Culture Wars and Immigration

A common objection to immigration in the 21st century is an appeal to the protection of national culture. Letting more immigrants into a country, according to the cultural objection, would have the undesired effect of changing the cultural landscape and social customs of the destination country.


Consider the rhetoric of the most high‐​profile and outspoken skeptics of immigration across the Western world today. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK’s anti‐​EU party UKIP blamed immigrants for making parts of the UK “unrecognizable” and transforming it into “a foreign land.” Not to be outdone, Donald Trump controversially opined in 2018 that European immigrants were eroding the cultural “fabric of Europe,” a state of affairs he considers “a very negative thing.” Germany’s third‐​largest political party, the right‐​wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), explicitly campaigns on an anti‐​Islamic political platform that routinely fans the flames regarding how Islamic migrants pose a threat to the nation’s traditional Christian values.


The common theme across this vitriolic resistance to immigrants rests on an easy premise and leads to a straightforward conclusion. We in the developed world are blessed with a national culture that encapsulates economically productive and peaceful sociocultural and religious values. If we hold the last vestiges of modern civilization dear, then common sense dictates we strive at all costs to preserve it from bad foreigners bringing crime, laziness, and stupidity. In his book The Empty Cradle, the conservative policy journalist Philip Longman summarizes this alleged threat aptly, as he laments the trend of falling birth rates in the developed world:


So where will the children of the future come from? Increasingly they will come from people who are at odds with the modern world. Such a trend, if sustained, could drive human culture off its current market‐​driven, individualistic, modernist course, gradually creating an anti‐​market culture dominated by fundamentalism—a new Dark Ages.


Such rhetoric is rampant in the developed world because the rules of democratic politics make it a politically viable strategy for politicians to play to nativist sentiments, while the very people that are being marginalized—foreigners—are wholly incapable of fighting back at the ballot box.


The Morality of Immigration


The premise underlying these grievances is that natives possess an inherent right to the preservation of their own cultures. But is it justified? Consider the Starving Marvin parable by the philosopher Michael Huemer.


In the parable, two scenarios are considered. In the first, Marvin is starving, malnourished, and in need of food. Through my refusal to share my food with Marvin, he dies. One might say that such an act was morally questionable, but certainly less morally culpable than actively murdering Marvin.


In the second scenario, Marvin seeks to enter a busy marketplace to work for food. This time, I stand in his way, point a gun at him, and demand that he leave because his presence might influence the marketplace’s culture differently. Again, Marvin starves to death.


What is the difference between both scenarios? In the first, Marvin’s death is the consequence of me turning a blind eye and failing to act. In the second case however, not only do I fail to assist Marvin, I actively take a step to restrict his freedom of movement through the threat of violence. By doing so, I deprive him of the opportunity to save himself from starvation. In other words, I may not have been responsible for Marvin’s original circumstances, but I have undoubtedly caused his death in the second, and surely be said to have played an active hand in killing him.


This parable parallels the realities of modern‐​day government immigration policies. Immigrants from poor nations who wish to pursue better economic opportunities in rich nations are forcibly restricted from doing so. Rich, developed nations cannot be said to be responsible for conditions of abject poverty in the developing world, but their immigration policies restrict the fundamental liberty of movement of the poorest of the world, keeping them from pursuing a better economic destiny. As a result, the poorest in the world are trapped in their place of birth with nowhere to go.


The cultural objection to immigration falls flat. Just as it is not permissible to forcibly restrict Marvin on the grounds of protecting the cultural status quo, it’s hard to imagine why restrictive government immigration laws can be justified on the same basis.


Do Natives Really Want to Protect Local Culture?


There are many other problems with the cultural objection to immigration. For one, the desire to protect culture is a “principle” that is highly arbitrary and inconsistently applied in public policy. Even if one concedes that governments have an onus to protect prevailing cultures, this argument, if taken to its logical extent, could be conveniently applied to justify all forms of government interventionism.


For instance, the export of western Hollywood media in the age of globalization has undoubtedly transferred liberal cultural attitudes into the rest of the world, with a significant influence on how people think of social issues such as racial and gender equality, gay marriage, or drug consumption. Yet, immigration restrictionists are not clamoring for bans and regulations on international media. Neither are they vehemently demanding clampdowns on foreign cuisines, languages, fashion, or literature. After all, such cultural imports irreversibly change the sociocultural mores of the destination country. Obviously, cultural revolutions are not erupting overnight. But there is no denying the progressive direction toward which social attitudes are moving in countries that are open to economic globalization. Which raises the question: If our national cultures are so important to preserve, why aren’t voters and governments already up in arms to restrict the myriad of external, foreign influences?


