Thoughts on Immigration: The moral and economic views of refugees.


As part of the ongoing conversation about immigration policy recent attention to developing refugee crisis in Europe has recentered the debate from one of Domestic US policy to a broader discussion of refugees and mass immigration. My thoughts regarding immigration to Europe run along the same lines of the subject of immigration to the US. The literature discussing the economic impact of immigration supports a fairly firm conclusion that immigrants tend to (at least in the US) be less dependent on welfare than comparable native populations. While many other economists note that immigrants tend to fill complementary jobs to natives, or tend towards sectors of employment (such as agricultural work) that are relatively underprovided by natives at comparable skill and education levels.

Despite the relative abundance of evidence that immigrants tend to be hard working, that enclave communities integrate socially and economically, and that politically are not significant drivers of the expansion of welfare programs misconceptions on both the right and the left persist. Economic nationalists insist, contrary to the foundational insight of comparative advantage and division of labor the father of modern economics Adam Smith elucidated in The Wealth of Nations, that labor substitution of immigrants for natives operates along an axis of direct skill and educational parity. This foundational insight of how labor markets operate by allowing average costs of existing services to fall (presumably by an increase in labor supply) permits the savings by capital owners (producers) to be reinvested in new capital processes (such as complimenting a lawn service company with tree pruning services) Adam Smith’s insight of the division of labor points out that cost savings afforded by increases in the labor supply afford future investments into new businesses and further economic diversification and specialization. This remarkably simple point tends to be missed in many debates, not as a consequence of contrary empirics (most economists, even those such as Borjas that are generally  pro-immigration restrictions) tend to concede that the long term effects of immigration is a general net economic positive.  No, the real reason people revile this position lays outside of economics and depends on a varied composition of post-hoc rationalizations (such as the law says their illegal, deport them), and a misunderstanding of economics. As such pro-restrictionist views tend to be inconsistent in the logic used to arrive at the positions they adopt, but resolute in the seriousness of those positions. Going one level deeper I think it can be fairly concluded that some not insignificant degree of these views suffer from confirmation bias and a crowding effect created by the more vociferous, least sober minded pro-restrictionists such as republican presidential nomination candidate Donald Trump.

Satisfactorily, though I strongly encourage people to familiarize themselves with the academic literature surrounding immigration, one can tend to conclude that economically there isn’t much of a case for strong immigration controls. This leaves another, less clear but no less relevant topic to consider, that of the moral dimension.

In a conventional (or at least American sense) we tend to limit to discussion of immigration policy to drier areas of legality and economic feasibility. The composition of most immigrants to the US are not what we would typically consider political refugees fleeing war (though some from central America could make some case) many are instead seeking to immigrate for economic and social opportunity, because of this we tend not to entertain in public discourse the moral component of immigration. On the other hand the immigration crisis presently facing Europe is distinctly different from our own. A review of the composition of the immigrant flows to Europe clearly indicates that in full terms many of them are refugee immigrants, people without opportunity or overtly hostile home countries, driven out by war, famine, and persecution. In this sense the European immigration crisis adopts a deeper moral dimension.

Set aside a moment your copy of “The Wealth of Nations” and instead pick up Adam Smith’s often overlooked but no less relevant text “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, in TMS Adam Smith discusses a view steeped in the rich tradition of enlightenment humanism that moral beliefs are tightly intertwined with the sympathetic, and contextual character of individual identity. As Smith develops his point the moral fabric of societies is connected to reciprocation and repeated coordination of social norms in a sense moral fabrics are created through the developed ability to sympathize action and communicate shared principles of justice throughout a society.

This view of humanistic morality is deeply connected with the commercial and social underpinning of Western Civilization. As Deirdre Mccloskey has convincingly made the case in her scholarship on the moral underpinnings of capitalism, the thought of Adam Smith, and  book the “Bourgeoisie Virtues,” the application of these broad moral insights that are predominately egalitarian, individualistic, and liberal lead directly and in many cases provided the sustaining drive for economic and social development over the past 300 years. The development of common and prosaic views of morality based on inclusive criteria develops alongside the increased complexity of economic arrangements. Where this moral sentiment comes into play is that as the economic and social complexity of a society increases, the exposure the new ideas and *tests* of those ideas increases the possibility and opportunity for a broader moral basis.

But let’s step back a bit. How does this relate to refugees?

Well let’s think this through.
A feature of the underlying moral basis of Western Civilization is the ability to apply general, self-affirming principles, to both the person and to see them reflected in the social grammar of other people. With relationship to immigration this brings sharply into focus a reality that they, immigrants, are also people that add into the moral and practical matrix they must be afforded dignity and moral rights that are recognized and tolerated. Western liberalism does not ascribe new or imagined rights that obligate others to forgo the same sets of rights. What this finds is a basis of enfranchisement, and in the case of immigrants (especially refugees) the reciprocal moral relationship between comfortable western people, and displaced population must be seen in terms that they still maintain similar rights to direct and express their autonomy for their own benefit. We benefit because the moral credo that underlays western civilization reinforces the ability of people to self direct and identify the ability to influence and innovate in a world, just as they are free to risk their economic capital on a new business (and reap the profit, or loss thereof), people can also determine the political and geographic allegiance to which they will pledge themselves.  To carry forward the incumbent proviso of many enlightenment thinkers one could generate some qualifiers such as help is due to those most absolutely disadvantaged relatively more so than others, the liberal position is not to argue further that society writ large is obligated to demand assistance to those destitute, but that liberal proviso would also qualify that society is not permitted to prevent the free movement of people and their rights to resettle peacefully (as most, indeed the overwhelming majority) have done.

