On immigration and social stability


This is kind of a response to this part of the recent never-Trump essay by Scott Alexander, plus similar ideas I have heard elsewhere 1.

The one place where Clinton is higher-variance than Trump is immigration. Clinton does not explicitly support open borders, but given her election on a pro-immigration platform and the massive anti-Trump immigration backlash that seems to be materializing, it’s easy to see her moving in that direction. If you believe that immigrants can import the less-effective institutions of their home countries, …. or cause ethnic fractionalization that replaces sustainable democratic politics with ethnic coalition-building (unlike the totally-not-ethnic-coalition-based politics of today, apparently?), that could potentially make the world less functional and prevent useful technologies from being deployed.

In a later post I will deal with the assertion that Clinton may substantially expand immigration in a way that is radically different than the status quo (I think that she seems to pretty much want immigration policy kept as-is with perhaps more visas given to refugees).

In this post I will discuss why immigration at anything close to current levels for the most part has not seriously damaged the functioning of society, and if major policy mistakes are not made immigration will not be likely to pose a substantial risk to social stability in the United States.

The caveat is that this is only true as long as a reasonable effort is made to avoid a marginalized underclass, like has plagued immigration in Europe. Fortunately, avoiding the underclass risk has been the one thing that the United States has been reasonably good at avoiding with immigration in the past. Issues that have been often taken as severe negatives of immigration, like multiculturalism are actually relatively neutral to positive for the U.S and are necessary for integrating the immigrant populations into the broader U.S society. And if anything Trump’s proposals are much more likely to bring the country closer to the dangerous marginalized underclass situation.

A 2010 paper by Kesler et. al, Does Immigration Erode Social Capital? The Conditional Effects of Immigration-Generated Diversity on Trust, Membership, and Participation across 19 Countries, 1981–2000 published in the Canadian Journal of Political Science 2, looked into the effect that immigration has had on social stability as measured by a number of factors. They found that whether immigration damages social stability of the host country is very conditional on how the host country handles other policy issues relating to immigration. In some cases immigration can cause damage to social stability, but in other cases it can improve it. Multiculturalism and pluralism towards ethnic minorities actually is strongly determinative in preserving social stability in the face of immigration. A strong economic safety net is also very predictive of the effect that immigrants will have on society with a stronger safety net correlated  with more social stability.

It is worth noting here that, despite the stereotype, the population of the United States is actually, by opinion polls and other metrics, more tolerant and more pluralist than most of Europe. This is discussed in a recent article 3 in The Economist.


This means that the U.S is in the zone where immigrants will tend to be integrated into the broader society instead of excluded, and thus immigration will be a boon for society and social stability.

Herreros et. al. in a paper titled Social Trust, Social Capital and Perceptions of Immigration published in the journal Political Studies 4 , contends that a lot of the perceived negative effects that immigration can have on social capital in many cases are due to exogenousity issues.  Namely, immigrants tend to 1) have low social capital, and 2) migrate to countries where social trust and social capital are high. The effects on the social trust and social capital of natives in the host countries is very low, and the social trust and social capital of the immigrants could actually increase.

The evidence that multiculturalism is inherently negative is weak.

Cuban restaurant
Photo via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/rTzhkF by Phillip Pessar under CC BY licence

Let’s look at some of the ways that immigrants can change the surrounding culture, such as bilingualism, on all of natives, immigrants, and society. Immigration has the potential to create an economic advantage to becoming bilingual — ie. the immigration creates a Spanish speaking consumer base, and businesses that can sell to it can profit from its existence. However, there is no reason to suspect that this is a zero sum result that comes at the cost of the typical non-immigrant. The Spanish language market would not exist were it not for immigration. It therefore creates new value that can be obtained by the bilingual, but does not net destroy value. Additionally, the economic value of being a native speaker of English also increases, due to that skill becoming less common proportionally in the population, and due to possible economic uses of that skill.

