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What can we reasonably ask?

Oliver Kamm has stated in plain English something which I previously felt to be an uncharitable straw man on my part: “A central reason I count myself a liberal… is that I don’t wish ethnic, cultural and religious minorities to feel they must conform to my way of life. Common citizenship under the rule of law is what a constitutional society offers, and is all that it can reasonably require.” [emphasis my own]

As a summary of what liberals believe it is remarkably parsimonious, with great explanatory power. When the concept of a country is reduced to ‘people who happen to live on the same landmass’, it follows quite naturally that demands for integration are viewed as morally wrong; that “cajoling and scolding, rather than welcoming with gratitude, those who make their home here is no part of a civilised politics”. When the state rather than the people is the fundamental unit of society, it is entirely unsurprising that Bryan Caplan (1) answers those who wish for a degree of cultural preservation with the statement “you have no right to your culture”, stating that they possess instead “every right to compete in the cultural marketplace”.

And it also highlights the fundamental misunderstanding of human nature at the core of much of liberal politics. The problem, in a nutshell, is that people are sticky. They are slow to change, and often have no desire to do so. In this case, both current residents of a country and new arrivals will often wish to preserve their culture (2). In such a framework, arguing against the deployment of the state (whether in integration or selection of immigrants) for the purpose of cultural preservation is not neutral; a policy of high migration and low requirements on integration are instead a deployment of the state to change culture in an unguided fashion. When people are slow to change, the “cultural marketplace” envisaged by Caplan is simply a function of the size of different groups, and when the borders are relatively open the clear certainty is that the current cultural majority will not be so for long.

It is this cultural shift that undermines Kamm’s argument. The assertion of borders and the right to select the people who will become fellow citizens, as Walzer writes, “serves to defend the liberty and welfare, the politics and culture of a group of people committed to one another and to their common life”. The idea that the current population of the state have, at most, only as much right as any other global resident to shape its future, is a liberalism at odds with the opinions of a voting population nominally given some say in policy. When a degree of cultural preservation is desired, then integration is necessary.

A common liberal response to this line of reasoning is to dispute the right of preservation, with the two arguments most often offered consisting of the fundamental impossibility of stasis, and the question of whether such a thing as culture exists in the first place. The second can be neatly dispatched of; I challenge the reader to spend a year living in any other country worldwide, and to return with the conclusion that it does not. A smarter version of the critique runs (roughly) that while group differences may exist, as every individual identifies to a greater or lesser extent with this national character, or takes different parts of the whole, there is no single British culture that we can ask people to integrate with. It is merely a myth that cultures exist, or are meaningful. There is more variation within a group of people than there is without it.

There is no such thing as the wood; there is merely a collection of trees.

The preservationist response could at this point be to note that it is a little rich for the current generation of liberals to stand hands outstretched asking what the British values we aim to preserve are, when they are the inheritors of a grand project to remove precisely those constraints upon behaviour in the pursuit of utopia. But never mind. The better response is that the norms, beliefs, values, and practices held by the people composing a society do matter, and that even if we believe that these are held around the globe, the frequency with which they are distributed is something unique to each culture.

The first argument — that preservation is impossible — is more compelling but still ultimately flawed. Of course every society changes over time; the introduction of new technologies, the interplay of social trends, even the replacement of the old guard by the next generation leads to change. Populations are dynamic, as are people. But this is not to say — as Caplan does — that there is no difference between these changes and that induced by the mass importation of another culture. The first contains a thread of continuity; it matters not only because it allows a relationship with one’s past and ancestors — and in turn allows us to be sure that we will bequeath to a culture recognisable to our own for at least a short time the fruits of our efforts (3) — but because the changes in the first case are the result of how that society chose to react to the circumstances facing it. It carries within itself the seed of what went before, and it is a nonsense to pretend otherwise. The fundamental flaw in the reasoning is once again the conflation or confusion of within and between group variation, in this case over a period of time; while each group varies internally, the evolution is continuous. The differences across groups remain over time precisely because of the differences in cultural structure.

I believe that people have the right to preserve these differences if so desired; the land, the structures upon it, and the cultural institutions that govern life within it form their inheritance (4). And I would suggest, bluntly, that we do want to preserve them. Britain is a desirable country in which to live precisely because of a culture which allows people to thrive economically and socially. Replacing it with the result of Caplan’s cultural marketplace under a regime of open borders would be at best deleterious to these qualities, and at worst outright destructive.

I suspect also that Kamm would agree that a degree of preservation is desirable. When he argues that all we can offer and ask are the rights and fulfilment of the responsibilities of citizenship, he neglects to observe that these are themselves a function of the extant culture of these islands. If we were to move tomorrow a sufficient number of socially conservative migrants to the United Kingdom, how long would it be before cultural norms and practices shifted? How much longer before the rights and responsibilities of citizenship changed? Kamm’s requirement that immigrants live within our laws is meaningless; laws are set according to democratic process, and democratic process is a function of culture. The minimalist vision of the state smuggles in with it an unspoken assumption that at their core everyone is a good British liberal simply waiting to have that fact revealed to them.

