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Friday, February 14, 2014

Backlashes against immigrants and robots [updated]

Tyler Cowen writes about "Why cosmopolitanism is utopian but useful nonetheless." The subject is Switzerland's recent vote to restrict EU immigration, and Cowen is writing in response to a post by Bryan Caplan that argued (based on Swiss voting patterns) that the way to overcome anti-immigration sentiment is through more immigration. Cowen thinks very high levels of immigration will spur a backlash, and so it's better to be open to immigration on a marginal, moderate basis.

I agree with Cowen. I grew up in the highly ethnically diverse area of Elmhurst, Queens, with immigrants from throughout Asia and Latin America, and got an up-close view of plenty of ethnic tensions, in multiple directions. Knowing many people from other countries may have made some people more cosmopolitan in some ways, but it was hardly an invariable or universal reaction.

Backlashes, it seems to me, are an underrated phenomenon. Predictions of technological transformation, for instance, tend to edit out the tremendous fear and loathing that will be precipitated by such developments (even if they are basically benign; witness genetically modified foods). Seeing that the world you're going to grow old in has little in common with the one you grew up in, whether because of immigrants or robots or whatever, will spark a strong reaction, and often not a positive one especially if one's job security seems diminished, and the assurances of elites that it's all beneficial or inevitable can produce some notably angry dissension.

UPDATE 2/15: Tyler Cowen's co-blogger Alex Tabarrok takes him to task for not being willing to "launch a revolution" in the cause of open borders, and for failing to recognize a historical lesson that great things can be done when you have the moral high ground. I find Tabarrok's historical analogies rather overstated, in that eliminating immigration restrictions does not, to me at least, carry anything remotely like the moral weight of eliminating slavery and serfdom. (I also note that the most effective proponent of abolishing slavery, Abraham Lincoln, took a more incrementalist approach than some others did back then.) Here we have an example of the absolutism to which the libertarian movement is all too prone: immigration is a good thing, so it must be infinitely good and must never be limited; there's an absolute right to mobility across national borders, but if the streets are privately owned such that nobody can walk through without permission, that's fine.

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