Ed West | 1 July 2011
John Lennon may (or may not) have become a Republican before he died – I have my doubts – but certainly rock stars do get more Right-wing as they get older. Earlier this week The Who frontman Roger Daltrey said that Labour’s immigration policy had “left the British working man screwed like he’d never been screwed before by cheap labour coming in from Europe”.
So Daltrey will surely agree with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith when he says today that tighter immigration controls are vital if Britain is to avoid “losing another generation to dependency and hopelessness”. I say Daltrey is being Right-wing, but this is a caricature. In fact it was once a perfectly reasonably Left-wing view.
Last month Sam Bowman, writing on the Adam Smith Institute blog (and I have much admiration both for the writer and the institution) wrote that economic restrictions were “economic illiteracy”. He said:
Immigration is good for the economy. Increasing the complexity and size of the workforce allows greater specialization and efficiency, and living in a relatively stable and free society can unlock the potential of innovative immigrants who would otherwise be wasted at home. To deny this is to deny the benefits of free trade – an example of faith-based economics that has no basis in fact or theory, and should have no place in contemporary politics. Some worry about the burden on the welfare state – a worry that ignores the fact that immigrants are net contributors to the state – but this could be addressed by limiting the welfare services available to new immigrants. The social arguments against of immigration amount to a form of coercive social engineering: you may own your property but you cannot rent or sell it to this person, because he’s from a different country.
Capping immigration will hurt the economy no less than putting up protectionist barriers to trade or banning firms from hiring more than a certain number of staff would. Today’s idea is similar – not just anti-growth, but anti-economics. It is a rejection of the use of reason in policymaking in favour of kneejerk populism.
I understand why the Adam Smith Institute may favour open borders. High immigration reduces wage inflation. It increases the average income of the highest earners.
According to Professor Christian Dustmann of UCL, high immigration “is good for large corporations who get cheap non-unionised labour, construction workers who get to build more homes, homeowners who see property prices rise, and middle-class professionals who don’t compete with immigrants but employ their services”.
It reduces the strength of unions, both because of more cheap labour but also because ethnically diverse workforces tend to produce weak unions. And so it helps to increase the profits of big companies – no wonder that major American corporations spent $345 million lobbying for just three pro-immigration bills between 2006 and 2008.
Immigration increases house prices, accounting for around 10 per cent of Britain’s recent boom, so increasing the wealth of homeowners.
And in the longer-term more diverse societies become more hostile to wealth redistribution, welfare spending and other social democratic policies.
Of course there are downsides – according to Professor Dustmann immigration “lowers wages of those workers employed in the lowest paid jobs”, and the income of the bottom 20 per cent fell after 2004. And it also leads to heavy youth unemployment, which increased by 100,000 during the boom years 2004-2008, as well as disproportionately increasing unemployment among ethnic minorities (two of the great American anti-immigration campaigners of the late 19th century were Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington). And, of course, as America illustrates, more diversity means more inequality.
So I understand why economic liberals or Thatcherites might approve of mass immigration. What I find more difficult to understand is why it has become such an article of faith to the Left.
Ed West is a journalist and social commentator and the author of The Diversity Illusion: What We Got Wrong About Immigration & How to Set It Right. He is @edwestonline on Twitter.
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