12 June 2019

Concerns about immigration have nothing to do with economics

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Last Monday, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced that if it were up to him, he would scrap the government’s net migration target of 100,000. Javid does not think that such a measure would be unpopular with voters: “From speaking to people, they’re concerned with having control over immigration rather than crude numbers.”

It is a counterintuitive statement, because it goes completely against the prevailing narrative of Legitimate Concerns™, which holds that concerns about immigration are all about its scale. The Legitimate Concerns™ argument goes roughly like this:

In small doses, immigration is a good thing. It brings foreign talent, bridges skills gaps in the labour market, and more generally, makes Britain a more dynamic and more interesting place. But once immigration exceeds a certain level, the pressure on infrastructure, housing, schools, the NHS, public transport, labour markets etc becomes simply too great. The country can no longer physically and logistically cope.

The Legitimate Concerns™ argument is popular, because it makes it possible to voice objections to immigration without the fear of violating a social taboo. It gives the impression that objections to immigration have nothing to do with reservations about this group or that group of immigrants. They are about overcrowding. When your train is overcrowded, you do not bear a grudge against any of your fellow passengers. They may all be nice people, individually. But you would still prefer it if fewer of them were there.

The Legitimate Concerns™ argument has just one major downside: it is not true.

In my paper Immigration: Picking the Low-Hanging Fruits, I review a number of surveys and focus group studies on attitudes to immigration. I find that the public’s concerns and reservations are predominantly cultural, not economic, and that they are predominantly about specific groups of migrants rather than “immigration” per se.

But I suspect you already know this. If you have ever used the Legitimate Concerns™ argument yourself, just ask yourself the following question:

Would you make the same case, or feel the same way, if the five million (or so) British expats who live permanently abroad suddenly decided, all at once, to move back to Britain? If not, why not? In terms of its impact on infrastructure, housing, healthcare, public transport etc, such a scenario would be indistinguishable from a large surge in immigration.

The answer is that once we think about the issue in those terms – that is, once we divorce the issue of population growth from the tricky issue of integration and community cohesion – it is easy to see the “overcrowding” argument for the nonsense that it is. Yes, of course those repatriates would need healthcare, housing, transport, infrastructure etc. But the level of those services and amenities is not fixed, and those people would not just passively draw upon what is already there. They would also actively contribute to the provision of additional healthcare, additional housing, additional transport and additional infrastructure. They would not just use public services. They would also work and pay taxes, and in that way, expand the provision of public services. They would take, but they would give as well. The net impact could well be positive.

Their numbers are therefore irrelevant. It could be 500,000, it could be five million, it could be ten million. All it would mean is that the UK would become be a larger country, population-wise. So what? The UK is already a larger country than Ireland, Ireland is larger than Iceland, and Iceland is larger than Liechtenstein, while Germany is larger than the UK, Japan is larger than Germany, and the US is larger than Japan. Population size is irrelevant.

Now let’s modify the above scenario somewhat, and replace those five million homecoming Brits with five million Australians and New Zealanders. Would that change your reaction? My guess is: somewhat, but not fundamentally. It is only when we are talking about people from different cultures that, suddenly, it becomes supposedly impossible to build more roads and to hire more nurses. It is only then that Britain suddenly becomes “overcrowded”.

Concerns about immigration are concerns about integration, about social cohesion, and about community tensions. There is nothing “illegitimate” about that. Those are perfectly valid concerns, and expressing them does not make someone a bigot or a xenophobe. But we need to be honest about them. Because these are not issues that can be addressed with blunt instruments like a net migration target, or a cap on the number of work visas. Such measures impose needless economic self-harm, without really solving any of the issues that people are actually – and often understandably – worried about.

Legitimate Concerns™ are a distraction. We need an immigration system that focuses on actual concerns, whilst also maximising the economic benefits that migration can bring. Hopefully, Javid’s announcement will turn out to be a first step towards a more honest debate on the subject.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.