Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders

As an open borders advocate, I’m always on the lookout for good arguments for open borders. But more often than not, the arguments make me wonder, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Case in point: diversity.

Now, I don’t deny that diversity has its benefits to immigrant-receiving countries, particularly when it comes to cuisine. And I’m happy to point out that open borders can help address the concerns of restrictionists such as Mark Krikorian regarding the lack of diversity in the current immigrant flow to the United States (Krikorian is concerned that the proportion of the immigrant flow coming from a single country is much larger today than in any past era, i.e., a much higher fraction of immigrants come from Mexico to the US than for any other country to the US in any other era). And it’s also noteworthy that immigration proportion seems to be positively correlated with cultural sophistication in the United States, though admittedly correlation is not causation.

But diversity has its costs. If Robert Putnam’s work is to be believed, it leads to social capital decline. To be clear, I haven’t had the time yet to thoroughly review Putnam’s work. I would start with a skeptical prior, but haven’t studied it in sufficient detail yet to make a clear rebuttal — the point I am making, however, is that if you’re interested in specifically addressing the diversity angle of immigration, you’d better engage the most serious critiques of diversity. There are also possibilities of a nativist backlash and a culture clash. In the face of these costs, the benefits of diversity need to be established rather than blithely asserted.

Frankly, a lot of the arguments that tout the benefits of diversity fail to make any meaningful case, and/or play right into the hands of restrictionists. For instance, in an otherwise decent article for The Atlantic, Noah Smith writes:

Adding diversity to our melting pot will speed up America’s inevitable and necessary transition from a “nation of all European races” to a “nation of all races.” The sooner that happens — the sooner people realize that America’s multi-racialization is a done deal — the quicker our political debate can shed its current ethnic overtones and go back to being about the issues.

Smith seems to be playing right into the hands of restrictionist concerns here. Or consider the illegal immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas (life story) who has repeatedly written that “diversity is destiny” and “demographics is destiny” and connected this to his pro-immigration and pro-DREAM Act lobbying. His basic argument is that the 21st century is a century of diversity and the foreign-born are a formidable and growing share of the American population and electorate, so nativists, better concede defeat! I critiqued this type of argument a while back:

But more importantly, in so far as Vargas is right about the “whites versus non-whites” cleavage, this doesn’t make a case for more immigration, because the demographic decline in proportion of whites is itself largely a consequence of immigration, not merely of differential birth rates. If somebody is concerned about the decline in the proportion of the white population, this bolsters the case for immigration restrictionism. By constantly harping on the decline of white hegemony in so far as it exists, Vargas seems to be daring restrictionists. And it doesn’t seem strategic to issue dares to people who already have the upper hand.

Some people might argue that, in the context of the United States, there is an aura of moral righteousness around racial diversity that makes it particularly appealing to frame pro-immigration arguments in terms of achieving diversity. I don’t know a lot about the United States, but prima facie, this argument seems unconvincing. My impression is that outside of some pro-diversity bastions, most people in the US (as elsewhere) have a decidedly dim view of diversity for diversity’s sake. For many people, support for diversity is simply a way of establishing their credentials against accusations of prejudice against outgroups. It also offers a convenient rationale for colleges to implement affirmative action programs while parrying accusations of “reverse discrimination” — if they say that diversity is a value in and of itself, then they can justify different standards of admission for different groups in order to achieve a diverse student body, rather than out of a desire to discriminate against specific groups of applicants.

Another danger is that triumphalist claims about diversity can quickly degenerate into bashing groups that are currently in, or perceived to be in, the normative or majority positions. Arnold Kling notes one such instance in an article for EconLib:

Indeed, one of the biggest disappointments I have with the trends at America’s prestigious universities today is that they no longer seem to encourage students to use System Two. Instead, they lead students to substitute heuristics for thought. At a graduation I attended at one such university in May of 2012, the commencement speaker said that she had recently read a projection that the majority of Americans will be non-white by the year 2050. The students (mostly white) reacted with raucous applause, which I found shocking. To me, this demographic outlook is simply a fact, not something that should lead to joy or alarm. However, having spent four years learning the heuristic that white people are bad and non-whites are good, the students responded in this apparently intuitive way.

