Scott Sumner  

The paradoxes of applying nationalism to immigration

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Consider two policy options:

A. The US admits 1 million immigrants per year between now and 2050.

B. The US admits 3 million immigrants per year between now and 2050.

Suppose we only cared about the welfare of Americans. Would Americans be better off in 2050 under policy regime A or policy regime B?

Surprisingly, the answer may well be "yes." That is, whichever policy option is adopted will make Americans better off (as compared to the alternative policy.) Given how inept our policymakers are, thank God for that!

At first glance my claim might seem like a logical contradiction. The trick (or gimmick) is that the term 'Americans' means something very different in policy A as compared to policy B. More specifically, policy B will result in lots of people counting as "Americans" in 2050 who (by assumption) would not count if policy A were adopted.

This is from a post on immigration by Reihan Salam:

The Scandinavians, in contrast, spend a heck of a lot of money to see to it that migrants can be full participants in society. They don't always do a great job, but they certainly try. And they try because they reject the idea of a two-tiered society, in which privileged natives live cheek-by-jowl with migrants who have no hope of living alongside them as equals. Perhaps the Scandinavians are just naive. If these migrants weren't living alongside them, they'd still be living somewhere, and they'd almost certainly be a lot worse off. Other views, however, are that migration can never be as good a solution for fighting global poverty as improving governance in poor countries and that all countries, including rich countries, have the right to pursue their vision of the good society--including one in which you accept a small number of migrants and treat them extremely well.
I find it interesting to see a conservative make this argument, because I believe it underlies much of modern progressive thought. As an example, it's pretty obvious from the intense reaction to Thomas Piketty's new book that the progressive movement is currently more focused on the "cheek-by-jowl" inequality that blights New York, Miami and LA, than the (diminishing) inequality between the incomes of Iowa farmers and Punjabi farmers.

Keynes spoke of poverty as being "ugly," and I think that's right, but primarily a certain type of poverty. Poverty juxtaposed with wealth. That grates on our sense of fairness, especially where the poor are obviously trying very hard (say California farm workers.) If you are a nationalistic conservative, you might not be bothered by income inequality, but might find cultural diversity to be distasteful.

I don't intend to preach a message on immigration here, but rather I'd like to warn against cognitive biases. When thinking about what's best for America in 2050 we need to think very hard about whether we are interested in the well-being of people living in America in 2050, or the well-being of those people currently living in America (and their children) who are still alive in 2050. That slight change of focus can lead to radically different policy implications.

Utilitarians like me and non-utilitarians like Bryan Caplan are very interested in the welfare of anyone who might be living in America under various possible policy regimes. Many progressives put a lot of weight on the welfare of illegal immigrants who live in America today, but much less weight on the poor in other countries who do not live "cheek-by-jowl" with affluent native-born Americans. Some conservatives put much less weight on the welfare of illegal immigrants than they do on the welfare of those who are in America lawfully. Or perhaps they put more weight on rules than outcomes.

Conservatives should not forget that we can also play this game by running the clock backwards. From the perspective of Native Americans, most European Americans are "illegal immigrants." And European immigration probably made Native Americans worse off. Before Columbus, the natives of North America often had relatively good health, based on average height. Today many live in failed communities full of crime, poverty and alcoholism. A large portion died of diseases like smallpox soon after the Europeans settled America. [Yes, their descendants now have cell phones, but surely there is more to life than technology.]

From a global (utilitarian) perspective, the discovery of America was clearly a good thing. It increased global population and wealth dramatically. If America had not been discovered, hundreds of millions (maybe billions) of people would not be alive today. Nonetheless, the result was surely not anyone's "vision of the good society" for Native Americans, to use Salam's terminology. And the Native Americans of 1491 were the only Americans whose welfare should have "counted," according to one popular view of national self-interest.

To conclude, when thinking about immigration it depends very much on how you frame the issues. Who counts and who doesn't count? Do we add up the welfare of 7 billion individuals, or construct an aesthetically pleasing "good society" in our small corner of the planet?

