Will Natives be Blamed for Lack of Immigrant Success?

In a short post, Steve Sailer manages to both make a potentially true and not really relevant point about how some people respond to the “lack of success” among immigrants (Vipul Naik blogged about another of Sailer’s comments that were also along these lines). Sailer points out an article that argues that even high performing schools fail Latino students. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention immigration there is a point that can be made here. Namely, when do we stop saying that the problem is a native institution and the problem is the immigrant? Surely saying that immigrants have no agency in their own success or failure and are only shaped by institutions is wrong. After all, Asian students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants themselves and coming from linguistic and cultural backgrounds that are more distant than the average Hispanic child, do very well.

Of course, the problem could be a system set up that is specifically designed to fail Latinos but not Asians. That would depend upon the specific policies of the school. But even then a point could be made that redesigning the best schools for Latinos benefit could ruin what works for the rest of the student population. Thus if even the best schools fail to pull Latinos up the problem may not primarily be on the side of native institutions. This relates to a broader problem of natives being blamed for the lack of immigrant success.

There are a few points I’d make in this regard. First off, to those saying that if immigrants or their children don’t achieve parity with natives that there is a major problem, I think that view suffers from a problem my co-blogger Nathan Smith has discussed, the use of borders as a blindfold. Specifically, comparing immigrant success to native success is the wrong metric to use. Most low-skill immigrants come from countries and backgrounds which produce far poorer results in terms of education and income (even crime though immigrants may not under perform natives in that category). The real metric to use isn’t a comparison to natives, against whom they will likely under-perform for a variety of reasons beyond the failure of natives to accommodate, but a comparison to the outcomes they were achieving in their home country. Results here tend to show immigrants far exceed what results they might have gotten in their native countries.

This complaint is ultimately a problem of local inequality aversion and territorialism. The fact that individuals are better off than they were before and that global inequality is reduced is already a huge benefit to the world. This is related to the problem of compositional effects, where the average success of both sending and receiving countries can conceivably drop while still achieving a Pareto-improving outcome. We don’t need immigrants to match natives in results to make the world a far better place through immigration. As I’ve posted about before, we shouldn’t make local equality with natives a precondition for enabling people to make their lives better.

Can local inequality cause dissent? Potentially yes, though such issues are not so terrible as to necessitate banning immigrants from a country. Riots such as those that happened recently in Sweden may in part be due to local inequality (the fundamental causes still cause some dispute), but if so this may relate more to a change in inequality than absolute inequality as Sweden has had large increases in income inequality recently, but remains far more equal than most OECD countries. If the varying levels of skill and productivity immigrants and their descendants bring does cause some unrest, that is likely to be transitory. For instance, the United States didn’t see increasing violent crime in general during the major late 19th century immigration waves, and if anything immigration seems to be a factor in decreasing crime rates. If immigrant-induced inequality causes unmanageable amounts of discontent we should notice this is overall crime not simply in big flashy riots.

So no, the complaint that we need even our best schools to bend over backwards to create local equality isn’t a necessary idea for open borders. Outright hostility to immigrants isn’t justified (and that would be something to legitimately blame natives for doing), but at the same time if immigrant groups simply have less skills, productivity, or academic achievement that should not be automatically assumed to be the fault of natives. But will some groups still denounce natives if immigrants fail to match native outcomes without unfair discrimination being a major cause? Quite probably. For me however, I have to respond with a big “so what”? If such statements make a native upset, it is ridiculously easy to avoid in the modern media environment. Indeed, avoiding alternative view points might be something of a problem nowadays, but it does mean that it’s easier to avoid unfair complaints. However, to the extent people can’t avoid this though the effect might even be beneficial from Steve’s point of view. The end result may be average natives finding those who blame them for immigrant problems (or “problems” considering the gain immigrants get compared to where they came from) to be distasteful and oppose their policy prescriptions more.

Social integration isn’t a bad thing when it happens, and ideally natives shouldn’t deliberately act to exclude immigrants from society. And it can be unfortunate when the second and third generations of immigrant families feel excluded or like they don’t measure up. But I doubt even in the worst cases of feeling excluded many would wish their families still lived in poverty in the developing world. Even when adjusting for inequality, one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, the United States, is still a healthier, wealthier place to be than any major immigrant sending country. If the angst of not being fully integrated into a broader society is less than ideal, it’s also much better than being in a Starving Marvin situation. Not to mention that one of the beauties of open borders is a greater chance for everyone to find the kind of culture or society that works for them.

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Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

6 thoughts on “Will Natives be Blamed for Lack of Immigrant Success?”

  1. This blog entry has good points, but I want to focus on the final paragraph.

    In that paragraph, Chris Hendrix wrote, “But I doubt even in the worst cases of feeling excluded many would wish their families still lived in poverty in the developing world.” This is true, because they will prefer the security and amenities of the First World. The question is, how will the misery of not measuring up in the First World compare with the misery back in the old country? This will depend on how miserable people actually were in the old country, and on how individuals react to not measuring up.

