Bryan Caplan  

The Hyperbole of Backlash

PRINT
Cleveland Rocks?... I Win My Cruz Bet with Steve P...
Tyler tries to cure my immigration backlash confusion, but not to my satisfaction.  The overarching flaw: He equivocates between two different versions of "backlash to immigration." 

Version 1: Letting in more immigrants leads to more resistance to immigration.

Version 2: Letting in more immigrants leads to so much resistance to immigration that the total stock of immigration ultimately ends ups lower than it would have been.

Backlash in the first sense is common, but no reason for immigration advocates to moderate.  Backlash in the second sense is a solid reason for immigration advocates to moderate, but Tyler provides little evidence that backlash in this sense is a real phenomenon.  I say he's engaged in journalistic hyperbole.  If you seek clarity rather than attention, it's far better to consistently stick to Version 2 for "backlash," and call Version 1 mere "resistance."  That's what I'm doing from here on.

Point-by-point:

1. Had the UK had much freer immigration, London would be much more crowded. 

In the very short-run, of course.  Before long, however, firms build more housing.  Outskirts become more like central London - what's so terrible about that?

With truly open borders, people would be sleeping on the sidewalks in large numbers.  London itself would have turned against such a high level of immigration, which quickly would have turned into a perceived occupation.

Probably true in the short- and medium-run.  But it's still far from clear this would lead to genuine backlash as defined above.  In any case, there's no sign existing immigration has had any such effect, even in London.

2. Changes often have different effects than levels: "Where foreign-born populations increased by more than 200% between 2001 and 2014, a Leave vote followed in 94% of cases. The proportion of migrants may be relatively low in Leave strongholds such as Boston, Lincolnshire, but it has soared in a short period of time. High numbers of migrants don't bother Britons; high rates of change do."

In other words, had there been higher levels of immigration into non-London parts of the UK, the backlash may well have been stronger yet.  For a careful reader of the Caplanian corpus, that is in fact a Caplanian point and I am surprised it did not occur to Bryan.

I'd really like to see a multiple regression, because there's very likely a strong negative correlation between immigration levels and immigration changes.  In any case, I'm surprised it does not occur to Tyler that today's changes are tomorrow's levels.  This is entirely consistent with my claim that high enough immigration will eventually destroy nativism.

3. The highest quality and most easily assimilating immigrants will be attracted to London and the greater London area.  Packing Birmingham with London-style levels of immigration won't give you London-style immigrants, nor will it turn Birmingham into London.

Why not try and see?  Patterns often generalize.  There'd be no social science if they didn't.

4. London already has a population pre-selected to like immigration.  Spreading London-like levels of immigration to the rest of England wouldn't make immigration as popular elsewhere as it is currently in London, even if that immigration went as well elsewhere (which would not be the case, see #3).

Was London "pre-selected" to like immigration before it had much immigration?  Where's the evidence?  How could we even tell?

5. Post 1980s, England underwent a very rapid and significant change with respect to the number of immigrants it allowed to stay in the country.  If that wasn't fast enough for the open borders idea to avoid a backlash along the way, then perhaps the new saying ought to be "Only whiplash avoids backlash." But that won't exactly be popular either.

I never said immigration was popular.  In fact, I've repeated said the opposite.  I'm also happy to admit few people would decry immigration if it barely existed.  But Tyler's backlash thesis has to claim something much stronger to be interesting, and he presents little evidence in favor of that stronger claim.

There is a very simple interpretation of current events, including of course the Trump movement in the United States.  It is "the backlash effect against immigration is stronger than we used to think, and we need to adjust our expectations accordingly."  When Bryan writes "I know he disagrees, but I honestly can't figure out why", I think he is simply afraid to stare that rather obvious truth in the eye.  In any case, it's staring rather directly at him.

I agree that anti-immigration sentiment is staring me in the face, and freely concede that I am afraid of it.  But that hardly shows that relatively open immigration is self-defeating.  And if it doesn't mean that, the language of backlash is empty.

Question for Tyler: Suppose Trump loses, taking the whole Republican Party down with him.  Unified Democratic government then further liberalizes immigration.  Would this show you were wrong to claim the U.S. had an immigration backlash in 2016?  If so, your backlash thesis is far less obvious than you claim.  If not, your backlash thesis is far less scary than you claim.




COMMENTS (17 to date)
Kgaard writes:

Brian ... Don't you see a bit of a contradiction between lauding homeschooling while also pushing for open immigration? Homeschooling is an option of the middle-class-and-up seeking to escape the negative implications on public schools of 100% voter suffrage + mass immigration.

Would you still need to homeschool your kids if schools were run to the standards of, say, 1890s Massachusetts?

Paul Johnson writes:

Australia, Canada and New Zealand have controlled selective immigration, high immigration, large changes in population ethnic composition and yet no backlash. Hmm... I wonder why?

