With immigration, perceptions matter more than reality

by Tyler Cowen

Whatever else it may be about, the debate over immigration is first and foremost about perceptions. The question is not just how many foreigners are in your country, but how many you notice.

In the U.S., immigration tends to be popular in urban areas with a lot of immigrants. Partly that’s because the economic benefits of immigrants are easy to see when you deal with them a lot, but some of it is also perception. If you are used to seeing many immigrants around, you may not notice or care if the percentage of immigrants in your community rises from 24% to 26%. But if it rises from 0% to 2%, you can bet it will be noticed and debated in your community.

Recent evidence indicates that the U.S. has been overestimating the number of foreign-born individuals in the country; there may be as many as 2 million fewer than the official tally of about 46 million. This doesn’t make critics of immigration feel any better, and the development essentially has been ignored. That’s because the debate over immigration policy is more about the feeling than the actual number.

I write this from Sweden, which historically has not had many non-Western immigrants, unlike the U.K. or France. But the foreign-born population in Sweden has been rising and is now almost one-quarter of this country of 10.5 million, with about half of that from outside Europe. Walking around Stockholm, I have noticed a lot of non-European faces.

It is conventional wisdom in the U.S., especially among commentators on the right side of the political spectrum, that Swedish immigration policy has been a disaster. Sweden also has a populist right party in its governing coalition, the Sweden Democrats, largely because the mainstream parties have been slow to address migration issues. The Swedish murder rate has risen sharply in recent years, and there have been bombings and shootouts in Stockholm, many connected with immigrant groups.

At the same time, it is inarguable that Sweden could use more people, including young people — the country’s total fertility rate is less than 1.6, well below replacement level. Furthermore, Swedes often do not want to do the jobs associated with immigrants, such as driving Ubers or taking care of children or the elderly. And it’s worth noting that the Swedish murder rate is still only about one-sixth of that of the U.S. From my perspective, the country is a very safe place.

When I am in a foreign city and in search of interesting food, I have a trick: In which neighborhood, I ask the locals, am I most likely to get murdered? In Stockholm, Rinkeby was the answer, even though many of the people I asked had never been.

So I went to Rinkeby, which is mostly non-White and most notably Somalian. There were Yemeni, Ethiopian, Persian and other restaurants. (I had a good chicken mandi at one called Maida.) I felt safe the entire time, and saw plenty of solo women, including some blonde Swedes, walking leisurely along the main street, as well as many women with head coverings. I saw a Western Union office and a driving school, signs that people have some funds to send away or invest in a car.

It is well known that the area has some serious problems, including violence. But from my American and northern-Virginian perspective, Rinkeby felt lively and successful, and more likely to get better than worse.

Wise immigration policy consists of a balancing of perspectives. On one hand, Sweden cannot keep increasing its rate of immigrant absorption, or parties such as the Sweden Democrats will gain too much ground. Future prospective immigrants would lose out too, not to mention the political costs imposed on native-born Swedes. In Sweden, it simply isn’t going to work to ignore Swedes’ perceptions.

On the other hand, immigration to Sweden is going better than its critics say. Sweden remains a prosperous and dynamic country, with one of the best startup scenes in Europe. Those too are secondary consequences of the extreme openness of Swedish society, even if the costs of high immigration sometimes wear Swedes down.

The trick is to keep all these perspectives in mind at the same time. And to always be willing to try new restaurants.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, a professor of economics at George Mason University and host of the Marginal Revolution blog.