Yesterday September 9th the American Conservative ran an article that detailed the impact of US foreign policy in the region. The article available here traced the impact of the US led invasion of Iraq, subsequent involvement in fomenting and aiding the opposition to Assad in Syria, and the acute ongoing consequences of the policy of shadow diplomacy  the US is still presently engaged in. One does not need to think particularly deeply to see that at the minimum a considerable burden of responsibility for the present state of affairs in the Middle East has been caused by US policy. The ongoing civil war in Syria, rise of the radical Islamic State in Syria, have in many ways driven millions of Syrians from their homes and laid waste to cities, some thousands of years old. Approximately 4 million people are now presently displaced, neighboring countries, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon have taken in about 3 or so million so far. Today, just as yesterday we read in the news that thousands, tens of thousands now wait to enter the European Union in hopes of resettlement.

Yesterday I read an article run on the news service Breitbart posted to Facebook by a conservative somewhat libertarian associate. The article, in Breitbart’s characteristic tilted fashion reported the eruption of riots between refugees seeking asylum and the police on the Greek island of Lesbos. The article made no mention of the fact that asylum seekers had been detained on the island by Greek bureaucrats and prevented from leaving for more than a week, all the while kept in squalid conditions with no clear hope of release. The point of the article was an attempt to implicate the broadly peaceful, though destitute, wave of asylum seekers as violent dependents. My suggestion to the problem posed by the prospect of rioting immigrants was fairly simple. Let them pass Germany, Austria, France, and the United Kingdom has already indicated a willingness to take the refugees in, given Greece’s recent reluctance to honor their international obligations it wasn’t a huge surprise that they had imagined some new bureaucratic barrier to refugees. After being pressed on these two points my interlocutor then shifted to a separate argument that resettlement of refugees carry an inherent risk of introducing a terrorist, to host countries.

Really, Terrorism?
There are 4.2 Million people displaced from a country that until 2010 enjoyed relative wealth and education and since then has literally been reduced to dust and twisted metal with bombs bought by the Gulf Arab states and the West to fight a war that has spread across a swath of the middle east from Irbil in Iraq to along the border of Turkey to Jordan, into the streets and neighborhoods of the burnt out husk of a city once known as Damascus, and the worry is that a terrorist might be among any of those millions? This is perhaps the most soundly absurd and ought to be the most passionately derided justification ever imagined by the pro-restrictionists.

There are two readily understandable moral implications to this kind of argument.
The first is that that pro-restrictionists do not understand that housing large numbers of refugees in semi-permanent camps has historically offered the social and economic conditions to develop the support networks conducive to tolerating radical groups (hence the longer people remain without formalized legal status the less committed they are to host countries) and that the perpetuation of impermanent residency effectively limits the degree of economic and social capital that can be accumulated effectively retarding the ability of societies to create stable equilibria of broadly liberal beliefs compatible with western society.
The second is a far more stark possibility that the use of this rather remote possibility as a counter argument against receiving refugees is simply meant as a tactic of refusing refugees for the sake of refusing refugees. Instead of as a serious concern this is introduced as a purposefully deceitful ploy to manipulate the fears of the unknown so as to forcibly and necessarily subjugate the human rights of some (refugees) to the fears of others. This argument attempts to implicate entire peoples as responsible for the possibility an extreme minority may be undesirable. At it’s very core this possible argument is repugnant to the moral foundations of civil, just, society and ought be seen as what it is which is deeply and cynically immoral.

There may well be a rehabilitated point somewhere in the mix here. A few conservatives, aside again from the nativist populists, might point out that the cultural mix of new immigrants may present some problematic challenges to assimilation. This is an old and well worn argument, at least domestically this ground has been covered at least since the early waves of the German and Irish immigrants of the 19th century many of which were viewed with a deep cultural distrust by the resident, predominately  Anglo-Saxon culture of early settlers. Indeed as a microcosm for world wide immigration the US is a good test lab of the habits in cultural assimilation. Though the remainder of this article is not intended to delve deeper into this topic, suffice to say the impacts of successive waves of immigrants to the United States (and there have been many, some of which amounted fully to 1% of the native population per year) have resulted in no firm deformations of the political or cultural institutions. More recent ones such as the Vietnamese and Hmong refugees during the 1970s and early 80s are a good rough comparison to those of the Syrians presently attempting to enter Europe. Recent experiences with large numbers of refugees supports generally the understood view that cultural assimilation takes 2 generations and that even large numbers of immigrants can, and usually will, result in diasporas across host countries as enclaves breakdown when immigrant communities shift from communal capital accumulation schemes to private capital accumulation schemes.

In summation my point is this. The present refugee crisis in Europe is acute, has a relatively apparent solution (let them go to Germany, France, England, Austria, Sweden) and when considered on its practical merits has a strong moral case for liberalizing immigration restrictions. Instead of persistently and wrongly arguing that refugees and immigrants represent an existential threat to Western Civilization a sober realistic view of history firmly reveals that the moral judgement supports the reception of refugees. While for the time being we here in the United States can right now view this crisis with the attitude of an observer we should not. Instead the morally courageous and economically sensible reaction is to reform our refugee programs and offer the safe harbor we have repeatedly done in the past century to those fleeing poverty, war, and destructive political regimes.