Follow Philippe Legrain on Twitter Follow Philippe Legrain on YouTube Follow Philippe Legrain on Facebook Email me
By Philippe Legrain 1 COMMENT

Robert Winder, author of Bloody Foreigners, an excellent history of immigration to Britain, has written a very flattering review of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, in today’s Guardian:

The sincerest form of flattery

The past decade has been, as the prime-minister-in-waiting keeps telling us, a time of unprecedented economic vitality and bounce. It has also been a time of unusually vigorous immigration. Day after day, month after month, the business pages have rubbed their hands over strong economic indicators and vertiginous stock prices. Meanwhile, to the bitter dismay of tabloid Britain, front pages have raged against the ruinous impact of migrants (from eastern Europe and the Middle East) on housing, crime, terrorism and the overtaxed labour market.

It is not clear how these contrasting reflexes mesh. If immigrants are a burden, then how come the economy has boomed? If they are "stealing" jobs and pushing Britons into the dole queue, then how come unemployment is so low? If they are troublemakers, how come our prisons are overflowing with home-grown wrongdoers?

These are big questions, and it is refreshing to see them tackled head on in Philippe Legrain’s energetic and right-minded new book. The central thrust is that immigration is economically beneficial. Fluid migration is as dynamic as every other form of free trade. "If you believe that the world is an unequal place and that the rich should do more to help the poor," he writes, "then freer international migration should be the next front in the battle for global economic justice."

This optimistic assertion derives from Legrain’s sense that immigration controls are, like tariff barriers or currency regulations, an affront to free trade. He bears down hard on the way the west, committed to the free flow of globalised goods and services, remains anxious to prevent the free movement of the most important commodity of all: people. He relates the benefits of low-wage labour and of imported expertise and initiative; emphasises the profits that flow from diversity; reminds us that remittances to poor countries are a vital form of overseas aid; and punctures the idea that a western state can require from its citizens anything like conformity to a precise national identity.

He begins with a fine quotation from JK Galbraith: "Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?"

This is a stirring thought, even if it is wrong to say that migration selects "those who most want help". All the evidence suggests that migrants are by no means the most needy people; on the contrary, they are the most resourceful and best-placed. It takes bourgeois horizons (and money) to cross the world in search of self-improving work overseas; those who make the trip are the most adventurous (and sometimes the most rascally). The world’s truly needy people have no hope of reaching Europe; they can only huddle in tented camps a walk away from the disasters they have fled.

Legrain does not lose his nerve when it comes to the crunchy question of closed borders. He thinks they are "morally wrong, economically stupid and politically unsustainable", on the pragmatic grounds that it would take the apparatus of a police state to close them. "By trying to keep out foreigners, we would lose ourselves," he writes. Identity cards would, at huge expense, do little more than scratch the surface. (And does anyone seriously believe they would not swiftly be stolen and forged?) It is not as if illegal immigration is a matter of people sneaking through ports in disguise, like POWs bluffing their way into Switzerland. Most illegals come as tourists or students, and simply stay on. How is this to be prevented? Would a clampdown on tourism, foreign students and business travel really be a price worth paying to prevent a few thousand workers from Hoovering our late-night carpets and picking sprouts for below-the-line rates?

I for one agree wholeheartedly with Legrain’s belief that immigration is an enriching process and that the procedures designed to interfere with it are counterproductive. That said, one or two of his exemplars are less than copper-bottomed. It is a shame, for instance, that he uses Israel to support his point that large-scale immigration need not lead to economic and social breakdown. It is true, and a neat rebuttal of the usual fear-mongering, that Israel has absorbed millions of newcomers from post-Soviet Russia with great enterprise. But Israel is a special case: the ethnic and cultural gulfs between Russians and Ethiopians are bridged by the equally enormous fact of their being Jewish soulmates.

Legrain is happy to minimise this. "Israel’s door is wide open to immigrants," he writes, "albeit of one particular group." Whoever invented the word "albeit" must have dreamed that it would one day be used to such brazen effect. A door closed to non-Jews is not the usual definition of "open". Many readers will feel that Israel, a nation busy constructing a Berlin-style wall to protect its own inflamed frontier with Palestine, cannot, however impressive its population of besieged pioneers, quite pass muster as a case study in open borders. There are a couple of other ways in which Legrain, in his eagerness to emphasise the advantages of migration, lifts his telescope to his blind eye.

Migrants may well be a powerful force for the greater good, but this truth is clear only in retrospect. The benefits are (like every other blessing in a materialist society) unevenly distributed. Immigration is splendid for people with lavish cars; less so for people competing for the low-paid right to clean them. Nor is migration a uniform experience: for some it is a rags-to-riches fairytale, for others a brutal catastrophe.

It would be churlish to complain, however. In all important respects Legrain is right on target; one turns his pages to the almost audible sound of nails being smacked on the head. In the context of the fearful chatter that surrounds the subject, sense as good as this needs cherishing. It must be right to insist that We need Them. As has been said, far from thinking of immigration as a problem, it is high time we saw it as the sincerest form of flattery.

Posted 13 Jan 2007 in Blog
  1. João Baptista - Portugal says:

    Closed borders are “morally wrong, economically stupid and politically unsustainable”? Moral or political issues can not be so easily stated.
    But, if you truly are for FREE MARKET or just FREEDOM, please ask for the dismissal of the “Welfare State” which is the contrary of freemarket, of plain freedom, but an open door – better, an already crossed bridge – to communism and totalitarianism.
    Then, you would notice that a far smaller number of immigrants would cross OUR borders. Just those who could find a regular job and comply with common law.
    You should recognize, also, that a country – land and the built environment – is the common property inherited by the nationals. So immigrants should pay for living in it, further reducing the economic advantage of immigrate.
    You can not have an opinion about immigration just considering the economics, this, in a very frivolous way. If you choose free trade as an argument then you should argue for our previous liberation from the welfare/communistoid state and consider, in an historical and societal perspective, those important matters of property and ownership.
    Best regards

Leave a reply