Immigration is without doubts the most heated political topic of the present. Most countries in Europe have large parties which make their opposition to immigration the main point of their political program. Some of them are in power and even where they are not they are able to set the agenda, forcing all other parties to play chase to prove the electorate that they too are “tough on immigration.”

A lot of people who ideally don’t share these views are surprised, often shocked, by how widely diffused anti-immigration sentiments are in their countries. Many of them are ready to take part in the effort to reverse the trend. The range of solutions varies from here-and-now opposition and protests, data and fact-based information campaigns and longer-term plans to win power back, often at the cost of offering - at least temporarily - an answer to the “legitimate” fears of the population.

What is missing, is a more fundamental acknowledgement of the root causes of these sentiments. After spending some time thinking about it, the conclusion I have come to is not pretty. Faced by migratory pressure, any political community that is democratic, redistributive and where citizenship rests on nationality is bound to adopt ugly anti-immigrant policies eventually.

The good news? We can solve the problem by removing, at least, one.

Wind of change from the north

As I am writing this post, Sweden is approaching what is possibly its most important election since the end of WWII. Svensk Demokraterna (Swedish Democrats, a name which will come at handy later) are expected by most polls to score a historical result, likely becoming the biggest party in the country. Meanwhile, in neighbouring Denmark (where I live) the Danish Popular Party has been steadily gaining support, scoring a record 21.2% of the votes in the last election. The country has also recently been at the centre of the news for a new policy proposal targeted at people living in segregated immigrant communities (distastefully called “ghettos”) as well as another one, this time coming from the Social Democrats, which will make it much harder to seek asylum.

We are talking about countries famous for their strong redistributive culture and the presence of a broad safety net. Nations which are traditionally known for their open and generous policies towards refugees and foreigners in general. Now, this openness is apparently coming to an end. What’s happening?

The key to understanding what’s going on lies in another much-discussed trend: the move of the worker’s vote from the Social Democrats on the left to the populist and neo-nationalist parties on the right. The official narrative is well known: as European countries transition to a post-industrial society, these segments of the population have taken the highest toll from both globalisation and the financial crisis. Their discontent, which is partly factual and partly induced by widespread pessimism in the future, has fuelled much of the anti-establishment and often nostalgic tone of the radical right. In turn, this political migration has triggered a great deal of soul searching within left-wing parties for having “lost touch with real society” as well as appeals to “go back to our roots and original constituencies.”

Looking at how this migration of voters has unfolded leads to some interesting reflections. To being with, the shift of worker’s political preferences from the left to the right of the political spectrum has been mostly motivated - at least initially - by cultural rather than economic concerns. Today, most radical right parties have a strong welfare agenda, but this is predominantly an effect of the worker’s vote movement rather than a cause (a phenomenon labelled by political scientists “proletarization”1). This also explains why the Social Democrats have in large part missed the transition.

For many years, Social Democrats have conjugated inclusive economic policies with the spread of libertarian values (in the political compass sense of the word) within their constituency. A lot of their activities among workers were indeed educational, lifting them socially and participating in a process of cultural emancipation on top of the economic one. Thanks (also) to these efforts, many people have “graduated” from the working class and have moved on - in particular as a second generation - to join the urban middle class and fill the ranks of academia and other liberal professions. Left-wing parties have followed them and, over time, cultural values have replaced traditional economic battles at the centre of their political agenda. When part of the “old” electorate started re-aligning on cultural themes towards a more authoritarian and nativist stance, the reaction from the left has been to neglect them, when not directly opposing or deriding them.

In summary, what explains the suspiring change of political mood in the Nordics is a shift from a culture of inclusion (libertarian) to one of exclusion (authoritarian) among the segments that have typically supported and benefitted the most from the creation of the welfare state2. But while this explains how the movement happened, it doesn’t say much about why it happened. Many observers blame economic factors - the “Great Recession” - or the recent surge in the number of asylum seekers. Both have certainly contributed to the change, but looking only at external causes betrays a fundamental misconception. We like to associate the traditional inclusiveness of these countries with an underlying set of positive values. When the attitude changes, something must have “forced” the population to change its values. I’d like to offer an alternative view: Swedes and Danes - and with them, many other Europeans - were not good before and are not evil now. Their behaviour reflects the natural evolution of a democratic and redistributive nation-state.

How inclusion becomes exclusion

To understand what I mean by that, we need to point our attention to the interplay between these three factors: democracy, welfare, and the sense of nation. Together, they determine whether a society (or country) adopts predominantly inclusive or exclusive policies3.

Let’s start at the beginning. In his brilliant book “The State”, Anthony De Jasay makes the convincing claim that in the absence of strong cultural or constitutional provisions to prevent it, a necessary outcome of democracy - intended, at least initially, as enlargement of the franchise - is a period of strong redistributive policies.