To be clear, most pro-diversity people don’t have any connection with immigration advocacy. But if immigration advocates wish to make headway, I think they would benefit the cause quite a bit by distancing themselves from blithe pro-diversity assertions. Thus, for instance, while I don’t have any quibble with the substance of the report from the Immigration Policy Center titled Strength in Diversity, I think the title is mistaken and misleading. There is nothing in the summary of the report that suggests that diversity per se confers any benefits (I haven’t read the report in its entirety, but at any rate strong claims like “Strength in Diversity” require strong evidence, which should be put up front).

Open borders advocates and pro-immigration people at large would also benefit their cause from making clear that they don’t support majority-bashing or the bashing of groups currently perceived to have the upper hand in normative terms. Not only is this morally wrong, it alienates potential allies and provides fodder for restrictionists.

6 thoughts on “Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders”

  1. I would say that diversity might be a good reason to support open borders if you believe strongly in the benefits of diversity, and there’s a plausible case for the benefits of diversity. But of course it’s not an obvious a priori fact that diversity is a good thing, so the argument involves two steps:

    1. Diversity is a good thing.

    2. Open borders promotes diversity.

    If you succeed in proving (2), but fail to prove (1), you might fail to convince your audience to favor open borders, or even achieve the opposite, making them want to restrict immigration still more. But if you do establish (1) to your audience’s satisfaction– and I think there’s a lot to be said for the value of exposure to many different perspectives and ways of thinking and sets of background knowledge– then the argument might be successful. That’s why I’d guess that Vargas is convincing to some people.

    It’s POSSIBLE that a move towards open borders would NOT promote diversity. This could happen if (a) borders were opened selectively to groups that already resemble the US demographically, e.g., Northern Europe, or the Anglsophere, or (b) people who wanted to immigrate to the US tended to be self-selecting so as to be particularly “American” in their cultural attitudes: more religious, perhaps, or more entrepreneurial, or more favorable to maximum opportunity as opposed to maximum security, or more tolerant or hopeful or ambitious and driven to succeed. (At least, those are traditionally taken to be distinctively American cultural values, maybe it’s changing.) But I do think open borders would tend to promote diversity, on balance.

    A nuance here, as mentioned in the post, is that open borders might make IMMIGRANTS more diverse, and thereby FACILITATE assimilation, because immigrant subcultures would be smaller and have a greater tendency to be swamped by mainstream culture.

    1. Nathan, I agree that if somebody can make the two-step argument you outline, that would strengthen the case for open borders to those convinced by both steps. My main problem is: (a) most people arguing in terms of diversity blithely skip over step (1) and go straight to step (2), and (b) even those who do make some attempt to justify step (1) rarely deal with the costs and benefits of diversity — they just assert some benefits (e.g., better cuisine) rather than looking at the costs and benefits in totality and arguing that the benefits overwhelm the costs. If the costs do exceed the benefits, then this should just be framed as a cost of open borders, albeit one that is overcome by all the other economic benefits and by the moral case.

  2. I would consider the dictum from Open Source Software: given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. (all problems are easy to solve – for someone.). This works because the many eyeballs are connected to different people who think differently, who haven’t all been trained in the same lock-step approach. (Software development is unique in that most practitioners are autodidacts to a considerable degree) Looking at many research papers today, many of the names of contributors have Indian, Chinese, Japanese surnames; it’s hard not to wonder if those people are contributing something special, some different way of looking at things. Americans often speak of the 50 states as a kind of laboratory, where different approaches are tried, but those 50 states are constrained both by federal law and by a certain cultural homogeneity. Might we learn something from a bigger laboratory with more diverse experiments?

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