I'm a bit more agnostic on these issues than Bryan, but you can probably tell which way I lean, at least at the margin.


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COMMENTS (21 to date)
Pajser writes:

This time you nailed it.

From the leftist side, the greatest problem of free immigration is that it harms source countries because "brain drain" and reduces investments in poor countries. The most horrible thing one can do is to harm already poorest people in the world - those who will not immigrate.

Utilitarian solution is rather simple - don't make unique rule, but judge every single application for immigration on the base of the expected costs and benefits. There is no need for false dichotomy. It calls on more active role of the state in search for the poorest, most helpless part of the world population as prioritized immigrants, who shouldn't be only allowed, but actually invited, organized and paid to immigrate. Immigrants of that sort already exist and they are called "refugees." That program should be extended.

I think it is best to see the states as free associations. The fact that America, Switzerland or Qatar are relatively closed free association doesn't bother me. Just like closed mailing list doesn't bothers me. Except, the states control the wealth. Their individual and collective property rights on large amount of natural and human built goods is hard to justify. Utilitarian redistribution is the solution. Obviously limited with will of those who control the wealth, and to lesser degree, will of the potential recipients to use the goods on reasonable way.

But something can be done.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

I don't know if this is exactly on topic, but it's something I've been thinking about.

When thinking about the far future, I think the most difficult thing to control for is the change in moral norms that comes from the change in context. For us to measure outcomes 100 years in the future based on our moral norms is as inappropriate as measuring our outcomes based on the moral norms of a century ago. Many of the distinctions of our era that we are most morally proud of are those distinctions that would have especially upset our ancestors - gender, racial, and sexual equality and freedoms being some of the most obvious.

So, if our culture continues to evolve productively, the aspects of future society that will be regarded in their time as the highest progress will likely be aspects that would make our early 21st century stomaches turn. For instance, our concern with "cheek-by-jowl" inequality might be mostly an outgrowth of our technological context - we have lived in a century where progress consisted mostly of mass production. But, in a future where poverty is defined as incomes under $100,000 (2014 dollars) and the gini coefficient is .60, moral leaders may consider our aversion to inequality to be, not only wrong, but offensive.

For instance, imagine that world, where all human needs can be met through automation, and wealthy households have personal servants, (similar to how today sophisticates value hand-made artisanal production over machine-made production). Status could be signaled by how well you treat your personal staff. In that context, I can imagine the average person seeing our aversion to inequality and to personal servants as a backward anachronistic perspective from an earlier age when the wealthy hoarded their wealth instead of sharing it with an extended family of servants.

This probably sounds crazy, and that's kind of the point. Our moral standards would sound crazy to our great-great grandfathers. Why should we be any different? To impose our moral framework on the future might be the most egregious form of imperialism.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

In fact, you might say that conservatives want to impose their grandparents' morality on their own generation and progressives want to impose their own morality on their grandchildren's generation. They are engaged in roughly the same process.

Scott Sumner writes:

Pajser, It's not obvious that brain drains harm the countries that they come from. Think about the money and skills that later return to places like China and India.

Kevin, Very good points, In earlier posts I've argued that our bigotry toward past and future societies is very similar to bigotry toward different races and ethnic groups. It's fine to prefer your own culture and/or time period, but other places and times need to be understood on their own terms. That's incredibly difficult to do--maybe impossible.

Pajser writes:

Really, it is not obvious that brain drains harm the countries, but in some cases it almost certainly happens. For instance, Romania lost 1/3 of medical doctors for EU. One can search for articles "Romanians despair that wealthy Britain is taking all their doctors" in Financial Times or "Romanian health service in crisis as doctors leave for UK and other states" in The Guardian. I do not supply the links: they tend to push comment in queue for administrator's approval. Not that I'm for closed borders; I'm for case-by-case decisions, by utilitarian criteria.