Democracy is the stage where different groups negotiate over the distribution of resources. Over time, in a society like most European countries in the first half of the 20th century where the majority of the population lacks essential social protection, a program to redistribute wealth from the wealthier minority to the poorer majority will inevitably win political support. The creation of a sizeable welfare state is thus a natural outcome of the political bargaining within a new democracy.

An additional important variable is the degree of cultural homogeneity - and hence national cohesion - within a country. State expansion is somehow kept in check by what De Jasay calls “churn”. As a growing part of the population benefits from redistributive policies, there is an increased opportunity for specific individuals or groups to free-ride. When this happens, the balance between contribution and benefits starts tilting and an increasingly large section of the population, seeing themselves as a net contributor to the community, withdraws its support to further redistribution (or starts calling for a withdrawal of the state).

Cultural homogeneity tames this process by creating disincentives for potential free riders. These work both as deterrents (tighter communities can more easily stigmatise and punish free riders) as well as rewards (group belonging motivates people to contribute). The fact that it is precisely in Scandinavia that the redistributive welfare state has taken its maximum form is thus tightly connected with the degree of cultural homogeneity in the region. The welfare state - at its essence a mechanism of solidarity and mutual insurance - has become a defining element of these countries’ identities. In Denmark, the velfærdssamfund (welfare society) is a cornerstone of the “Danish value system”.

This situation, however, can quickly turn around. As I have tried to show, inclusive redistributive policies are more an outcome of a contingent balance of power (a majority of excluded vs a minority of included) within the framework of a democratic process than the result of an intrinsic altruistic sentiment in the community. Once the excluded are a minority, and especially a minority with no voice (immigrants), there is no incentive in the system to include them.

Even more, the same cultural homogeneity that plays a positive role in the expansion phase of a welfare state now exacerbates the closure towards outsiders. Not only they don’t have political representation - or only marginal - but they are also excluded from national solidarity by not belonging to the main ethnic and cultural group. Being external to the dominant culture places them outside the circle of trust and creates a strong presumption of group free-riding. The welfare state becomes in this way an object of contention within the political arena and the demand to defend it from outsiders opens the doors to the rise of radical right forces.

In the rest of the post, I look at each factor - democracy, welfare and nation-state - and explore some possible alternatives.

The case against democracy

As a preference signalling and policy selection mechanism, democracy has a tendency of favouring insiders. Any group asked directly to take a stance on how to share common resources will find it rational to prevent people outside the group from accessing them. In practical terms, any democratic system brings with it a natural demand for selfish policies, and it would be naive not to expect that one or more political entrepreneurs will eventually try to exploit it. The success of these entrepreneurs - in other words, whether an anti-immigration party will have 5% or 55% or more of the popular votes - depends on many other factors, like the overall state of the economy, the importance of other topics in the political debate, and at the end, the ability of these parties to stimulate demand through their actions. But the risk of developing chauvinistic tendencies is a constant of democracies.

At face value, it sounds obvious: why should any group accept the adoption of policies that harm the same people who are asked to cast their vote? Unsurprisingly, this is what radical right parties around the world - most of them proudly carrying adjectives like “popular” or “democratic” in their names - say to be doing: protecting democracy by fighting for the real interest of the people. Indeed, it would be difficult to challenge these claims if it wasn’t for the fact that they are just wrong. Leaving humanitarian concerns aside, and not considering the feasibility of drastically limiting immigration, there is plenty of evidence today supporting the long-term benefits - for everyone, insiders included - of a certain degree of population inflow.

Why are then so many people falling for the claim of these parties? Well aware of the risk of sounding arrogant, the answer is quite simple: as humans, we have a strong propensity to be misguided by wrong assumptions and fundamental misconceptions about the economy. Bryan Kaplan makes this point eloquently in his book “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, where he presents a set of commonly held biases and shows how these influence policymaking in a democratic setting. Two among them are particularly relevant for the topic of immigration: “make-work bias”, which he defines as the tendency to overestimate the value of conserving labour, and which translates in the fear of jobs being taken away by immigrants, and “anti-foreign bias”, the tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of interaction with foreigners.

Writing in 2007, Kaplan maintained some hope in the ability of political systems to filter the many bad ideas popular among the electorate - even when accounting for the inevitable temptation of politicians to use them in their favour. Eleven years later, we can safely say that his hope was misplaced. The financial crisis destroyed any residual faith in experts while social media and the advent of bottom-up politics did the rest. All filters between bad ideas and bad policies are gone.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to get rid of these biases through education and communication: positive storytelling, fact-based and straightforward reporting, and constant myth debunking. While we shouldn’t stop working in this direction, results so far make it sound delusional. A second option is what mainly has been done until recently by most governments: denying the existence of these demands and circumvent voters by adopting relatively open immigration policies without getting a true popular buy-in first. It failed miserably. As I argue above, this choice leads inevitably to a dead-end since it leaves a wide-open opportunity for radical right parties to exploit the latent demand for chauvinistic policies. Everybody else feels forced to follow.

