09 April 2007

Immigration and buy-in

A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists. His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor. Financial Times, 8 October 2006
This is an oldish article, but the conclusions of the research cited are relevant. It’s worthwhile asking whence the impetus in favour of immigration arises, and what are its long-term effects on the social fabric of the countries receiving and losing migrants? My own view is that our governments have tended to regard our social environment very much as they have looked at the physical environment: something that can be run down for as long as an obvious emergency can be avoided, so that the financial figures look good.

Immigration is one subject on which buy-in is especially important. If people feel they haven’t been consulted about who is allowed into the country they live in, then the result will be, as Professor Putnam’s research indicates, negative. Consultation on such a sensitive subject could make a lot of difference: not necessarily to the immigration statistics, but to the far less quantifiable, but at least as crucial, matters of attitudes and trust.

We’re fast losing the habit of such consultation. National policy is decided by professional politicians whose policies are mainly expressed in terms of institutional structures and funding, a proliferation of micro-targets, or arcane legalistic discussion. Absent from such policymaking are outcomes that are meaningful to citizens. Government instead is concerned mainly about the means of achieving its (very often) unexpressed or mis-expressed goals. To reconnect politicians with its electorate, I have long advocated Social Policy Bonds: not only because of their likely efficiency gains, but also because they start out with an explicit statement of a meaningful policy goal. By doing that, they encourage greater public participation in policymaking. When it comes to hosting migrants from many different cultures and backgrounds, such participation, and the buy-in it generates, are essential.

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