Friday, May 7, 2010

Illegal immigration

Illegal immigration pushes a lot of people’s buttons negatively because:
(1) it establishes that they, as voters and citizens—unless they are happy with open borders—have no say over who comes to live in their country; and
(2) treating it as a non-issue not merely tolerates, but rewards, foreigners for breaking the law.

These are both perfectly reasonable responses. What cries out for explanation is not that illegal immigration upsets people, but that a lot of people are tone-deaf to the perfectly understandable ways in which it “pushes people’s buttons”.

A key reason for this “tone deafness” is that, if you are in favour of an expansive immigration policy, tolerating illegal immigration allows your preferred policy to get through without the tedious constraints of democratic processes. Acknowledging the reasonableness of much of the opposition to illegal immigration makes this end-run around democratic processes explicit. It is much better to find reasons to discount this anger—thereby “justifying” one’s revealed contempt for your fellow citizens having a say—than to leave that contempt “naked”. Hence the continuing efforts to diagnose angst over illegal immigration as being morally retrograde—a manifestation of racism or some other form of “lack of compassion”.

Angst over illegal immigration can exist completely independently of attitudes to immigration in general. Being dismissive of such angst is, however, likely to be associated with a strongly pro-immigration view: as, indeed, we observe.

But there is an even more basic level of differentiation. The above concerns about illegal immigration are based on a strong notion of the polity having a legitimate corporate existence. That is, the country’s laws—and the processes by which they are made—have a strong legitimacy that extends to the right to regulate borders.

If you have a weak or negative view of the country’s corporate legitimacy, then such concerns will also not resonate.

Hence libertarians—if they do not accept any strong right to regulate entry—are likely to be dismissive of concerns over illegal immigration. Arguments of the “if wetbacks were greenbacks” variety will resonate with them.

Immigration and rights in the abstract and the specific
As I put in a comment here, I do not agree with this view.
After all, do we agree that people have the right to their property? That owning a house means you can say who can use it or not?

I assume yes.

Do we agree that people have a right to form common associations for common purposes?

I assume yes.

Do we grant the state is a legitimate entity?

If one is not some sort of anarchist, then yes.

Then a state has legitimacy to set and enforce rules, including rules of residency. What those rules should be, grounds for much debate. Just like rules concerning foreign trade. But the legitimacy of making them is fine. Particularly for public goods and externalities. Both of which apply to immigration, as that extends the number of people covered by the country’s public goods and imposes negative externalities on existing residents. (It may also—depending on the rules in operation—affect the provision of national club goods, such as taxpayer-paid welfare and social services.)

People may have rights in the abstract but we are not beings in the abstract. That is, we all exist in a web of particular connections. Unless those particular connections have some legitimacy, then we lack legitimacy as specific (rather than abstract) persons. Property rights in the abstract have no substance unless they apply to property in the particular. Voting rights in the abstract have no substance unless they can be exercised over specific matters. A polity is not merely a set of formal institutional structures, it is—if it is to be resilient and functional—also a structure of embracing some sense of common identity and broad patterns of behaviour and norms. It is foolish to think that there is nothing that needs to be socialized into to keep the society functional and resilient.

The “if wetbacks were greenbacks” style arguments miss the point that extra people generate a range of costs and benefits in a way extra capital does not. Adding to the national stock of capital has an upward pressure on wages and living standards. Adding to the national stock of people puts downward pressure on average living standards and on the relative price of labour (it puts upward pressure on the relative price of capital, hence owners of various types of capital—including human capital—tend to be pro-immigration). It also creates crowding, levels of social trust, crime, health, cultural change and voting power issues.

Issues that affect people more negatively the less capital they have. That the benefits of immigration tend to be greater for those up the socio-economic ladder and the costs greater for those down the socio-economic ladder makes the tendency of those who are typically net-beneficiaries to morally sneer at the concern from the more vulnerable about immigration particularly unedifying.

It is all very well to say there are benefits to immigration, but there is no guarantee these will compensate specific people for the externalities they experience. Moreover, unchosen costs are not usually held to be compensated for by unchosen benefits. Particularly if one does not necessarily match the other.

The notion that there is some general right of entry strikes me as a non-starter: a problem of fuzzy thinking, not of substance.

Regarding the interests of migrants—given it clearly does generally greatly benefit migrants to move to countries such as the Anglosphere countries—we may well decide that some people have particular claims on our consideration: hence refugee programs and rules about asylum seekers. But unless we can vote on specific rules (directly or indirectly), then our vote has no power. Which is a key issue with illegal immigration: it denies citizens the right to have a say about their own society (as noted above) if they want something other than an expansive immigration policy.

Legitimacy and diversity
Those with a negative view of the legitimacy of the polity will be even less likely to see the reasonableness of concern over illegal immigration. For then the current citizens become arbitrary beneficiaries of injustice: and who are such to deny “untainted” people the right to become … new arbitrary beneficiaries of injustice, one presumes.

This may be foolish of progressives on a couple of grounds. First, migrants from non-Western countries are unlikely to be socially liberal. Second, increasing social diversity runs the risk of decreasing social empathy, undermining the sense of the welfare state as a common enterprise. The Scandinavian model of a strong welfare state was a model developed in largely mono-cultural societies, where it is comparatively easy to sustain a sense of a common enterprise, there are good lines of communication between officials and citizens and chances of miscommunication and dysfunctional effects are greatly reduced.

Conversely, the Anglosphere societies—which have always been more culturally diverse—have tended to develop a looser “liberal” model of the state precisely because, I would argue, they were more culturally diverse: a looser public policy model coped better with diversity. Trying to drive their public policy model more in a “Scandinavian” direction is a fairly doomed exercise. Indeed, as the Scandinavian countries become more culturally diverse themselves, they will find (indeed, are finding) that the “Scandinavian model” comes under increasing stress.

There is a reason that economic liberalism developed in the Danubian Monarchy (the reductio ad absurdem of culturally diverse polities)—in the form of Austrian economics—and the United Kingdom (of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish)—notably Manchester liberalism—and developed further in the country of E Pluribus Unum. Cultural diversity encourages the notion that people will want divergent things, and this is fine.

But if attitudes to illegal immigration are based on deep differences about the corporate identity of the polity and its level and ambit of legitimacy, they are not going to be easily resolved. What is not legitimate is to deny that there are perfectly reasonable grounds for people to have angst about illegal immigration.

ADDENDA This post has been edited to extend some points, clarify the argument and reduce repetition.

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