Immigration, Culture, and Subjective Utility

by Don Boudreaux on July 7, 2005

in The Economy

Gil Guillory at argues that I am an inconsistent subjectivist, for in a recent paean to population growth I ignore the fact that population growth – particularly if powered principally by people who are foreign to us – might change culture and language in ways that inflict significant utility losses on some people. Because of the possibility of these utility losses, we should not applaud population growth too readily, even if it does lead to long-term increases in material standards of living.  The subjective utility losses might dominate, making the cultural change on net an undesirable outcome. (This is my summary of what I understand Gil’s position to be.)

I agree with Gil that people care about culture and language. I agree also that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with caring about such things. (I add the previous sentence because some people also genuinely care about other-people’s skin color and sexual orientation. I insist that to care about these things – to condemn or dislike someone simply because of his skin color or his sexual orientation – is uncivil and wrong.)

I agree also with Gil that it’s possible that growth of the immigrant population in America might cause the culture here to change in such a way that the consequent subjective utility losses (of those who suffer such losses) outweigh any and all subjective-utility gains created by such population growth.

But Gil’s argument proves too much. Arguing that subjective disutility of any event can swamp the subjective positive utility of that event is far too open-ended. That style of argument allows me to assert that my preference for open immigration is so very intense that any policies that stifle immigration cause me such immense utility losses that such policies should be avoided.

Pursued consistently, Gil’s argument would oblige subjectivists to withhold judgment about any policy move – as well as about the status quo.

The best we can do, policy-wise, is to follow rules that theory and experience teach us generally promote human well-being. Leaving peaceful people free to associate with whatever other peaceful people they wish to associate strikes me as one of these rules.

Yes, it’s true that following this rule might well result in Mr. X – who truly dislikes, say, dark and swarthy folk – having to endure the sight of dark and swarthy men and women walking peacefully down the sidewalk on their way to a dinner party at my home. And it’s possible that the mental torment – the subjective disutility – that Mr. X suffers on account of this experience outweighs whatever positive utility gains are enjoyed by me and my visitors.

Likewise, it’s possible that Mr. Y suffers such deep and troubling agony at the change in the English language caused by immigrants that his subjective disutility alone outweighs all subjective positive utility gains created by immigration.

But the true subjectivist is precisely the last person who jumps from such possibilities to the conclusion that on these grounds immigration should be prevented or slowed. After all, the true subjectivist knows that the positive utility enjoyed by others might well be super-large. The true subjectivist understands that it’s impossible to choose among policies based directly upon their costs and benefits defined in terms of pure subjective utilities – for utility is indeed subjective and impossible to measure in the abstract.

So yes — more immigration into America, and higher rates of fertility of immigrants, will indeed change our culture.  (Culture — any worthy culture, like that of America — is always changing.  American culture today isn’t what it was in the 1950s and it wasn’t in the 1950s what it was in the 1780s.  Immigration or no, American culture in 2040 won’t be what it is in 2005.)  And this changing culture might inflict gargantuan utility losses on some people.  But so, too, might it bestow gargantuan utility gains on others.  How do we know?  How could we know?


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