11 February 2016

Debating the idea that nations have exclusive property rights on their culture


Europe is a magnet. Crowds are queuing at the Schengen borders, hoping for a safe and better life. In the receiving countries, however, people are concerned about the changes that mass immigration may mean for their political and social cultures. One of the most popular theoretical devices used to argue against more immigration is a vulgar form of club theory. The problem with it? It is too vulgar.

In a 1965 academic paper, the economist James M. Buchanan invented the category of “club goods”, filling the gap between private and public goods in welfare economics. This addresses goods the consumption of which becomes “rivalrous” only once a threshold is reached: when swimmer number 10 enters the lap pool, nobody notices; by the time swimmer number 100 does, any serious exercise has become impossible. If it is technically possible to exclude additional users of the pool, entrance can be made conditional on club membership and the optimal number of swimmers to be admitted will be found by weighing the marginal benefits (contributions) and costs (crowding) they bring.

While the focus of Buchanan’s model is on efficiency, club theory applied to immigration usually comes in a perspective of legitimacy. Supposing that a country is a club and citizens are club members, the intuition is that beyond some point which we allegedly have already reached, the marginal immigrant will create a net burden on the receiving country and should therefore rightfully be rejected. This claim however rests on a number of rather shaky assumptions and analogies.

To begin with, while we may indeed calculate the net impact of marginal immigration in GDP terms, the potentially detrimental impact on culture escapes easy measurement. Let culture be embodied in formal and informal institutions. It still isn’t simple to identify the exact impact of immigration on those; judging it as good or bad easily leads onto a slippery slope toward gut feeling and ideology.

Immigration foes then posit that citizens ought to have a right to decide on new entrants. While the normativity of this idea seems plausible at first sight, it is contestable. It flows from neither utilitarian nor contractual reasoning. And it isn’t even necessary. That we think in terms of democratic decision-making, taking place within the borders of a given country, is just a matter of realism, of “starting from here”, as Buchanan said.

In order to corroborate the legitimacy of citizen’s power to restrict entrance, the legitimacy claim often draws on the notion of ownership. It is understood that citizens are the legitimate owners of their country’s culture. Club theory in Buchanan’s original version however deals with consumption independently of ownership. Club members don’t need to be shareholders of the swimming pool for the optimal membership rule to make sense, as long as the hypothetical owner is fine with the premises being run as a club where members decide on entrants. A faithful analogy would imply that culture be viewed as potentially the property of some third party. Maybe we have it merely on loan?

In fact, political and social culture is ill conceived as a common good in common ownership. Culture is certainly non-rivalrous in use, but it is non-rivalrous beyond the limits of our own citizenry. There is no evident proof of the allegation that, like in the supposed tragedy of the commons, too many users will destroy the shared good. If only we had liberal democracy and the rule of law everywhere! Culture may indeed be inherited, but it cannot be anybody’s exclusive property, neither individually nor collectively, because it is sort of a “moving target” in the first place. Culture is ever-changing, for good or bad. And we cannot define, let alone subdivide and sell shares in it, even if we wanted.

Karen Horn is a German author, journalist and lecturer in the History of Economic Thought