Booknotes: Why should we care?

Ted Murphy has written a stimulating and inspiring book which proves, in the end, to be somewhat frustrating. The Politics of Compassion: the challenge to care for the stranger (Rowman and Littlefield, London/New York, 2019, pp xi and 224) is the work of a man with strong moral convictions, and a lively, accessible style in engaging with a wide range of social issues and thinkers. His declared left-liberal politics are under pressure in these times of Trump and wider social polarisation, including in racialised forms. Murphy’s response is to explore the question of ‘why we could do so much more collectively to address preventable suffering, injustice and poverty but fail to do so’.

He begins by considering relevant concepts: compassion, empathy, altruism, moral community, social solidarity, justice and charity. The book then surveys the history of social welfare; the emergence of modern concepts of universal human rights; religious and secular thought on suffering; theories about moral obligations; and ‘the sources of difference between liberals and conservatives’.

Chapter 8 usefully illustrates how a range of recent trends (globalisation, growing inequality, the failure to handle increasing racial and ethnic social diversity in positive ways, and declining media standards) have eroded a sense of ‘common citizenship’ in many countries, including the United States and across western Europe. There is a great deal of useful and detailed information in these pages: Murphy’s skills as a teacher at Boston’s Northeastern University and the reasons he has been a valued consultant to many community-based organisations are indicated in his succinct summaries of a range of policy issues, thinkers, and debates.

The frustrating feature of The Politics of Compassion is its repetitive and circular argument about why and how problems could be solved. Essentially, Murphy keeps coming back to ethical exhortations for policy makers to change their minds and act in line with what he asserts are sound moral principles: ‘we must redouble efforts to broaden social solidarity and moral community across such lines as race, ethnicity and religion’; ‘through a concerted effort on the cultural front, together with renewed political energy … we can create a more compassionate and just society’; we should ‘put our collective minds to the task’; ‘we must … enlarge the moral imagination’; ‘if we do that together, we should be able to make real progress toward a politics of compassion’.

Well, yes … but how, given that there are so many political trends and social dynamics which push away from Murphy’s desired social goals? And why? Why is it the case that other people have different views than those held the eminently sensible Murphy?

In the end, ‘because we should’ is something that those already ‘converted’ will wholeheartedly agree with, but it is not a call that will equip them to convince their political rivals.

Neeraj Kaushal opts for a different category of arguments to shape her survey of the economics of immigration. She sets out an impressive range of facts and figures in a rigorous testing of ‘common complaints’ about the issue. Blaming Immigrants: nationalism and the economics of global movement (Colombia University Press, New York, 2019, pp 220) is clearly written and assertive.

Kaushal asks whether immigration is actually a ‘crisis’? No, she determines: ‘the number of global immigrants – people living outside their country of birth – is a modest 3 per cent. Not a deluge, not a surge, not a flood, not even a stream, but a trickle’.

Furthermore, immigration is good for economies and societies. ‘There is a consensus among economists that economic benefits from a relatively open immigration policy outweigh its economic costs’. Immigrants are net contributors to countries’ fiscal balance sheets – particularly if they are well educated. Kaushal cites an International Monetary Fund report which states that ‘a one percentage point increase in the share of migrants in adult population is found to raise labour productivity in the host economy by up to three percent in the long term’. Furthermore, immigration improves the demographic balances in countries, and adds to the quality of urban life. Availability of welfare benefits is not in fact a ‘magnet’ for immigrants: ‘the density of co-ethnic groups and prevailing economic conditions [are] stronger magnets affecting immigrant destinations’.

Why then, it must be asked, is there such antipathy to immigration, to the point that it has determined the outcome of general election results in many countries, and fuelled the narrow victory for the ‘leave’ side in Britain’s 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union?

Kaushal’s explanation: ‘the primary opposition to immigration is not rooted in economic insecurity, but in issues of nativism and cultural identity’. Other factors underpin grievances which have then been rearticulated by right-wing politicians and populist movements in order to blame foreigners as a scapegoat. The main factors are economic slowdown; inequality and stagnation in living standards; social and demographic change, in which ‘the inability of receiving communities to withstand and accept the change … triggers anxiety; ‘diminishing confidence in governments and liberal elites’; and the ways that international terrorism ‘has spread anti-immigrant feelings even in cities and states where immigrants are not involved in terrorism’.

One of her recurrent suggestions is that opposition to immigration results from ignorance: ‘UK jurisdictions with a high proportion of immigrants voted against Brexit, and those with a low proportion, for it’. It is not in fact immigration, but ‘skill-biased technological change’ which is the primary cause of rising inequality, together with international trade.

One weakness in Kaushal’s style is a tendency to breeze over statistics which do not serve her case: a reference to the relatively low proportion of foreign-born people in Hungary is made in order to suggest that Hungarian antipathy to immigration is unjustified, but is illustrated by making the point that the average percentage of foreign-born people in European countries is now twelve percent. She notes ‘astounding’ numbers in relation to ‘refugee flows’, which ‘escalated’ in the early part of this decade, increasing by 48 per cent between 2011 and 2016, when there were 24 million refugees worldwide – but the main point she wants to make through reference to such significant numbers is about ‘the irony that countries that have received the most refugees are not the ones complaining most vociferously about them’.

Such avoidance of ‘difficult truths’ is a pity, because it undermines what are often refreshing and striking arguments against the myths and misrepresentations which have shaped recent policy discussion on immigration. The great merit of Kaushal’s book is that it makes the case for policies based on facts and evidence, and shows the need for political leaders to explain different ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ in ways which are considered rather than indulging unjustified antipathies and anxieties about ‘others’. Its drawback is that, with a stated agenda to ‘pacify public hostility toward immigrants’, the tone of Kaushal’s book will suggest to many readers that advocates for ‘globalisation’ have still not recognised the need for progressive politicians and opinion-formers to find a connection with voters on ‘affective’ issues and important emotional areas such as their sense of national identity and belonging, and their need to feel more secure in societies that have changed very rapidly over recent decades.


Booknotes published May 2019