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Tyler Cowen reviews a new book calling into question Scandinavian welfare states as a model for the world, and working out its implications for immigration policy:

Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish policy analyst and president of European Centre for Entrepreneurship and Policy Reform, has recently published a book called "Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism." And while the title may be overstated, his best facts and figures are persuasive. 

For instance, Danish-Americans have a measured living standard about 55 percent higher than the Danes in Denmark. Swedish-Americans have a living standard 53 percent higher than the Swedes, and Finnish-Americans have a living standard 59 percent higher than those back in Finland. Only for Norway is the gap a small one, because of the extreme oil wealth of Norway, but even there the living standard of American Norwegians measures as 3 percent higher than in Norway. And that comparison is based on numbers from 2013, when the price of oil was higher, so probably that gap has widened.

Of the Nordic groups, Danish-Americans have the highest per capita income, clocking in at $70,925. That compares to an U.S. per capita income of $52,592, again the numbers being from 2013. Sanandaji also notes that Nordic-Americans have lower poverty rates and about half the unemployment rate of their relatives across the Atlantic.

It is difficult, after seeing those figures, to conclude that the U.S. ought to be copying the policies of the Nordic nations wholesale. It is instead more plausible to think that Americans might learn something from the cultural practices of Nordic-Americans. Sanandaji says those norms include hard work, honesty, a strong civil society and an ethic of cooperation and volunteerism....
 
For one thing, Nordic immigrants to the United States probably came from the better trained, more literate and more ambitious segments of the population. For instance, data on Danish migrants from 1868 to 1900 show that laborers were underrepresented in the group and artisans and craftsmen were overrepresented by a factor of two. It is perhaps no wonder that the ethnic Danes in the U.S. are relatively high earners, because they are the results of a process of positive selection.  And there is a growing literature showing that the cultural traits of migrants can persist to some degree for generations in their new countries....

Most of all we should consider the option of greater freedom of choice for residence decisions. For all the anti-immigrant sentiment that is circulating at the moment, would it hurt the U.S. to have fully open borders with Denmark? It would boost American gross domestic product and probably also improve American education. History teaches that serious assimilation problems would be unlikely, especially since many Danes already speak English. 

Open borders wouldn't attract Danes who want to live off welfare because the benefits are so generous at home.

How's this for a simple rule: Open borders for the residents of any democratic country with more generous transfer payments than Uncle Sam's.

A few observations: Simple one-to-one comparisons of Danish to American living standards are not very meaningful, because even if Americans make more money, they have higher living expenses. They have to pay for (or do without) many things a Scandinavian welfare state provides for free or subsidized. How exactly do you calculate the effect on living standards of guaranteed paid parental leave, health insurance, pre-school education, and public transportation so effective that nobody has to buy a car?

That aside, though, notice the argument Cowen is making. Cowen is a professor of economics, a centrist with libertarian tendencies, and an interesting blogger. Being libertarian, he tends to be in favor of immigration in general. Economists tend to like many kinds of immigration, because it fosters economic growth and comparative advantage and those sorts of things.

But since Cowen is a pragmatic American, he accepts two arguments as so obvious as to need no elaboration. First, that immigration should favor the talented and intelligent. The Danes America got are doing well in America because they come from a successful culture, and because they were some of the most enterprising people in that culture. Second, he notes that immigration policy should obviously not attract people "who want to live off welfare". (Also, note that he uses the word "selection" in reference to getting better Danes. The German version of this word, Selektion, is thermonuclear-level verboten in Germany because it was the term used for the process of determining which new arrivals at Nazi death camps would be selected for immediate death, and which would be put to work).

Both of these arguments will immediately be disputed in European Urban Haute Bourgeois circles. Trust me, I know from personal experience. European urban elites who have liberal-arts educations are educated in hothouses of deontological thinking, in which experiences and policies should be evaluated according to abstract universal principles of humanism. In this view, selecting immigrants is denounced as elitist, as ignoring the "sacred principle" of human equality, as treating some persons as more inherently valuable than others, and as implicitly asserting the supposed "superiority" of Western culture.

Discouraging welfare tourism is denounced for similar reasons. Also, you often encounter the notion that Europeans have no "right" to live in comparative safety and prosperity, and therefore have no legitimate objection to foreigners coming to their country and living off state assistance their entire lives. What are you trying to say, that Joseph from Cameroon somehow has less right to live off German welfare than Josef from Dibbersen? Both are human beings, both have the same entitlement to inviolable human dignity, and therefore both must be treated equally by the welfare state. You didn't choose which country you were born in, so how is it fair for you to reap the incalculable privileges of being born in a place like Germany as opposed to, say, Zimbabwe?

To which the average Brit or American (but not Peter Singer) responds: What's all this bosh? These arguments may have abstract appeal in a seminar room, but as guides for formulating policy in a Western democracy, they're useless, not even wrong. Principles are all well and good, but they're hardly a guide to practical policy-making. Favoring skilled immigrants is legal, proper, does not violate any mutual obligations we may owe to others, and benefits us. Same with making sure foreign welfare cases don't burden our system, which is designed for our people. And no, we think the notion that making sure our welfare system helps our people is not only proper, but that it's the only remotely sane approach. And we feel no need to justify or explain these views. As Disraeli said, "Never complain, never explain."

This, gentle readers, is one of the most fascinating and enduring differences between the mindset of the educated elites of the English-speaking world and those of continental Europe.

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