Attitudes to immigration: It’s not the economy stupid

Previously I wrote about the effect of migration on wages in Australia. However just because lots of skilled migrants help make poor people better off does not mean we should automatically allow more migration. The pointy-heads should only have so much sway.

An analysis of European social attitudes found concerns over “compositional amenities” (religion, language and culture) was more relevant by a factor of 3 to 5 compared to wages and taxes as to whether more or fewer immigrants should be allowed:

“Our empirical analysis leads to three main conclusions. First, we find that attitudes to immigration – expressed by the answer to a question of whether more or fewer immigrants from certain source countries should be permitted to enter, for example – reflect a combination of concerns over compositional amenities and the direct economic impacts of immigration on wages and taxes. Second, we find that the strength of the concerns that people express over the two channels are positively correlated. This means that studies that focus exclusively on one factor or the other capture a reasonable share of the variation in attitudes for or against increased immigration. Our third conclusion is that concerns over compositional amenities are substantially more important than concerns over the impacts on wages and taxes. Specifically, variation in concerns over compositional amenities explain 3-5 times more of the individual-specific variation in answers to the question of whether more or fewer immigrants should be permitted to enter than does variation in concerns over wages and taxes.”

I read this as financial self-interest being trumped by social self-interest. The overall trend shouldn’t be a surprise yet the magnitude does stand out.

I would be surprised if the magnitude of the findings were the same for Australia. A well established policy of multiculturalism has probably softened attitudes to social and cultural practices of ethnic communities. I also think we tend to view immigration more through the labour market than European attitudes, given different historical contexts.

Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss these non-monetary concerns in Australia. There is undoubtedly a small, disaffected minority who are left out of the conversation on migration amongst policy-makers. For advocates of greater migration, including both political parties, this raises important questions. Away from taxes, wages and contributions to growth, how can public advocacy engage with concerns about religion, language and culture?

While ignorant discussion can lead to frustration, Europe offers lessons in the prolonged silence from the political elite on the non-financial effects of large immigration flows. Across multiple European countries, a small minority has grown into a fully formed political movement. A genuine groundswell of support is threatening established institutions. This is almost always viewed as a negative by dominant political interests but once established, extremely hard to counter.

I’d love to see more politicians talking about language, religion and culture in relation to multiculturalism in a manner which befits Australian society. Populism is to be generally avoided, but even a little bit along the way can help sustain a more inclusive public discussion. While this is complicated, nuanced and the risk of backlash high, the long-term implications cannot be understated.

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