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Immigrant Attitudes toward Immigration

My friend Bryan Caplan, the iconoclastic George Mason economist (redundant?), has long waged jihad against the “self-interested voter hypothesis,” which is the hypothesis that voters prefer and vote for policies they see as enhancing their own material interests. I join Bryan in seeking to smite infidels who insist that voter behavior is primarily self-interested. In a recent post, Bryan uncovers an interesting piece of evidence for the falsity of the self-interested voter hypothesis. Newly-arrived immigrants depress the wages of established immigrants and their children more than any other group, yet immigrants and their kids are (not really surprisingly) more enthusiastically pro-immigration than any other group, contrary to the self-interested voter hypothesis. I think Bryan’s diagnosis is mostly right, but a little confusing:

It’s one thing to say that self-interest has little or no effect on policy preferences. The children of the foreign-born go far beyond this. Immigrants hurt them the most, but they oppose immigration the least. How is this possible?

The best explanation is that the children of the foreign-born, like many other groups, are group-interested voters. They’re concerned about the well-being of people they identify with, people “like them.” The children of immigrants know what it’s like to be an immigrant from first-hand experience. They know the misery of the Old Country, and the hardships of the New. And when they ponder immigration policy, their first thought isn’t their wages. Their first thought is that the law is denying someone like their parents, cousins, or neighbors a chance to work for a better life.

I agree with the last part of this, but I don’t think the best way to describe this is “group interest.” I think it’s more likely a reaction against the unfairness of the group-interested rationale of immigration restrictions.

No doubt we find it easier to sympathize with people we resemble, and surely that plays some role. But this looks to me like a clear case of a certain sort of impartial moral reasoning. You don’t have to be a Kantian to agree that good general rules of public policy and social morality are impartial rules. The craven hypocrisy of benefiting personally from immigration and then turning right around to deny others the same chance is too obvious to avoid, and felt too strongly to evade, and I don’t think it depends all that much on a desire on the part of immigrants to promote the interests of the group of immigrants.

I think one sees the same sort of attitude around, say, affirmative action. Assuming policies meant to counteract various forms of longstanding discrimination often work as intended (I think they do, but Bryan might not agree), those who have benefited from them have a self-interested reason to shut the door behind them. Of course, these people in fact tend to be among the most resolute champions of affirmative action. Again, in-group fellow-feeling surely plays some role, but it seems to me that opposing a measure from which one has benefited on the grounds that “I got mine” violates a fairly deep-seated sense of fairness, and it is this sense of violation that is psychologically most salient. The self-interested voter hypothesis is false in large part because fairness matters to us.

Now, it’s interesting that our sense of fairness so often collapses at the border. Nationalistic in-group sentiment is the last redoubt of strong supra-familial moral partiality in liberal moral cultures. Immigration massively increases the well-being of immigrants while hurting American natives very little, if at all. Yet most Americans don’t consider it unfair to give the rights and welfare of foreigners little or no weight in deliberation over national immigration policy. So I think it’s right to say that American immigration policy reflects a sense among Americans that considerations of group interest are morally legitimate when the group is the group of Americans. Yet members of families that have benefited from immigration viscerally grasp the harm and indignity of having one’s own rights and welfare systematically discounted due to a contingency of birth. This seems so wrong not so much because it hurts one’s own in-group, but that it does so on the basis of the morally spurious in-group partiality of most Americans. It’s unfair to so drastically discount the rights and welfare of those who fall outside the national in-group. It should come as no surprise that, in a national survey, those best placed to feel the sting of this unfairness should oppose it most strongly.

(Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh)


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