First Principles May 2006

The Benefits of Brutality

Why America's immigration outlook—current grumblings notwithstanding—remains so much healthier than Europe's

Concern over immigration comes and goes in this nation of immigrants. Currently, it is on the rise. That is surprising, and a little worrying, because alarm over the issue is normally linked to the business cycle. The economy right now is pretty strong, so one wonders where attitudes about immigration will go when that next changes, and unemployment starts increasing. There is good news, though. We know what deep hostility to immigration looks like—hostility of the sort that can lead to the crippling of economies and the slow decline of nations. It looks like Europe. American attitudes have an awfully long way to go before they reach that point, and for many reasons—some obvious, some less so—they seem unlikely to get there.

Even when it peaks, resentment of immigrants is milder here, and more guardedly expressed. A subtler but equally important difference: in America, immigration policy divides and confuses the political parties, separating liberals from liberals, and conservatives from conservatives; in Europe, by contrast, it tends to unite the political tribes behind hardened positions. Both of these differences make America a healthier place—though the underlying reasons for America’s better health might be difficult for some to accept.

In all rich countries, immigration arouses three main complaints. First, immigrants lower the wages of competing domestic workers. The incumbents are likely to object to this, especially if their wages are already under pressure for other reasons (as they are everywhere, because of trade and, above all, labor-saving technology). Second, immigration can impose a fiscal burden—the costs of health care and welfare payments for immigrants, schooling for their children, and so on. So taxpayers are likely to complain too, if this burden seems large. Third, concentrated immigration can arouse fears that the local culture will be overwhelmed. Natives press this last complaint far more vigorously, of course, if they fear (as many Europeans now do) that immigrant communities may actually harbor enemies of the host country.

On the other side, immigration finds two main sources of support. First, if the conditions are right, broad economic benefits flow in alongside the immigrants (at the low-skill end, that means cheaper food, basic manufactured goods, and services; at the high-skill end, lower prices and faster innovation as well). Second, most people are instinctively compassionate toward people willing to uproot themselves in order to improve their prospects and those of their families. Both of these ideas carry much greater force in America than in Europe. Whether one is talking about menial jobs that Americans won’t do, or the proliferating technical and scientific jobs that Americans alone can’t fill, the economic case for immigration is well understood. As for the compassionate instinct to identify with immigrants, that is woven into the country’s history as a central part of the collective memory.

Even so, on a narrow calculation of political interests, the contending American ideologies are pulled both ways. Conservatives are attentive to immigration’s broader economic benefits—partly, one imagines, because these are disproportionately captured by shareholders, entrepreneurs, and high-wage workers (by conservative voters, in other words). On the other hand, they are also aware of immigration’s potential fiscal costs—which are disproportionately borne by the more prosperous taxpayers.

Liberals are no less conflicted. If they are more receptive than conservatives to arguments rooted in compassion for the masses huddled outside America’s borders, they are also more disturbed by immigration’s effects on the wages of blue-collar Americans. As for cultural anxiety, and outright prejudice for that matter, well, those doubtless influence both Right and Left. All in all, both political parties are at war with themselves over immigration, and that tension tends to blunt the most hostile feelings within each.

Compare this with Europe, where the economic and social contexts are both very different. Europe’s economies struggle much more than America’s to find work for low-skilled immigrants. High mandatory minimum wages, far-reaching “employment-protection” laws (a misnomer, since they discourage hiring), and generous welfare systems result in high unemployment among immigrants. The broader economic benefits of immigration are therefore less apparent; the bad fiscal consequences are by the same token more apparent; and the difficulty of assimilating immigrants and their children into mainstream society is far greater than it otherwise would be. All of this stands in contrast to the United States.

In the aggregate, these differences strengthen European opposition to immigration. Just as important, they allow that opposition to be more effectively expressed. Why? Because the European Right is much less divided on the subject than its American counterpart. Fewer economic benefits, a bigger fiscal burden, and larger anxieties about immigrants’ ability to assimilate all push to align the Right behind tighter restrictions on immigration. And this was true even before fundamentalist Islam engaged voters’ attention.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic.

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