Nativist backlash

The term nativist backlash is a shorthand for a general second-order phenomenon that may arise as a result of migration: natives see the huge amounts of migration and its consequences, and this turns them against migration and migrants.

The key feature of nativist backlash that distinguishes it from general sentiment against migrants or migration is that nativist backlash refers to an increase in such sentiment due to a liberalization of migration policy. The increase may be tied specifically to the way things play out.

Dependence on the path and reasons for migration liberalization

In an Open Borders Action Group post comment, Nathan Smith has highlighted how the way nativist backlash occurs depends not only on the way migration is liberalized but also the reasons that liberalization happened in the first place. He argues that liberalization that happens because people genuinely accepted the arguments in favor of a right to migrate would be more robust than liberalization that happens through executive or judicial fiat, or because people sign on to migration liberalization due to incorrectly optimistic beliefs about the effects of migration on their well-being (this ties in to Vipul Naik’s post on convincing people to sustainably support migration liberalization).

The trouble with “nativist backlash” as a standalone topic, is that a nativist backlash against open borders seems to presuppose that open borders is somehow established first. But for open borders to be established, something major would have to change in the policymaking process and/or public opinion. And whatever that change was, would presumably affect the likelihood and nature of any nativist backlash.

If open borders were established based on false advertising that it wasn’t really radical and wouldn’t make that much difference, then there would doubtless be a nativist backlash. Likewise if it were established by some sort of presidential and judicial fiat without popular buy-in. But if open borders came about because large majorities were persuaded that people have a natural right to migrate and it’s unjust to imprison them in the country of their birth, then people might be willing to accept the drastic consequences of their moral epiphanies.

So any claim that “open borders will inevitably provoke a nativist backlash” just seems ill formulated. One first needs a scenario by which open borders is established. Then one could assess the probability and likely character of a nativist backlash, but it would be different for every open borders scenario.

The types of nativist backlash

Nativist backlash can be manifested in many different ways, just like general sentiment against migration and migrants:

  • Political/policy backlash, manifested in a rollback of immigration liberalization, possibly to the previous levels, or even stricter.
  • Backlash expressed through domestic policy, such as rollback of rights for immigrants.
  • Backlash in the private, non-political sphere, such as increase in violence or discrimination against migrants and foreigners.

Significance of nativist backlash

  • As a braking mechanism to migration liberalization in any slippery slope to open borders. This could be a feature or a bug; see the next point.
  • As a reason for caution about the path of migration liberalization (i.e., the choice of slippery slope to open borders). The wrong approach to migration liberalization can cause a nativist backlash that not only reverses the short-term gains but also makes future migration liberalization harder. On the other hand, nativist backlash, insofar as it provides a natural braking mechanism should migration liberalization prove to be a bad thing, can also be used as an argument for freer experimentation with migration liberalization.
  • As a fundamental limit on the extent to which borders can be opened.

Previous discussions of nativist backlash

Economist Tyler Cowen, a sympathetic critic of open borders, discussed nativist backlash in the context of policy in Switzerland towards open borders. In his blog post The Swiss vote for immigration curbs: how much immigration is possible without a backlash?, he posits that nativist backlash may impose fundamental limits on the share of a country’s population that can be foreign-born, and also stresses that it is a reason for caution about the path to liberalization. Cowen:

In my view immigration has gone well for Switzerland, both economically and culturally, and I am sorry to see this happen, even apart from the fact that it may cause a crisis in their relations with the European Union. That said, you can take 27% as a kind of benchmark for the limits of immigration in most or all of today’s wealthy countries. I believe that as you approach a number in that range, you get a backlash.

That number will be higher when there is a frontier or a shortage of labor. Those conditions do not generally hold in today’s wealthy countries. Adam Ozimek reproduces data on immigration as a flow and stock relative to citizens, and as a stock Switzerland was third highest in the world with Luxembourg at over 32% and Israel over 27%. I would say Israel does not count as their flows are largely a religious/ethnic unification from the former Soviet Union, in part with the purpose of protecting them against other potential population flows, to put it diplomatically.

The United States is 12th on the list with 12.1% foreign-born. Referring to the flow of immigrants, Adam notes:

Instead of 1 million immigrants a year, these numbers suggest we could be letting in as many as 3 million a year and we would still not rank in the top 5.

And there I think you have the relevant range for what a more liberal immigration policy would look like or could look like. I wonder by the way if for some reason small countries have an easier time swallowing high levels of migration, politically or culturally speaking, than do big countries. That’s counterintuitive, but it’s what Adam’s tables seem to be suggesting. (Is it because the small country is more culturally unified and thus somehow more secure?) If you look at the top twelve countries in terms of receiving a flow of immigrants, only Spain is significantly above the 20 million population mark, with countries such as Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand prominent (and I suspect a more recent measurement would boot Spain off this list altogether). That would narrow the range of potential immigration increases even further for the United States.

One of my objections to the open borders idea is that I think it would be negative for sustainable, actually realized flows of immigration.

In a blog post responding to Cowen, economist Bryan Caplan takes issue with Cowen’s analysis:

But there’s a major problem with Tyler’s story: Swiss anti-immigration voting was highest in the places with the least immigrants!  This is no fluke.  In the U.S., anti-immigration sentiment is highest in the states with the least immigration – even if you assume that 100% of immigrants are pro-immigration.

The natural inference to draw, then, is the opposite of Tyler’s: The main hurdle to further immigration is insufficient immigration.  If countries could just get over the hump of status quo bias, anti-immigration attitudes would become as socially unacceptable as domestic racism.  Instead of coddling nativism with gradualism, we can, should, and must peacefully destroy nativism with abolitionism.

Other discussions of nativist backlash

Economist Paul Collier has discussed nativist backlash in his book Exodus and elsewhere.

Ryan Cooper cited nativist backlash as imposing a fundamental limit on how far migration liberalization could go in an article titled Why a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy (also discussed in the Open Borders Action Group here). Cooper:

What air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes. That is a truly lamentable fact, but it’s also undeniable. Even extremely decent, cosmopolitan nations struggle mightily to incorporate a significant uptick in immigration.

That is the legacy of nationalism, which produced many of the greatest evils of the 20th century and is also a key foundation of the modern nation-state. As much as it devils libertarians, as yet no other human institution has proven itself capable of operating a modern economy. The biggest experiment in post-national economics thus far, the eurozone, has been a cataclysmic disaster.

This page, originally published as a placeholder on March 16, 2012 (the date of the site’s launch) was properly created in August 2015 by Vipul Naik. Some of the discussion that served as input for the creation of the newly structured page can be found in this Open Borders Action Group post.

"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan