Should we opt for less just or less beneficial policies on the basis of the expectation that a majority of citizens,Footnote 10 or at least a vociferous minority of citizens, will not comply with what would be the best policy option if it were not for their expected reaction? Should migration policy continue to lag behind theory because of the fear of social instability engendered by anti-immigration backlashes?
At first sight, even if anti-immigration backlashes are predictable, it seems that their harmful consequences should not be taken into account at all in the context of these discussions. A first ostensible reason for this is that those arguing for restricting immigration and anti-immigration troublemakers are often one and the same group: or at least good allies. “If you do not give up your plan, I will make trouble; and this is a reason against your plan” is emphatically not a good argument. This first response is, however, too swift. The argument against immigration based on anti-immigration backlashes can be presented in good faith, even if perhaps good faith cannot always be assumed in this context. The defenders of this argument may, for instance, try to insulate their claims from the backlash itself: perhaps they would, at least, avoid making such claims in public debates, thereby averting the problematic self-fulfilling nature of the argument. After all, pointing at predictable, robust patterns of human behaviour which happen independent of one’s words and deeds is not coercion.
There are, however, serious difficulties with this counter-objection. It seems that such predictable and robust patterns — the anti-immigration backlashes — cannot function as background facts in normative discussions. The main reason is that they are themselves under moral scrutiny: they are, after all, the consequence of human attitudes and the choices based thereupon. These are the typical sorts of thing that are under moral scrutiny: attitudes, choices, behaviours. If this is correct, anti-immigration backlashes cannot a fortiori appear in normative discussions regarding migration. The additional reason is that the moral scrutiny of attitudes and behaviours towards immigrants belongs to very theme being discussed. This is not a distant area of morality that can be temporarily relegated to the factual background. Perhaps restrictive migration policies are unjust, harmful or both. If they are, this normative content must feature prominently in the evaluation of anti-immigration attitudes and behaviours. Any choice based on such attitudes would lead to harmful and unjust decisions: morally reprehensible decisions. Taking anti-immigration backlashes as merely the factual background seems to blatantly beg the question.
This conclusion is straightforward for theorists who, as a matter of justice, do not admit restrictions on migration. For these theorists, the harmful consequences of anti-immigration backlashes must be simply dismissed for moral reasons as they result from non-compliant behaviours that undermine just policy. Such costs cannot be employed against fundamental right-based considerations. The language of costs is not pertinent when reasoning about rights, and costs due to non-compliant behaviour are not pertinent for a still stronger reason, as this behaviour is under moral scrutiny. But even theories that do admit restrictions fare no better. Here the issue pertains to the cost-benefit analysis in the policy discretion area. For these theorists, the harmful consequences of anti-immigration backlashes can be measured against the benefits of migration. Such costs may even tip the balance in favour of more restrictive migration measures: or suggest caution and a slower pace of progress. But, as argued above, in normative discussions pertaining what policy is desirable we cannot take such circumstances for granted as if they were merely part of the factual background.
The issue of backlashes, however, resurfaces at a later stage, when we try to put the prescriptions of these theories in practice. It is, in fact, not clear what these theories actually prescribe, as they offer no guidance regarding a second-best in the face of widespread backlashes nor information about sustainable transition pathways. Instability may be so acute that the enforcement of the prescribed policy could be called into question. The problem with ignoring anti-immigration backlashes alltogether lies in the practical hollowness of such directive. We are left without guidance for stopping the troublemakers. When the side-effects of an otherwise just or beneficial policy are predictably severe, what is the desirable policy? To be sure, such side-effects are generated by mechanisms which are questionable, i.e. non-compliant behaviours. Yet until no plans to increase compliance are presented, the prescriptions of the theory are difficult to discern. This is most clear when, as in this case, non-compliant behaviours may threaten political stability. In such conditions, not even the smooth enforcement of the theoretically more desirable policy can be taken for granted.
