Immigration restrictions and casual moral assumptions

David Goodhart, a British writer and thinker, has some interesting thoughts on the interplay between immigration, multiculturalism, and policy. I think he does a great job of pointing out some problems with traditional approaches to multiculturalism, and how the left is often too blithe about the problems that living in a plural society can create. However, early on in the interview, he makes some comments that I find questionable. The first is where he quite rightly calls out immigration liberals for making unrealistic assumptions:

In a nutshell, what is the historical context of today’s multicultural Britain?

Britain had an open door policy from 1948 to 1962, when anybody from the empire or Commonwealth could come and live in Britain. That is essentially saying to some 600 million people around the world, most of them from the working classes or the peasantry, that there are no restrictions on their entry. Which was a magnificent idea, but also a bit of a disaster. Those who framed the legislation thought that no-one would come, but they did – half a million came between ’48 and ’62, albeit a small number compared to today’s figure.

Which is over half a million during the last year alone.

Yes, in terms of inflow – although there is also quite a bit of outflow. We had a parallel situation two generations later in the early 2000s, with Eastern Europeans coming to Britain from the EU. Only 15,000 were meant to come, but in reality a much larger number did.

Yes, the liberals were wrong in their estimates of how many would come. But how wrong were they about the harmful impacts of immigration? Did the UK economy collapse because hundreds of thousands instead of tens of thousands came under the EU’s open borders? This is an obvious question, but it’s left undiscussed. The casual assumption is that lots of immigrants are obviously harmful, and the interviewer does not challenge this. Goodhart explains in theoretical terms why he believes they are harmful, citing Robert Putnam’s work on social capital, but he never points to concrete instances of harm from European immigration, nor does he explain a clear causal mechanism for how lower immigrant inflows would have facilitated assimilation.

Moreover, it’s taken for granted that Putnam’s research (assuming it is correct in finding that diversity has undermined social capital in the US) is easily generalisable to other contexts. Abdolmodhammad Kazemipur attempted to reproduce Putnam’s research in Canada, and actually found the opposite: Canadian communities with greater diversity have more social capital than their homogeneous counterparts.

Goodhart makes an interesting point that historically, Britain has pursued a “light touch” when it comes to integrating non-British into its society, citing its approach to colonial governance. I’m not sure how true this is, however: in past centuries the UK had little trouble integrating Huguenot refugees or other European immigrants, even though they initially formed ethnic enclaves of their own. Goodhart makes a fair point that UK policymakers did in fact make some false assumptions about assimilation in the era of Commonwealth open borders: to my knowledge, it is true that contemporarily many people erroneously assumed the working class Briton would embrace his Commonwealth peers from Asia and the Caribbean. Stories abound of Caribbean immigrants entering the UK only to be astonished to find that although they considered themselves British, the Britons did not think the same.

Once we’ve breezily assumed that immigration must by definition reduce social capital, and assumed that this reduction in social capital outweighs all the relevant benefits of immigration (Goodhart does not clearly spell out how he is performing this cost-benefit analysis), the obvious conclusion is to reduce immigration levels:

What is to be done?

I think levels of immigration must be reduced. I certainly favour a cap, although it’s a little arbitrary and difficult to manage. But we also need to relearn how to encourage people to join in. We need to develop better ideas of integration and of what it is to be a British citizen, particularly in areas with high immigration settlement like Tower Hamlets in London, dominated by Bangladeshis, or Bradford in Yorkshire dominated by Pakistanis.

Britain has not set up patterns of residence, schooling and employment that make it easy for people to join in. Certain groups that have the cultural resilience do join in and often flourish, even if they often remain residentially segregated. But other groups tend to live separately in all areas of life, and have reproduced many of the institutions of their home country in England.

If the problem is with integration policy, why not fix integration policy? Arbitrarily forcing people to stay out of the UK is by definition incredibly harmful to all these immigrants, as any exercise of government coercive force would be. As Goodhart concedes, it is also incredibly difficult to implement. I find it particularly galling that Goodhart so breezily assumes away the problems of coercion and arbitrariness in capping immigration that he feels he should spend most of his time dwelling on integration policy instead. If immigration liberals have been too blithe in their assumptions about assimilation or quantifying immigration, this shows incredible blitheness about the injustice and difficulties involved with arbitrarily restricting immigration.

I link to this interview because I think Goodhart has interesting ideas about the challenges of integrating immigrants into British society. Many of his recommendations seem sensible. But I find it interesting that an otherwise sensible person makes so many blithe assumptions of his own about the impact of immigration, and casually embraces arbitrary use of government force against prospective immigrants. The most dangerous assumptions tend to be the ones we don’t even realise we are making.

The cartoon featured in the header of this post dates to 1899, and depicts a Chinese man who has murdered a white woman. The original caption reads: “The Yellow Terror in all his glory.”

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


2 thoughts on “Immigration restrictions and casual moral assumptions”

  1. There is one point where I would probably put emphasis on a different angle than you have. I have an upcoming blog post on this, but it may take a while, so in the meantime, this comment is my public statement on the matter. You note, correctly, that Goodhart is right to be critical of pro-immigration people (particularly those on the political left) who significantly underestimated the number of people who would migrate under a particular migration policy. You then say that it’s a non sequitur for Goodhart to conclude that they were wrong about the more substantive claim that immigration would not be harmful to natives.

    I think that with something as tricky as open borders, the more subjective claims (such as whether immigration is harmful to natives) are a lot harder to evaluate than the more objective claims (such as how many people might migrate). A neutral observer, without much knowledge of the subject, and with weak priors, would need to first determine who are the credible voices in the debate. Credibility is partly determined by one’s ability to get the easily verifiable objective metrics right, or at any rate, to not get them completely wrong, and to admit uncertainty where there is. People who consistently get the easily verifiable objective metrics right would, from the viewpoint of a neutral observer without strong priors, deserve to be taken more seriously when they make claims about the present or past that are harder to evaluate, or claims about the future, which are de facto hard to judge in the present.

    The “double world GDP” folks have always predicted that huge amounts of migration are likely to occur under open borders policies, and that restrictionist policies are a key reason why migration numbers are low. In contrast, economic determinists have tended to take the view that (to put it very simplistically) migration numbers are determined purely by economic trends and are not too sensitive to migration policy. Within the status quo, economic determinists have a good prediction record because migration policy doesn’t change enough to really test the claim. When we are talking about radical changes to the status quo, however (such as a shift from the pre-1964 US immigration regime with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act) the economic determinist-style claims of the “only a few thousand people will migrate” type are woefully wrong.

    It is tempting for open borders advocates to side with the economic determinists and pro-immigration forces predicting low migration numbers, because high numerical predictions regarding migration make the people more likely to oppose migration policies. Unfortunately, this inability to call out low migration numbers in the pro-immigration and economic determinist side has, I think, cost open borders advocates their credibility, both for (i) consistency — the high migration numbers predicted in “double world GDP” models are in stark contrast to the low migration numbers put forward by pro-immigration forces, and (ii) accuracy of predictions and forecasts — when migration numbers turn out to be much higher than forecast, then neutral observers who don’t start with strong priors will discount other more subjective and harder-to-evaluate claims made by open borders advocates.

    This is why I strongly advocate calling out economic determinist arguments and repeatedly pointing out that immigration policy is extremely effective at affecting migration levels.

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