And under the regime as currently operated, this may even be partly true. Many of those who arrive do integrate, and for Kamm advocating the twin virtues of open borders and multiculturalism seems partly to be a logical extension of this fact. It is also a beautiful illustration of the Lucas critique; the idea that you cannot simply extrapolate outcomes observed under one policy regime to the outcomes observed after you make a dramatic change. Integration works to the extent it does because of three factors; the efforts of the state towards ensuring assimilation, the pressure resulting from immersion into into a new society, and the selection of those able to come here in the first place. The larger the flow of new arrivals, the less operative the second two become, and the more we rely upon the state to enforce it.

If liberals wish to preserve the vision of the nation as nothing more than the legal construct of citizenship, with attendant rights and (very minimal) obligations, then the construction of citizenship must itself be designed to limit change unless it is to become self-defeating; the question of who is a citizen becomes critical to the success of the project. In other words, the construction Kamm deploys conceals an enormous amount of integration and attendant cajoling necessary to preserve itself.

Kamm believes British immigration policy is too onerous, decrying checks and bureaucracy as adding little more than inconvenience to the process. But in the absence of state efforts towards assimilation or strong selection for new arrivals who are culturally close to the current population, these frictions which act to reduce the flow are what allows the system to come close to a cultural equilibrium; a small and continuous flow can arrive and be absorbed into the extant culture. A large burst cannot, resulting in the development of cultural enclaves and the absence of the pressure to integrate which is key to the survival of the minimalist vision. In other words, while presented as part of a case for generous and open borders, the argument against state-backed integration lends itself to an immigration regime which is highly restrictive; the more restrained the state is in attempting to preserve culture, the smaller the flow must be if we wish to do it naturally (5).

Kamm, at some level, surely understands this. He is, after all, a friend and defender of Israel as a “a guarantor that Jews will have a refuge in future”, who believes that “it has a right to be a sovereign, independent, Jewish state”. Does he truly believe that if Israel were to open its borders to the neighbouring states that wish nothing more than to remove it from the map that no effort at integration would be needed? That it would continue to be these things (6)?When he writes that “free society depends on criticism, including derision and mockery, so that bad ideas… perish”, does this exclude ‘cajoling’ in the service of cultural ideas? Does a man who views Israel-Palestine as “a conflict of two legitimate competing nationalisms” believe that those nationalisms must exclude any cultural element? That the stones and bullets are merely the continuation of disputes over optimal taxation by other means?

An immigration policy which aims to a degree at the preservation of culture is not only legitimate, but essential for preserving the vision of society Kamm presents. In arguing against efforts for integration while maintaining that high flows of immigration are desirable under a regime of common citizenship, he sets out an argument which is ultimately self-defeating; the liberal society he espouses is the result of cultural norms which would themselves need to be preserved.

In the conclusion to his essay, Kamm quotes Michael Oakeshott describing “the rationalist’s tendency of ‘finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself'”, using the words to describe those who would push for greater integration. It is interesting that he could do so while displaying so little understanding of why his political opponents may disagree with him.

Header image courtesy of “FotoGuy 49057”, used under a creative commons license.

  1. Author of “Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration”
  2. As Kamm notes elsewhere, Abram Leon’s belief that “national-cultural and linguistic antagonisms are only manifestations of the economic antagonism created by capitalism. With the disappearance of capitalism, the national problem will lose all acuteness” is “fanciful”; “it’s a staple of far-left groups who care nothing for the stubborn attachments of real people to cultural, linguistic, and national traditions”. Quite.
  3. “People whose lives are shaped within a certain culture have an interest not only in living their own life within it, but also in the culture’s continued existence throughout historical time. For its disappearance means the loss of their endeavor, and everything that gave meaning to this endeavor.” – Chaim Gans, Nationalism and Immigration (1998)
  4. As Miller notes, this inheritance goes beyond the economic; “Living on and shaping a piece of land means not only increasing its value in an economic sense, but also (typically) endowing it with meaning.”
  5. The alternative is pre-filtering. We cannot assume that every would-be immigrant holds the values Kamm wishes the state to espouse because they manifestly do not, nor that their children will naturally come to do so regardless of their parenting. What we can note is that citizens of some countries are a good deal easier to absorb culturally than others. For citizens of Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, there is almost no adjustment required. For France, Spain, and Italy, very little at all. I suspect, however, that a regime based on cultural compatibility would not appeal to Kamm.
  6. It is of course possible that he wouldn’t mind; writing elsewhere Kamm states that “The interest of the state in the ethnic, creedal and linguistic composition of its citizens should be exactly none. Its sole concern is common citizenship under the rule of law. This ought to be axiomatic”. It’s simply that this would seem to me to be in conflict with his earlier statements.