Reflecting on anti-immigration backlashes brings us into a well-known theoretical knot of normative theorising: one that pertains to the relation between normative theories and their practical prescriptions in the real world, or ideal and non-ideal theory. It was argued above that we have strong reasons for less restrictive anti-immigration policy (section 3) and that the costs of anti-immigration backlashes (as spelled out in section 2) cannot count against these reasons (this section above). The latter is, in the language of political philosophy, an idealist move: some important facts regarding compliance are ignored for the sake of discussing how the world should be (Valentini 2012). I do not intend, here, to contribute directly to this important methodological discussion. Yet I would like to argue that what motivates disagreements about the role of real-world constraints in normative theorising may be oftentimes a disagreement about how constraints should be conceptualised, ultimately based on different epistemological, empirical and political views.
In particular, those arguing for taking into account the costs of non-compliant behaviour, such as anti-immigration backlashes, may think that some facts about compliance — and, more general, facts about feasibility — are recalcitrant to change whatever our best political aspirations are. The question is not so much whether or not certain facts should count in normative theorising: anti-immigration backlashes cannot be measured — with the same morally charged currency, as it were — against the benefits of less restrictive immigration policy, as they are under moral scrutiny. Yet these facts nonetheless matter because and as long they cannot be changed. This may seem a mere reformulation of the aforementioned theoretical knot. For those who accept the formula ‘ought implies can’ indeed it is: something can be under moral scrutiny only if it can change, i.e. if it can be done otherwise, therefore the backlashes are placed under moral scrutiny only if they can be changed. Yet the new vocabulary allows us to notice something additional, namely that whether some circumstances can be changed is oftentimes a matter of degree. Recalcitrance to change can be more or less severe. It may be more or less difficult to avert particular patterns of behaviour or to change people’s minds. This gradual nature of the resistance that the circumstances offer against our attempt at political transformation is practically of the utmost importance. Feasibility is not binary. The blunt alternative between can and cannot enshrined in ‘ought implies can’ is unable to capture such practically crucial gradations. We decide on its basis how much effort we are ready to make towards certain social and political transformations and whether we should instead reconsider our practical objectives. This focus is realist, as it asks to take into account the status quo, including considerations regarding robust, recurrent patterns of possibly non-compliant behaviour when deciding what we practically ought to do (Galston 2010; North 2010).
The approach defended here is, then, idealistic insofar it ignores a number of facts regarding compliance when discussing the question of whether a world with less immigration restrictions would be a desirable one. At the same time, the approach is robustly realist as it calls attention to the practical importance of feasibility constraints, including facts about human nature that tend to produce non-compliant behaviours. Joseph Carens (1996) argued — notably: in the context of the political theory of migration — that these two levels of idealisation need not to be seen as incompatible. And they are not, “excluding altogether absurd moral demands, which would involve breaking the laws of physics” (Valentini 2012, p. 8), as questions of feasibility are a gradual matter, including constraints on feasibility that are due to common, robust psychological features of human beings. The world would be a better place with less restrictions on immigration, but yet facts about anti-immigration backlashes are relevant when planning actions. Here I would like to add to Carens’s methodological pluralism a further hypothesis regarding why disagreement on the role of factual constraints in normative discussions persists even though idealism and realism, so reconstructed,Footnote 11 are not incompatible. The hypothesis is that such disagreement — at least in part — may ultimately be due to a deeper divide between two sets of general attitudes towards political and social change.
These two sets of attitudes are sometimes described in terms of reformism (or progressivism) and conservatism. Progressives have, by definition,Footnote 12 faith in social and political change. They believe that human behaviour is malleable and that reasons, including normative reasons, are the instruments of choice for change. The effectiveness of normative reasoning in changing attitudes and behaviours underpins the claim that change is desirable, as it ensures that the lag between ideals and reality will eventually disappear because human behaviour, driven by reason, will catch up. This is an optimistic take on transformation. Such optimism encourages the pursuit of social and political change. As far as the debate on migration is concerned, progressives typically want to overcome the status quo of restrictive norms. As progressives are optimists, they believe that anti-immigration backlashes do not belong to the factual background. Such backlashes are deviant, irrational behaviours that can be changed. If there is a lag between reason and practice — and the lag in the migration case is wide — the former will eventually pull the latter.
