Milton Friedman’s objection to immigration

Free market supporters of immigration controls often quote Milton Friedman in support of their position:

There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite.

On the face of it, this is a powerful argument for restriction. As I’ve noted in the past, whether we like it or not people are dependent on state institutions like the NHS and it would be a bad thing for those things to crumble without the reforms that make market-based alternatives viable.

But are things as clear as they seem? Elsewhere, Friedman also said:

Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.

I think Friedman vastly overstates his case in his final line (it’s only good if it’s illegal?), and empirically he seems to be mistaken (the fiscal contribution of immigrants is usually positive in general, and has been positive in the UK in particular) but still, let’s take his point as given. Does that make immigration controls the best option?

No. There are ‘keyhole solutions’ we can implement instead – that is, solutions that are specifically designed to address the supposed problems that go with open borders.

We could require that immigrants post bonds priced according to the average cost to the state of someone of their age. We could require immigrants to provide for their own health insurance, unemployment insurance, education, etc. We could restrict the use of the NHS and other state services to immigrants who are working. And so on. The point is that most of the problems associated with immigration are not best solved by restrictions on immigration. Don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Well, OK, but we are where we are. Those solutions are nice in a think tank fantasy-land, but they’re never going to happen, you might say. (Well, not with that attitude, they’re not!) For the sake of argument, what if these keyhole solutions were irrelevant and Friedman was empirically correct?

In that case, his point about illegal immigration being the best kind of immigration – and indeed, a net positive overall – might really be worth thinking about. As Will Wilkinson has argued, people who follow Friedman on immigration should then argue not for restrictive immigration controls, but restrictive immigration laws paired with a toothless Border Agency, or one simply told in practice to ignore these laws. (Much as most decent police officers ignored anti-sodomy laws for some time before those laws were repealed.)

So maybe that’s a Friedmanite ‘keyhole solution’ for people concerned about immigrants sucking the welfare state dry: keep immigration laws the way they are, but shut down the UK Border Agency and treat the laws as the silly anachronisms they are.

Globalization drives cultural diversity

Donald Boudreaux recently reposted this 2010 essay on the impact of globalization on culture. Globalization is not about ‘just stuff’, he says, it’s about increasing diversity by allowing different parts of different cultures to mix:

A century ago, there were no internationally franchised restaurants in Paris, France or, for that matter, in Paris, Texas. A century ago, residents of neither Omaha, Nebraska nor Birmingham, England could find sushi restaurants near their homes; today, sushi restaurants are all over the Western world. A century ago, blue jeans were not the international fashion that they are today. A century ago, the typical man’s business suit worn by New York lawyers and London bankers was not widely worn in Africa and Asia, as it is today. In many ways, global commerce has indeed made the world more homogeneous.

But look more closely. While the differences between Paris, France and Paris, Texas are fewer than they were in the past, the cultural richness of each of these places today is far greater than it was just a few years ago. For a resident of Paris, Texas, circa 2010, the richness of the cultural smorgasbord available to him or her right at home is vast. A Texan can stay in town and dine on Vietnamese, Italian, or Greek food—or on barbeque. A Texan can listen to German symphonic music or medieval chants or Irish dance music or Edith Piaf—or country and western. A Texan can buy French neckties, English raincoats, and Italian scarves—and cowboy boots. Likewise a Parisian can choose croissants or New-York-style bagels. A mere century ago—even thirty years ago—the cultural diversity of both places was much less than it is today.

It’s easy to be annoyed at the ‘touristification’ of a place like Thailand, but what that really means is more people get to experience somewhere they would only be able to imagine visiting fifty years ago. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this complaint usually comes from the people who can most easily afford foreign holidays and expensive exotic meals in their home cities. I’m tempted to say that they should check their privilege.

Boudreaux’s piece is worth reading in full.

