I’ve had it with being balanced on immigration. As the son and partner of immigrants, I am biased on this point. Naturally so, as I would neither exist nor, having sprung into existence, then been content without immigration.
So forgive me for taking issue with the regular assumption that immigration a bad thing, a problem, something to be discouraged.
Because it isn’t. Immigration is both the sign of and enabler of an ability to live your life the best you can, and what’s more, immigration strengthens, burnishes and gives moral and economic power to those nations fortunate and strong enough to attract immigrants.
At this point, being a tedious bore, I usually go off and quote studies that show that immigration probably boosts GDP per capita, has a minimal negative effect on domestic wages and then subjectively argue that immigration improves cultural life, makes us more tolerant, varied and interesting.
But there’s always a response that argues otherwise.
The sophisticated versi0n of this argument states that immigration might be good for the likes of me, the taco-munching, metropolitan elite, but what about those struggling to get by, who are threatened by immigration, whose wages are undermined, or who face competition for homes and public services?
Well, again, I could be all boring and point you in the direction of reports that make the careful case that’s there’s no evidence for that actually happening, but since those reports have been around for ages and never convince anyone, let me use a different approach.
Because even if the facts of the case are disputable, the sentiment of the argument is right.
Even if immigrants don’t actually undermine wages, it feels like they might because they’re competition to the existing workforce, and competition, even when ultimately beneficial, is disruptive, scary and disturbing.
I know this, because I fear my competition.
Can I tell you about the new arrivals who really scare me?
Young people. There are loads of the baby-faced little sods , all of whom got here more than a decade after I did, and they’re everywhere.
Not only are they willing to do my job for less money than me, they’re now doing jobs I’d rather like, editing newspapers and magazines, being government ministers and having newspaper columns.
Oh, sure, these young people go on and on about how they work harder than I do, and have to endure worse living conditions and job insecurity and they mutter angrily about how they’ll end up paying for my pension while working in the public services I need for a pittance.
But I say they threaten my sense of place. They increase the competition for housing in poor areas, they push up prices until they’re unattainable for working people. They cause me to meet the huge expense of providing extra school places with their offspring. They demand public services and crowd the roads.
What’s more, isn’t it reasonable that I should feel discomfited by their strange cultural traditions, their intrusive music, their odd clothing choices?
You see, these new arrivals don’t understand what it really is to live in Britain as it used to be, before they turned up and ruined everything. I barely recognise central London on a Saturday night now.
The East End used to be all immigrants. Now it is full of creatures in beards and confusing trousers, babbling an argot I barely comprehend.
Yet suggest that my rights should be protected by limiting the flow of young people into the British economy, possibly by means of some sort of cull, and people look at you as if you’re some sort of loony.
Look, I’m a grumpy, increasingly middle-aged man.
I get why people feel threatened and insecure. I am threatened and insecure. But feeling threatened and insecure isn’t a good reason to stop immigration.
It’s a reason to manage the consequences, yes, to provide a strong social safety net, to invest in public services, to build more housing, just like we do, or should do, because of the steady stream of disruptive young people, but it’s no good reason to stop immigration.
Because ultimately, immigration is a kind of competition, and the first thing we have to recognise is that competition isn’t always bad for you. Sometimes it pushes you to try new things, do new stuff.
What’s less palatable though is even if it is bad for you, even if you are exposed to the downsides of competition, and you understandably want to wish it away, the competition won’t disappear simply by not being immediately present.
If I deported every under-qualified twenty year old in the country tomorrow, they wouldn’t stop doing things. They wouldn’t stop coming up with ideas, or trying to do things differently, or seeking to do my job better than me.They’d just do it without me being able to see it, or be part of it, or benefit from it in any way. Eventually, they’d succeed.
The same goes for immigrants. Stop them coming here, and they won’t cease making new computer programmes, or exciting tacos, or building houses, or a host of other things, but they’ll stop doing it here, and we’ll not only lose their creativity, energy and cultural contribution, but we won’t be able to adapt and cope and benefit from the gains they give us.
Oh, sure, you might say, that’s true of the best immigrants, the programmers and the scientists, but come on, do we need the street cleaners and the supermarket till operators?
The answer, is yes, for the same reason you need young people who don’t get five good GCSEs. Partly because you can’t predict who’s going to come up with a brilliant idea, with a startling innovation.
Partly because they’re not going to stay doing what they’re doing. Partly because they pay taxes and have kids who contribute. Partly because it’s just a mark of a healthy, growing, exciting society to have people wanting to come, who-ever they are.
It’s also because if they weren’t here they’d be somewhere else, doing all that stuff for someone else’s grumpy, insecure people, and that economy would be more efficient, more productive, more innovative as a result.
That means it’s that if you’re an undereducated, low skill British worker, the future doesn’t look great any way we pan it out. Unless you change, any short-term protection we offer you is just going to be that, short-term. The great danger is that you end up like the British car industry, protected until you’re totally obsolete.
So yes, even for you, it’s better to adapt. The good news is we can do something about that.
It’s not unreasonable to feel insecure by such competition and seek insurance and protection from its disruptions and nor is it impossible to act to help those who feel threatened. That’s why I’m a social democrat, not a libertarian.
That’s not an argument against competition, it’s an argument for managing its consequences well. The NHS does not prevent the young taking the jobs of the old, it just gives the old a better chance of not dying, or becoming incapable, and so keeping their jobs. We can insure people, and help them succeed in a hard-edged world, and help those who struggle, just as we do in many other ways, for many other disruptions.
But there’s another important, non-economic argument.
For all it means insecurity, immigration also makes people happy.
It makes me happy, because I exist, and because I have a partner. But it also makes me happy because I have friends, and am exposed to new ideas, and new experiences.
It makes me happy in the same way that young people make parents happy, because it’s not good to close yourself off from the new and the unexpected. Cut yourself off from this and you’ll ultimately be weaker, sadder, less content.
Not least, it makes immigrants happy, and we are our brother’s keepers.
So immigration is good for us. We need it. It’s those youngsters we need to watch.
This originally appeared on Hopi Sen’s blog