Megan McArdle (via Instapundit) makes some compelling points, taking a visit to England as an opportunity to reflect on Brexit — that is, the possible “British exit” from the European Union. She phrases the contentious issue in terms of class — with the elites and immigrants squeezing the natives between. Where she errs, I’d suggest, is in leaving open the possibility that the elites really do have a more-evolved moral framework:
… People do care more about people who are like them — who speak their language, eat their food, share their customs and values. And when elites try to ignore those sentiments — or banish them by declaring that they are simply racist — this doesn’t make the sentiments go away. It makes the non-elites suspect the elites of disloyalty. For though elites may find something vaguely horrifying about saying that you care more about people who are like you than you do about people who are culturally or geographically further away, the rest of the population is outraged by the never-stated corollary: that the elites running things feel no greater moral obligation to their fellow countrymen than they do to some random stranger in another country. And perhaps we can argue that this is the morally correct way to feel — but if it is truly the case, you can see why ordinary folks would be suspicious about allowing the elites to continue to exercise great power over their lives.
The sketch drawn in that paragraph needs revision in a couple of important ways. For one, it’s not just that elites exercise great power over our lives, but that we, as a society, have given them that power in order to act in our interests. It was once a deal, and it isn’t just rank nationalism to object to one side’s decision not to live up to its end of the bargain. In the classical arrangement, the elites of one area depended on the productivity of the people of their fiefdoms in order to compete with the elites of other areas. Now — although we distribute power with that arrangement still assumed — the elites’ priorities have flipped.
That leads to the second major revision necessary to McArdle’s picture: namely, that elites don’t just feel “no greater moral obligation” to their countrymen than to “some random stranger in another country,” but that they prioritize those strangers even more. Note this paragraph, which McArdle undervalues, treating it mainly as scene setting (emphasis added):
Luton is a city of about 200,000 people on the outskirts of London. It was once known for its manufacture of hats, and in 1905, Vauxhall Motors opened a manufacturing plant in Luton. The company stopped making passenger cars there in 2002, and the town is now — like so many places in Europe and America — looking for its post-industrial future. EasyJet, a budget airline, is based there, but as you so often find in similar cities in the U.S., the biggest employers are the local government and the local hospital. It has also had a dramatic shift in population. The Luton council estimates that “between 50% and 75% of the population would not have lived in Luton or not have been born at the time of the 2001 Census.” It is now minority white British, and only barely majority white.
If that seems familiar to readers of this site, it may be the strong echo in a profile of Lawrence, Massachusetts, that appeared here last October:
A decade later, presumably with improved mobility and energy technology, the manufacturers began pulling up stakes and heading to the South, where they could still find non-union labor. Then, after the “forty year period of relative stability” spanning the Great Depression, World War II, and the early stages of national recuperation, the businesses began relocating again, this time to other countries. Those that remained chose the opposite strategy and effectively began importing less-expensive workers from the Hispanic regions to the South of the United States, which “continues today.” According to the 2010 Census, in a state that is 76% white-non-Hispanic, Lawrence is 74% Hispanic.
In Lawrence, too, government and services subsidized by government account for much of the local economy and all of its employment growth. That is, immigrants are no longer as McArdle describes their having been historically in the United States: “One group of immigrants moves in, creates an enclave, then gets rich, assimilates and moves out, making way for the next group that will throw a little of their food, their language and their customs into our vast melting pot.” Rather, just as the manufacturers that once exploited and dumped Lawrence tried importing foreign workers as cheaper labor, government and its satellites are now importing clients to ensure that their services continue to justify taxing others.
Technology and government have killed much of the opportunity that used to make cities incubators for new immigrant groups, so they won’t arrive of their own volition, and they won’t find it in their own economic interests to assimilate. Other incentives must be created, in a system of benefits that keeps up the leverage of elites who still rely upon place, but not upon the people originally from that place.
In our progressive, quasi-socialist society, elites sit atop a fiefdom of unionized government employees and the people to whom they offer services. Those who may share their national heritage, but not their economic model, are the Other, not because they’re mired in atavistic nationalism, but because they generally operate outside the loop of big government.