Immigration and Group Norms

Arnold Kling’s essay on “Libertarianism and Group Norms” raises important issues. I have some sympathy with where Kling is going, very little with where he is coming from. Kling’s thesis:

I think it is unwise to dismiss altogether the case for group loyalty and adherence to group norms. My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary. However, within libertarian thought, there are very different points of view as to whether or not the pressure to conform to group norms is morally justified.

He cites a lot of libertarian-friendly thinkers, including Adam Smith, J.S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Hayek, to show that libertarians are historically divided on the issue of “group norms.” To me, Kling seems to conflate group norms with morality. In other words, he presupposes that our morality is socialized, rather than that there is a real right and wrong which we perceive, sometimes of course with imperfect accuracy. For example, he writes that: “An important way to achieve status within a group is to adhere to and defend its norms.” Why not say that an important way to achieve status in a group is to practice virtue? Presumably because he thinks “virtue” is whatever the group says it is, so that to replace the words “practice virtue” with the words “adhere to and defend [a group’s] norms” is a way to avoid naivete. Note also this definition of morality, which Kling approvingly cites from Jonathan Haidt:

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

Actually, I have no objection to this definition as far as it goes, but it seems to be carefully formulating to avoid suggesting that morality is about anything real. Morality is instrumental: it is a means to “regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” It might, as far as we can tell, differ almost arbitrarily from one society to another. I disagree. But I have more sympathy with Kling here:

For example, the red light at an intersection is a technological device. It is backed by formal rules of enforcement. However, for the most part, people stop at red lights because they believe that they ought to do so. As Adam Smith would have put it, when I approach a red light, I imagine myself in another car observing my behavior, and I stop at the light in order to keep the observer’s approval.

The emergence of group norms is not necessarily consistent with a game-theoretic view that assumes rational human nature. The problem is that the individual has no incentive to bear the cost of adhering to group norms or of taking enforcement action when someone else violates group norms.

It appears that group norms are most effective when individuals feel strong emotional attachment to a group. This makes them willing to bear the extra cost of adhering to and enforcing group norms.

I would say that people are often willing to bear the extra cost in order to do the right thing. We are greatly influenced by those around us in their efforts to determine what the right thing to do is, just as all our opinions tend to be greatly influenced by those around us. And we may want to adhere to group norms too, over and above, or over against, our desire to do the right thing. Consider the following four attitudes to a proposed action X:

  • “X is probably the right thing to do because everyone thinks it is, and why would they think so, if they don’t have a good reason?”
  • “X is the right thing to do, but I’m so tempted to do Y instead that I might do Y even though I think it wrong, if it weren’t for all the social pressure to do X.”
  • “X is the right thing to do, and I’ll do it in spite of the social pressure to do Y instead.”
  • “X is the right thing to do, but the social pressure to do Y is too strong for me, I’ll do Y instead.”

That all of these are clearly possible illustrates, I think, that right/wrong and group norms are distinct. Where I agree with Kling is in the claim that rational human nature may be insufficient to sustain cooperation. Morality and social norms both help to align individuals’ self-interest with the social interest. Kling concludes:

However, we live in a world that demands enormous levels of trust among strangers. We want to be able to use credit cards in remote villages in underdeveloped countries, to be able to buy and sell used goods on eBay, to hire contractors and service workers on Craigslist, and so on. We could not live the way we do if our trust circles were limited to something like a Dunbar number (the 150 or so people we can know well enough personally).

I doubt that anyone fully comprehends what holds this fabric of trust together. It is conceivable that widespread romantic beliefs about the state are an important component, without which this fabric would unravel.

Now let me bring all this back to immigration/open borders. If our society “demands enormous levels of trust among strangers,” and trust depends on adherence to group norms, then letting in foreigners, who presumably don’t adhere to “our” group norms, will presumably undermine it. If no one “fully comprehends what holds this fabric of trust together,” then we would be crazy to risk disrupting the group norms by adding in people who don’t know them and can’t adhere to them. That’s not Kling’s position, as I suspect he signals by using credit cards in underdeveloped countries as one of his examples. (Kling is immigration-friendly.) But it’s a position that others thinking along the same lines might adopt.

My response:

(a) Much of what Kling calls “group norms” is really just morality and immigrants are as likely to have that as natives (possibly more so, as low immigrant crime rates suggest).

(b) To the extent that mere “group norms,” as distinct from moral principles, are at stake, it’s far from clear that disrupting them would be a disadvantage. The case of stoplights, which Kling uses, may illustrate. To feel that running a red light is wrong is arguably just a group norm rather than a true moral rule. Suppose we let in a lot of immigrants and that ran more red lights than natives do. Would that really be so terrible? It strikes me as rather trivial. Many group norms I find stultifying and I’d be glad to see them disrupted.

(c) I’d want evidence that it’s really all that hard to socialize immigrants on points where society’s interests are really at stake. Immigrants tend to be more sensitive to social norms than natives are, since they feel like guests and want to fit in.

(d) It is a big mistake to think that group norms are self-sustaining and automatically transmit themselves from generation to generation. I could cite Charles Murray, or for that matter, just watch Forrest Gump, but the point is really too obvious to need authority once you think about it. Anyone with a minimal familiarity with how American society evolved between the 1920s and the 1980s should see how volatile social norms are even– I would even suggest: especially— when immigration is kept to pretty low levels.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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