Migration and Human Rights (44): Welfare State Incompatible With Multiculturalism?

David Miller has argued in favor of an affirmative answer to this question. My view is different. Miller’s story goes somewhat like this. The welfare state predates multiculturalism: most western countries have adopted some form of welfare state in the late 19th century or during the first half of the 20th century, whereas these countries only have become truly multicultural in the second half of the 20th century (as a result of decolonization, guest worker programs etc.).

According to Miller, a welfare state requires a strong sense of national solidarity. People will only contribute to the welfare system if they know that others contribute as well and that they themselves will be protected by the contributions of others when things turn bad, when they get sick or old or when they lose their job. Hence, everyone should contribute in the same way and rules about reciprocity and fairness should be respected. A welfare state is only possible when society is a warm nest where everyone cares for everyone, looks after everyone and uses the system in a fair and reciprocal manner. Free riders by definition don’t care about others and if there are too many of them, the welfare system breaks down.

Miller fears that a multicultural society can undermine support for the welfare state because large immigration flows can undo the fairness of the system. This fairness is based on the assumption that you can only withdraw from the system if first you have contributed to it (reciprocity). Newcomers are often seen as people who withdraw without contribution.

In a sense, this is the classic welfare tourism argument. It’s a popular argument against multiculturalism and immigration, especially on the right of the political spectrum, and it’s disappointing to see a noted philosopher give credence to it. He should know better. Why? Well, first, it’s simply not true that immigrants abuse the welfare system. Some do, of course, but in many cases immigrants withdraw comparatively less than natives and they often have higher labor force participation. Furthermore, many of the native poor withdraw a lot more than they contribute, over a lifetime. This “unfairness” is identical to the supposed unfair use of the system by immigrants, and raises similar complaints about the “undeserving poor”. And yet, even though the unfairness is the same, it doesn’t result in arguments that all welfare states are impossible. Or is unfairness only a problem when colored people are unfair?

Hence, Miller seems to be rushing to accept defeat in the face of xenophobia. He preemptively gives up the attempt to widen the circle of empathy and to correct misinformation about unfairness. If it is really the case that a population loses trust in and withdraws support from a welfare system because it believes that solidarity is only something for “people like us” or because it believes that rules of fairness and reciprocity are violated, then perhaps we should try to change people’s minds rather than hastily agreeing with them.

Something about a similar argument by Milton Friedman – “you cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state” – is here. More on the role of group identity in public support for redistribution is here. More posts in this series are here.


2 thoughts on “Migration and Human Rights (44): Welfare State Incompatible With Multiculturalism?

  1. Hi Filip,
    Just a thought; maybe it is a case of altering the welfare system to reflect the new world it inhabits, rather than people’s opinions of the failings they may see, or have experienced?
    I have no direct experience with US welfare, but I do with the UK version. The failure of the welfare system and how it leaks money has been dragging on for years in the UK; it has become a bane to the taxpayer. No Government has had the courage to address the root of the inequities in the system, mainly because they are so entrenched and vast; plus the system is so comprehensive and not ‘policed’ thoroughly enough. It is impossible to unmask all the people who claim a benefit fraudulently, and there are many. Yes, there are immigrants who claim money they shouldn’t, but as you have rightly said, so too does the native population.
    Therefore, the system itself is to blame and the policies and procedures that make it what it is. It is meant to be a system in place for those most in need, but it isn’t; it is supposed to be a stop gap provision, but it isn’t; it’s supposed to prevent people falling into poverty, but is doesn’t. So, change the system, and stop plastering over the cracks!
    Regards, Bex

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