Tuesday, September 15, 2009

For the frightened baby on some foreign beach

I'm currently listening to a recorded version of BBC 4's Iconoclasts.

In this episode economist and writer Philippe Legrain argues that Britain should abolish all immigration controls and institute a policy of "open borders".

He makes an admirable and coherent argument in favour of this position. Amongst the points he makes are:

1) Freedom: it is right that people should have the freedom to live and to move wherever they want. People should not be favoured or discriminated against simply because they happen to have been born in a particular country.

2) Economics: companies like Google and Yahoo! in the US were co-founded by immigrants. These people went to America and created extraordinary wealth and innovation in their adopted countries.

3) Public services: if public services are placed under strain because of an increase in population then those public services must be improved, made more robust, and more flexible.

4) Overcrowding: the idea that Britain is "full up" is nonsensical. London is the most crowded city in the UK, but no one advocates immigration controls around the M25 to prevent people in other parts of the country from going to live there.

5) Population control: inasmuch as population is a problem, it is not one that can be solved by arguing over where people are located on the surface of the globe. Population is a global problem. No one would advocate instituting a version of the Chinese one child policy in the UK to limit population, so why seek to limit the local UK population by reducing immigration?

Listening to the programme I became increasingly infuriated by the assumption, apparently shared by the chair Edward Stourton, that the idea of freedom of movement is some kind of wild and crazy idea.

As Chris Dillow points out, it is a mainstream and highly respectable idea.

The chap from Migrationwatch, Andrew Green, attempts to refute the point that immigrants bring economic benefits, but is allowed to get away with not actually producing any evidence that there are economic dangers to immigration. The burden of proof comes back to Legraine to support his point that immigration is good for the economy, which he does very ably, but why should Green get away with not explaining what the economic downsides of immigration are?

Then the MP, Ann Cryer, claims that immigrants might not be able to speak English, and might lack skills to work. Legrain makes the point that there is huge demand in this country for low-skilled labour. The notion that people lacking in "skills" are economically useless is absurd.

Then Green brings the argument back to numbers. He says "we cannot absorb this number of people" of the 7 million new immigrants that will arrive in Britain over the next 20 years. Fair enough. The question to ask is "why not?"

Green makes the good point that the government isn't building enough social housing or scaling up services to cope with the increase in numbers. I suspect part of the reason for this is that the government is terrified of being seen to do any of the following:

1) Reduce prices in the housing market by increasing supply, thus incurring the wrath of the Daily Mail readers and damaging the fundamental driver of the British economy, as detailed by Ross McKibbin.

2) Be seen to be soft on immigrants, which is stupid, if you think about it.

3) Increase public spending, thus incurring debt, which as Will Hutton explains isn't all that bad.

These are failings of government policy.

The debate moves on to the question of whether immigrants will come here to work or stay forever. Legraine highlights the point he makes in his book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, that when the USA had an open border with Mexico in the 1960s Mexicans would migrate back and forth over the open border, but once the border controls were tightened the migrants moved one-way, for fear they wouldn't get an opportunity to get back into the States if they moved back to their home countries.

Legraine makes the point that many immigrants want to be able to go home and live in their home countries after they have made money in Britain.

Andrew Green responded to this point by repeatedly asserting that he "couldn't imagine" that people from Sub-Saharan Africa would move back to their home countries after having lived in Britain. He had the gall to claim that "the facts are against" Legraine. The problem is Green has no facts to support his side of the argument. He goes unchallenged on this point.

Stourton also said a rather extraordinary thing: he claimed that this issue "does not easily lend itself to fact and figure." In fact it does. There are facts and figures surrounding immigration. This is the ballpark. Opinion, hearsay, and prejudice should have no place in this debate.

This is the most frustrating thing about so much political debate. Ultimately it should all come down to empirical data and observed facts. Opinions are irrelevant. And yet for some reason the misinformed opinion of the general public is seen as somehow valid and useful, when it isn't. This isn't a counter-democratic point, it's a pro-evidence point. Everyone is equal under the law, comment is free, but facts are sacred.

The programme ends with Green threatening to sue Legrain if Legrain doesn't retract an accusation of racism made against him.

The accusation was made by Legrain after Green's use of the term "there are limits to what the indigenous community will stand for".

Legraine immediately demanded an explanation of this term and accused Green of "ducking the race issue" and of being a racist. He asked Green if he felt that people who have "arrived in Britain in the last fifty years were British, yes or no?"

Green demanded a retraction of the accusation of racism and answered that he did feel that people who have moved to Britain in the last 50 years are British.

Legrain eventually retracted the accusation under threat of legal action

I have no opinion on Legrain's contention that the term "indigenous community" is inherently racist.

I will say that Legrain made a tactical error in falling into the trap of accusing Green of racism. He should not have lost his temper, as in doing so he gave Green the opportunity to threaten legal action, forcing Legrain to subsequently retract his point.

This highlights one of the problems with talking about immigration. The use of threats, slurs, and race-baiting tactics seems endemic to the discussion. This makes the debate far more emotionally charged than it should be.

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