Monday, March 16, 2009

more immigration

A commenter (a friend of Trevor's) on a recent post by Trevor writes

I am no big believer in borders; practically, I get annoyed when applying for visas, standing in queues etc. but also philosophically, because I believe in freedom - the ability to freely move around on my planet.

However, if there were no borders, Julia commented, cultures would get diluted and everything would become uniform, like in the US. Furthermore, in a capitalistic world people would move towards the more prosperous region and then over-population would never allow that region to reach its full potential.
Now, in another recent post Trevor commented that my tone can be a little aggressive, but I can't help finding this kind of view very distressing! I run a real risk of reading this unfairly, but it does kind of sound like the reason he's a believer in open borders is because it would his life more easier and more pleasant. I totally understand! And it's actually suggests an interesting point, that everyone has good reason to be in favour of open borders for himself. Yet most people are not in favour of generally open borders. So either we're like kids who want the biggest slice of cake and are unimpressed by the claims of the other kids, or they're willing to take a personal loss (the loss of the right to move around freely) in order to be less hypocritical when they support restrictions on the movement of others.

Broadly speaking, rich, well educated people are like kids who are used to getting the slice of cake. They (we?) move around without too many problems.

I think this is good of course, but that's really not what I care about when thinking about this issue. Who cares about us!? We'll be fine anyway. For lots of people, immigration is the only way they could survive for more than a few years. For hundreds of millions of people it's the only chance for living a passably decent life and this is what matters.

Trevor doesn't with the second paragraph and responds in the comments. This is the most dangerous ground for me because I simply have zero emotional connection with an argument that has a lot of emotional resonance with a lot of people; the issue of cultural homogeneity.

I have lots of issues with this line. First of all I dispute the extent to which it is happening. On the one hand, if you have lots of trade and immigration between countries they will definitely become more alike (especially initially since many countries are incredibly different partly because of their isolation). There will be less novelty for the tourist. But on the other, as has happened over the past 50 years, new cuisine like Indian food is introduced into America because Indian people move there, the previous cuisines are not driven out. The food diversity (and hence culture more broadly) increases.

More simply, diversity between nations goes down, but within nations goes up.

Are California, New York and North Dakota more similar now than they were 50 years ago. I'm skeptical.

Tyler Cowen argues that for people like himself it's probably better to have diverse nations so long as he can travel to them, because of the novelty, but this is not likely to be the best thing for most people. I quoted from his book Creative Destruction in the early days of this blog

Cosmopolitanism must resort to a value judgment to overcome the force of this critique. I will define this value judgment as the view that poorer societies should not be required to serve as diversity slaves [emphasis in original]
Most people are simply too poor for me to care about the effects on culture of mass immigration. But it's not clear at all to me that the effect would be bad, I really believe it would be good.

As for the overpopulation issue. Rich countries are the ones who's populations stop growing. Poor countries are the ones with population problems. There really is a lot of space in a lot of rich countries, most obviously America. The fact that people would move to where life is better means that peoples lives would be improving!

I have the same objection to the concern over certain places "reaching their full potential". I'm reminded of another Tyler Cowen quote from a paper arguing that if you want to help the poor you shouldn't support the welfare state
These global comparisons further support our suspicions that the case for the welfare state is not based in egalitarian reasoning. More likely, a citizenry spends welfare money at home, rather than abroad, to make their country the best possible country by some moral standard it holds, and to bring the country to the highest possible peak. This is achieved, to some extent, at the expense of starving people abroad. We help the relatively rich -- the American lower class -- rather than the truly poor, such as the Haitian lower class. The domestic welfare state, in this account, is based on a philosophy closer to perfectionism, rather than egalitarianism or theories of positive rights to material goods. Once again we see that impersonal consequentialism would militate against a domestic welfare state, although not necessarily against foreign aid.
I very much understand the allure of big prestige projects. I understand the urge to build CERN, or have the best military or host the world cup, but we usually scramble to find consistent reasons for doing so.


Dhruv said...

Playing devil's advocate, I agree that diversity between nations goes down but within nations go up, but how does the cost of the former compare to the benefit of the latter?

When I went to India in January, my experiences in the villages gave me a truer picture (values, philosophies, traditions, priorities in life) of the real India than my experiences in the cities.

On the other hand, I must admit that in my limited experience, when cultures combine, a new unique culture arises. The benefit is that we have this previously unknown, totally unique thing. The loss is that the original identity of each culture is lost - the Indian food in America is not the "real" Indian food that you find in a remote village in India, it's been adapted to suit the locals in the search for sales and profits.

Trevor Black said...

and is the Indian food in India "Real" Indian Food?

At what point in the evolution of culture does something stop being real?

They say Shakespeare would only be semi-literate if he were alive today. Naturally he would learn... but the world is a different place. Was Shakespeare's English "Real English"

Do we value things as they are, things as they were or diversity.

Diversity is in no mortal danger. Preserving the past in any other form has always been and will always be in mortal danger.

Things change.

stuart said...

I don't care much if there is a "real" indian food, but the food people eat in india is on the whole different from the food they eat in Argentina in more or less predictable ways.

Incidentally, I'm in favour of there being fewer languages. I value being able to understand people more than I value the diversity.

Dhruv said...

I am not saying that it stops being real, I am saying it's different, it's not the same as the original. And that there's a positive and negative to it.

Trevor Black said...

But what is 'the original'?

I think there is some middle ground between diversity and understandability.

I would love to be able to speak multiple languages. I genuinely believe that our personality is restricted, as well as our range of thought and emotion by speaking only one or two languages.

That said, I reckon there is a limit and at that point having at least one common language that I could communicate clearly with would supercede the ability to explore my personality.

stuart said...

going back to druv's first comment

"but how does the cost of the former compare to the benefit of the latter?"

I don't think this is something that can be as easily quantified as, say, GDP, but I'd guess that the cost of the former falls on people who travel. the benefits go mostly to people who don't /cant travel.

This is too simple. People enjoy watching programs like the amazing race more if they go to really weird places. And many people have an active interest in preventing indian food from being available in their country.

I don't really have much to add about "real" indian food, just that new cuisine's usually only take off when immigrants set up shop making the stuff. the recipes have little impact. That doesn't make it "real", but it does suggest some sort of authenticity is important.