The United Kingdom in the past few years has embarked on an aggressive campaign to cut down immigration. Restrictionist sentiments are alive and well amongst the British. A few months back, I wrote about how perplexing it was that even British left liberals, such as author David Goodhart, readily embrace restrictionist myths and assumptions. Unfortunately, in the UK — just as in most countries — the well-meaning side making the case on anecdotes instead of facts wins. Instead of debating the real issues at hand — such as what keyhole solutions are appropriate — we’re essentially debating whether Jews do in fact poison wells or Mexicans are in fact potheads.
Goodhart recently authored a book, The British Dream, purporting to show the disaster that has been British immigration. This book turned out to have played very loose and fast with the data, as economist Jonathan Portes observed in the London Review of Books. If you enjoy watching a train wreck, Portes published an unabridged version of his debate with Goodhart (since the LRB refused to give them both sufficient space to respond to each other) — Portes shows clearly how Goodhart has ignored the economics of immigration and blatantly insisted on substituting anecdotes for data.
This fact was driven home to me a couple months ago when I attended a Cato Institute panel on what economists think about immigration. The economic consensus: there is no evidence that immigration economically harms natives; any harms are so small that they are virtually indistinguishable from zero. Yet looking at the debate on immigration, you would think that only deportation can save the welfare state or provide jobs. Goodhart himself blames British immigrants for impoverishing British whites and stealing their jobs — and he is on the left of the British immigration debate!
After the Cato panel, one audience member from Ukraine came up to moderator Alex Nowrasteh and panelist Michael Clemens to say: your presentations were great, but what do your opponents say to rebut your claims that immigration doesn’t harm natives? Alex and Clemens essentially said: “nothing!” Even the strongest finding here has been that 20 years of immigration to the US caused a total 3% drop in the wages of low-skilled natives. If you take a simple average of that, it’s a 0.15% drop per year. And that itself is a figure which many economists mistrust, because it makes arguably naive assumptions about the economy — such as assuming capital investments don’t change in response to labour market changes. Why do even people on the left buy into the myths of immigration’s costs? This would be like a leftist saying “Yes, I suppose we can’t let all the Chinese in, since otherwise they might rape too many of our women, but we have to treat those we do let in better!”
The Cato panel focused on the US economy, but economists who’ve studied the issue in other developed countries have had just as hard a time finding harmful impacts to natives. Portes covers the issue well in his full discussion with Goodhart — British data show that youth unemployment fell in communities receiving more immigrants, which is exactly counter to Goodhart’s claims. Yet the myth that immigrants “steal” jobs persists.
The myth that immigration destroys jobs or drives down wages may seem a petty issue in comparison to the myth that Jews drink the blood of babies or that Mexicans are drug mules (this latter myth came up in plenty of informal discussion after the Cato panel, since one American Congressman had only just that week made the physically impossible assertion that virtually all unauthorised Mexican immigrants carried 75 pounds of marijuana with them across the border). But these economic myths are I daresay even more harmful than the petty racist myths that no right-thinking person today believes. These myths give a veneer of respectability to inhumane immigration policies that in fact destroy jobs, tear apart households, and spit upon the concepts of justice and fairness.
The Cato panel on what economists think about migration came to mind again and again as I followed a recent debate in the UK House of Lords about the impact of new immigration laws. The full transcript of that debate is quite interesting reading, and you can also always watch the debate if you prefer (the video opens at the start of the debate in the House of Lords that day, around 11am; skip ahead to 3:41pm for the start of the immigration debate).
The gist of the problem is this: the British government wants to reduce rates of immigration, by hook or by crook. To accomplish this, they have enacted seemingly arbitrary requirements for prospective immigrants to meet. And now, the government is reaping what it has sowed: British citizens are unhappy that their rights to invite and engage with foreigners have been severely curtailed, in the service of a regime that reduces jobs and families down to a single number: zero net non-EU migration. This debate in the House of Lords centred specifically on restrictions of the rights of British citizens and residents to invite their family members to the UK — rights that have been arbitrarily curtailed in worship of a nonsensical goal.