John Alcorn writes:

Time will tell, as post-Brexit policies emerge, whether the increase in resistance to immigration will turn out to have been backlash (in Bryan Caplan's senses of the terms).

I would like to introduce a key factor not mentioned in the Caplan-Cowen exchange. An increase in resistance to immigration would have been less likely and less sharp if policy-makers in the UK had taken a page from Edward Glaeser, about the merits of less restrictive regulation of residential housing construction. It is difficult in the UK to obtain permission to build up or out, or to modify extant structures. This has caused a sharp lag in housing stock. People became frustrated at rents outpacing salaries, and then misdirected their frustration at immigrants. A more open construction policy, and a more proactive commuter infrastructure investment policy, would have gone a long way to keep the peace and to distribute the gains from globalization more broadly. (Of course, extant homeowners like the status quo—until their children cannot afford to rent a flat or buy a home.) Revenues from levies like the London congestion tax could have funded extensive investment in transport infrastructure.

Could the political economy in the UK have aligned in favor of Glaeser-type policies? I hesitate to say. I would like to think that an outstanding political entrepreneur could have accomplished it!

Tyler Cowen's describes the development over the past 25 years as: "Post 1980s, England underwent a very rapid and significant change with respect to the number of immigrants it allowed to stay in the country."

If you look at the actual numbers for net migration (I assume he means the UK, not England), it is unclear what he is talking about. The change was rather slow and it went from practically no net migration to a level of about 0.5% of current population a year. That's not particularly high, and it has remained there for the past decade with only slight fluctuations.

Year on year changes are mostly below 0.1% of current population, at most something like 0.2%. It is hard to believe anyone would even be able to notice one or two people per 1,000 population came more than last year.

For the data cf. Figure 1 here: http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/statistics-net-migration-statistics

Jazi Zilber writes:

The 1 vs 2 is a wrong framing

Backlash on immigration is bad because it causes social turmoil, racism and hate.

The articles stays as if immigration is there ultimate utility, which is a weird way

pyroseed13 writes:

@JohnAlcorn

I favor less restrictive regulation on residential housing construction, but this is exactly what open border zealots miss: These regulations are very popular. No one is going to say, "It would be great if we had less regulation on housing construction and these immigrants could move in next door!" If anything, I would expect significantly increased immigration to lead to more restrictions.

Jared writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. We'd be happy to publish your comment. A valid email address is nevertheless required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Andy Hallman writes:

Very good points, Bryan!

I had the same thoughts while reading Tyler's blog post about how he appeared to be equivocating between two meanings of backlash.

If backlash is a genuine phenomenon, we should be able to find other instances of it.

Could we look at the civil rights era for a clue? Did northerners try too hard and too fast to protect the rights of blacks, and could that explain why it took so long for them to achieve equality?

According to a story on fivethirtyeight.com the other day, northern Republicans tried hard to protect blacks for a few years after the Civil War but eventually got tired of it and focused on other issues. It wasn't until northern politicians got serious about the issue again in the 1950s and 1960s that legal equality was achieved.

So the lesson from that era would seem to be that some prejudices are just really hard to change, and I think that's true for immigration, too.

jseliger writes:

Before long, however, firms build more housing. Outskirts become more like central London - what's so terrible about that?

I'd love to see that but building in London is largely illegal or extremely difficult and costly. The logical response is of course that it ought to be made legal, and while I agree, that isn't true today.

Niko Davor writes:

@Andy Hallman, please read General Sherman's own written word and tell me that the North fought to end slavery:

"If they [southerners] design to protect themselves against negroes and abolitionists I will help; if they propose to leave the Union on account of a supposed fact that the northern people are all abolitionists like Giddings and Brown then I will stand by Ohio and the northwest"

"I never said immigration was popular. In fact, I've repeated said the opposite."

"I agree that anti-immigration sentiment is staring me in the face, and freely concede that I am afraid of it."

Caplan is absolutely right on this. I'm actually shocked by his honesty on this. Caplan is advocating absolute undermining of voter will.

If I can restate what I think the core argument is: the loss to host people is less than the gain to migrants, hence it is immoral to allow host people to oppose immigration. Hence undermining voter will is completely justified.

What I don't follow is the same logic would argue against the idea of any type of contract enforcement or property rights or even families. There are many scenarios where you could break existing contracts or property rights and benefit one party much more than you would hurt the other. Does that mean any opposition is similarly morally wrong?

"Why not try and see?"

Comments like this seem quite daft and purposefully non-serious. Caplan knows the answer. If the world wants to perform a massive extremely permanent experiment with a "try and see" outcome, we'd want to logically pick a failed state that people want to flee from that is desperate for treatment, not one of the most successful societies on Earth. Just like the medical industry gives risky treatments to sick people who are desperate for better treatment options and not people in perfect health who have more to lose.

8 writes:

Question for Tyler: Suppose Trump loses, taking the whole Republican Party down with him. Would this show you were wrong to claim the U.S. had an immigration backlash in 2016?