    More importantly, this writer mentions a Starving Marvin situation. It’s important to keep in mind that not all aspiring immigrants are actually facing starvation. This is a problem with using the Starving Marvin hypothetical scenario to discuss open borders generally. This website is not about “opening borders for people who are starving,” it’s about opening borders for everyone. And the scenario mismatches the real world situation in other ways, so it is a poor analogy. Don’t get me wrong, Starving Marvin is good food for thought, but that’s all it is.

    1. “It’s important to keep in mind that not all aspiring immigrants are actually facing starvation. This is a problem with using the Starving Marvin hypothetical scenario to discuss open borders generally.”

      The main point of the Starving Marvin hypothetical is to illustrate subtle differences in how we can think about harm. A common reaction — one you yourself have raised before — to the argument that immigration restrictions directly harm people is that forcing people to stay behind a border cannot be a form of harm. The Starving Marvin scenario illustrates that this is not in fact true. If you force a starving man to live in a place where food cannot grow, and if you prevent him from taking a job that would give him the money he needs to buy food, you have forced him to starve just as surely as if you had burned his crops and slaughtered his livestock.

      The fact that in reality some immigrants aren’t starving but still remain destitute or much poorer than they otherwise would be if they were allowed to work in a different country only changes the magnitudes involved. There is no substantial difference. Let’s say Marvin earns enough to consume 2000 calories a day but can’t even earn enough to live in a home with running water, because he lives in a country where the economic institutions can’t put him to work effectively. There’s another country where his skills could in fact earn him enough to consume 2000 calories a day and rent a home with running water. The fact that he isn’t starving in this scenario doesn’t affect the fact that immigration restrictions keep him living in a life of poverty. We have harmed non-Starving Marvin just as surely as we would have if we broke the pipes running to someone’s house. Preventing one human being from willingly employing another human being is a harm to them both.

      1. Yes, the Starving Marvin hypothetical does illustrate a way to think about harm. But should we create a version of that hypothetical scenario that more closely matches the real world, to avoid misleading ourselves?

        Should we say there are many marketplaces (nations), not just one? And that most, if not all, of the most desirable marketplaces are fenced off and patrolled by security guards? Refusing entry to our particular marketplace, by itself, does not force Marvin to starve; it denies him one of the possible sources of relief.

        And if Marvin is refused entry at all fences, the system of fences collectively would ALLOW (not force) him to starve. So yes, for Marvin and others like him, the final result of that system is the same as if we or other people deliberately destroyed all his food.

        But that would not be the full picture: There is still the option of sending various kinds of aid from one or more marketplaces to Marvin, without him having to migrate at all. However, standing right outside the front doors of a marketplace would have one big advantage: Marvin’s plight would be much more immediate and visible to people, so he would have a better chance of gaining sympathy and receiving aid.

        Marvin’s need for aid would be a easily tolerable burden. However, if huge numbers of Marvins were allowed to simultaneously come to the same marketplace, then perhaps that would create special problems.

        Marvin might or might not successfully find a way to employ himself at a marketplace. And there are people already standing around, inside and outside all marketplaces, who would like to get a job there.

        If I continue this process, I could flesh out a hypothetical situation that is more analogous to the actual situation. Wouldn’t that be a superior hypothetical compared to the very simple one?

        1. “Refusing entry to our particular marketplace, by itself, does not force Marvin to starve; it denies him one of the possible sources of relief.”

          There is no obligation on an individual merchant to sell Marvin what he needs to survive. But if one merchant were to try to ban other merchants from selling Marvin things that they are perfectly willing to sell to him, we would generally acknowledge this as wrong. That merchant’s demanded ban would force Marvin to starve and the merchant(s) who want to trade with him to go without his business.

          You are right to say that as a general rule there is no obligation on us to help strangers, and it would be difficult to call our refusal to help them tantamount to “forcing” them to starve. But similarly we have an obligation to not interfere with the business of other strangers who want to trade with or help other strangers. When we interfere with their business and prevent willing merchants from selling food to starving people, then absolutely yes, we are forcing people to starve.

          “If I continue this process, I could flesh out a hypothetical situation that is more analogous to the actual situation. Wouldn’t that be a superior hypothetical compared to the very simple one?”

          When thinking about a specific issue, hypotheticals allow us to test the limits of our thinking. If one moral rule applies for one type of situation, but not for other situations, we need to understand why, and hypotheticals help us test that thinking.

          If you make a hypothetical that is exactly analogous to the actual situation, then you don’t need a hypothetical. We can discuss the actual situation. The reason Starving Marvin is compelling is because it highlights a very simple issue: why do we insist on banning certain people from trading with other certain people? And why do we deny that such a ban constitutes coercion and an active harm towards other people?

  2. I think the point that the comparison of immigrant performance should be to how they would have achieved in their native countries is excellent. It is the kind of factoid that can be used in conversations with immigration opponents to deflect the argument that immigrants “bring down” receiving nations performance levels.

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