Monday, 18 June 2012

Beliefs and non-beliefs, part 1

I have finished teaching my "Making of Economic Policy" class for the year, and the students have done their exams. Modulo the usual pain for precious research time lost, teaching it was a lot of fun.

Now that I am not going to affect anyone's opinions before the exam, it seems like a good time to describe some of my personal beliefs about the course's topics; and some of my non-beliefs. These are all highly provisional, unscientific and evolving. ("Evolving" is a bit hopeful. Maybe "changing".)

  • I do not believe that a more open immigration policy to the EU and the UK is an obviously good thing which is held back only by voters' irrational xenophobia. 

Almost everyone in my class who wrote on the topic supported this view, and there are excellent reasons to do so. Here's a great post outlining some of them.

Sorry, but I don't believe it, for a set of nested reasons. First, while welfare analysis is a powerful, indispensable tool, I don't believe it provides an ultimate standard of right and wrong. If you do believe that questions of morality and practical politics can be reduced to calculations of global welfare, then the onus is on you to prove it. Practical reason is very diverse: we use all sorts of arguments to decide what we should do. What justifies ruling out all kinds of argument but one?(1)

Second, even within the framework of welfare analysis, I do not believe that the only difference between rich and poor countries is that the rich ones have more capital. I lean towards cultural explanations of economic growth; I also think culture matters for welfare in ways not captured by economic outcome variables. That means I worry about the intangibles: the kinds of things that ethnically diverse societies seem not easily to provide.

Lastly, I think there is a straightforward clash with democracy here. Large majorities in most countries are anti-immigration. That may well be for stupid reasons and if so it would be good to change the consensus. Until majority opinion has changed, though, I think it should be respected.(2) This is not an issue like capital punishment, where the will of the majority can be overridden by a fundamental human right.(3) In fact, the most basic political question is "who shall we live in a state with?" and if this is not to be decided democratically, I do not know what should be.

1. This is not an invitation to hold any moral values you want, no matter how bigoted or retrograde.
2. Political philosophy puzzler: when is a prejudice a preference which should be respected? And when is it a mistaken belief which can be ignored? Or is it a preference, but one that should be laundered (if you think that, you have already stepped out of the welfare economics playpen)?
3. But... but... but. There can be absolutely fundamental human rights involved in individual decisions: both the right to family life and the right to freedom.