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A Lesson From 'Brexit': On Immigration, Feelings Trump Facts

The economic fallout from Britain's vote to leave the European Union was swift and stark. The pound cratered to its lowest level in three decades. When the London Stock Exchange opened the next morning, its leading share index immediately fell by more than 8 percent, the largest single-day drop since the 2008 financial crisis.

This was pretty much what financial analysts had predicted. And it is clear from polling data and interviews with voters that those who voted for "Brexit" had been well warned about the economic risks. They just cared more about something else: immigration.

Most research has found that immigration has bolstered the British economy. But voters supporting the Leave campaign either were unpersuaded by the evidence, did not think it had benefited them or felt the downsides outweighed the upsides.

Brexit is not just a blow to the British economy, but also strikes at a core assumption behind the modern liberal order: that voters will act in their self-interest.

The progress of the last 50 years, particularly in Europe, has made it easy to buy into the idea that the forces of nationalism, xenophobia and prejudice are mere irrationalities, market distortions that will naturally fade away in the long arc of history.

Last week's vote highlighted — not for the first time, but with unusual clarity — the hole in that theory. For many people, identity trumps economics. They will pay a high price (literally, in this case) to preserve a social order that makes them feel safe and powerful.

That dynamic is not limited to Britain, or to this referendum. It is playing out in democracies around the world, and immigration has become its focal point.

Many citizens, particularly those who have suffered under the economic pressures of globalization, express their anxiety over these changes by focusing on another form of change: foreigners in their midst. Halting immigration, even if the actual effect is to worsen their own economic situation, seems like a way of staving off those larger changes.

Democratic governments have shown over and over that they have no answer for this anxiety, even as the stakes, in Europe and globally, continue mounting.

Facts Cannot Compete With Feelings

The economist Michael Clemens has called immigration a "trillion-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk": a tremendous increase in wealth waiting to be seized by any country that is attractive to immigrants and willing to welcome them. Loosening restrictions on global labor flows, he argues, would offer a bigger boost to global economies than would dropping all restrictions on trade and capital.

But evidence does not vote — people do. And it turns out that the gains of immigration often feel elusive, whereas the costs can be perceived as heavier than they really are.

A poll released June 20 by Ipsos/MORI showed that 47 percent of voters planning to support Brexit said immigration had been bad for Britain's economy. Never mind that a study by Britain's National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that immigration had increased the country's gross domestic product and had lowered the cost of government services like health care and pensions, which in turn helped reduce taxes.

To be sure, just because immigration is a net positive for the country as a whole does not mean that it benefits all of its people. The geographic breakdown of Thursday's vote showed that the regions where the Leave campaign fared the best were areas that tend to have few immigrants but also lower wages, according to analysis conducted by Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation, a British think tank.

[Source: By Amanda Taub, The Interpreter, International New York Times, Washington, 26Jun16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 28Jun16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.