Floccina writes:
Keynes spoke of poverty as being "ugly," and I think that's right, but primarily a certain type of poverty. Poverty juxtaposed with wealth.

Maybe it is just that those who end up on the bottom of a society live in a way those higher up find ugly.

Steve Sailer writes:

Similarly, the CEO of a publicly traded corporation should make up new shares of stock and sell them at a discount to his friends. Granted, the current shareholders will be ripped off, but the new shareholders will profit, so it all comes out in the wash.

Or at least that's what I told my finance professor at MBA school when I was 22.

NZ writes:

Ahhh, see what you did there? You exposed us all as Evil Racists by shoving our noses in our assumptions about the definition of "American." See, "American" really just means anyone who comes to America.

Seriously though, it makes me think about the qualities of different kinds of immigrants.

Jewish immigrants a century ago commonly put a lot of emphasis on assimilating into the Anglo dominant culture. They changed their surnames and gave their kids Anglo first names, they stopped practicing Judaism, they learned how to play baseball, they developed a taste for non-Kosher foods, and they sent their kids to public schools.

Today, many Mexican immigrants have attitudes like this. Should they still be counted as Americans?

John Thacker writes:
Conservatives should not forget that we can also play this game by running the clock backwards. From the perspective of Native Americans, most European Americans are "illegal immigrants." And European immigration probably made Native Americans worse off.

In my experience, those who oppose immigration are well aware of this claim, and in fact groups like CIS trumpet this analogy explicitly. They wholeheartedly agree that the Native Americans should have resisted the European immigrants, and that European immigration made them worse off. In their view, there is no need to take any sort of logical conclusion that the descendents of the European immigrants should apologize or make restitution, though. (Base on, among other things, a sort of majoritarianism.)

NZ writes:

@John Thacker:

In their view, there is no need to take any sort of logical conclusion that the descendents of the European immigrants should apologize or make restitution, though. (Base on, among other things, a sort of majoritarianism.)
Based also on the fact that apologies and restitutions have already been issued profusely.

In fact, it is hard to find examples of non-European-descended people apologizing to or restituting conquered populations to any comparable degree.

Magus Janus writes:

in corporate governance, the fiduciary responsibility is towards the current shareholders, not future shareholders.

similarly, in hypothetical ideal "political governance", the responsibility ought to be towards the welfare of the current US citizens, not hypothetical US citizens down the line via immigration.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

I'm not sure the analogy is correct (but a lot of 22 year olds make such mistakes).

Selling stock at discount to newcomers would surely diminish the value of the shares of earlier shareholders. But, do you have some empirical evidence that immigrants decrease the incomes and/or wealth of those who immigrated earlier or whose ancestors immigrated earlier? Or, that those earlier immigrants and their progeny paid "full price" for their immigration status?

Magus Janus writes:

Vivian,

There are two separate issues. The one I addressed was to whom the political governance of a certain territory is beholden to, and I used the analogy of a corporation and shareholders to support viewing the welfare of the current inhabitants/citizenry (and descendants) as the moral objective. This was in response to Sumner's original point.

The second is whether in fact further immigration into a country will benefit the current inhabitants of said country. Clearly an empirical matter open to debate.


"a lot of 22 year olds make such mistakes"
Completely unnecessary and lowers the tone of the discussion on this blog.

Vivian Darkbloom writes:

Magnus Janus,

My comment was in response to Steve Sailor's. It was and is not clear to me whether the Sailor of today holds the same view as the 22 year-old Sailor.

Scott Sumner writes:

Steve, To be funny you need a plausible analogy. These are not zero sum games.

NZ, You asked:

"Today, many Mexican immigrants have attitudes like this. Should they still be counted as Americans?"

Yes, I'd say anglo commenters who don't like Mexican Americans, and also Mexican Americans with bad attitudes, should both be counted as Americans. Attitudes don't determine who is an American.

