Friday, 23 January 2015

Social science and the migration debate

Large majorities in the UK want less immigration.

What are the possible responses to such views? We could:
  1. Treat them as preferences. Preferences are legitimate inputs into the democratic political process, so we should reduce immigration accordingly.
  2. Treat them as preferences, but ones based on xenophobia. Preferences like that are ugly; they deserve no weight in our democracy. The political process should launder them out.
  3. Treat them as coming from rational beliefs. Perhaps people are concerned about the impact of immigration on wages of native workers, for example.
  4. Treat them as coming from irrational beliefs, due to psychological quirks such as overvaluation of the ingroup, misestimates of the number of immigrants in the country and so forth. These beliefs can safely be ignored or dealt with by public education.
None of these really seems satisfactory. Politicians who have to get reelected, tend to favour 1. But politicians ought to lead, not just follow, public opinion.

2 is appealingly resolute and uncompromising. But the future membership of any group, including a nation, is of fundamental importance for its current members. No democracy can put this issue out of the reach of public control.

3 is also appealing, since it treats the public as sensible rather than racist. The problem here is simple: there is really not much evidence that immigration harms even unskilled workers economically.

4 draws strength from a large psychological literature on ingroup bias, and from empirical evidence that people state mistaken beliefs in answering pollster's questions. It is less good at explaining why immigration has currently risen up the political agenda. Option 4 must be partly true, but it feels patronizing to dismiss people's concerns.

I have no neat solution, but a few comments.

First, with regard to the economic effects of migration, technical research is necessary but not  enough. The stream of history and politics has been flowing against the poor in rich countries for many years in many ways - both ideologically, and through globalization in many forms, from mobility of skilled workers and capital, to offshoring. Exactly which forces have contributed how much to wage stagnation is very hard to disentangle. But the overall outcome is not much in doubt. Immigration is not so much a policy that can be neatly exogenously varied, and more part of a package which people in wealthy democracies may quite reasonably fear. (One may wonder whether poor immigrants should bear quite so much of the brunt of these feelings, compared to, say, financial geniuses or clever-clever right-wing academics.) And migration itself doesn't just have short-term economic impacts. It changes communities and transforms politics; it has reshaped Britain profoundly and will keep doing so. You can welcome that or not, but you cannot limit it. Of course, this is not a call to ignore the evidence, but for humility about the limitations of our research. How would greater or less migration change Britain? We don't know.

Second, we need to understood more about the social and psychological effects of diversity. We still know startlingly little. Socially, diverse communities seem to find it harder to provide public goods. But we don't know when or how they happen - though there are some great starts at finding out.  Social networks, norms, habits and political coalitions are all likely to change with the makeup of society; and there are probably many mechanisms which could come into play.

Psychologically, existing work is good at explaining how prejudice works: "symbolic racism", "implicit attitudes" and so forth. I think we are less good at understanding how individuals experience ethnic outgroups in the context of their daily lives. Paul Celan, himself an immigrant to Paris and a victim of racial persecution, writes of an elderly relative in London in the 1960s:
Die dir zugewinkte
Stille von hinterm
Schritt einer Schwarzen....
The stillness that waved at you 
from behind the gait of a black woman... 
Understanding how people actually experience ethnic strangers might help us understand preferences. Perhaps it might also help us live together better - since that is certainly our fate. Celan's poem finishes with a humanistic flourish: Vertag dich nicht, du. "Don't adjourn yourself."