There exists a continual tension among respectable social scientists when trying to understand what influence culture plays on the world. One must navigate between the Scylla of assuming that only that which is easily measured is real, and the Charybdis of seeing nothing but the unmeasured everywhere.
The Scylla is that of the uber-economist who denies that ideas like culture are meaningful, testable, or important. Human behavior is pretty much reducible to incentives. If he’s feeling a little bit expansionist in his gaze, said uber-economist might admit that psychological biases and market frictions sometimes prevent the proper response to incentives. But other than that, there’s very little else important that determines variation in human behavior. Social changes are best understood as merely changes in technology, cost structures, and resources.
One version of this, which sounds almost like a straw man (but I assure you is not), is that policy should treat people as wholly economic units. When setting immigration policies, there are no differences whatsoever of any importance between a thousand laborers from El Salvador, a thousand laborers from Sudan, or a thousand laborers from South Korea. The variation in visa requirements for nationals from such countries to enter the US suggests that the powers that be do not appear to wholly share this view. The fact that, notwithstanding setting policy based on the presumption of some differences, nobody in any position of authority is willing to publicly assert the existence of such differences, let alone elaborate on exactly what they are, tells you everything you need to know about how policy in this area ended up in such a mess.
The Charybdis, by contrast, is the non-economist, who sees only cultural decline and progress. This can take a variety of forms. There is the progressive who sees nothing but the glorious march of social justice in every economically deleterious policy from affirmative action to the rise of public sector unions, for instance. But there is also the cultural conservative who sees nothing but a steady rise in depravity and degeneracy in modern culture, often to the point of almost rhetorically waving away the enormous increases in material welfare and life expectancy over the past several centuries. Both the progressive and cultural conservative agree, however, that if we could only get people to hold the right beliefs, nearly everything could be fixed in the world.
Between these two extremes, the man of judgment must navigate a path that best approximates his understanding of reality. I vary day by day on much I lean towards each extreme. My training is that of the Scylla, but my personal reading is that of the Charybdis.
One aspect that tends to get largely ignored all around, however, is the interaction between the two ideas. How often, for instance, does technological or economic change end up driving cultural shifts? Or indeed the reverse?
As one candidate phenomena that may have a depressingly economic cause (from the cultural conservative’s perspective), consider the problem of mass illegal immigration of third world populations to the west. Whether in Europe or America, there appears to be a complete inability (and unwillingness) to enforce the border against arbitrarily large numbers of incursions from illegal third world economic migrants. The blindness of the modern left to the potential problems of this phenomena is a source of both incredulity and immense frustration to reactionaries and conservatives alike. As I have written before in these pages, the west has taken an enormous bet that it can resettle large numbers of people from countries that share very little in the way of common culture, language, or values. Moreover, it wagers that from this it can somehow produce a society that retains the strengths that made it a desirable place for people from the third world to move to in the first place. Let us take it as given that the outcome of this bet is not yet written. What, would you say, are the odds though?
Of course, if this problem were merely political stupidity by blank slate cultural Marxists in positions of power, then it is at least conceivably soluble by convincing enough people in positions of power of the potentially disastrous consequences, then the mistaken policies can be reversed.
But what if the big increase in illegal immigration is driven by mostly economic factors? Then, dear cultural conservatives, we have a larger problem on our hands.
I have to conclude, rather depressingly, that I think it is.
Why were the populations of Europe mostly stable for thousands of years? Other than the occasional invasion which radically upset the cultural and genetic balance, there’s a reason that 23andMe can say with a high degree of certainty whom your ancestors were. It’s because they mostly stayed as a culturally homogeneous group in a fairly circumscribed area.
Okay, so why did they stay in a single area, when today we move all around the place? Is it because of a firm cultural value that one should mostly mingle with one’s extended kin and clan? Partly. But I think it’s far more to do with the fact that it was both technologically infeasible and economically prohibitive for the vast majority of people to move very far from their place of birth.
In the case of seafaring voyages, this is easy to understand. Sailing any large distance was risky and difficult, and when you arrived you’d have absolutely nothing but what you brought. If the place you landed was inhabited by people who were hostile to you, they’d probably try to kill you, and they’d probably have the advantage of resources, numbers and local knowledge. Faced with that choice, you’d probably just stay put in your village too. But even travelling large distances over land created similar problems. Someone else is already on that land, you can’t speak their language, and they probably won’t be glad to see you. A single family just packing up and moving to a wholly alien land was extraordinarily unlikely.
The point is, societies in the past simply didn’t have to think about how they’d treat the problem of mass immigration. The only form of mass immigration was a military invasion, and the desirability of averting that didn’t have to be explained to people. The issue of how one should treat an influx of culturally different foreigners who came to work probably didn’t even arise to the level of philosophical speculation. I’d guess that lots of people spent their whole lives never meeting any foreigners.
The simple fact, however, is that the west is caught in a pincer movement between two economic forces. First, technological improvements in transportation have made the cost of long-distance travel get cheaper and cheaper over time. And second, the rising wealth of the third world, even when starting at very low levels, has put this journey in reach of more and more people. It’s the same question as with nuclear weapons. If they can be developed with technology and wealth available in America in 1945, sooner or later lots of countries are going to cross that threshold.
In the case of immigration, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enforce the border as a western country. Israel does it quite successfully, for instance. But it does mean that the cost of doing so, in both dollar terms and political will to take actions that will strike some as uncharitable, continues to rise. It is perhaps not surprising that many countries no longer have any meaningful national will to enforce their borders.
Costs and practicality also explain why the countries with the most sensible immigration policies are the ones for which geography still presents non-trivial cost obstacles to illegal immigration. Australia continues to be hard to get to illegally (New Zealand even more so), and Canada is a long way from anywhere in the third world (and most need to cross the US to get there, at which point in the journey they’ll probably just stay where they are).
If you’re a progressive, this is all great news. We’re on our way to our cultural Marxist multicultural utopia, whatever that proves to be like in practice.
But if you’re a conservative, there isn’t much uplifting news to be had. Illegal immigration is primarily a problem of wealth and technology, and neither of those look like abating any time soon.
The only grim solace is that cultural conservatives are at least well used to depressing news by now. It’s not for nothing that John Derbyshire’s book was titled ‘We Are Doomed’.