Bryan Caplan  

Does Conflict Immigrate?

Pacifism in 4 Easy Steps... Winship's Numerate Insight on ...
During today's debate #2, I circled back to debate #1: If you really want to help the world's victims of oppression and intolerance, open borders is a cheap, humane alternative to military intervention.  How many Rwandan lives would have been saved if Tutsis were free to emigrate to the United States?

My opponent, Jan Ting, had a theoretically interesting response.  Open borders wouldn't just bring in the oppressed; it would also bring in the oppressors.  As a result, horrific conflicts would simply relocate from the Third World to the First.

Ting's argument is extremely compelling... until you look at the facts.  The United States contains immigrants from Israel and Palestine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Serbia and Croatia, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, Hutus and Tutsis, and virtually every other tribal pairing we associate with internecine bloodshed.  How often do we hear about members of these groups continuing their ancient conflict in their new homeland? 

I'm happy to entertain counter-examples, but the first-pass answer is "virtually never."  When people immigrate here, they predictably leave their conflicts behind.

The facts are so clear they beg for an explanation.  It's easy to generate a long list.  Top (though not mutually exclusive) contenders:

1. Dilution. Hostile immigrant groups are a tiny share of the existing U.S. population, so they rarely encounter each other.

2. Dispersion. Hostile immigrant groups move to different parts of the U.S., so they rarely encounter each other.

3. Dominance. In their home countries, at least one of the conflicting groups has a serious chance of crushing the other and seizing power.  In their new homeland, though, both sides realize that they're too weak to win.
4. Better things to do. In their home countries, there are few productive opportunities to better yourself, so the opportunity cost of conflict is low.  In their new homeland, in contrast, attractive opportunities for self-improvement abound.

5. Multiple equilibria.  Most people in conflict-torn lands want peace, but they're locked into a vicious cycle of reprisal.  Entering a new country "resets the clock," and new arrivals eagerly embrace this new opportunity.

6. Conformity.  When you see a lot of violence around you, you fit in by being violent.  When you don't, you fit in by being peaceful.

7. Selection.  Peace-loving, Westernized people are typically first in line to flee conflict-torn lands.  The worst stay behind killing each other.

Other explanations?  Probative evidence on their relative importance?  Case-by-case variation?  Inquiring minds want to know.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
jc writes:

8) Assimilation. Not full, merely partial, merely enough to dilute their former identity just enough so that it - and associated quarrels - are less salient.

9) Shared outgroup status. Another means of diluting original group identities, while also adding a bit of shared identity. Now two groups may have more in common with each other than with broader society and, thus, focus on similarities more than differences, relative to before. It's not unusual for me to hear two immigrants say that back home they would be enemies, while here they're friends. Granted, these immigrants I refer to were not extremely bitter rivals back home, i.e., no atrocities or murders. I'm also not suggesting that people from groups actually at war would be friends. A milder form of this same dynamic may simply temper the worst behavior a bit, meaning they ignore, rather than fight, each other.


On the other end, I suppose one could say that degree matters. That we currently let in limited numbers of warring groups, while what's proposed here is to let them in in much larger numbers. And that prospect has yet to be tested.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Sometimes conflict does continue here. For example American Armenians assassinated the Turkish consul IIRC in Los Angeles a couple decades back, and American Armenian California legislators got ritual denunciation of Turkey made a mandatory part of the California public school curriculum...

Worse, though, is that people of all camps fight by proxy, damaging the interests of uninvolved Americans along the way. Irish Catholic Americans fund the IRA (and Protestants fund Orange groups); Arab-Americans fund Middle-Eastern terrorists and American Jews vote for Congressmen who send aid to Israel; Kurdish and Armenian and Iraqi and Turkish and all sorts of other pressure groups in the US send money overseas to fund factional fights and use their domestic political influence topromote meddling in other folks' affairs overseas.

All this stuff endangers American businessmen and tourists who foreigners naturally suspect of being enemy meddlers (since sometimes they are, no thanks to idiotic US immigration policies).

The demise of the old melting-pot ideology in the US has made the problem worse. Even if many new arrivals would prefer to forget the feuds of their homelands, their children and grandchildren, encouraged by ethnic activists in cahoots with the grievance-lobbies and ethnogrievance-studies departments which plague American colleges, will adopt romantic (and stupid) ideas about their oppressed foreign cousins, prompting them to seek social validation by sending donations to fund violent factional organizations in the old country.

