Time to reject false choices and fears about immigration

Basic freedom of movement across borders is fundamental to human dignity.

Srinivasa Ramanujan isn’t a name most people know, but his story illustrates the power of migration to improve the world.

Born to a poor family in southern India in the late nineteenth century, Ramanujan displayed a remarkable mathematical mind from an early age, developing complex theorums as a teenager.

He was a genius, but he left school in poverty and seemed destined to live a life of subsistence. By chance, Ramanujan was discovered by another Indian mathematician and ended up at Cambridge, producing ingenious new ideas and eventually becoming the first Indian to be elected a Fellow of Trinity College.

Ramanujan was lucky. Had he not been discovered when he was, he could have easily spent a life in poverty, his genius untapped and giving nothing to the world.

The west’s immigration laws make it remarkably difficult for latter-day Ramanujans to exploit their potential. Ramanujan represents not just the geniuses lying fallow in subsistence agriculture, but all human talent that is not being tapped to its full potential.

Whether the reasons are poor governance, cultural constraints, poverty or other restraints on human productivity, billions of people are being condemned to lives of relative squalor, with no way out.

A person’s productivity is enormously dependent on the circumstances they find themselves in. Taxi drivers in New York City, over 90 per cent of whom are immigrants, earn between $25,000 and $28,000 a year (£). Taxi drivers in, say, Benin can expect to earn less than $1,440 a year for exactly the same work.

Lowering the borders to allow more people from poor countries to come and work in the developed world would harness this and make the world dramatically richer in a very short space of time.

A 2011 study of the existing research around the GDP benefits of immigration by Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development (Economics and Emigration: Trillion Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?) found that removing all barriers to migration could increase global GDP by between 67 per cent and a whopping 147 per cent – in other words, more than doubling global GDP. (In contrast, the studies reviewed found that removing all global barriers to trade – still an important goal – would increase global GDP by between 0.3 per cent and 4.1 per cent.)

Would these benefits mostly accrue to the host countries, depriving poor countries of the productivity of human capital? It doesn’t look like it. Development economist William Easterly has cited four reasons that "brain drain" from poor countries is a good thing: benefits to the migrants themselves, benefits to their families (through money sent back by those migrants), new skills and fresh ideas from migrants who do return home, and the global "brain gain" of tapping talent and unleashing the ideas of more people.

A World Bank study that compared the per-capita income gain to Tonga from microfinance, deworming programmes, conditional cash transfers and a seasonal migrant worker programme in New Zealand. The results were staggering – migrant workers sent home huge amounts of cash, increasing spending and investment in Tonga to raise per-capita incomes by 30 to 40 per cent - see graph below.

Graph from David MacKenzie on the World Bank blog.

We should reject the false choice presented by opponents of immigration between a fortress Britain and being "swamped" by immigrants. Fears of the welfare state being overrun are misplaced and do not reflect the reality that immigrants are actually helping to support state services. Immigrants to Britain pay more in taxes to the state than they consume in services – and since the average immigrant to Britain is young, we are counting on increased immigration to support our aging population.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that immigrants are more entrepreneurial than the average person, as you might expect of someone who has travelled halfway across the world in search of a better life. A 2006 study in the US (pdf) found that "50 per cent of Silicon Valley engineering and technology startups were founded by immigrants (as were 25 per cent of such startups nationwide)." And, of course, the more innovation that takes place anywhere in the world, the better off we all are.

To libertarians and liberals, basic freedom of movement across borders is fundamental to human dignity. But everyone should be eager to make the world’s poorest better off and unlock the talent of more people like Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Sam Bowman is the head of research at the Adam Smith Institute

The backdrop to a speech about immigration. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.