The debate is so interesting that I hope to blog about it in depth separately. Suffice it to say that it is a litany of failures in every imaginable way. When you have a government trying to centrally plan immigration — to issue an edict from upon high that no more than X number of immigrants must be allowed in — you have an economic and human disaster. Doctors who cannot care for their aged parents leave the country. British businesspeople who marry foreigners are told they should go live in Australia. A Syrian refugee trying to join her sons in the UK, with a charity guaranteeing and sponsoring her, is told by the British government that she should stay in the war zone that is Syria. The British government purports to establish a fair and firm regime for immigration — by mandating that only high-income Britons may marry a foreigner. It is estimated that almost half of all Britons do not earn enough to meet the income requirements for sponsoring a spouse’s visa — and even if they can apply, success is not assured, as in the case of one British-Australian couple told their visa was denied because there is no pressing need for their family to leave Australia.
In what must certainly be a frustrating turn of events for economists like Clemens and Portes, most of the Lords in that debate paid lip service to the goal of reducing immigration, taking for granted that it is, as matter of good policy, important and desirable to cut down immigration by what is essentially an arbitrary number pulled out of thin air. Some even forthrightly state that many of the new restrictions are good insofar as they create jobs for British youth. It is like hearing a lawmaker declare that it’s unfortunate that good people would be harmed by exiling all Jews, but at least this mass deportation would reduce the prevalence of poisoned wells in Britain.
Open borders — by which I mean an actual fair visa regime that grants a presumptive freedom of movement to all — is the only regime that can truly avoid the calamities and catastrophes we are witnessing today in the UK, and continue to witness every day across the world. As long as arbitrary laws ban our fellow humans from being with their families and seeking honest wages, we will continue to count the costs of closed borders in wasted tears, sweat, and blood. Any regime that declares “I have the arbitrary right to ban good people from being with their families if I feel like it” — which is exactly what the unjustified, pulled-out-of-thin-air numerical quotas of the sort we see in virtually every country today amount to — is utterly irreconcilable with basic humanity.
Open borders is not costless. One can well imagine that if we moved overnight from the closed borders regime to an open one, most developed countries would face an unmanageable flood of people. But it’s not clear to me why we count this as a cost of the open borders regime, rather than a cost of the closed one. If we had never closed the borders in the first place, we would never have had to worry about the adjustment costs of undoing our grievous mistake. Before we closed the world’s borders, we had no evidence that levels of immigration then reduced wages or employment. This is unsurprising; economists agree that the long-run effect of open borders is nil. It is only the short-run sudden release of migrants, held back artificially by arbitrary laws, that we need to manage carefully.
Only a few days ago, the Bristol Freedom Society hosted a debate on open borders — one that apparently went rather better for the open borders side than the similar Intelligence Squared debate recently hosted on the American side of the pond. Reflecting on the Bristol debate, Ben Southwood of the Adam Smith Institute cogently observed:
Any claim that migration should be kept to a particular level, because of the risk of undermining British institutions, implies an assumption about how much damage the marginal immigrant does or will do (reliably or with some probability). One cannot cop out of the question, you need to have an answer. But no one has yet set out good evidence about exactly how much damage to institutions the marginal immigrant does or will do—typically arguments in this area depend on anecdote or things that people feel they “just know”. This won’t do when the benefits to immigration are so high. We cannot simply assume the cost to our institutions outweighs the other benefits.
As Southwood suggests, the paucity of evidence for the claims frequently made about migration is appalling. Meanwhile, the evidence of the moral horrors of how we treat migrants is plain for all to see. Closing the borders for the sake of an arbitrary number ruins lives. We see that writ on a large scale today in the UK. There is no sense or logic possible under the law the moment justice is enslaved to an arbitrary quota. And it is all the more sad that the profound injustice of a quota on jobs and a quota on families is being perpetuated on the basis of ignorance and falsehoods. In no other area of law or public policy do we let the government so wantonly rip up families and destroy jobs, without due process, relying only on the evidence of myths — to the extent they rely on evidence at all. It’s time we demanded our governments do something different about immigration — something actually informed by the evidence and consistent with the rule of law.
The cartoon featured in the header dates to 1886, and depicts fears of Chinese immigration to Sydney, Australia.