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By Philippe Legrain 4 COMMENTS

There are few people I respect more than Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for the Financial Times and author of Why Globalization Works, a man with a towering intellect and impeccable liberal convictions. Yet I profoundly disagree with his increasingly anti-immigration stance.

In his latest column in today’s FT, available to FT subscribers here, and paraphrased on the excellent New Economist blog, he argues that:

What is my bottom line? It is that a continuation of net immigration on the recent scale is
hard to justify. It is that the assumption that all communities will
integrate within the political and religious culture of the UK may be
quite wrong. It is that the country must insist on the universality of
its liberal values. It is that the focus now should be on bringing in
skilled people who are most likely to make a big economic contribution
to the country and to fit most comfortably within its norms and values.
It is, above all, that the country must have this debate. The topic is
too important to be ignored.

Let’s start with the cultural issue. I totally agree that our liberal values should not be up for negotiation. But it is utterly illogical to leap from understandable concern about the extremist illiberal views of some British Muslims to believing that we should clamp down on immigration. The London bombers were born in Britain; the recent wave of immigrants to Britain are overwhelmingly secular east Europeans of Christian heritage. Regardless of how open to immigration Britain is, we need to tackle domestic extremism; closing our borders to immigration does nothing to promote liberal values in Britain or reduce the terrorist threat from a tiny minority.

As for the economics, the case for freer international migration follows logically from the case for freer international trade, which Martin Wolf robustly supports. If the freer movement of goods and services across borders is good for the economy, then so too is the freer movement of the people who produce those goods and services. And in a country such as Britain where there are many low-skilled jobs, such as cleaning hospitals, that locals – even those with no qualifications – do not want to do, it is unambiguously a good thing to allow in foreigners who are happy to have the opportunity to do them. Nor are these immigrants a burden on the welfare system: in the case of east Europeans, they are not entitled to claim welfare benefits, although they still have to pay British taxes.

Wolf also claims that immigrants have pushed up house prices. Maybe, at the margin, they have. But Britain’s house-price inflation is scarcely a new phenomenon, so recent immigration can hardly be the root cause of it. And the solution, surely, lies in relaxing planning constraints, as Wolf has previously advocated, not curbing immigration.

By all means, let’s have a proper debate. I hope that my new book will be a useful contribution to it. But let’s not prematurely conclude, as Wolf appears to have done, that current immigration is harmful to Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Posted 29 Sep 2006 in Blog
  1. Philippe Legrain says:


  2. DVH says:

    Niels, I’m not sure the paper describes the benefits of immigration of low-skilled workers.
    It seems to show that immigration of low-skilled female domestic results in lower wages for skilled female workers.

  3. Niels Andeweg says:

    DVH, please read the paper carefully (again) and you will see that is does describe (some) of the benefits of immigration (of low-skilled female workers in this case). And make sure to distinguish between short-term and long-term effects of immigration.

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