Liberals traditionally see immigration from poor countries into the rich west as a win-win transaction. The immigrant increases their living standards. The host country gets new and enthusiastic workers willing to take the jobs that natives don’t want.
When migrants express dissatisfaction with their lot, liberals attribute it to xenophobia in the host nation. They believe that if discrimination could be eliminated, the frustrations and disappointments of immigrants would disappear with it. Thus liberals are obliged to attack the prejudices of their co-nationals until acceptance of migrants is universal.
But this view embodies a deep cognitive dissonance. Liberals look migration from two incompatible viewpoints at the same time. They evaluate a poor foreigner’s interests in absolute terms up to the moment they cross the border, but from that moment on they insist on a relative standard.
In fact, the socialisation of low-skilled immigrant into a rich country generates anger, bitterness and disillusion for reasons that have no connection with racism. Each newcomer to the West slowly ditches their old value system and assumes that of the host nation. As we’ll see, this inevitably darkens their experience of migration.
There are indeed good reasons to believe that relative position is the more important measure for those of us the rich West. In absolute terms, the welfare of contemporary welfare claimant far exceeds that of a middle class worker in the 1960s. If absolute measures were what mattered to us we would have shut down our welfare states long ago.
But if it relative status matters so much to liberals, why do they wish to import migrants into the very lowest rung of our societies? If the ‘jobs that no one wants’ are all thats on offer, then by their own account, most migrants were better off in their own countries.
If they are to be true to their core values liberals must treat low skilled immigration from poor countries with extreme caution. Potential immigrants are uniquely poorly placed to evaluate the pros and cons of migration.
There are two popular concepts of poverty. ‘Absolute poverty’ is a standard which is fixed in time. It is defined by the lack of basic needs like food, housing, health and security. By contrast ‘relative poverty’ concerns an individual’s position in society. People with incomes far below the median can get frozen out of normal social activities. For instance, a child without access to a television won’t be able to participate in playground conversations.
The standard of ‘relative poverty’ changes over time and by country. As a society gets richer, goods that were once luxurious become necessities.
The Right prefers the absolute concept. When the Census Bureau reported record levels of U.S. poverty in 2011 the right wing site ‘Real Clear Politics’ responded this way:
According to data compiled by other government agencies, the typical household considered “poor” by census officials has a car and air conditioning. For entertainment, the household has cable or satellite TV, two color televisions, a DVD player and a VCR. If children (especially boys) are in the home, they have a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation. In the kitchen, the household has the ordinary conveniences: refrigerator, oven, stove, microwave. Half the poor now have a personal computer. A third have a widescreen TV (plasma or LCD); a quarter have a digital video recorder such as TiVo. In all these cases, U.S. Department of Energy data say so.
Liberals prefer the relative measure. For them poverty is a phenomenon of social isolation and cultural poverty. Those of us without ideological commitments can feel the draw of either perspective at different times.
International happiness surveys help explain the persistence of these two viewpoints. They show that an individual’s happiness is driven by absolute levels of wealth in countries with an average income below $20k. Once average income rises above that level, happiness largely tracks an individual’s relative position in society. The economist Adair Turner explains the transition this way:
It seems that countries experience major increases in human welfare and self-perceived contentment as their income grows from low levels to about the equivalent of $20,000 per year, but beyond that level measured income continues to increase without significant aggregate welfare benefit. The most obvious reason why increasing income may not deliver significant increases in contentment is the simple theory of satiation—of declining marginal benefits. One winter coat keeps you warm; two winter coats don’t keep you warmer, but give you a second-order benefit of fashion and style. The richer people become, the more they choose to devote their income to buying goods delineated by style, fashion, and brand, so as to signal that they are in with or ahead of the crowd … [and] the wider the range of goods and services over which this relative-status competition occurs.
So absolute poverty mattered in the past in the developed world, and it still matters in poor countries. But the data also validates the liberal preference for the concept of relative poverty in rich countries. Policies that result in higher levels of relative poverty deliver less happy societies in the rich West.
