The progressive's immigration dilemma


The freedom and wellbeing of all human beings should be important to us, regardless of their race or nationality. Because migration allows very poor people to dramatically improve their lives, often increasing their income by an order of magnitude, we should have a strong preference for more liberal migration laws in the developed world, particularly laws that favour low-skilled workers from the poorest countries. The progressive’s dilemma is usually seen as being the fact that higher levels of immigration seem to make voters support redistributive domestic policies less. People are less happy to share with people who aren’t much like them. David Goodhart discusses this here. But this is a two-way street: the more redistributive your state, the more sceptical voters are of (at least low-skilled) immigration – this polling seems to reinforce that.

This might be aggravated in cases where immigrants don’t do much or even have a negative effect on the wages of low-skilled native workers. Not only are these guys competing with you for welfare, they’re driving down your wages too – even if theirs are rising by five hundred percent, yours falling by five percent still hurts.

But that isn’t usually what actually happens: immigrants to the UK generally don’t drive down native wages, even for low-skilled workers in the medium-to-long-run, and in Denmark they actually seem to have had a significant positive effect on low-skilled workers’ long-term earnings. In the US, there is a big positive link between immigration and native productivity (which eventually translates into higher wages). In the UK that link is also positive but is very small, almost zero.

However, in France, immigrants do seem to hurt work outcomes for natives – both in terms of jobs and, for short-term contract workers, wages.

What explains the difference? The authors of the Danish study say Denmark’s flexible labour market is what allowed the market to absorb immigrants to make everyone better off, and the author of the French study says the rigidity of France’s wage structure is what makes immigration harm natives. Incidentally, the UK, where immigrants have a fairly neutral impact on natives, is roughly halfway between those two countries in terms of labour market flexibility (according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom).

This trend seems to hold across Europe: the more rigid a labour market, the worse immigration is for native workers. That must be a factor in considering the costs and benefits of any given labour market regulation.

Poor people's lives are made enormously better off by moving from poor countries to rich countries. Thanks to remittances, migrants also may have a significant positive impact on their home countries. For any progressive who wants to improve human welfare, facilitating more immigration from poor to rich countries should be an overriding priority.

Not only does a big welfare state reduce the number of immigrants that are politically accepted, a heavily regulated labour market seems to be associated with immigrants having a worse impact on natives. Even policies that seem like they would be good for Britons might still do much more harm than good if they make Britons less willing to accept higher levels of immigration.

This is a serious dilemma for any progressive who wants all humans to live good lives, not just ones of the same race or nationality. It means that these political concerns alone may demand a low regulation, low redistribution state.