Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process

I have spent a couple of posts addressing various spurious economic and fiscal arguments against looser immigration restrictions. But, as Brandon pointed out recently, these aren’t really the most powerful arguments for immigration restrictions. Most of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric revolves around strictly alleged cultural costs of immigration. I agree that for all the economic rhetoric used in these debates, it is fear of the culturally unfamiliar that is driving the opposition. However, I still think the tools of economics that are used to address whether immigration negatively impacts wages, welfare, and unemployment can be used to address the question of whether immigrants impact our culture negatively.

One of the greatest fears that conservatives tend to have of immigration is the resulting cultural diversity will cause harmful change in society. The argument goes that the immigrant will bring “their” customs from other countries that might do damage to “our” supposedly superior customs and practices, and the result will be a damage to “our” long-held traditions and institutions that make “our” society “great.” These fears include, for example, lower income immigrants causing higher divorce rates spurring disintegration of the family, possible violence coming from cultural differences, or immigrants voting in ways that are not conducive to what conservatives tend to call “the founding principles of the republic.” Thanks to this insight, it is argued, we should restrict immigration or at least force prospective immigrants to hop through bureaucracy so they may have training on “our” republican principles before becoming citizens.

There are a number of ways one may address this argument. First, one could point out that immigrants face robust incentives to assimilate into American culture without needing to be forced to by restrictive immigration policies. One of the main reasons why immigrants come to the United States is for better economic opportunity. However, when immigrants are extremely socially distant from much of the native population, there a tendency for natives to trust them less in market exchange. As a result, it is in the best interest of the immigrant to adopt some of the customs of his/her new home in order to reduce the social distance to maximize the number of trades. (A more detailed version of this type of argument, in application to social and cultural differences in anarchy, can be found in Pete Leeson’s paper Social Distance and Self-Enforcing Exchange).

The main moral of the story is that peaceable assimilation and social cohesion comes about through non-governmental mechanisms far more easily than is commonly assumed. In other words, “our” cultural values are likely not in as much danger as conservatives would have you think.

Another powerful way of addressing this claim is to ask why should we assume that “our” ways of doing things is any better than the immigrant’s home country’s practices? Why is it that we should be so resistant to the possibility that culture might change thanks to immigration and cultural diversity?

It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.

The lesson here is that we should apply FA Hayek’s insights from the knowledge problem to the evolution of cultural practices in much the way conservatives are willing to apply it to immigration. There is no reason to assume that “our” cultural practices are better than foreign ones; they may or may not be, but it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to use state coercion to centrally plan culture just as it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to centrally plan economic production.

Instead of viewing immigration as a necessary drain on culture, it may be viewed as a potential means of improving culture through the free exchange of cultural values and practices. In the market, individuals are permitted to experiment with new inventions and methods of production because this innovation and risk can lead to better ways of doing things. Therefore, entrepreneurship is commonly called a “discovery process;” it is how humanity may ‘discover’ newer, more efficient economic production techniques and products.

Why is cosmopolitan diversity not to be thought of as such a discovery process in the realm of culture? Just as competition between firms without barriers to entry brings economic innovation, competition between cultural practices without the barrier to entry of immigration laws may be a means of bettering culture. When thought of in that light, the fact that our cultural traditions may change is not so daunting. Just as there is “creative destruction” of firms in the marketplace, there is creative destruction of cultural practices.

Conservative critics of immigration may object that such cultural diversity may cause society to evolve in negative ways, or else they may object and claim that I am not valuing traditions highly enough. For the first claim, there is an epistemic problem here on how we may know which cultural practices are “better.” We may have our opinions, based on micro-level experience, on which cultural practices are better, and we have every right to promote those in non-governmental ways and continue to practice them in our lives. Tolerance for such diversity is what allows the cultural discovery process to happen in the first place. However, there is no reason to assume that our sentiments towards our tradition constitute objective knowledge of cultural practices on the macro-level; on the contrary, the key insight of Hayek is it is a fatal conceit to assume such knowledge.

As Hayek said in his famous essay Why I’m Not a Conservative:

As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance.

As for the latter objection that I’m not valuing tradition, what is at the core of disagreement is not the value of traditions. Traditions are highly valuable: they are the cultural culmination of all the tacit knowledge of the extended order of society and have withstood the test of time. The disagreement here is what principles we ought to employ when evaluating how a tradition should evolve. The principle I’m expressing is that when a tradition must be forced on society through state coercion and planning, perhaps it is not worth keeping.

