Sunday, April 30, 2017


What's the strongest argument against immigration? A commenter on my last post asked this and it's a good question.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American* worker? Does that mean we should also restrict invention to protect the American worker? Of course not - in neither case is it reasonable to prevent society at large from advancing to protect a small number whose jobs have been replaced by more efficient means of production. The overall gain is even more than enough to compensate the minority who has suffered from progress - the economy is not a zero-sum game.

We should restrict immigration to protect the American taxpayer? The fact this argument has any traction is the number one biggest downside to the welfare state. Victimless "crimes" often indirectly victimize taxpayers when the welfare state is on the hook for individuals' mistakes, and this provides much too easy of a justification to regulate individual choice, especially choices that are unpopular. Smoking causes cancer, and medicare pays for cancer treatment, so let's ban smoking. Immigrants might want to use social services, so don't let them in. Who cares where these things rank on the list of government expenditures, it provides an argument for someone who wants one. There are obvious ways around this dilemma (e.g. don't allow immigrants access to government benefits) so I don't think this is a strong argument at all.

Immigrants might be criminals and terrorists so we shouldn't let them in? I don't think anyone is arguing for open borders for al Qaeda, and existing checks already ensure that crime rates among immigrants are lower than the native population. Want more assurance? Strengthen the checks or conditions or something then. Next...

Immigrants might take over politics and vote out cherished American freedoms? I also care deeply about these cherished American freedoms and am extremely concerned by their erosion under post-911 security paranoia. But I have confidence in the U.S. constitution to withstand attacks on the rights that are clearly laid out in it** in the unbelievably unlikely scenario that hundreds of millions of immigrants decide to move to a country built on core values they disagree with. I am far more concerned with the betrayal of American values that preventing immigrants from pursuing their American dreams entails.

Immigrants will fundamentally change American culture? That might be true, and this is what I consider the strongest argument against immigration. I still don't think it's a very strong argument, but the strongest. (By the way, it's annoyingly and obtusely dismissive of Bryan for this "culture matters" argument to leave him speechless. It's not only common but the overwhelmingly dominant situation that a fact is known without all of its implications being realized. It's completely understandable to think about abstract aspects of immigration and conclude that it should be unrestricted for economic reasons, and then to finally realize that this policy would have other side-effects as well, one of which is changing culture, and to change your mind about immigration on those grounds. It perhaps means your original position wasn't too thoroughly considered, but let's face it, most people's opinions about most issues aren't very thoroughly considered. If you update your opinions only when new information arrives and you instantaneously consider all possible implications of this new information, good on you, but the rest of us are human.)

So why is this the strongest argument for immigration and why am I still not persuaded by it?

Thoroughly going into this would take me down a rabbit hole of utilitarian philosophy and I would emerge still wishy washy, so let's just start from the premise (that most would not find controversial in the first place) that people find value from living in communities that are compatible with their preferences and values. So of course people wouldn't want their towns overrun by foreigners with customs they can't relate to. I can empathize with that - I won't even give you a sermon about the value in learning from other cultures and how we're stronger together and how the only moral thing to do is to welcome those who are less fortunate than you into your community. I honestly think the Amish are heroes for forming exactly the community they want, in the midst of a hostile external world, without attempting to force anyone else to conform to their ideals. Scandinavia obviously derives benefits from being very homogeneous, and more power to them (although I would never move there myself.) It would be convenient not to believe in the utility of cohesive communities, but denying the truth would only make me feel less cognitive dissonance at the expense of my credibility.***

But that single legitimate tick in the con column of the immigration pro-con list is completely dominated by the ticks in the pro column. America and Australia are already strongly multi-cultural, but every diverse type of community can be found - you aren't forced to interact if you don't want to. There are Chinatowns you could mistake for China, neighborhoods where you can't avoid being woken up by the Muslim calls to prayer on those godawful tinny loudspeakers placed every few blocks, and suburbs where every house is occupied by WASPs. You can form your own reclusive Amish community if you want, and you don't have to hold the rest of the world hostage with your anti-immigration policies to do so. And if you can't find enough like-minded people to choose to exclude foreigners in your sub-community, surely you don't think your personal preference for homogeneity should trump everyone else's preferences to integrate?

What I think people are really afraid of when they say they don't want their culture to be overrun by foreigners is that they don't want to lose their special status as the majority (race/religion/whatever). I get that, but stating it that way makes it obvious how indefensible it is. The country was built on protecting minority groups from majority tyranny, so as long as you don't erode that foundation too successfully you'll be fine when/if the tables turn.


* I'm writing this about the U.S. specifically because I'm American but it applies equally to Australia (I am completely sure) and most of the rest of the world (I am less sure but still very confident) as well.

** Privacy is unfortunately not one of them, hence the post-911 security paranoia.

*** Ahem, libertarian climate change deniers, please take note...


Lorenzo said...

The biggest problem about migration it seems to be is the attempt to rule a whole lot of concerns out of court. Arguing with them I have no problem with, it is the "racist!" "xenophobe!" shouting which I find dysfunctional (and, indeed, an attack on citizenship).

I would also be more confident in economists generally pro-migration confidence if economics had a robust theory of why economic growth has varied so much between countries over the longer term.

