What is the “progressive dilemma”?

This research project is focused on investigating the political aspects of the so called progressive dilemma. From a theoretical point of view, it suggests that whether or not the progressive dilemma indeed becomes a real tragic choice between immigration and redistributive justice depends on whether the “community of solidarity” between citizens is understood in ways that see immigrant-driven diversity as problematic, or indeed as diversity at all. Yet reviewing the literature, I discern some ambiguities in what we actually mean when we talk about the progressive dilemma. Thus never mind how the dilemma may be overcome, do we even know what the dilemma consists of?

At the most basic level, the progressive dilemma stipulates that there exists a trade-off or conflict between immigration and the welfare state. When David Goodhart formulated the dilemma in his 2004 article Too diverse? he put it as a conflict between diversity and solidarity. In an essay on Progressive Nationalism he explains:

The argument is simply that the more different we become from one another – the more diverse our ways of life and our religious and ethnic backgrounds – and the less we share a moral consensus or a sense of fellow feeling, the less happy we will be in the long run to support a generous welfare state.

Whilst the progressive dilemma on this formulation implies that diversity undermines solidarity by undercutting the moral consensus necessary to hone support for redistribution, it is the specific diversity that results from immigration that is at stake. The main variable is identity, the assumption being that citizens are only willing to redistribute amongst people who they feel are like themselves. Because it is immigration that is seen as the problem, it is specifically cultural, ethnic or national identity that is the problem, as it is in these respects citizens may be different from immigrants.

This focus on the relationship between ethnocultural diversity, national identity and solidarity is also at the fore of recent debates on the progressive dilemma, as explained by Will Kymlicka, who proposes a multicultural nationalism as remedy:

Large-scale immigration, and the ethnocultural diversity it brings with it, may make it more difficult to build or sustain the feelings of shared belonging and solidarity needed to maintain a robust welfare state. Extending justice to newcomers may weaken justice for the less-well-off members of the native-born working class.

These formulations of the progressive dilemma identify the problem as a lack of a shared identity and the consequence as reduced support for the welfare state. It is important here to stress that many formulations of the progressive dilemma focuses thus on the general support of the welfare state and not on support for the social rights of migrants. Welfare chauvinism does worry progressives, but the progressive dilemma is concerned not just with the inclusion of migrants in the redistributive community, but with the sustainability of the entire welfare state. This is why Bauböck, in a reply to Kymlicka, is right to point out that it is in fact a progressive trilemma. The trilemma can be described as three forms of, and perhaps conflicting, solidarity: international solidarity leading to open immigration policies, inclusive solidarity leading to including immigrants in the redistributive community and granting access to social rights, and redistributive solidarity leading to a general support of the welfare state and redistributive policies. 

I find it more helpful to think of the progressive dilemma to be primarily about openness, on the one hand, and support for the welfare state, on the other. This is because it is not straightforward that immediate inclusion in the welfare state for all immigrants is the only progressive policy option. It is also because the dilemma is only sustained by continued immigration. It is therefore openness to new immigrants that is the main potential trade-off.

A growing body of literature is trying to empirically test the progressive dilemma. Following Robert Putman’s influential paper, which argued that there is a negative relationship between ethnic diversity and social capital in the US, a vast literature has tried to test this also on the European context. The literature is basically split on this. But the progressive dilemma is not only about trust, but about solidarity, even though the two are intimately linked. Moreover, very few studies actually test the effect of national identity, which is the key variable according to the progressive dilemma.

The literature does also reveal difficulties in defining the progressive dilemma and measuring it. One key difficulty is about whether it is the objective level of immigration or citizens’ perceptions of the level of immigration that reduce solidarity. Some studies (for example this one) uses citizens’ perception of the share of immigrants in the population as a measure of the kind of immigration that may reduce solidarity. As they argue, it is presumably the perception of immigration that matters for citizens’ attitudes. Yet whilst this may certainly be the case (although this study found only a very weak effect even of the perceived presence of immigrants), it reveals how vulnerable the progressive dilemma is to the social and political context it exists in, and the biases and prejudices of citizens. What causes the progressive dilemma is crucial for the line of action one may recommend to overcome it. If it is indeed objective levels of immigration, irrespective of individual or contextual factors, then one may have to accept either less welfare or less immigration. Yet this seems, from recent research findings, not to be the case.

Rather than focusing on objective or perceived levels of immigration, which both have proved somewhat unsuccessful in establishing the progressive dilemma as a real dilemma, a recent study focuses on attitudes to immigration:

We argue that the relationship between objective immigration and popular support for the welfare state depends on how people understand these issues. Attitudes toward redistribution, attitudes toward immigration, and attitudes toward  immigrants’ social rights are all part of this immigration-welfare nexus. Indeed, whether immigration depresses support for social welfare should depend on what
individuals think about immigration
in general.

These researchers also do not find that objective immigration levels correspond to a heightened progressive dilemma, in fact the opposite seems to be the case. Yet their findings using attitudes towards immigration point in a different direction:

{Our} results demonstrate that the progressive’s dilemma—or the tension between supporting a liberal immigration policy and a redistributive welfare state—is real.

Here emerges another interpretation of what the progressive dilemma actually consists of. The problem on this account is not that immigration drives down solidarity through sociological, behavioural mechanisms, but that citizens find it difficult to support both immigration and the welfare state simultaneously. But is this the progressive dilemma? If objective immigration levels themselves do not affect this attitudinal conflict, or indeed attitudes to immigration, then there is not really a trade-off between immigration and the welfare state. Rather, there is a trade-off between gathering popular support for both liberal immigration policies and a progressive welfare state at the same time. This does indeed appear to be a progressive dilemma, but it is starkly different from the one formulated by Goodhart, which assumes that diversity caused by objective immigration is the causal mechanism that reduces support for the welfare state. And this new kind of progressive dilemma may not have anything to do with immigration at all.

As I mentioned above, identifying the causal mechanisms of the progressive dilemma, thus what actually makes it a dilemma, is critical also for the normative literature. The debate has been ongoing in political theory, and political economy, for at least three decades (see Gary Freeman’s article from 1986, for example). Yet simply establishing that a progressive dilemma may exist is not particularly helpful and it certainly does not lead to the conclusions recommending restricting immigration policies that many have drawn. The fact that researchers struggle to find a negative relationship between objective immigration and support for the welfare state suggests that if the dilemma does nonetheless exist, it is the way in which immigration comes to be understood as problematic for the “community of solidarity” that constructs it. Even if it is diversity that erodes a shared identity, leading citizens to be less motivated to redistribute amongst each other, we need to understand what kind of diversity that erodes what kind of shared identities at what times and in what contexts.

This project is devoted to these questions, as it seeks to understand not the role of immigration and welfare as such, but rather the underlying conceptions of the “community of solidarity” that construct ideas and attitudes about identity, the boundaries of redistribution and the sources of solidarity. I thus suggest that there is an underlying but critical moral and political dimension to the progressive dilemma, which contributes to whether it becomes prominent or not (see also my previous research).

Lastly, I should add that there is purely economic dimension of the progressive dilemma as well. Whilst what I have discussed here is concerned with the motivational bases of the welfare state, another concern is that extensive welfare states with a compressed income structure and highly regulated labour markets, like the Scandinavian ones, are not compatible with large low-skilled migration. There is some evidence of this, but I will leave this question to the economists to figure out.


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