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We’re pretty complex animals us humans. And every day that complexity is distilled, frozen and separated in partisan, media and social media fuelled political debate. It’s as if, metaphorically speaking, different parts of our brain are positioned at opposite ends of the boxing ring, then set against other in mortal combat. The resulting fracas isn’t pretty viewing.

Nowhere is this process more apparent than in the debate over ‘benefit tourism’. The concept of ‘benefit tourism’ is the notion that migrants from poorer European nations (in the main) are coming to our shores to feast on the ambrosia that is our generous welfare state. In this perspective, this is seen as a significant pull factor in consistent net migration to the UK.

But wait, there is another view. There has been some number crunching activity taking place. It turns out that this is not as significant a problem as those highlighting the problem claim. Migrants are less likely to claim working-age benefits than British citizens; the overall cost is negligible compared to the economic and fiscal benefits that migration brings. There are numbers to prove it. If one looks into the emotively termed ‘benefit scrounger’ debate a similar debate is apparent. Of course, I am giving this viewpoint the ‘evidence’ label but it also expresses a set of deeper values- it is just that they are expressed through the prism of evidence.

And yet, the evidence doesn’t appear to sway public opinion. The reason is obvious: duplicitous politicians, media conditioning and false consciousness. Only joking. They are just the explanations that the ‘evidence-mongers’ use to explain their failure to win the argument. They then accuse the other side of ‘fear-mongering’ (which is, in fairness, true to certain extent especially when evidence is deliberately distorted) and anyone who seeks to engage with the moral complexity of this debate instead of just citing data as ‘pandering’.

Who’s right? Actually, they both are. Many who express a concern at free-riding on welfare and the migration system are expressing a worldview of policy as values. In this viewpoint, explained quite clearly by Jonathan Haidt and many others, there is a moral outlook of fairness as reciprocity and contribution. To the extent that welfare and migration systems allow any significant free-riding whatsoever then those institutions become invalid in this policy as 'values' view. So the fact that it is not significantly high misses the point. The point is that the system may allow it and so the system itself is seen as flawed. If the response is to dismiss these concerns purely on the basis of evidence then that actually undermines support for welfare and migration systems. It simply ratchets up the volume as (alternative) value-based concerns are not engaged with.

On the other hand, we can’t just simply run policy in a manner that is divorced from evidence. The contribution made to the debate by evidence is critical. Migration and welfare systems sit within a wider debate about national prosperity and values. All these institutions comprise complex interlocking systems, cultures and value-sets. If one set of concerns come to dominate then wider considerations of national interest become skewed. This is precisely why migration and welfare concerns are deployed by those who want Britain to exit the EU.

The depressing reality is that there is both a place for values and evidence in this discussion. If we had a greater degree of self-awareness, then there could be some dialogue between these cognitive framings. Acknowledgement is the first step to dialogue. A healthy democracy with publicly interested leaders can navigate the evidence/values divides and help us craft and maintain a set of institutions that are anchored evidence and values. Sounds idealistic from today’s vantage but it’s got to be worth a try.


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