Thursday, December 16, 2010

Multiculturalism in Trouble

The elected members of anti-immigrant parties in the Netherlands and Sweden have recently joined government coalitions and as a result have important direct influence on immigration policies. More indirect influence on policies have been achieved by anti-immigrant parties, which have recently gained 29 percent of the votes cast in Switzerland, 22 percent in Norway, 17 percent in Austria and 14 percent in Denmark. (In the 2008 federal elections in Canada 6.9 percent of the vote went to the Green party and 18.2 percent to the NDP). In Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel caused a stir around the world when recently she said “Multiculturalism in Germany has failed”.

What is behind the growing public support of anti-immigrant parties and concern over multiculturalism in Europe? The ruling elites argue that the current economic crisis has activated the ever latent populist, extreme-right, racist and anti-Islam views held by a minority of the population. These elites expect that the anti-immigrant parties will lose support and the critics of multiculturalism will be silent once economic prosperity is returned. The validity of this assertion is doubtful in the light of the fact that anti-immigrant parties in Europe prospered well before the 2008 economic crisis.

A more plausible explanation of the growth in anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe is the public’s perceived threat to the very essence of their national identity and a sense of belonging, which are anchored in their cultural, social, religious and economic institutions. The threat is seen to emanate from immigrant communities that fail to integrate into the societies of their host countries and often challenge existing institutions, all encouraged by official policies of multiculturalism.

For example, the viability of Scandinavia’s generous social programs is threatened by practices of some immigrants who do not adhere to the traditional behavioural norms. Muslim minorities in several countries are demanding the selective application of Sharia laws, the acceptance of honour killings and head scarves for women. Practices of civil society, like queuing for services sometimes are disregarded by some immigrants. In Central and Western Canada, a number of criminal gangs dominated by members of immigrant communities engage in much publicized violence.

In several European countries the growth of anti-immigrant parties has prompted some changes in immigration and multicultural policies. In Canada, Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration released a new citizenship guide with very similar goals.

These new policies require immigrants to know or learn their host countries’ languages and to accept existing national laws, institutions and values rather than demand changes to accommodate their own cultural norms. The granting of citizenship will become conditional upon meeting these and other requirements.

These new policies basically represent a repudiation of multiculturalism, which had been created with the expectation that it would end strife and wars. I believe that this repudiation has a deep root. The need of human beings to belong to and unite behind a common culture, institutions and values is part of human nature. This need is hard-wired because of its survival value during evolutionary history. It cannot be overcome by government policies and coercion aimed at its elimination.

The world’s experience with policies designed to create socialist and communist utopias provides an interesting historic parallel. These policies were based on the notion that selfish behaviour of individuals operating in a capitalist free market system created income inequalities, economic crises, environmental degradation and other alleged pathologies. Policies to create these utopias ended in the face of persistent selfish behaviour that, like the need to unite behind a common culture is deeply embedded in human nature and is hard-wired because of its evolutionary survival value.

Canada has been spared the political turmoil that in Europe resulted from the creation and success of anti-immigrant parties. However, the public’s desire to preserve Canada’s culture, institutions and values has been growing and undoubtedly has played a role in the recent federal government’s issue of the citizenship guide for immigrants.

Some concerned Canadians are not satisfied with this guide and have created the organization Canadians for Immigration Policy Reform, which lobbies for more changes to current immigration policies and maintains a website to present facts and analysis of the issues. The government ignores at its own risk the public’s desire for the further modification of multicultural policies for the protection of Canada’s culture, institutions and values.

Herbert Grubel
Professor of Economics (Emeritus), Simon Fraser University
Senior Fellow, the Fraser Institute