Tuesday, September 8, 2015

American Exceptionalism vs. The Precautionary Principle: Refugee Edition

"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
- H. L. Mencken

Among the many objections to more liberal immigration policy, one stands out as more difficult to debunk than others. On questions of immigrants bringing with them crime, dependency, disease, or Communism, the empirical evidence shows that these are unambiguously overblown concerns. If anything, ordinary immigrants on average tend to be more industrious, healthy, independent, and conscientious than native-born Americans, again on average. It should be immediately clear why with a little reflection. Uprooting to travel to a foreign land is ambitious. The timid, the callow, the craven, the risk-averse will be marginally more likely to accept a mediocre BATNA and stay home. Emigration is an act of courage, of hope. Under normal circumstances, that is.

The objection of which I speak is of culture. Not of superficial culture, like driving courtesy or a tolerance for spicy food, but rather the deep appreciation for Enlightenment ideals that somehow still sort of drags its gutshot corpse through a post-William Jennings Bryan America. Will immigrants help keep the torch of free speech alive? Will they maintain a healthy skepticism of centralized political authority? Will they resist the urge to flaccidly permit the quartering of troops in civilian homes? Will they insist on procedural due process? Will they cherish the precepts of strictly delineated federalized power? Specifically,, will they support and defend American constitutional jurisprudence at rates comparable with natives?

The good news, is that yes, they will! I'll spare you the econometrics, but there's no statistically significant difference between immigrants and natives on issues of censorship and firearm ownership rights. In fact, when you control for education and IQ, immigrants actually beat natives on these issues. (source: author's analysis of GSS data 1974-2012)

The bad news is that everyone, immigrants and natives alike show an almost shocking disregard for the foundations of our national claim to natural liberty. Given the choice, only one in four respondents would preserve the freedom of expression, written or spoken, across a mere four categories of potentially bilious speech. In other words, we have met the enemy of the first amendment, and he is us.

But this is for ordinary immigration, under ordinary circumstances. Normal immigration builds character in a healthy nation, inviting hale, hardworking, determined men and women to our shores to truck, barter, and exchange with us and create a better life for them and theirs. This arrangement is to the mutual benefit of immigrant and host alike. Refugees are unlike ordinary immigrants in that they are compelled to migration thanks to especially gruesome BATNA. Death squads, systematic rape, homes incinerated, and mass exile will stir even the lumpiest of lumpenprole to pack up the ol' bindle and hit the long road to salvation.

It's this group that is utterly out of sample. I urge you to be skeptical of claims one way or the other about the desirability of permanently hosting refugees with an eye towards assimilation and eventual citizenship. If you'll permit a bit of #gertruding, the morality of providing aid and succor to displaced resident of war-torn nations is plainly obvious: giving aid to the afflicted is an almost universally-recognized moral and ethical duty. However, this duty is unrelated to the economic and cultural benefits of routine peaceful immigration.

The Precautionary Principle would tell us to refuse refugees entry for two reasons:
1) There is no assurance that their entry would not irrevocably corrupt American culture and the institutions that arise from that culture.
2) It is impossible to credibly commit to policies that would maintain refugees as non-citizen residents. (bleg: what's your favorite quick-n-dirty intro to the folk theorem you like to use in your undergrad courses?)

Refugees present a difficult conundrum not forwarded by ordinary immigration. As with difficult conundrums of all stripes, the Mencken quote above applies. How to fulfill the humanitarian demands of charity and sanctuary without risking the golden goose eggs is an enormously thorny question. But it is one not made any easier by conflating it with an immigration debate. The two are only superficially related.

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