7:06 pm - August 25th 2013
The centre-right commentator Ed West, previously at the Telegraph, has written a book on diversity and immigration. I thought it would be useful to do an email interview and ask him about some of his assertions.
Sunny: Briefly, what is the main point you make in your new book?
That is the social costs of large-scale immigration tend to outweigh the benefits after a certain fairly early point, and that greater ethnic, religious and cultural diversity places a strain on society by reducing trust. This has a negative impact on all sorts of things, most of which are tend to be the historical property of the Left; in particular our willingness to share public goods with fellow citizens.
I think a lot of people on the Left agree with this to a certain extent, but because anti-racism is the most important tenet of their moral being they would rather an analysis that explained it away as something that can be countered, whether by government efforts of attempts to change hearts and minds. This is where I would disagree with them.
Sunny: Arguably, many other changes across British society in the last 30 years – de-industrialisation, mass unemployment, increased individualism and liberalism, higher geographical mobility, globalisation etc have reduced trust too. Where’s the evidence that immigration is behind it all?
Yes, all of those things cause lower trust (the decline of religion too is a massive factor). Anything that brings freedom will bring atomisation, they’re two sides of the same coin. In regards to diversity reducing trust, there have been a number of studies; the most widely quoted is Robert Putnam’s, but there are various others, by academics at MIT, Harvard and the Home Office. There are (a smaller) number of studies showing that it doesn’t make an impact, but social sciences will always bring these contradictory studies, and I think the weight of evidence is in favour of the former group. (But that may be just my own personal biases.)
Looking at it logically, it would be astonishing if greater ethnic, religious and other types of diversity didn’t reduce trust, considering that by its very nature religions developed to bind a group of people together. Ethnicity like religion is also formed by membership of a particular culture.
Sometimes this is not neccessarily a bad thing; the converse to the modern liberal society are clannish ones, where people are very closely bonded towards their own kin but very distrusting of outsiders. Ethnic groups developed as extended clans and in ancient slave-owning societies slaves from the same ethnic groups were kept apart because, even when the language barrier was overcome and a lingua franca was understood, they were believed to be too dangerously cohesive for the owners. Tests of prisoner’s dilemma today between members of the same and different ethnic groups consistently show this still to be true – people around the world are more likely to turn over some from a different group.
I’m not saying this will be the case with everyone. A great deal of our feelings of trust and neighbourliness are affected by things like wealth and also general fear levels (and liberals tend to have lower fear levels than conservatives, which is why they’re often nicer people). Wealthy and/or liberal people are less affected by the downsides of diversity, but because wealthy and liberal people tend to be more vocal and prominent in this debate as in many others it’s easy to forget that they are not the norm.
Sunny: Let’s assume there are lower levels of trust among Britons. Regardless of whether you believe if this was caused by immigrants, what do you suggest we do about it?
I think there is a wider question about social capital, the term popularised by Robert Putnam but a lot older, which was sort of ignored for a while but is now taken up a lot of people, like David Goodhart, David Willetts, Jonathan Haidt and (most recently) Jesse Norman with his book on Edmund Burke (and also the Blue Labour/Red Tory people). Goodhart describes himself as a post-liberal, which is a pretty good phrase, because it says that he’s accepted the social reforms of the 60s in terms of women’s and gay rights, and anti-racism, but there are different challenges now.
They come from different angles but the general idea is that liberal individualism has been taken too far and fails to take account that humans are social animals and don’t generally act or think like indviduals. Both the Left and Right have embraced this, in the latter case with a sort of market fundamentalism. We’re not rational, isolated individuals who calculate only our own best interests, we have families, friends, wider communities, fellow religous believers, compatriots whose interests we wish to look after (and should look after).
The Left has sort of fallen out love with many of these institutions – the family, church, country – because it seems them as oppressive or homophobic or racist, which they can be, but they’re also often not and provide means of support for the most vulnerable. Modern libertarians tend to dislike these institution because they hold back the individual but a society run along the lines of some of Ayn Rand’s disciples would be a living hell for the poor or those not blessed without specific talents. Unfortunately I think our chancellor is probably a disciple.
Haidt (a liberal) says the biggest failing of the modern Left is that it fails to see that many of its reforms reduce social capital, and that the victims tend to be poorer. I think people on the Left are in denial about the impact that the decline in traditional two-parent families has on the very poor, and will perform cartwheels to deny it (although the evidence is hard to fix on, because it’s hard to look at which way the causal arrow is going).
On the other hand conservatives are in denial about the money-orientated signals that the free-market gives out, and how it does (whatever the Blessed Margaret’s intention) make people more selfish; they’re also deluded if they think that the problem is people on benefits rather than low wages and the working poor, and the social catastrophe that is housing inflation. Tackling all those issues would probably help. And did I mention immigration?
Sunny: It seems to me that the other factors you mention have reduced social capital much more than immigration. So why focus on that? And other than restricting immigration, how would you increase social capital?
Personally I think that’s unlikely – the evidence seems to suggest that immigration and diversity are big factors in trust and societal well-being (which was strangely skirted over by the Spirit Level, although I dont doubt that trust and equality have a fair amount of interaction). But even if its not the biggest factor, even so – rather than asking why focus on that, I would ask why not? In what other area would you say we shouldnt even look at the downsides? If a pretty radical social change has downsides and on an intellectual level they’re ignored (which they were for a long time – on a non-intellectual level anti-immigration rhetoric has always been around but I would argue the tabloids have less influence than Radio 4), then you have to ask yourself why.
My personal interest was stoked by what I saw as intellectual cowardice, lots of people were unhappy about what was happening, many of the arguments in favour of immigration and diversity seem pretty tenuous, but no one wants to see themselves as morally tinged with racism, and once you get beyond the straightforward economic arguments then some sort of self-examination on that issue is unavoidable.
I think anyone on the Right who raises this as an issue is going to be accused of stirring things up for personal and political gain, but I think if you find it difficult to imagine that other people have sincerely held views different to yours, the only possible explanation can be malice. (Of course there are politicians and media people who will always try to inspire hatred for personal benefit, there’s no question of that, but lots of people have sincere beliefs and try to articulate them responsibly).
There’s also a sort of utopian side to the anti-racist movement that says any problems with a multi-racial society are caused by a lack of anti-racism measures, and people delibaretly stirring things up. I would just argue that by its very structure very diverse socities are more fragile and prone to discord and that’s why everyone since the Persians has had a system of multiculturalism in place to keep that in check.
You can buy Ed West’s book on Amazon: The Diversity Illusion – What We Got Wrong About Immigration & How to Set It Right – from Amazon.co.uk or other sites.
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
· Other posts by Sunny Hundal
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