Wednesday, May 10, 2017

norms and immigration

One more immigration post and I promise I'll get off this topic for awhile.

I forgot to explicitly say another thing about the cultural effects of immigration that I'm not particularly concerned about: that immigrants will bring foreign social norms with them that are inferior to existing American norms, and our society will succumb to the bad effects of those norms. This is probably closer to what most people are referring to when they object to immigration on cultural grounds*.

It's true that detrimental norms could come into play in the whole gamut of societal contexts: academic cheating, bribery, corruption, nepotism, vigilantism, trust, respect for the rule of law**, etc etc etc. So it's hard to confidently assert that that there is no risk in any area, or to confidently say at what point exactly we should start to worry, but I'm pretty sure we're not remotely close to a concerning margin yet.

The reason is that stable norms are equilibria in the repeated game of life. Of the five types of norms I've previously listed, category 4 (decision heuristics that aren't just chosen individually but are promoted as a society and thus take on some quality of a norm, such as not hitchhiking, eating breakfast, not drinking alone) and category 5 (arbitrary signals and traditions like wearing ties) are victimless when broken and thus already handled by various arguments here. Category 1 norms are coordination norms that are easily self-enforced, like driving on the right side of the street. I trust it's obvious why we don't need to be worried about immigrants undermining these norms. But Category 2 and 3 norms, which are group cooperation norms that facilitate the common good, are also self-enforcing, just not quite as easily as bare coordination norms (because some external enforcement is necessary). And so for the exact same reason, I'm not terribly worried about their survival.

These norms are self-enforcing through social sanctions and, sometimes, the law itself. An isolated individual may easily be able to casually shoplift but he couldn't promote a norm of acceptability of casual shoplifting because anyone more integrated in the culture would gasp in horror at the thought, tell him to quit, and/or distance themselves from him. A critical mass of likeminded immigrants would have to simultaneously push for this new norm, and that's incredibly unlikely. If you don't believe me, I dare you to try: a lot of what development economists do is try to promote new norms and it is not easy. Add on top of that the fact that immigrants are an outgroup that Americans are even more resistant to taking cues from, that immigrants' offspring will be raised in the American context, and that new immigrants themselves will be strongly motivated to adopt American norms in order to fit in and succeed in their new home, and cultural assimilation in terms of cooperative norms seems all but certain.

Hence my narrow focus previously on cultural effects in terms of people's preferences over the types of communities they live in, rather than these more fundamental aspects of culture that are much less fragile.


* Although, I suspect the true desire is more often to preserve your culturally familiar and homogeneous community, but claiming a morally higher ground position that your community's norms are superior and should be protected is a convenient way to argue. Motivated reasoning is powerful (and usually subconscious - I'm not accusing anyone of lying, but of subconsciously being more likely to come up with and believe arguments that favor their underlying motives).

** This one can, in my opinion, be taken too far: Australians are downright comically respectful of the letter of the law. My favorite example is when Matt and I, a couple South Africans, a couple Europeans, and some Australians were hanging out and our plan to find a quiet pub to keep chatting at was thwarted by holiday crowds, so Matt suggested we pick up some beers at a bottle-o and take them to the park. Non-australians, in unison: "Great!" Australians, in unison: "*gasp* but... but that's illegal!" This took me by surprise when I moved here since Australia is supposed to have a kind of rugged outback culture reminiscent of American frontier culture, with its independent live-and-let-live, keep-the-government-off-my-back mentality, but the big cities at least seem to have very little of that hanging on.


a_random_user27 said...

"A critical mass of likeminded immigrants would have to simultaneously push for this new norm, and that's incredibly unlikely."

I would say that actually nothing is more likely. The way this happens is that immigrants tend to densely concentrate in neighborhoods where the norms of their old countries prevail. See the way Italian immigration to New York/New Jersey led to the rise of the mafia, or to the way Latino gangs arose in Hispanic neighborhoods today ( )

Vera L. te Velde said...

Ah yes, I completely agree foreign norms can persist in foreigner-dominated neighborhoods. But is the rest of the country getting sucked in? No.

a_random_user27 said...

True, the rest of the country is not sucked in, but bad norms can lead to high crime, and high crime tends to spill over. Can anyone really doubt, for example, that the ~100,000 Sicilian immigrants to the United Sates in the early 20th century did not result in increased crime? This is, at any rate, one argument against immigration, though perhaps not the one you were rebutting...