Richard writes:

Deterrence when you move to a country where aggressors are punished in a relatively unbiased and efficient manner.

Dan writes:


Why are we to assume that failure does not immigrate? What magic happens when the Haitians arrive in the US that allows them to succeed here when they cannot succeed in their home country?

Is not the answer that you are not in fact in support of allowing EVERYONE in? What you really want are those possessing initiative and positive social capital. What do you suggest should happen to those lacking these traits?

John Dougan writes:

Google for 'surrey sikh violence' or 'Air India Flight 182' to find some counter examples (at least in Canada). I can't speak as to the occurrence frequency, but it is definitely present.

From my external perspective, at least part of what happened in Surrey is conflicts that were buried in the old country coming to the forefront once the external oppression was no longer an issue. Another factor seems to be a split between traditionalists and assimilationists that was fought using techniques from the old country.

Steve Sailer writes:

"How often do we hear about members of these groups continuing their ancient conflict in their new homeland?"

Daily, if you follow the news.


Haim Saban
Sheldon Adelson's wife

Steve Sailer writes:

You crack Chuck Hagel up!

matt writes:

Hmm.... Its not like americans ever rounded people up and put them in concentration camps. Its not like lots of people spoke german in the US as their first language until world war one. Its not like the English Americans ever went to war with the French Canadians.Its not like all the jews have left paris after it was invaded by Morocco.

Gene writes:

In your first paragraph, are you trying to imply that open immigration for Tutsis would have been a real substitute for armed intervention in Rwanda? Really?

800K people killed in the space of about three months. Yep, they didn't need some heavily armed men protecting them, or perhaps a credible threat of intervention, or even some actual violence going back in the other direction to save their lives. All it would have taken was a bunch of tickets from British Airways. Voila! Peaceful solution! Wow.

8 writes:

Almost everything on your list is invalidated by open borders. 1,2 and 3 are gone if immigrants overwhelm an area. The fact is they don't disperse, they tend to go to the same places. Not only that, but most immigrants tend to go to similar areas (NYC, California). So you're very likely to have two sides that hate each other in proximity.

With a steady stream of newcomers, 5 is gone. There's no reset because new blood keeps the disputes alive.

4 and 6 go too. If violence becomes the norm in the new land, then it will be conformist to join the fight.

All that's left is 7. But if the battles starts waging over here, soon the soldiers will follow.

Also, add 8. Native Americans flee by choice (whites) or face ethnic cleansing (blacks). There will be no assimilation and natives will view these problems as not their problem. They will increasingly view the territory as foreign and eventually abdicate legal control. The most likely result would be Ethnic Klashistan.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Gene, I don't think Bryan claims a full solution. But as you know sending troops, drone or supplies (aid or weapons) does not work so well. Often the weapons turn up in another conflict and aid lines the pocket of a corrupt few.

Instead of making thinks worse, the least we can humanely do is not prevent there exit. I would like the countries considering an intervention in Syria to get together and offer a way out.
As Bryan outlined in previous posts on immigration, even some restrictions (no voting right, no welfare, ...) would improve the options for those poor folks.

Shane L writes:

Perhaps political institutions matter. Not just that Hutu or Tutsi are too weak to dominate, but that the political system is not autocratic and monolithic, so it becomes difficult to dominate.

Thus each side is relieved of the fear that the other will seize power and dominate, if they don't pre-empt a seizure of control.

All that said, I'm not convinced that immigrants don't bring their conflicts with them; much of the weapons and money gathered by various incarnations of the IRA came from Irish-Americans. There were even Irish nationalist raids from the US into British-ruled Canada in the late 19th century!

Tracy W writes:
When people immigrate here, they predictably leave their conflicts behind.

Not very predictably. How about Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and I think, just possibly, the USA too, sending troops to WWI?

bryan writes:

Part of the reason they don't fight their old enemies as much is that they now have a huge number of interesting new groups of people to hate.

The lede is buried as usual, but here it is:

One student, Abdi Sheikh, said he saw hundreds of students fighting in what appeared to be a racial incident.

“A big riot,” he said. “All types of races.”