Far from destroying culture, the free mobility of individuals through immigration enables spontaneous order to work in ways which improve culture. Immigration, tolerance, and cultural diversity are vital to a free society because it allows the evolution and discovery of better cultural practices. Individual freedom and communal values are not in opposition to each other, instead the only way to improve communal values is through the free mobility of individuals and voluntary exchange.

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13 thoughts on “Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process

  1. I think that it’s a mistake to assume that societies have a single culture. Many societies have distinct subcultures of a variety of kinds. Given my research interests and teaching, I’m most familiar with are regional subcultures e.g. http://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1016&context=clpolsci_facpub. Mostly in north america, and to a lesser extent east asia. I find it very diffiult to take seriously arguments asserting that societies are mono-cultures

    • I completely agree and I think this is an extremely important point. Not only that, but identifying a monocultural set of values with a nation-state is extremely fallacious. For an example, being from rural northern Michigan I’m willing to bet that the social distance between someone of similar socio-economic status and me who lives in Ontario, Canada is far less than the social distance between me and a poorer person from inner-city LA (or even Detroit). In fact, I’m willing to bet that a poorer person from inner-city LA probably has less social distance from someone from Mexico than they would from me.

      Even within regions, it’s pretty fallacious to assume singular cultures given massive cultural discrepancies between various socio-economic classes. These types of tribalist reifications of “our” culture versus “their” cultures are just fallacies of composition all over the place.

  2. In my experience, talking with local business people, construction workers, friends of my dad, etc., if it is just a question of immigrants from Mexico (and further South), economic concerns (“stealing” jobs and “getting on the dole” and voting democratic, — which is as much an economic concern as a cultural one, although there are likely still plenty of working class types who dislike immigration but vote democratic in at least some races because of specific subsidies or union-friendly policies) are the most important. Heck, a lot of otherwise economically protectionist and culturally chauvinistic conservatives still respect Mexicans because there is this perception that they tend to be hard workers and have strong family values. But if it’s the Middle East, then culture seems to be the bigger issue. Of course, there are many other regions people come in from, but these seem to be the main ones being discussed, if not the reasons for having the discussion in the first place.

  3. As a Classical Liberal with a greatly Hispanic family heritage and a strong affinity for Hayek’s arguments I must sadly disagree.

    First, I agree that long term, the economic benefits of immigration will help all involved. Short term, perhaps not so much, but that is just picking nits (and yes I have read the economic literature),

    The issues I have with extreme levels of immigration are:
    1). The rules of law. Immigration must not be illegal. The obvious answer is to change the laws to allow it to be legal, but this leads to…
    2). Overwhelming waves of immigration. With current transportation and communication technologies and disparities in opportunity, literally hundreds of millions of people could begin moving immediately. This would need to be “managed” somehow.
    3). Importance of social frameworks. Liberalism is a mindset and is one which has always been rare. If masses of humans come from the non liberal states to the liberal states, we are just diminishing the extent of liberal frameworks. This is extremely likely to lead to the collapse of the liberal institutions which attract the immigrants in the first place, especially considering the tendency of politicians to play to these biases for zero sum benefit.
    4). Social Safety nets. The welfare state will either collapse or need to be based upon a two tiered system of privilege. Neither outcome is realistically good for the liberal institutions which attract prosperity and immigrants.

    Because of the above, I believe we need a process which encourages immigration, but in a more deliberate manner. Perhaps a process of decentralized sponsorship where citizens or churches or businesses sponsor and vouch for immigrants and provide the safety nets for them with an annual diversified cap.

    In addition, I suggest instead of allowing large numbers of immigrants into liberal countries that international organizations encourage those failed states which are losing their people to open new Independent Cities managed by successful states. In other words, let’s bring the better institutions and values to the people rather than the people to the institutions. Charter cities along the border rather than walls!

    I believe the US has way, way too much illegal immigration from Mexico. We need to make it legal and still manageable. As for Europe, honestly I see taking large populations of adamantly illiberal Muslims who refuse to assimilate as political suicide. They should find ways of inviting in more Central Americans, East Asians and other diverse backgrounds.

    If you can’t persuade a fellow classical liberal of unlimited immigration, my guess is you won’t convince anyone else either. Anyone care to discuss it further?