While the data backs the key liberal commitment to economic equality, it has troubling consequences for another of their attachments – immigration from poor countries. When a low skilled individual in a poor country asks themselves whether they would be better off in a rich one, the question has an unusual property – it can be evaluated from two different perspectives at the same time, with two different conclusions. When the individual leaves home one set of criteria apply, once they arrive another set takes their place.
To illustrate the problem, let’s imagine a low skilled worker in a poor nation (income < $20k) who is offered the opportunity to leave for Europe. The decision looks to be an easy one. The pros of immigration far outweigh the cons. The destination is so much richer that whatever happens, they will be better off in absolute terms. Not only that, the new country’s higher standards of education and healthcare mean that their young children will be offered a better life. Our imaginary worker chooses to relocate. Shortly after they arrive in the suburbs of a major European conurbation, finding menial labour cleaning offices overnight. The new job pays many times more than their work ‘back home’. They are even able to send a little money to relatives.
At first they are overjoyed. But then begins the slow transition to the value system of their country of the host. They discover they have few marketable skills, and have passed the age at which they can be easily attained. They can reasonably expect to remain fixed to the bottom rung of the income scale for the rest of their lives. Worse, they discover that relative status is far more important than it was in their own country. In any social competition for status or rank the immigrant comes last. Sadly it is exactly these trials of relative strength that gain significance for our imaginary immigrant as they are socialised into the new society.
As Turner says, those of us in richer countries devote our efforts towards “buying goods delineated by style, fashion, and brand, so as to signal that [we] are in with or ahead of the crowd”
At least the first generation migrant can look back on their lives through the eyes of their youth, and celebrate how far they’ve come in absolute terms. Its different for their kids. Their children have no experience of the poor conditions their parents were born into. Their poorly educated parents found the state education system harder to navigate than the natives. They may have brought with them a rural culture that fails to prioritise education. They’ve probably settled in a rough area. For all of these reasons, many of their kids attend schools with low standards.
Many second generation immigrants have weak defences against the ultra-materialistic values of their environment. Brands, fashion and relative status become everything for them. Where the first generation immigrant might see a pair of good, stout shoes, the second generation sees an embarrassingly low status brand of trainers.
Rather than celebrating their absolute good fortune, many second generation immigrants feel they’ve been condemned to a life of humiliation at the bottom of the pile. Paradoxically, their new values tell them it would have been preferable to be relatively wealthy in a poor country, than to being relatively poor in a rich one. They may be angry at what they see as hypocrisy – the host country claimed to welcome them in a spirit of generosity, it now seems to them that their primary role is keeping natives from settling upon the bottom rung. Through these eyes, the classic liberal defence of immigration – that they do ‘the jobs that we don’t want to do’ – becomes the ultimate insult.
There is something paradoxical about this – judged from the absolute standards of the source country the decision to relocate was the correct one, but judged by the relative standards of the target country it is problematic. The potential immigrant may reasonably regret their decision whether they choose to stay or to go.
The transition between nations is inevitably met with frustration and disappointment as the standards used to judge the outcome change, especially for the second generation. It is hard not recognise this pattern of initial optimism followed by anger, discouragement and resentment in the immigrant experience in Europe. But this pattern has absolutely nothing to do with xenophobia or discrimination on the part of the host nation. Have we been misidentifying the roots of this disenchantment in racism and discrimination?
If this analysis is correct we should be sceptical about the desire manifested by unskilled people in poor countries to move to rich countries. They are uniquely poorly placed to judge the outcome. It also gives substance to the frequent accusation from migrants that we show double standards, but not for the reasons they give.
The Left habitually bemoans the living conditions of immigrants in rich countries while actively campaigning for more immigration. The situation of immigrants is seen as everywhere bad, but immigration remains an unquestioned good. This circle is squared by attributing all the problems of immigration to the failings in the host community.
Arriving in a rich country is inherently disenchanting for a low skilled person and their children. The Left should stick to its core values. Helping others unwittingly consign themselves to multi-generational poverty isn’t the enlightened project western liberals imagine it to be.