A 1997 paper  The economics of multilingualism: Overview and analytical framework published in the Annual review of applied linguistics  5 suggests that bilingualism is likely to have positive net economic effects over monolingualism. However, the authors report that data on the economy-wide effects of multilingualism are less well studied than individual scale effects on income.For countries that have a history of multilingualism, the administrative and educational costs produced as a result multilingualism are material but not prohibitive. This was estimated  at approximately 0.5 percent of GDP for Switzerland (where four languages are commonly spoken).  Data of this kind for the United States tends to be scarce.

Bilingualism produces a large benefit for personal earnings for both immigrants and non-immigrants across multiple countries, including the United States according to the paper The endogeneity between language and earnings: International analyses published in the Journal of Labor Economics 6.  The effect is stronger for immigrants who acquire the language dominant in the country they migrate to, than it is for non-immigrants who acquire a second language.

Next let’s look at political institutions. One of the models that I think can best predict the impacts that immigrants will have on political institutions is the selectorate model of politics, developed by Mesquita et. al. in their academic book The Logic of Political Survival and in their popular book The Dictator’s Handbook. The Logic of Political Survival contains the discussion of immigration, but The Dictator’s Handbook is very recommended. In this model, there is a tension between a politician’s choice to provide broad-based services that benefit most of the population, and private goods that benefit the supporters of the politician. The same money can’t be used for both. Rulers in both dictatorships and democracies need to get support from others. The main difference in political systems is the number of people in the winning coalition of supporters that the politician needs to remain in power 7 . The cost of providing private goods scales with the number of people in the winning coalition and the cost of providing public goods scales with the size of the total population of the country. This means large coalition governments (ie. well-functioning democracies) are much more likely to spend on public goods than small coalition governments (ie. dictatorships).

Things become interesting when you add immigrants to this model. If you have a large number of immigrants that are excluded from effective political participation, the winning coalition size as a percent of the population declines, and thus politicians become more likely to allocate resources to economically inefficient private goods and the overall functioning of political institutions is damaged. However, if it is relatively easy for immigrants to gain voting rights, the winning coalition size (in raw numbers) increases, and thus the government can be predicted to become better functioning.

Again this is a repeat of the general rule of avoiding excluded underclasses of immigrants. In my opinion, this is one place where the U.S has failed with new immigrants, but the existence of jus soli citizenship in America has reduced this issue with the children of immigrants


Continue reading “On immigration and social stability”

  1. Really, give it a read. Other than a few quibbles it’s a very good essay. Regular link at http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/09/28/ssc-endorses-clinton-johnson-or-stein/ Archival link at http://archive.is/UtoYX
  2. Kesler, Christel, and Irene Bloemraad. “Does immigration erode social capital? The conditional effects of immigration-generated diversity on trust, membership, and participation across 19 countries, 1981–2000.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 43, no. 02 (2010): 319-347.
  3.  Drawbridges up published Jul 30th 2016
  4. Herreros, Francisco, and Henar Criado. “Social trust, social capital and perceptions of immigration.” Political Studies 57, no. 2 (2009): 337-355.
  5. Grin, F., & Vaillancourt, F. (1997). The economics of multilingualism: Overview and analytical framework. Annual review of applied linguistics,17, 43–65.
  6. Chiswick, B. R., & Miller, P. W. (1995). The endogeneity between language and earnings: Inter-national analyses. Journal of labor economics, 246–288.
  7. It is worth noting that Mesquita et. al do not mean “coalition” in the sense of parliamentary coalition but instead means the set of supporters that the politician needs to win over. In a democracy, this can come close to the set of voters needed to win an election, although factors such as affinity voting can attenuate this

Redesigning the Blog

I’ve reopened this blog with a new design and I am gradually going to move over some of the old posts from the old website. I decided to start fresh because the method I was using of keeping the old posts in a separate archive blog was getting cumbersome, and because I have moved some of my shorter, microblog-type content over to my Tumblr page https://theopjones.tumblr.com/