly opposed these fines.

  7. We find a similar pattern of results when we use ordered probit rather than OLS regression, though the coefficient for interaction effect between the policy outcome and the use of a fair and unfair process is significant at only the 0.10 level, rather than the 0.05 level.

  8. We also considered whether the effects of our main manipulations were symmetrical across the two versions of the stimulus (ordinance passes or fails). We estimated this model with a set of three-way interaction terms, between the presence of a policy challenge, the nature of the procedures used, and whether one read about the ordinance passing or being voted down. None of the interaction effects between the main experimental manipulations and whether the policy passed or failed are statistically significant.

  9. The question wording was, “Would you support or oppose laws to fine businesses in your community for hiring illegal immigrants?” and the response options included “strongly support,” “somewhat support,” “somewhat oppose,” and “strongly oppose.”

  10. We find the same pattern of results when estimating the model with ordered probit.

  11. These multiple choice items asked respondents which party has the most members in the House of Representatives, how much of a majority is required for Congress to override a presidential veto, whose responsibility is it to determine if a law is constitutional, as well as the identities of the U.S. Attorney General and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. We summed the number of correct answers and then rescaled the variable from 0 to 1.

  12. Attitude strength and political awareness are uncorrelated in our sample (r = −0.02).

  13. We find a similar pattern of results when relying on ordered probit, though the interaction of political awareness and challenging policy and the interaction of the fair and unfair process and challenging policy are significant at the 0.10 level rather than the 0.05 level in the second model.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Wolak.

Appendix: Wording of the Experimental Stimuli

Appendix: Wording of the Experimental Stimuli

(Version 1: Ordinance Passes)

Flagstaff Votes to Support New Penalties for Companies that Hire Illegal Immigrants

FLAGSTAFF, AZ (AP)—As part of a plan to crack down on undocumented workers, the City Council of Flagstaff, Arizona, voted yesterday to support an ordinance that steps up penalties for any employers who hire illegal immigrants. The ordinance revokes the business license of any company found to hire unlawful workers. It also would allow people to sue employers if they lost their job because the company hired illegal immigrants.

Council member John Jennings supported the ordinance, arguing that the ordinance would benefit the local government and the community. Jennings commented, “The federal government is supposed to enforce immigrations laws, but when they don’t, states and localities pay the price – illegal immigrants put a strain on school and health care systems and take jobs from local residents.”

Opponents of the ordinance criticized the new rules, arguing they will increase discrimination against Hispanics and hurt small businesses. Council member Mark Waters commented, “The burden of enforcing immigration rules should not be foisted upon businesses—this is the government’s responsibility, not those of employers.”

(Unfair and mixed fairness conditions) Council members allowed people to voice their opposition or support of the measure only after the vote was taken Monday. Flagstaff resident Sally Mathers, who had prepared to address the council, complained, “I can’t believe they would vote without listening to the public’s input first.”

(Fair condition) The vote on the ordinance followed lengthy debate among council members with a number of city residents also addressing the council. Flagstaff resident Sally Mathers commended the council members, “Regardless of the outcome, I am glad I had the chance to explain my views to the council.”

(Unfair condition) Many immigration experts disagree that these kinds of penalties for business owners have any effect on the immigration problems that local communities face. Council member Linda Wright raised this point at yesterday’s meeting, noting, “It is not at all clear that these laws make a difference.”

(Mixed fairness and fair conditions) Experts on immigration policy generally agree that these kinds of penalties for employers will significantly reduce illegal immigration. Council member Linda Wright raised this point at yesterday’s meeting, noting, “Most of the things I have read indicate these laws do make a difference.”

(Unfair condition) Opponents of the ordinance questioned the impartiality of council member Jennings, the ordinance’s main supporter, who has close ties to the American Immigration Control Foundation—a group dedicated to stopping illegal immigration at any cost.

(Mixed fairness and fair conditions) The ordinance gained support in part due to the leadership by council member Jennings, whose 23 years of service in local government has earned him a great deal of respect among the people of Flagstaff.

The debate about restricting illegal immigration in communities is not limited to Flagstaff, with a number of other municipalities currently considering similar ordinances.

(Version 2: Ordinance Voted Down)

Policy Flagstaff Rejects Penalties for Companies that Hire Illegal Immigrants

FLAGSTAFF, AZ (AP)—Plans to crack down on undocumented workers received a setback yesterday when the City Council of Flagstaff, Arizona, voted against an ordinance that would have stepped up penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. The ordinance would have revoked the business license of any company found to hire unlawful workers. It also would have allowed people to sue employers if they lost their job because the company hired illegal immigrants.

Opponents of the ordinance celebrated the outcome, as they had argued the ordinance would increase discrimination against Hispanics and hurt small businesses. Council member Mark Waters commented, “The burden of enforcing immigration rules should not be foisted upon businesses—this is the government’s responsibility, not those of employers.

Council member John Jennings supported the ordinance, arguing that the ordinance would have benefited the local government and the community. Jennings commented, “The federal government is supposed to enforce immigrations laws, but when they don’t, states and localities pay the price—illegal immigrants put a strain on school and health care systems and take jobs from local residents.”

(Unfair and mixed fairness conditions) Council members allowed people to voice their opposition or support of the measure only after the vote was taken Monday. Flagstaff resident Sally Mathers, who had prepared to address the council, complained, “I can’t believe they would vote without listening to the public’s input first.”

(Fair condition) The vote on the ordinance followed lengthy debate among council members with a number of city residents also addressing the council. Flagstaff resident Sally Mathers commended the council members, “Regardless of the outcome, I am glad I had the chance to explain my views to the council.”

(Unfair condition) Many immigration experts disagree that these kinds of penalties for business owners have any effect on the immigration problems that local communities face. Council member Linda Wright raised this point at yesterday’s meeting, noting, “It is not at all clear that these laws make a difference.”

(Mixed fairness and fair conditions) Experts on immigration policy generally agree that these kinds of penalties for employers will significantly reduce illegal immigration. Council member Linda Wright raised this point at yesterday’s meeting, noting, “Most of the things I have read indicate these laws do make a difference.”

(Unfair condition) Advocates of the ordinance questioned the impartiality of council member Waters, the ordinance’s main opponent, who owns a construction company that would have been directly affected by the ordinance.

(Mixed fairness and fair conditions) The defeat of the ordinance in part due to the leadership by council member Waters, whose 23 years of service in local government has earned him a great deal of respect among the people of Flagstaff.

The debate about restricting illegal immigration in communities is not limited to Flagstaff, with a number of other municipalities currently considering similar ordinances.

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Doherty, D., Wolak, J. When Do the Ends Justify the Means? Evaluating Procedural Fairness. Polit Behav 34, 301–323 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-011-9166-9

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