If we really wanted to remove the problem at the roots, we should be ready to try something more drastic. At the extreme of the spectrum, there is a full-blown departure from one person, one vote democracy. To stay clear from misunderstandings, I don’t argue for this option but, as I have written in a separate post, I wouldn’t exclude a priori that a realistic threat to democracy might come from the side that calls itself “democratic” and motivated by “good” intentions.

A final set of possible solutions include proposals to radically modify our current democratic process without changing its fundamental values. An interesting example, and one which deserves more discussions and - where possible - a real-world trial, is the concept of futarchy from the economist Robin Hanson. In this system, political priorities would be set by traditional voting while the actual policies adopted to achieve those goals would be selected by a betting market. Without getting into details, the paper is worth reading if nothing else as an invitation to think differently.

I have to admit that given the current climate I have little hope that anything like this might be around the corner. But despite the now commonplace rhetoric on people vs elites, we have a desperate need improve the ability of our current democratic model to select “good” policies. Let’s turn now to the next piece of the puzzle: the redistributive welfare state.

The case against welfare

The presence of an extensive welfare state affects policy choices around immigration by introducing something to fight for. From an instrument of redistribution among fellow citizens, state-financed welfare becomes a rival good which is now contented between insiders and outsiders. In this context, and due to the influence of the biases discussed above, excluding outsiders from citizenship - and in some cases from entering the country in the first place - is a proxy through which excluding them from partaking in limited (or assumed so) common resources.

The relationship between welfare and immigration is explored in a recent article by political scientists Luis Cornago Bonal and Delia Zollinger. According to the authors, the different appeal that “welfare chauvinism” - the demand to exclude immigrants from welfare benefits - has across countries, and the relative strength of radical right parties, can be partly explained by the type and reach of the welfare state. In countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which have developed a universalistic kind of welfare tied to citizenship, these parties seem to be having more success compared to countries like Spain or Portugal where transfers are much lower and dependent on a previous contribution to the social security system.

There is no reason to be surprised. Any universalistic benefit system will - by design - reward disproportionately some segments of the population compared to others. That’s why, as shown above, these systems have been adopted predominately in countries with a high degree of homogeneity - and hence solidarity - where such transfers can be somehow justified. Introducing a significant number of immigrants will, at least in the short term, lead to a direct transfer of resources from natives to newcomers and, as a consequence, offer a factual base for nationalist parties to claim that foreigners are “stealing” from locals.

Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are among the few countries where immigrant household's fiscal position is worse on average than that of native households. (Souce: OECD)Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden are among the few countries where immigrant household’s fiscal position is worse on average than that of native households. (Souce: OECD)

An example will help here. Back to Denmark, the centre-right government - with support from both the Danish Popular Party and the Social Democrats - has recently passed a new law requiring foreigners to pay for the use of an interpreter while dealing with a doctor. A service which was previously provided for free4. This seemingly marginal issue contains many of the topics discussed so far. It is a typical welfare-chauvinistic proposal aimed at preventing the majority of taxpayers, and the totality of citizens, from bearing the cost of a service accessed only by a tiny minority or non-citizens. It is also, according to experts (doctors in this case), a proposal built on wrong assumptions (bias). In fact, the Danish doctor association has claimed that introducing a fee for translation services will discourage many foreigners to use one, resulting in poor understanding of the diagnosis and prescribed therapy and thus often leading to further complications, (re)hospitalisation, and ultimately a much higher cost for the system.

A technocratic government would - based on a cost-benefit analysis - keep offering interpreters for free, while - I claim - a democratic one will eventually introduce the change. It is just too easy an option to exploit politically, and when that happens, it becomes almost impossible for other parties to stand against it without losing popular support.

Personally, I disapprove of the law - not the least because I am under the influence of a technocrat, my wife, a doctor at a Danish hospital. Lately, however, I have come to revisit my position in light of what’s realistic in the short term and ultimately better in the long run (provided that our goal is still to fend off the radical right). The welfare state - and in particular welfare state benefits targeted at smaller groups of outsiders - are too contentious a topic and too easily exploited by right-wing populist parties. Limiting access would remove a giant “attack surface” for these movements and somehow ease the (mostly unjustified, but nonetheless real) fear of the population. As for the specific case, it would be easier to approach the need for translation from a private donor angle. The cost is relatively low and could be covered through private donations and volunteering. Doing so would both give relief to those who don’t believe that their tax money should be used in these circumstances - there is no long-term way to “force” people to do it anyway - while (re)introducing a healthy dose of voluntarism in our redistributive system.