The starting point in the immigration debate

At the Telegraph, Conservative MP Gavin Barwell says what for many Conservatives is the unsayable: that immigration is great for the economy:

Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development published a report which showed that immigration makes a positive contribution to the public finances of many countries, including the UK. Yes, you read that right: migrants in the UK pay more in tax than they consume in public services (that’s not true of every migrant of course, but collectively they make a net contribution). Without them, we would have to make further cuts to public services or pay higher taxes or both. . . .

We have to find a way to earn a living in an increasingly competitive world. Allowing the best and the brightest from around the world to come and study and work here can help us do that. So yes let’s make sure we have control of our borders, yes let’s tackle abuse, yes let’s talk about how many people and who we should allow to move here – but don’t let’s delude ourselves that immigration is always bad news.

And that’s the point. The one point I disagree with Barwell on is when he says that “nobody is claiming immigration significantly increases” GDP per capita. Well, I am. Letting immigrants locate in rich countries deepens the potential division of labour: hiring a Tanzanian accountant to look after my firm’s finances instead of doing them myself frees me up to focus on whatever I’m best at.

That minor quibble aside, I’m delighted that Mr Barwell has decided to be brave about immigration policy. While there are legitimate debates to be had about access to public services and social cohesion, the starting-point in any discussion about restricting immigration should be that restrictions make us poorer.

Abandon hope all ye who enter this immigration debate

Immigration is good for us. With every major party now promising to ‘get tough’ on immigration, it’s easy to forget that immigrants bring new skills to the country, allow for more specialization, tend to be more entrepreneurial than average, pay more in to the welfare state than they take out, and make things cheaper by doing the jobs that Britons won’t.

No political figure of any stature will say any of these things. Instead, people like David Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg focus on the two potential problems with immigration: that, other things being equal, immigrants may push down average wages, and that an unrestricted welfare state incentivises immigration by people who want to draw benefits instead of working.

These are both valid points, but insignificant ones. Ben Powell points out that the wage-depression claim ignores the fact that immigrants demand goods and services (raising wages for those things) as well as supplying them. It also assumes that immigrants always directly compete with indigenous workers for jobs. If immigrants are doing jobs that indigenous workers will not (or cannot) do, like highly unskilled service industry work, then they are not outcompeting indigenous workers.

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that this is the case in Britain. Fraser Nelson has shown the high effective marginal tax rates that people on welfare face if they want to enter the workforce. If these Britons are unwilling to take low-paid jobs, then there is no harm to them caused by immigrants taking these jobs. On the contrary, the fact that these jobs are being done by someone adds to the number of goods and services that everyone in Britain can take advantage of. (There is one other point: if people’s lives are getting better overall, who cares where in the world they happened to be born? Not me. But even I do not expect any politician to go so far as to say that all men are created equal.)

The second point against immigrants is usually the one focused on by politicians. The problem here is that a valid theoretical point is assumed to be a significant problem in actual fact. Here, the numbers simply do not bear the theory out.

As it happens, we don’t actually have an unrestricted welfare state – most major forms of welfare and state services are limited to UK residents. And, if anything, the evidence suggests that immigrants are less likely than Britons to draw out of work benefits – according to Jonathan Portes, “migrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of out-of-work claimants”. What a surprise: the people leaving behind their friends, family and communities are the ones who most want to make better lives for themselves. Again and again, empirical studies have shown that immigrants pay more in than they take out.

In any case, if we have a benefits system that is open to exploitation, why only worry about it being exploited by non-Britons? Conversely, if benefits are necessary to maintain a basic standard of welfare, why doesn’t the welfare of non-Britons matter? There is a good case for reforming benefits so that they complement work instead of substituting it, but that has nothing to do with immigration.

Like most ‘major policy announcements’, the specific proposals outlined by the Prime Minister today will probably be forgotten soon enough. Even if they do end up becoming law, they will not affect many people. But what David Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have achieved is to throw out any chance of a policy line that, however unpopular, has the rare political virtue of being right.