    • Further, the idea that “literally hundreds of millions of people could begin moving immediately” is unfounded. Even in the US, illegal immigration has been decreasing and stabilizing in recent years even before the Obama Admin’s increase in enforcement (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/03/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/). There are transaction costs to immigrants besides transportation costs (and, it is worth mentioning, most lower-income immigrants do not have access to the transportation and communication technologies you mention), including the costs of necessary assimilation I mention in the article and the disutility of being far away from one’s family and home, as well as basic limits to the amount of economic opportunity in the short-term in a given area (one key reason for the decrease in the US was the Great Recession).

      As for your claim that immigration would lead to a collapse of the welfare state, that is simply not the case empirically. See my previous post on that topic: https://notesonliberty.com/2017/02/25/welfare-costs-are-not-a-good-argument-against-immigration/.

      Even if you are right, and immigration would erode our liberal institutions or collapse the welfare state you still have to give an argument as to why you’re willing to restrict the liberties of illiberal would-be immigrants and not illiberal natives. If you’re willing to sacrifice the basic rights to free movement and contract to foreigners because they’re illiberal, why not sacrifice the rights of natives who are illiberal? See a previous article I wrote on that point (https://notesonliberty.com/2016/08/28/most-arguments-against-open-borders-lead-to-extremely-un-libertarian-positions/) and for further discussion on why liberalism necessitates tolerating private illiberalism from its citizens see this article (https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/frances-false-choice-can-liberal-societies-come-to-terms-with-religious-illiberalism/).

      Also, you’re ignoring the possibility that immigration itself can be a mechanism for “bring[ing] the better institutions and values to the people.” First, a lot of immigration is temporary; for example, a lot of immigrants are students who come to study at colleges in the States and then go home, bringing liberal ideas and thus driving institutional change back home with them. Second, a lot of immigrants still interact with their native countries after coming here; they go back to visit families, and bring with them liberal ideas they have assimilated to in their new countries, they send back their incomes and a chance at a better life home, etc. Even if open migration brings bad, illiberal ideas to western democracies, it also allows for the spread of liberal ideas to illiberal countries.

      • Zachary. Thanks for the excellent discussion. As I mentioned at the outset, I am a pro immigration classical liberal, who is simply concerned that unlimited immigration is foolish. I will be direct in my answers but want to assure you that I respect and value your opinion even as I disagree with it.

        This comment addresses your comments above and those below as well.

        “It isn’t simply that “spontaneous order” will save us, it’s that we have very strong reasons to be rationally optimistic that those same liberal values will be the most robust to be preserved in free competition between values brought about by immigration.”

        Yes, I am aware that immigration has been gradual enough in the past in the US to not present a harm. People have and can continue to assimilate. I also agree that in a free, non violent society with exit and entrance options that liberal Enlightenment values prove themselves and act as strong cultural attractors. However we cannot take the free and non violent part for granted. If the USSR, Germany or Japan had been militarily triumphant, then liberalism would have been stopped in its tracks. Similarly, within states, it is always a real threat that political forces of rent seeking and privilege squelch the free competition between values. I am pretty sure Mancur Olson and Hayek would share my worries. Summarizing my point… my fear is that immigration could be at such a rate that political forces derail the open competition process.

        “Second, the stereotype of Muslims as inherently illiberal is at best a gross oversimplification…”

        Sorry, this link and the Brookings one just reinforce my position. Akyol himself emphasizes they need an Enlightenment. Exactly. A huge influx of people who do not embrace individualism, freedom off religion, separation of church and state, and rationalism is extremely worrying, and despite the positive spin, both these articles strongly reinforce my concerns.

        Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE an open door policy for any and all Enlightenment Muslims. Truth is, there are very few to be found, and the very process of screening people by values and beliefs would of course be immediately apprehended by non-liberal, statist factions.

        “If liberal values are as productive to producing a good life as we think they are (which I think they are), then we should expect them to survive healthy competition in the same way a good product on the market survives competition.”

        I agree with the initial proposition, but not the conclusion. Again, as above the reason is it will only survive the competition if the game is allowed to play out on liberal terms. You are assuming the playing field is fair and impartial. In reality it is always at risk of being captured by special interest groups. If increasing immigration significantly puts the institutions at risk then the strategy will be counterproductive for EVERYONE.

        “You ask “Would you allow unrestricted immigration even IF it undermines liberty long term?” My response is that it does not undermine liberty in the long term, you’re just ignoring the facts about how cultural assimilation works with exchange.”