Beyond the nation-state

I come finally to the nation-state. We are used to taking it for granted, but we forget that this idea established itself barely two hundred years ago. As Elie Kedurie reminded us in his famous essay on nationalism, the fact that we today consider national self-government “the only legitimate type of government” is more a testimony of the success of a concept born in a specific ideological and historical setting than proof of its universal validity.

National self-government means also is that citizenship is assigned by nationality defined, in most cases, as a shared ethnic and cultural heritage. In a time of unprecedented mobility, this leads to some paradoxical situations. In Italy - where like in most countries citizenship is based on blood descent (jus sanguinis) - a person whose great great grandfather was Italian in 1861 is automatically a citizen even if neither her, nor her father, nor her grandfather, nor her great-grandfather has ever set foot - let alone worked or paid taxes - in the country. In Denmark, meanwhile, the attempt to reconcile a strict definition of nationality with the need to allow (some) foreigners to obtain citizenship has lead to the farce of a citizenship test which few locals would be able to pass.

New Danes celebrate upon receiving their passport.New Danes celebrate upon receiving their passport.

Ultimately, as we have seen, tying citizenship to nationality, and combining that with democracy, leads to closed systems which will naturally tend to oppose opening up to aliens. When governments try to introduce some change, for example by granting citizenship also to individuals born in the country but from foreign parents, they face stiff opposition. Under the dogma of the nation-state - by now reinforced through a collective memory of facts and powerful symbols - Italy is the country of Italians, Germany of Germans, Denmark of Danes and so on. The solution does not lie in watering down each nationality, but in creating political entities that can transcend them.

Against this background, many people look at Europe as a possible answer. But what they ask for is an alliance between national governments with the purpose of sharing the burden of the migratory pressure the continent is facing, especially on its southern borders. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of European federalism (those who advocate for a sort of United States of Europe) still look at it as a union of nation states, rather than a somehow higher entity encompassing many nations.

To find a possible alternative, we might have to dust off a political category many consider defunct: the empire. In his criticism of nationalism, the same Elie Kedurie looked favourably at the benevolence - in the context of their time - of traditional empires: the Roman, the Ottoman, even the British. More recently, the American journalist Robert Kaplan made the case for a tempered American imperialism as the best way to ensure stability and protect minorities. But the most interesting “modern” call for a revival of the imperial ideal comes in my view from a source that will probably make many liberals turn up their nose: Alain de Benoist, the French thinker founder of the Nouvelle Droit (new right) certainly not know for his generous position on France’s immigration policy.

In his essay “The Idea of Empire”, de Benoist writes: “What distinguishes the empire from the nation? First of all, the fact that the empire is not primarily a territory but essentially an idea or a principle. The political order is determined by it — not by material factors or by possession of a geographical area. It is determined by a spiritual or juridical idea.”

The presence of a higher “principle” - according to his view - allows the empire to unite different peoples, ethnicities and religions without suppressing them or subsuming them into a homogeneous “national” (or rather “global”) culture. ”Whereas the nation engenders its own culture or finds support in culture in the process of its formation “ - he continues - “the empire embraces various cultures. Whereas the nation tries to make the people and the state correspond, the empire associates different peoples”. In the empire citizenship and nationality are distinct.

De Benoist’s ideological affiliation to the right - though he was never a direct supporter of Le Pen’s Front National - is particularly interesting as it opens for the possibility to reconcile today’s critics of immigration with those who, pragmatically, look for solutions to a crisis that risks breaking us apart. If like I do, you belong to the modern urbanised and globalised class, you might find the idea of nationality outdated, and the prospect of a homogeneous global culture just a matter of time. You might decide to plough through, thinking that what’s currently going on is just a hiccup. But nations exist, and through the democratic process, they can control the state, the only power that matters despite all the talk about sovereign individuals and cloud communities.

I don’t claim that going beyond the nation-state will be easy. However, it is a way to acknowledge reality while working towards a different and, I believe, better future. De Benoist’s imperial principle is spiritual - although not religious - that doesn’t exclude the possibility for the unifying “idea” to be based on civic values: liberty, democracy, and even welfare if we want.

  1. See also: Alonso and Rennwald, _ The Changing Welfare State Agenda of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe_  

  2. See Oskarson and Demker, Room for Realignment: The Working-Class Sympathy for Sweden Democrats 

  3. I define inclusiveness here as the willingness among the most fortunate members of a community to share resources with its less well-off members - primarily through government-administered redistribution - and, by that, stimulate upward social mobility. 

  4. The law, which applies only to foreigners who have lived in the country for more than three years, is justified by its proponents as a form of incentive to learn the language and integrate, but it has obviously also financial motivations.