It would show that the people having the backlash are as disenfranchised as they are in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces in China.

Urstoff writes:

Kgaard,

What were the standards of public schools in 1890's Massachusetts? Homeschooling for the most part has been a reaction by religious parents who found the curriculum or environment of a school too secular. Bryan, who is homeschooling because of the perceived rigidity of public school curriculum, is in the minority among homeschoolers. Xenophobia probably plays very little role in the decision for homeschooling parents.

Andy Hallman writes:

Hi Niko. I got confused. The article wasn't on fivethirtyeight but rather on Vox, called "How Republicans went from the party of Lincoln to the party of Trump, in 13 maps."

My argument was about what Republicans were trying to do after the Civil War, not about the Civil War itself.

I was reading about China's president Deng Xiaoping and his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The crackdown that followed the massacre might be a better candidate for backlash than immigration.

The students protested the lack of freedom in China, but in the end, they ended up with less than what they might have had had otherwise. It's a thought.

I believe a similar thing happened with Iran. Iran was slowly liberalizing until it was lumped together in the Axis of Evil speech in 2002, and then the government cracked down on dissent pretty hard from what I understand.

In the very short-run, of course. Before long, however, firms build more housing. Outskirts become more like central London - what's so terrible about that?

I see you're completely unfamiliar with London and the UK. The biggest problem UK has is its absolutely ridiculous building restrictions. More demand doesn't lead to more supply, just to extremely high prices. Even during pre-Great Recession housing bubble very little new housing was built - unlike in places like Spain or Ireland. And during Great Recession there was no house price crash UK desperately needs.

Of course the right way would be to loosen building restrictions, but treating them as a given, more people coming to London make every Londoner's life more miserable, except for big landlords who'll end up taking even larger share of everybody's money.

Weir writes:

"Letting in more immigrants leads to so much resistance to immigration that the total stock of immigration ultimately ends ups lower than it would have been."

What about a third scenario: Not a lower total stock, but the same numbers, combined with a more welcoming attitude on the part of the white working class, who would no longer be tempted away from the Labour Party or the Tories and towards Ukip. In this scenario, you get the same total stock, but without the hostility and nativism and the feeling of being disrespected and hated by the ruling class.

This kind of scenario would require the ruling class to stop being explicitly contemptuous and abusive towards poor people, or old people, or white people, or non-Londoners, or whoever's being targeted with the latest hilarious hashtag.

So, supposing the ruling class could restrain its hateful and impulsive urges for long enough to keep its focus on the consequences of its actions, supposing that the establishment could behave more practically and reasonably, how would you bring about a scenario in which the natives don't feel like they're being colonized by an invading empire? Imperial rule from Brussels, imposing itself on an unwilling population, is a great way to make immigration unpopular. So why not try something like a democratic process instead, since people clearly believe that national and democratic decision-making is legitimate and less disrespectful than the alternatives? Why not try democracy?

In the United States you have Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump instead of Nigel Farage. But the feeling is still that the ruling class is proudly, gleefully out of touch.

ohwilleke writes:

"3. The highest quality and most easily assimilating immigrants will be attracted to London and the greater London area. Packing Birmingham with London-style levels of immigration won't give you London-style immigrants, nor will it turn Birmingham into London.

4. London already has a population pre-selected to like immigration. Spreading London-like levels of immigration to the rest of England wouldn't make immigration as popular elsewhere as it is currently in London, even if that immigration went as well elsewhere (which would not be the case, see #3)."

The American experience is that attitudes towards immigration are more favorable even in areas where most of the immigrants are low skill, low education immigrants, as opposed to highly skilled tech workers, and that this shift in attitudes is present even in places where large immigrant populations are relatively recent. Immigration of low skilled Hispanics to the U.S., for example, increased dramatically in just the last 30 years often in places that had little immigration before. But, opposition to immigration is much more intense in places that did not experience that influx of less skilled Hispanic workers.

Exposure to immigrants short circuits the parade of horribles that drive the fears of those opposed to immigration.

Also the notion that London is "pre-selected" for immigration, or that significant immigration is something new, falls short. Britain, due to its large colonial empire, has a longer history of significant immigration and involvement of foreigners in its day to day affairs (centuries) that has extended beyond London to many of its industrial cities, than almost any other country in Europe. The Queen ruled a multi-racial empire long before it was cool to do so. There were black and Asian families in multiple cities in Britain, in significant numbers, long before those populations were present in many parts of the United States.

Anton Maier writes:

In Germany foreigners (without passport) are not more criminal than germans but only if you correct for income etc. Even if you only compare for violent crimes. So you could argue that you're still going to get a higher crimerate and that's especially bad if you try to counteract segregation. There's still one more loophole: Unlikely as it may be, criminal statistics don't consider foreigners which were born in another country but have a german passport. So it might be that bad stats bias the statistics falsely in favor of false imigration.

(I'm still for more open borders, but trying to fight for intellectual integrity)

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top