        You dodged the question. You refused to engage the hypothetical at all. I will agree the hypothetical that IF unrestricted immigration did not undermine economic liberty long term that I would support it. So I will ask again. If it did have a negative effect, would you still support it? Answer the question, and then we can have a debate on how likely it is that unlimited immigration will cause this.

        “Further, the idea that “literally hundreds of millions of people could begin moving immediately” is unfounded.”

        You are engaging in a Motte and Bailey argument. Using caps for emphasis, I am well aware that ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION has been less extensive, especially since the recession. The subject of the debate is UNLIMITED LEGAL MIGRATION in an era of cheap, quick transportation and communication. That is what you are arguing for, and I am pretty sure that if you eliminate all barriers, we will see massive movement of people from the poor, uneducated, illiberal areas to those prosperous areas opening their doors. You can’t use arguments on what actually happened when it was illegal and actively prohibited by people with walls and guns and project this as a defense of what we can expect to happen absent all barriers. I agree that there are logistical costs which continue, but we are then just in a debate of how many tens or hundreds of millions move and how quickly it occurs.

        “As for your claim that immigration would lead to a collapse of the welfare state, that is simply not the case empirically.”

        I didn’t say this. I said that it will “collapse or need to be based upon a two tiered system of privilege.” And your empirical argument is again a Motte and Bailey. The question is unlimited legal immigration and your evidence is based on highly restrictive illegal immigration. I am not arguing immigration was harmful, I am arguing that changing it to unlimited can be harmful.

        “…you still have to give an argument as to why you’re willing to restrict the liberties of illiberal would-be immigrants and not illiberal natives.”

        I could give many arguments. The utilitarian argument is that if we allow unlimited immigration and it leads to the demise of the liberal state that we will be hurting everyone long term, the metaphor of allowing too many people on a life raft comes to mind. We would be killing everyone’s golden goose is another. The selfish, egoist argument is that unlimited immigration would endanger our institutions. The consequentialist utilitarian argument would be that why choose one course of action when a better alternative — which I suggested — exists?

        “If you’re willing to sacrifice the basic rights to free movement and contract to foreigners because they’re illiberal, why not sacrifice the rights of natives who are illiberal?”

        Rights are important shared conventions within a society. It is not difficult to argue how shared conventions and institutions need to be consistent within a social system but that it is problematic to extend them outside that system. I can flesh the argument out more if you need me to, but it doesn’t seem very challenging. You know, people can agree to rights and duties and impartial rules for members which are not extended to non members until such non members agree to play by said rules.

        “you’re ignoring the possibility that immigration itself can be a mechanism for bringing the better institutions and values to the people.”

        No I’m not. I think there is an extremely strong chance that unlimited legal immigration will lead to some positive institutional changes as well as negative. I would be surprised if it didn’t. The argument is net effects. And I am clearly recommending MORE LEGAL immigration, not no immigration.

        “Even if open migration brings bad, illiberal ideas to western democracies, it also allows for the spread of liberal ideas to illiberal countries.”

        Agreed. But note that you have yet to address my recommendations to address the immigration issue. First I suggested a decentralized legal sponsorship process. This is a compromise between unlimited hundreds of millions move and the current illegal system.

        I also suggested something which would be substantially better at exporting and promoting liberal values and institutions globally. That is some type of charter cities, perhaps in border areas. The idea is that if large numbers of people are unhappy with their current institutions that we will create magnet areas which bring the institutions to them or somewhere in between. Instead of building a bigger wall, let’s build an institutional zone which allows the people of failed economies and states to thrive. These areas would have to grow over time, and would act as advertisements for effective global institutions. Devil is in the details, of course, but now instead of talking about abandoning most of the globe to failed states, we are talking about ways to create new statelets and new institutions and exporting them to billions. Now that is a liberal and humanitarian solution!

  4. “Anyone care to discuss it further?” Yes, with pleasure. Your post doesn’t seem ‘libertarian’ in some respects. This is not a criticism; I’m not a libertarian and it may be that I don’t have a full appreciation of classical liberalism and libertarianism.

    Why does this: “With current transportation and communication technologies and disparities in opportunity, literally hundreds of millions of people could begin moving immediately.” lead to this? “This would need to be “managed” somehow.” I’m inclined to agree but it’s surprising to me to see it at NOL. I’m used to competition-will-fix-everything solutions.