It was Hmong, Somalis, black americans, and middle-easterners fighting. Los Angeles is interesting for its novel forms of ethnic hatred among groups like Armenians, Mexicans, Iranians, African-Americans, etc.
Bostonian writes:

A disproportionate number of American terrorists are immigrants from Muslim countries or their children. If you read about a "Minnesota man" charged with trying to blow up a building or going to Afghanistan to fight alongside Al Qaeda, the "Minnesotan" is very likely a Somali. Just Google "minnesota somalis terrorism" to find numerous stories.

Another kind of conflict that immigrates is that between germs and our health care system. A Feb 15 2013 WSJ story was titled "Global TB Fight Hits a Wall India's New Strategy Actually Makes Disease More Drug-Resistant, Doctors Say". Unrestricted immigration from countries where diseases eradicated in the U.S. are still present is dangerous.

Ken B writes:

You forgot something Bryan, let me fix it:

If you really want to help the world's victims of oppression and intolerance, open borders is a cheap, humane but vastly less effective alternative to military intervention.

Gene cited Rwanda, let me cite the Balkans under Clinton. If opposing tyranny is your goal I suggest opposition is your best tool.

BenSix writes:

Regarding 7: it is the wealthier people who are more liable to flee, regardless of how nice they are. Several former Hutu leaders, for example, fled to Europe and America when recriminations began.

This can help people escape conflicts but I suspect that it can also make conflicts worse. A large proportion of the refugees from Iraq, for example, came from the middle classes. I don't doubt that this saved many of their lives, and no one could begrudge them that, but the lack of academics, doctors, nurses, lawyers and so on made the state more dysfunctional, the economy worse and the country less prepared to stabilise itself.

Some of the points you raise may affect the scale of conflicts in some cases but the answer to the question is clearly "yes". A simple experiment would be to go to Malmo and wander about public places carrying the flag of Israel.

ajb writes:

I have no idea if we're even reading the same newspapers. As far as I can see, relative to the difficulty of making mischief in other countries, inherited conflicts and new conflicts driven by original cultures seem relatively "easier" in the U.S.

If Bryan's standard is directly replicating the Arab Israeli war in the US, of course nothing is happening. After all, Palestinians aren't committed to wiping out jews in the US as much as wiping out jews in Israel. So both sides lobby for policies that favor them and influence the political debate here.

On issues that directly affect the question of Taiwanese independence, both Chinese and Taiwanese weigh in to influence U.S. policy.

And of course, the biggest immigrant group of all -- the Latinos -- have worked to shape identity politics to favor their views and to disadvantage citizen americans who do not share their views of the distinct privileges that Latino minorities should have. Including the right to promote Hispanic culture as a part of mainstream USA, enhanced Latino immigration, and encouragement of activist groups like La Raza.

So yes, the points Bryan cites -- especially dilution -- all play an important role. But relative to what other countries tolerate, the US sees far more interference and conflict. Most important of all, the foreign groups traffic in preserving distinct cultural identities which in many cases have been the basis for longer term feuds which erupt once a certain threshold has been reached. In contrast, countries such as Iceland and Japan have such strict rules on immigrants and what immigrants need to do to fit in that they preempt all risk of identity conflict driven by foreign cultural groups trying to assert their primacy in their country.

Steve Sailer writes:

The Tutsi leaders didn't want Tutsis to flee, the Tutsi leader (Paul Kagame) didn't even want outside intervention. He had been invading Rwanda for 4 years and was close to winning and imposing Tutsi rule upon the majority Rwandans, which he did. He is still in power ruling over the majority group, and busies himself grabbing chunks of Congo next door.

Richard Manns writes:

One concern I've had before is the 'economic' consequence of allowing free borders.

It's easy for, say, the US or the UK to open borders to relatively few who can afford to get here. The UK benefited greatly when Idi Amin drove out the Indian-origin middle classes. But neighbouring states in, say, West Africa where millions run, destitute, across the border can ruin those states (I have heard). Further, you may be incentivising the violence; if it's easier to drive off populations since you know neighbouring states will have to take them and the economic strain would inhibit their attempts to stop you.

This doesn't negate the benefits of allowing free(r) migration, but it's hardly a one-way street. I believe even the Nazis allowed French civilians to flee their 1940 advance, so as to hinder the French Army's response to the invasion.

alex writes:

Place - communal conflict is attached to particular geograpahic locations.

Resources - Movement means that the two groups are no longer trapped in what is perceived to be a zero-sum competition.

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