Draconian immigration rules represent the largest restriction on liberty in the UK today. They restrict the personal and economic potential of millions of people and achieve little in return. How to roll back these limits on freedom? Think tanks have a difficult dilemma. They want to build a reputation as radical thinkers, but at the same time propose moderate policies. Early drafts of this essay argued that Britain should be more open to this or that group, but the truth is that both hard-headed economics and human decency demand wholesale liberalisation.
Immigration restrictions curtail our ability to hire, sell to, befriend and marry the people we want to. People understand this – it’s why people view immigration to their local area much more favourably than on the national level. And they have an enormous economic cost.
The ASI’s namesake argued that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. Everyone accepts the case for free trade, but that leaves markets incomplete, because non-tradable services (like haircuts) can’t travel across borders. Freeing people to move where they wish would let people go where their talents would be best used. The productivity of someone with an engineering degree – the amount can achieve with their labour – is many times lower in some areas of the developing world than it is in the UK.
The benefits to migrants are best illustrated by the lengths migrants are willing to go to to cross borders. Smugglers charge thousands for passage from Libya to Europe, and the journey is fraught with risk, but hundreds of thousands make the journey anyway. Migration lets people escape poverty, war and authoritarian regimes.
The Mariel Boatlift is an example of this. In 1980, 125000 Cubans fled Castro’s regime, landing in Miami. Their liberation increasing the size of the local labour force by 7% almost overnight. But economists found almost no impact on wages and the labour market.
7% of the UK labour force works out to approximately 2.3m people. The government could auction off permanent residency permits to that many people each year. Such a radical policy would be disruptive. It would have costs, losers as well as winners. But the potential benefits are too colossal to ignore – a Britain where not only workers and jobs but husbands and wives, parents and children, potential pub geezers would not be separated by arbitrary borders.
Theo Clifford is winner of the 18-21 category of the ASI’s ‘Young Writer on Liberty’ competition. You can follow him on @Theo_Clifford, and read his blog at economicsondemand.com.