There is No One “National Culture”


Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash


Furthermore, while immigration restrictionists can all agree they want to preserve some vague notion of “national culture,” they will hardly be likely to come to an agreement on what exactly that will entail. Mainstream politics tend to refer to ethnicities and religious communities as homogeneous blocs, but that overlooks the heterogeneous reality that these groups tend to be internally rife with disagreements on the right way of life or what is best for their broader community.


For instance, Sunni and Shia Muslims have deep‐​seated divisions on the foundational practices and tenets of their religion going back centuries, differing on what the “right” reading of their religious history is. Historically marginalized groups like black Americans or Aboriginal Australians have strong disagreements within their own communities on how exactly reparations should be made, or what of their ethnic cultures should be preserved. Irish Protestants and Catholics disagree about a lot, including on the right way to integrate into mainstream British society (or not at all).


Pinning down the definition of a “national culture” would amount to a notoriously complex exercise, if not an impossible one. An immigration bureau with a mandate to “protect culture” would be placed in charge of arbitrarily selecting the types of religions, political traditions, social customs and ethnicities that are deemed worthy (local) or unworthy (foreign) for cultural preservation, opening the door to all kinds of political favoritism and rent‐​seeking opportunism.


Cultural beliefs are simply ideas that people hold in their heads. This means that the cultural objection to immigration is essentially a state‐​enforced effort to police ideas. If ideas cannot flow freely, then such a society cannot be said to be free. Protecting a society’s culture by blocking foreigners amounts to a prejudiced attempt to impede different ideas while favouring existing ones.


Immigration has a Neutral to Positive Impact on Domestic Culture


Finally, while it is undeniably true that immigrants influence the cultures of the area that they settle in, it is not at all evident why that will necessarily produce a negative impact. Even homogeneous societies are composed of individuals who value and want different forms and extents of immigration. Chandran Kukathas sums it well,


“… many societies have experienced significant cultural or social transformations and not only survived but prospered. The United States in the nineteenth century welcomed immigrants from all over the world, incorporated large parts of what was once Mexico into its territory, overturned a three‐​century old tradition of slavery and yet began the twentieth century a prosperous and vibrant democracy. Canada and Australia have seen their societies transformed by postwar immigration into multicultural polities, while continuing to enjoy economic growth and social stability.”


Similarly in my home country of Singapore, one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, foreigners make up about 45% of the population today, a stark increase from 21% in the early 1980s. Yet, such a high influx of migrants has not held back the city-state’s spectacular economic development into one of the most prosperous and socially stable societies today.


The positive impacts of immigration are also affirmed in a recent book, Wretched Refuse? by immigration economists Alex Nowrasteh & Ben Powell, who find that American immigrants tend to have higher levels of trust in the country’s political and legal institutions than do natives themselves. Furthermore, countries with higher immigrant flows also see improvements in levels of economic freedom, contrary to the widespread fear that poor foreigners will import their “bad” cultures and end up eroding existing productive institutions.




The desire to maintain one’s own familiar culture is a notion that I am sympathetic to, but it hardly merits a position anywhere remotely close to the current state of modern immigration policy, where migrants make up 3.5% (272 million) of the world’s population, while a 2018 Gallup poll tells us more than 15% of the world’s adults (750 million) would seek employment abroad if they could.


In other words, even after taking the most serious cultural concerns into consideration, there is room for increasing immigration limits, or to opt for keyhole solutions like imposing literacy, language, or cultural tests on immigrants. Defaulting on an anti‐​immigration stance like that of many right‐​wing populist political platforms is to take a needlessly extreme position to a problem of disproportionate weight.


As of 2021, at least 717 million of the world’s population remain in poverty. For most of them, simply immigrating into the developed world would be the economic equivalent of striking a lottery for their family members and themselves. To forbid them from immigration is to subject them to a lifetime of dire poverty through no fault of their own, and represents an unconscionable waste of human potential.


It is exceedingly easy for us who were fortunate enough to be born in the First World to adopt anti‐​immigration views when we already enjoy prosperity. For the rest of the developing world who have lost this lottery of birth, however, immigration remains a moral imperative.



This post is written by Donovan Choy, a policy analyst and researcher with the Adam Smith Center.

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