The central project of the liberal welfare state is to build a society based on a high-minded ethic of altruism rather than narrow self-interest. The whole point is to create a new kind of person whose humane commitments are driven by a more cosmopolitan sensibility beyond his parochial attachments to self, family, and clan.
But the opposite has happened: Protecting the welfare state from foreign moochers has become the single biggest stimulus for nativism in the West. That's true in America, Europe, and, most surprisingly, the paragon of compassion to America's north, Canada. The more the welfare state has tried to elbow self-interest out of our accepted understanding of a "just society," the more this self-interest has asserted itself — and in ever-more vexing ways.
In America, the notion that immigrants are a drain on social welfare programs is as popular as it is fallacious. Literally every credible study shows that compared to similarly situated natives, not only do fewer immigrants use welfare, but the average value of the benefits they receive is lower too, including for low-skilled immigrants (many of whom are undocumented). Indeed, the taxes and economic contributions of immigrants — including the low-skilled — dwarf what they consume in public services. This is partly because the 1996 welfare reform act barred immigrants from most means-tested benefits. But the bigger reason is that immigrants come to America for jobs, not welfare benefits. The labor force participation rate of foreign-born men in 2010 was 80.1 percent, a full 10 percentage points higher than that of native-born men. Furthermore, immigrants tend to gravitate to states with the lowest per capital welfare spending — maybe because they have more jobs.
Nonetheless, the mere fact that the welfare state exists and that immigrants may theoretically become a drain on it has been enough to trigger a bad case of us-versus-them in this Land of Immigrants. It has become the gateway argument that seduces people to a more general nativist suspicion of foreigners — which is why nativist outfits such as the Federation for Immigration Reform and quasi-nativist ones such as the Center for Immigration Studies constantly pump out studies about immigrant welfare use. One of President Trump's leaked executive order drafts contemplated not only barring immigrants likely to use public assistance, but deporting those who do, perhaps even if no fraud is involved.
The situation is even worse in Europe, where nativist politicians have made even deeper inroads — and this despite the fact that many European countries need immigrants even more than America, thanks to their below-replacement fertility rates and aging populations.
Austria, Spain, and France — which have never been super-friendly to immigrants — are tightening up. And so are more open nations like Denmark and Sweden, which have introduced a complex set of measures to control their borders. The latest example of this anti-immigrant trend came in the recent Dutch elections, where the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte defeated the ultra-restrictionist Geert Wilders — the Dutch Donald Trump — but only after promising to impose stiff restrictions on migrant benefits to stop alleged welfare tourism. Likewise, although Germany has been heroic in its commitment to absorbing refugees fleeing the war-ravaged Middle East, it is also seeking to expel EU citizens who remain jobless for six months out of fear that they are simply hanging around for welfare benefits — never mind that there is little evidence of mass welfare abuse. Sweden, which prides itself on its cradle-to-grave welfare social programs, is flirting with new restrictions on immigrant benefits — as is England.
But the nation that takes first prize in welfare-state protectiveness is the putative paragon of human kindness: Canada.
Canada cannot afford a full-blown case of restrictionism because it is underpopulated and aging fast — and thus admits more than twice as many immigrants as America, in terms of a percentage of its population. But to protect its "universal" health-care system from foreigners, Canada ruthlessly tips its entry standards toward the young and healthy.
Old people have a very hard time getting into the country. It is impossible for parents and grandparents of landed immigrants (the equivalent of green card holders) to rack up enough points on Canada's 100-point scale to become eligible for immigration on their own. They can theoretically apply under the family-reunification quota, but that is so tiny — between 5,000 (previous conservative government) to 10,000 (current liberal government) — that wait times can sometimes span eight years.
But Canada's real harshness is directed toward the disabled, against whom it has maintained a de facto ban for decades. It requires prospective immigrants to submit to a physical and mental health exam — not merely to screen for communicable diseases as in America — but to rule out any expensive conditions that would "excessively strain" the national health system. Mild intellectual disabilities in any family member can be a disqualifier. Canadian citizens used to have a hard time even bringing in foreign spouses with expensive conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
None of this is meant as a criticism. Maybe Canada doesn't have a choice, at least if it wants to avoid running too quickly out of "other people's money" — to use Margaret Thatcher's immortal definition of socialism — by admitting more people that it can cover at any given time. But the point is that instead of making Canada more open-minded and benevolent, its national health-care system has made it more self-protective.
In other words, if America and Europe are becoming more insular to guard their welfare states, Canada is becoming more exclusive. All of this flies in the face of using the welfare state to create a "just society" full of compassion and caring communities. Indeed, in their effort to use the welfare state as a vehicle to create a new spirit of cosmopolitan socialism, liberals have only fueled a resurgence of the mean-spirited tribalism that they'd wished to purge.
Far from making all of humanity hold hands and sweetly sing kumbaya in a newfound brotherhood, welfare statists have ironically produced new fissures and divisions for nativism to prey on.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week