John, Good point, but I'd still argue that it's healthy for people to visualize themselves as the "bad guys." The issue is not only whether the Native Americans should have resisted, it's also what makes the world a better place.

Morgan Warstler writes:

[Comment removed for name-calling and foul language.--Econlib Ed.]

NZ writes:

@Scott Sumner:

You wrote:

"I'd say anglo commenters who don't like Mexican Americans, and also Mexican Americans with bad attitudes, should both be counted as Americans."

In the first part of that sentence, I can't tell if you made a typo and meant to write "Anglo citizens" or if you were specifically insinuating that commenters on this blog who are against open immigration also dislike Mexican Americans.

You also wrote that "Attitudes don't determine who is an American." I think that's generally true, but I was thinking about it in the extreme case.

Attitudes about the host country that immigrants bring with them are important, and I would suspect this factors significantly into the impact of those immigrants upon the current citizenry.

It's possible to want to move to a country while still holding fundamentally negative--even revolutionary--attitudes towards that country. Would you agree?

Massimo writes:

This post dodges the core issue of ethnicity. Black "nationalists" and white "nationalists" generally don't care about nationality, but ethnicity.

A big fear among whites is that the white ethnic group is being demographically reduced, and typically is exploited when they are a demographic minority. From first hand experience in the US, white students in black or to a lesser extent mexican majority public schools are often subjected to strong racial animosity and bullying.

Brian writes:

Scott,

You say "When thinking about what's best for America in 2050 we need to think very hard about whether we are interested in the well-being of people living in America in 2050, or the well-being of those people currently living in America (and their children) who are still alive in 2050....

Utilitarians like me and non-utilitarians like Bryan Caplan are very interested in the welfare of anyone who might be living in America under various possible policy regimes."

Those who are acting rationally, whether utilitarian or not, should be acting solely in their own self-interest, broadly defined. You may choose not to act rationally, of course, but then you are not much of a utilitarian. But given the choice to act rationally, the only question a voter needs to answer is will this legislation be of benefit to ME? If the answer is yes, then the voter votes for it. Based on this, who is in the U.S. in 2050 or who is counted as an "American" is irrelevant.

Now, some people say that acting solely in your own self-interest is wrong or selfish. But what's the alternative? Attempting to act in the imagined interests of someone you don't know and who may not even exist yet? How could that ever maximize utility? No, it's better to act on the only preferences I really know--my own.

Dawson writes:

in my lifetime Balkanizing energies (as in Ukraine, for example) have been strong enough to dissuade me from casual acceptance of Mx-Amrcn majorities contiguous with Mexico. They're welcome in Minnesota, WA, OR, ND etc but I worry that the cities with Hispanic names and Hispanic ethnic majorities will revise their political loyalties.

perhaps US feds should require TX to suspend its sensible housing regulatory regime and compel the northern states to adapt it for a while to coax a lot of latinos for work and residence

I want the US to be the strongest country with the biggest GDP so it makes sense to import labor and private consumption, imo

Mike Rulle writes:

I caught your your little word trick---yeah for me

America's biggest cultural strength and global comparative advantage by far has always been our ability to have immigrants become Americans in one generation--even if the nature of what American means alters slightly (which I do not really think it has). I think of China with 1.3 billion people, but an almost freakish split between the top 300 million and the bottom billion. That is why I like to say that China is running out of time. Too old, and too slow---for their requirements.

We do not have to finance the extra 1 billion people. But there are probably 1 billion people who would come here tomorrow if they could (okay, 500 mil). Speaking like a utilitarian (which I really am not), which country would you rather be?

Immigrants, in my experience, ---it will sound like a cliche---work harder on average than home growns.

They add value. Then they become....American. I am slightly joking. They become American because some amount of wealth is achieved and the next generation can ease off the peddle just a bit. I have no idea what the right amount of immigration we can absorb in what period of time without short term social disruption---but it is a lot more than we permit.

The old guys always dislike the new guys. Who cares? It goes away fast.

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