Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Uncompensated Cultural Externalities of Immigration (part 1)

I admit to some dragging of heels on this topic. Some objections to freer migration are easier to refute than others. Claims that immigrants come to "steal" jobs, to commit crimes, or to mooch off the welfare state are matters subject to empirical investigation. Similarly, worries that immigrants will come to America and vote themselves a totalitarianship can be verified using publicly available data (for example). Unfortunately, one objection to liberalized immigration remains an uncracked nut: cultural externalities.

Because I don't think I'll ever tire of posting this video, let's revisit what Art, Betty, and Carl have to say about the economic concept of externalities.

If instead of potato chips, Betty's busy polluting Carl's culture, the nuisance nature of Carl's complaint magnificently matches much of the actual anxiety around claims of cultural externalities. If Betty brings with her a culture that Carl finds offensive, can't that at least be admissible in the debate about whether or not to open the border spigot?

The reason that I find this question difficult to address is because I have a hard time defining "culture." That is, I have a hard time defining "culture" in terms the median constituent might offer, if solicited.

Which is why I've done a little straw soliciting here and there. I've asked friends, neighbors, and co-workers what they think "culture" means, and even in my tiny little non-representative sample, I've gotten back about as many different answers (maybe a few more even) than the number of people I've questioned. If there's a common thread (and again, I stress that formal academic definitions are less salient for questions of popular moral intuitions than folks' off-the-cuff notions) it's something like a set of shared values and beliefs (and for about half the people I asked, a shared language).

Shared values, eh? I won't turn this into a link for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who's run their own website, but I can't imagine sharing fewer values than the people responsible for http://www.preachingpolitics.com/. If you have the stomach for odious "faith"-based policy prescriptions, feel free to copy and paste that URL.

And that's merely one small example among many more. In a nation of 310+ million people, it's a near statistical certainty that there will be plenty of people with whom I share no common beliefs or values whatsoever. In fact, due to the much smaller population size (and assuming some reasonable excess kurtosis), it's statistically more likely that I'd share common values and beliefs with a greater share of, say, the Danish population than with my fellow Americans. It's a simple large-map problem. I'd have the same problem in China or India.

I ease my worry knowing that my own cultural consumption needn't be corrupted by ideas and people who can be easily and cheaply filtered out. preachingpolitics isn't in my RSS feed, the people who run it aren't on my pre-programmed radio stations in the morning, and the only reason I even know the Westboro Baptist Church exists is because it's a clown show the pop media have decided to elevate to a national news story. Ditto whatever irrelevant antics Beyonce and Sofia Vergara got up to in the past week or so. In one sense, these things are part of my culture as an American, but I neither chose them nor do I in any way identify with them, just as I wouldn't expect the median Beyonce fan to identify with my predilection for tabletop gaming and my fondness of electronic body music.


I don't pretend that ol' Claus actually cribbed one of my classic posts, but the synchronicity tickles me. Tee hee.

My point with this is that it's difficult for me to square the genuine revulsion and contempt between citizens that arises quite naturally in a nation of hundreds of millions with a call to keep others out when their cultural offenses are probably no worse than what we've already got to deal with. And even if foreigners are so alien as to be more odious than wannabe evangelical theocrats (or wannabe licentious libertarians, or whatever happens to get your goat), by what means do they impose their values upon you? Do you take seriously claims that, eg, Muslim immigrants intend or are able to impose Arabic Sharia in the US? Really? And even if they succeed that they'd be able to impose it on non-believers? Explain carefully how that might happen.

If culture means "shared values and beliefs", then culling culture for the parts you find most agreeable is made easier by both the breadth of modern living and the ease with which one can now filter out the rubbish. In this sense, greater immigration is at best a boon to culture, and at worst, has very nearly no effect at all. Sounds pretty close to euvoluntary to me.

But that's just a start to the question. I still have more to discuss. Upcoming posts will discuss issues of scope, scale, local sovereignty, property rights, expectations, and common-sense jurisprudence. Stay tuned.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?