Immigration, society, and the limits of knowledge

Last night the Goethe Institute and the New Zealand Initiative hosted a panel discussion on aspects of immigration.  The focus was not on the economic aspects  –  my arguments that our immigration policy has acted as a drag on economic performance got a mention only in the question time –  and I found it something of a challenge to pull together some moderately coherent thoughts around the implications of large scale movements of people, and what that means for cultures and societies –  indeed, whether those concepts themselves have much meaning or instrumental value.

Two of the speakers were themselves immigrants –  one had first come as a student in the late 1980s, and the other as a refugee from Rwanda after the mass murder of 1994.  They spoke from their experiences, and both offered interesting, if somewhat contrasting, perspectives.

Rob McLeod, former chair of the Business Roundtable (and countless other boards and committees) made what is probably best described as an in-principle case for open borders, although he pulls back from that in practice.  We had only a relatively short time each to present our own perspective, so I hope I’m characterising him fairly.  His principles for shaping immigration policy were

  1. Diversity is good; prejudice is bad. Exclusion and restriction are costly.
  2. A high premium on liberty and freedom to choose
  3. An obligation on everyone to obey the law.

His proposition was that the scope of the market should be extended as far as possible, and that those countries that had been open to immigration had generally benefited from it.  In the cases of possible exceptions, such as South Africa and Fiji, the roots of the problem had rested in coercion.

McLeod went on to note that more liberal immigration would generally enhance world welfare, and that world welfare should count for something in domestic policy setting.  He briefly made a case for immigration as one tool to counter terrorism, which he observed had (some of) its roots in poverty.  (My mind kept running towards Baader Meinhof, the Red Army Faction, and the IRA –  and that scion of a wealthy Saudi family, Osama bin Laden.)     I wasn’t quite sure how much more liberal McLeod would be in practice if he were in charge of immigration policy, but he did suggest that perhaps immigration quotas and targets might be something that should be negotiated multilaterally.

I was more sceptical.

My approach over recent years has been shaped by increasing doubts as to whether large-scale immigration has ever done very much economically for those who were in the country before the immigration began.   There is an arguable case in respect of the European migration to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Average incomes of the indigenous populations of those four countries are plausibly higher than they would have been if the colonies of large scale settlement had never been established.  But, even to the extent that is so, it is mostly because a new and more economically productive set of institutions  and people came in and largely displaced or replaced what was already there.  That might be the historical basis for modern New Zealand, but it isn’t a particularly attractive model to shape immigration policy debates today.  It was, essentially, a phenomenon of imperialism.    Mass migration generally was.

In my own remarks last night, I put a lot more emphasis on the part that cohesive cultures play in enabling societies –  state, clubs, churches or whatever –  to function effectively.  Cultures  –  broadly defined – develop, and are sustained, for a reason –  they encapsulate the tacit knowledge and understanding that help societies to work better.  They capture the things that unite people, in ways that strengthen the ability of those societies to manage the inevitable differences and difficult choices.

It isn’t clear to me that democratic societies can function very well in the longer-term without a reasonably strong common culture, or as a fall-back a single very dominant one.  Authoritarian ones might –  one could think of the Ottoman Empire.  Of course, we haven’t many strong and stable democracies at all (so the sample is small) but they seem particularly uncommon in the minority of states where there are major divides along racial or religious grounds.  Perhaps the only example I can think of at present is Israel –  and who would really be surprised if for one reason or another that experiment did not last many more decades.

The issue here is not about denying the gains from trade or the benefits of difference.  And since are no human clones, we all interact with (marry, work with, play sport with) people who are different than us.  And we gain in the process.  The question is more one about human nature, and the way in which strong well-functioning communities tend to form among those with whom we have important things in common.    And those strong common bonds enable communities to better do the things they exist for.  In the case of the state, we might think of that is mutual protection (external defence, law and order), mutual support (whatever form a society’s welfare system takes), and all the decisions states and communities take that affect the allocation of property rights.

In small communities –  eg families    the commonality might result from blood ties.  I might disagree forcefully with my brother but nothing changes the fact that he is my brother.  At the level of large communities, blood ties don’t bind us together.  It has to be about shared values (eg religions, including secularism) and, at very least, shared experiences and shared historical reference points.  Maintaining that commonality is perhaps never easy, but it is likely to be relatively easier with a relatively stable and homogeneous population, not one constantly displaced by large inflows of people from often quite different backgrounds (not better or worse, but different).  The challenge seems likely to be particularly great for free and democratic societies.

I argued that large scale immigration programmes are best seen as social engineering (and about as likely to prove useful as most such large scale government interventions).    Rather than allowing societies to evolve organically, negotiating their conflicts from a base of shared experience and mutual common destiny, immigration programmes put the government hand on the scales and tilt things, often rather sharply, one way or the other.   Our history was like that –  every Anglo immigrant who arrived in the years when Britons had fairly open access, tilted the scales, and the balance of power in society, further away from Maori.  The same went for Canada and Australia.   That may have suited the majority, but what of the minority that had once been the majority?   The limits of knowledge should forcefully confront all putative social engineers, who all almost always well-intentioned but (being human)  rarely recognise the long-term consequences of the choices they foist on us.

I’ve argued that we would be better off economically if we cut back quite severely our immigration programme.  But I think that if we did so, we’d also be better positioned as a society to build and sustain a degree of cohesion, drawn from shared experience and commitment, that would enable us to confront future challenges more effectively, and to deal with the permanent tension between the interests of Maori in New Zealand and those of the rest of the population.

Here is a fuller version (only five pages or so) of what I said last night.

The Sharing Game

And, yes, I did see the Prime Minister’s comment that recent record migration was “a reason to celebrate”.  I (mostly) disagree with him, but am out of time today, so will offer some rather narrower economic observations on his claim tomorrow.