Political optimism, progressivism and preferences for open borders are sets of beliefs often defended in concert. There is, however, no conceptual necessity here. This is merely a family of views that fit contingently together. If the status quo was different, the progressive label would perhaps be attached somewhere else in this debate. Importantly, the facility of change is just one among several considerations that makes it desirable; hence optimism does not imply progressivism in a strong sense either. For the purposes of our practical question, the only aspect that matters is whether such optimism is well-founded: whether anti-immigration backlashes can be averted.
Conservatives take, also by definition, the opposite stance towards social and political change. They fear it. Change may cause unwanted side-effects, thus damaging the fragile edifice of society. Such damages are sometimes entirely predictable; sometimes they are harder to foresee. This suggests that a conservative would argue in the case of anti-immigration backlashes and their harmful consequences as follows. Reactions against immigration are robust social regularities. They are grounded in human nature, in ingrained human propensities such as xenophobia or the psychological coupling of in-group solidarity and out-group discrimination. These are tendencies against which reasoning in general and moral reasoning specifically are often powerless. The conservative’s is hence a skeptical outlook. It treats anti-immigration backlashes as a fixed cost, as a predictable consequence of change. Skeptics suggest caution. Since the status quo is restrictive, restrictions should remain in place or be changed very slowly. Possibly, anti-immigration reactions are protecting society from unforeseen negative effects which would be generated by a too rapid change in the composition and culture of the resident population.
The conservative’s is also a coherent set of views often supported together. Yet again, there is no conceptual necessity in this family of views either. If open borders were the status quo, skeptics would suggest caution in the introduction of restrictions, fearing disruption of extant and functioning patterns of cooperation. One can moreover despise particular social and political transformations even if such transformations are likely to be smooth and lack major unwanted side-effects. For the purposes of the practical question, the only aspect that matters is whether such skepticism is well-founded: whether anti-immigration backlashes are recalcitrant to change.
Should we then be optimistic or skeptical in regard to anti-immigration backlashes? Some possible answers are discussed below. For the moment, it should be pointed out that there is a continuum between optimism and skepticism. This continuum corresponds to the gradual nature of the resistance circumstances offer against our attempts at political transformation. Political optimism and skepticism are not sets of beliefs that may be correct or not. They are rather general epistemic postures. Confronted with social transformations, optimists look for adequate tools for change and open opportunities, skeptics search instead for constraints and unseen side-effects. These are, importantly, complementary postures. The blunt can-vs-cannot divide does not once again capture the whole range of possibilities that lies between hard constraints on transformation and circumstances which can be modified at will without consequences.
Moreover, whether some patterns of behaviour are robust is an empirical question. To be sure, it is unlikely that empirical evidence will ever decide the answers to questions related to social and political transformation. Yet answers to these questions can be at least informed by scientific research. There will certainly be ample room for interpretation of the relevant evidence. This adds an epistemic layer of uncertainty that further compels us not to collapse our practical question into a neat can-vs-cannot alternative. Whether a set of circumstances can be transformed is fuzzy through and through, on the epistemic as well as the ontological side. What we lose in certainty by abandoning the precision of the can-vs-cannot distinction we do, however, gain in width. A wide range of findings regarding human behaviour and attitudes becomes relevant with the adoption of the practical perspective. Crucially, disagreement will no longer be a pure matter of normative discord. Neither will we be dealing with conflicting methodologies regarding normative reasoning. Such types of normative and methodological disagreement have often proven to be intractable. If the issue is empirical, there are instead shared standards against which we hope we can make progress. This is an attractive feature of the practical perspective, in addition to its width.Footnote 13