Moreover, migration which comes from diverse sources so the institutional culture of the destination country is not directly challenged by a single migration-dominating counter identity is a rather different beast than one where it is. Christopher Caldwell's "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe" is an informed discussion of the pickle Europe has got itself into with Muslim migration.

Vera L. te Velde said...

Agreed - the knee-jerk accusations of racism and sexism and whatever else is infuriating, dysfunctional, and counterproductive.

Models/predictions on the scale of countries are hard to do (and I do think good theories exist but leave too much up to unpredictable random chance - "Why Nations Fail" is a good example) so there is correspondingly little consensus among economists about which countries are on their way to success, and even when there is consensus it frequently turns out to be completely wrong when some chance event derails things. I totally understand your skepticism in this arena. But the fact that economists are so happy to fight endlessly with each other should strengthen the signal you're getting when pretty much the entire field agrees that freer immigration is a win-win :)

Anonymous said...

How should we think about the optimal number of immigrants to accept? Is the damage to culture the main cost we should worry about so that we should keep accepting them until the benefits they bring are balanced against culture damage? Or is culture damage only the strongest argument against immigration at current margins in the US?

Vera L. te Velde said...

I have a hard time imagining the marginal benefit ever dropping below marginal costs (and if anything the marginal costs are decreasing). I don't think "too much diversity for people to be able to maintain the insular cultural communities they may want to live in" is a strong argument against immigration at all, it's just the only "cost" of immigration that can't be easily remedied that I can think of, so it wins the prize of strongest-argument-against. America is and always has been diverse, and it's built to find strength in that diversity. We're not a country tailored to a particular homogeneous culture. For most of the U.S. population, if you want to live in a homogeneous subsociety you already have to put effort into doing so (by choosing carefully where you live, where you work, etc), it's only in more rural areas where the christian white majority completely overshadows everything else and anywhere you live/work will therefore exist within that culture automatically. I understand why someone might be unhappy about this changing, but there's no way that's enough of a reason to stop it.

Anonymous said...

(Descending opinion is only related to the content of the article. I think the author is incredibly smart, kind and a most unique individual whom I feel lucky to know.)

In my opinion immigration is not principally an economic issue. Immigrants make money and also spend money. To this lay person - pretty much a wash. Where I strongly disagree with you is that immigration is a cultural issue and “you cannot have too much diversity”. It is okay in fact necessary for a country to maintain its cultural values lest they disappear.

To my simple mind democracy (In theory) is the right of self-choice, free from all form of government or religious (official) interference, as long as your choice does not inflict physical or financial cost on your fellow citizens. To be clear, physical or financial cost does include insulting or hurting your feelings, (Free speech) or your religious belief. (Freedom of or freedom from religion) It only includes actual pain and actual losses. Democracy also stands for equal opportunity under the law, without government interference. EVEN ONE IMMIGRANT WHO IS ANTI-DEMOCRACY IS TOO MANY AND SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED. (Any diversity which is not anti-democracy should be tolerated in fact encouraged)

Particularly in the current age of America where democracy is under attack from a large section of the country, who have mistaken equality of outcome with equality of opportunity, it is a terrible idea to allow those with anti-democratic philosophies to enter our country. Clearly there are numerous Americans who are now Anti-democracy. (To list a few) Those who believe living off others work, (welfare lifers) is acceptable and anyone who thinks they are entitled to anything such as free college ect. is not in favor of democracy. (They are also thief’s - as there is no such thing as “free” – just forcibly paid for by other people)

America is conceptually built on each individual’s freedom of choice. Islam is philosophically opposed to individual’s freedoms of choice. (This includes Muslims and non-Muslims alike) Christianity (I am no expert on Christianity and I might be incorrect) and Judaism do not in any way propose to tell non-followers how to live or think, and in fact their only forms of advertising “are meant” to be by example. Muslims in practice as well as philosophically, do not believe people should have freedom of choice. For example, the vast majority of Muslims believe that if you insult their god you should be “punished”. (Not by their god but by other Muslims) They do not believe in equal rights for women, as well as for non-Muslims ECT. (Google) AS SUCH MUSLIM’S CONCEPTUALLY ARE NOT COMPATIBLE WITH DEMOCRACY.

To clarify my prior statement, America is conceptually built on each Americans individual’s freedom of choice. It is not the duty or right of our democracy to dictate to the rest of the world how they should live, think or feel. IT IS HOWEVER THE DUTY OF AMERICA TO protect is citizens and this democracy as a whole. SEEMS TO ME THAT ALLOWING IMMIGRATION FROM PARTS OF THE WORLD WHERE THE VAST MAJORITY ARE INGRAINED WITH DEEP ROOTED BELIEFS WHICH ARE ANTI-DEMOCRATIC IN THE ATMOSPHERE IN AMERICA IS AKIN TO DEMOCRACY COMMITTING SUICIDE.

Food for thought: if the vast majority of immigrants were to come here and vote republican would you still be in favor of immigration? Why are the vast majority of immigrants democratic? Equal opportunity or equal results? Handouts? (Be honest)

Vera L. te Velde said...

Hi Ken, I believe I addressed most of your concerns in the original post. I'm going to refrain from saying more since I value your friendship immensely and I think our implicit agreement not to talk about politics or religion that we've relied on for nearly ten years now was a smart one :) <3