Tag Archives: United Kingdom

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.”

Anti-immigration marketing, consistent with open borders

I’ve been following the story of the United Kingdom’s plan to run advertising that will deter Romanian immigrants by playing up Britain as a bad destination, but it didn’t really pique my interest that much at first. After all, from an open borders point of view, there’s nothing wrong with anti-immigration speech — it’s anti-immigration coercion that has to clear a bar. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued, after I read this BBC article about a Romanian counter-campaign aimed at inviting British immigration to Romania.

The article is a fun read in of itself, but I also found this quote near the end, from an open letter signed by some Socialist Members of the European Parliament, to be noteworthy:

We are facing the danger of citizens of the newest member states being prevented from exercising their rights guaranteed to them by EU treaties.

What is more, we believe that a wave of hostile statements since the beginning of the year aims to stigmatise these citizens as second-class Europeans who pose a threat to the social systems, just because they want to exercise their basic rights to free movement and work.

I’m a bit of an EU-agnostic, at least when it comes to political integration. But on this particular point, I say to the Socialists, bravo! The only quarrel I would pick with their statement is that it seems curiously myopic for an ideology which started out as explicitly international and humanist in nature. What makes Europeans so much more innately entitled to the “basic rights [of] free movement and work”?

One could make a racial argument I suppose, but even Europeans are a bit antsy about declaring Western and Eastern Europeans as being of the same stock (this is part of the reason there exists British tension about Eastern European immigration in the first place). And besides, outside a vocal fringe, racial arguments are not very compelling.

One could argue that citizenship in an EU member state is what counts, because of the EU’s political nature. In a legal sense, this is absolutely correct. But in a moral sense, it seems odd that a basic right ought to derive from the state. The point of a basic right, after all, is that barring some disqualifying reason, we tend to assume a person in good standing should be entitled to it.

And moving around or working, in of themselves, are not political acts. One could argue that voting is a “basic right” but naturally something to be circumscribed by the state because of its nature. Well and true, but naturalisation, and arguably permanent settlement, are the only ways that immigration might be a political act. Simply exercising one’s freedom of movement and freedom to work is not a political act — it is a basic right.

The Socialists’ statement echoes with me because with a few emendations, it is a concise summary of the open borders moral philosophy:

Arbitrary immigration restrictions stigmatise people as second-class humans who pose a threat to the social system, just because they want to exercise their basic rights to free movement and work.

The “No One Is Illegal” YouTube video

A YouTube video by the No one is illegal group has been doing the rounds (if you have trouble playing the embedded video, access it on YouTube here). I’d like to thank John Roccia (here’s his blog) for sending me the link.

The video, which appears to have been shot in London, is set up as follows: the protagonist sets up an arbitrary barrier on a bridge and says that all those on one side of the bridge need to show their documents and prove their worthiness in order to cross over to the other side of the bridge, drawing on the idea that immigration restrictions are arbitrary and that there is a prima facie moral right to migrate. The people in the video whose bridge-crossing rights were denied seem to have been actual people, not stage actors, and there are some interesting verbal exchanges in the video.

Both sophisticated and unsophisticated restrictionists would be quick to scoff at the video’s arguably naive critique of borders. Certainly the video is not the final word on the matter, and there are any number of counterarguments that can be made to its implicit critique of borders. These counterarguments can be met with counterarguments, which can again be met with counterarguments … the game can go on indefinitely. In many ways, the video is a simplistic rendering of an argument that fails to acknowledge many complex issues.

Nonetheless, I think it is a valuable contribution as a beginning move in an argument for open borders. I believe that the right to migrate is presumptive, not absolute. But it is a presumptive right, which means that restricting this right arbitrarily requires a strong justification, a justification that should be at least somewhat stronger than a purely utilitarian/consequentialist argument. There are plenty of theoretical rights frameworks, such as Nathan Smith’s theory of the streets (details on the right to migrate page), that help make the case. This video, by blocking access on the literal street, makes Nathan’s point about the theory of the streets.

Moreover, while the counterarguments offered by restrictionists, mainly about the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, do offer some possible edge cases and exceptions to the right to migrate, they do not destroy the validity of the underlying idea of the right to migrate, which is put across well by the video. So, although the video is a simplification, it is still a simplification that is correct in essentials.

PS: Some commenters on YouTube and elsewhere have suggested that the protagonist of the video is an international socialist and/or holds other views that make him difficult to take seriously. I don’t know of the protagonist’s work in other areas (there’s only one other video on this specific YouTube channel, which seems to be on a similar theme) but my purpose here is to offer my thoughts on a specific video, not evaluate the protagonist’s overall political stance