    • Because institutions build up from ideas and shared frameworks or mindsets. A very large and sudden influx of people with completely different mindsets (anti liberal) would undermine the very foundations of liberalism. What we have is the strong potential of a dynamic which undermines libertarian institutions. A self destructive feedback loop where liberal theory opens the door to the death of liberal thought.

      Libertarians are people who stick with their underlying foundational beliefs. But if their beliefs lead to the collapse of their very ideas, I would suggest modifying the beliefs for consequential reasons.

      The question for libertarians is:

      Would you allow unrestricted immigration even IF it undermines liberty long term?

      I would not. Now we can all disagree on the likelihood of the conditional. But we can’t sweep away the possibility. I see libertarians as burying their heads in the sands and pretending it isn’t a real threat. Since libertarian theory is not actually responsible for any society (there are no libertarian run societies) they can (like socialists) get away with ideas which would be self contradicting in practice.

      Thus my preferred solution. A decentralized limit on the flow of immigration, perhaps combined with libertarianish charter cities.

  5. One other comment on the original post…

    “It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.”

    The argument is not that EVERY cultural practice of the receiving country is better. This would of course be absurd and points to why SOME Immigration and cross pollination is probably healthy. The argument as the author noted earlier is that they may be at odds with the “founding principles of the republic.” You know, such things as individualism, reason, the value of freedom and such.

    If cultural values, frameworks and mindsets effect institutions (and pretty much all libertarians agree they do), then allowing unlimited numbers of people with contradictory values/mindsets into democratic societies risks undermining the institutions of liberalism themselves. Hence unrestricted immigration can be self destructive to liberal societies surrounded by illiberal people. See France’s Muslim communities for exhibit A.

    Hoping to be saved by “spontaneous order” is sadly reminiscent of modern day Socialists who hope to be saved by decentralized voluntary planning committees. It is effectively just sweeping the problem under the rug in a theoretical utopia.

    • I don’t think you’re really understanding the main crux of my argument.

      It isn’t simply that “spontaneous order” will save us, it’s that we have very strong reasons to be rationally optimistic that those same liberal values will be the most robust to be preserved in free competition between values brought about by immigration. For one, public political values are some of the most strong things that can be expected to be assimilated in the way the Leeson paper I linked to describes because they are the ones that are some of the most likely to be publicly discussed with the immigrant’s would-be employers, traders, and other market participants. Cultural assimilation wouldn’t just happen because of willy-nilly spontaneous order, but because it would be profitable for immigrants to assimilate and thus rational choice theory would predict their assimilation (which is what the first half of my article is about). Some empirical evidence suggests this is the case, see Alex Nowaresteh’s work on the political assimilation of immigrants in the US (https://www.cato.org/publications/economic-development-bulletin/political-assimilation-immigrants-their-descendants), the effect is especially strong intergenerationally.

      Second, the stereotype of Muslims as inherently illiberal is at best a gross oversimplification, there is a rich tradition of liberalism within Muslim societies themselves (and some moderate ones such as Turkey). See Mustafa Akyol’s work on the matter (http://reason.com/blog/2017/02/28/why-islam-is-compatible-with-freedom). The point is, the assimilation you worry about isn’t all that problematic to begin with since they are coming from societies with a strain of liberal institutions and ideas to begin with.

      Finally, you’re ignoring the role of competition in my comparison between cosmopolitan social orders with wide-ranging cultural values and markets with entrepreneurs. If liberal values are as productive to producing a good life as we think they are (which I think they are), then we should expect them to survive healthy competition in the same way a good product on the market survives competition. Further, allowing for deviation from these values through channels like immigration can re-fortify these values and make them stronger, especially if it is mixing different strains of liberalism from Muslim and Western traditions.

      You ask “Would you allow unrestricted immigration even IF it undermines liberty long term?” My response is that it does not undermine liberty in the long term, you’re just ignoring the facts about how cultural assimilation works with exchange.

  6. “Hoping to be saved by “spontaneous order” is sadly reminiscent of modern day Socialists who hope to be saved by decentralized voluntary planning committees.” Lol, well said.

  7. This mostly dances around the real issue.

    A custom, belief, or way or life is not superior in some objective sense. It is superior (for most) because it is theirs. Asking people to change shared traditions for someone else’s is like asking them to exchange their mother for someone else’s. The other woman might be a better Mom, but she isn’t your Mom. That makes all the difference.

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