Discover more from Aporia
The fundamental problem for immigration activists
There are two main groups who support higher immigration: people who vote for left-wing parties, and people who bankroll right-wing parties...
Written by Noah Carl.
There are two main groups who support higher immigration: people who vote for left-wing parties, and people who bankroll right-wing parties.
Those in the second group have entirely self-interested reasons for supporting higher immigration: to increase the supply of labour, thereby reducing workers’ bargaining power; and to get the workers they need ready-trained (rather than having to sponsor their training themselves).
Those in the first group, by contrast, have at least partly altruistic motives – or they purport to have such motives. They care about the principle that people not be held back by morally arbitrary barriers like national borders. And they care about the well-being of the immigrants: just because someone happened to be born in a different country from me, they reason, why should his or her interests be discounted?
Unfortunately for those in the first group, they face a fundamental problem.
The types of immigration that are most beneficial for the host country are the ones that are most harmful to the sending country. And conversely, the types that are most detrimental for the host country are the one that are most benign for the sending country.
To put it simply: high-skilled immigration causes brain-drain in sending countries, while low-skilled immigration causes various other problems in host countries.
Whichever type of immigration you allow, you end up hurting disadvantaged people: in the case of low-skilled immigration, it’s the native working class; in the case of high-skilled immigration, it’s the working class who’re left behind in the country of origin. Since people who vote for left-wing parties claim to speak for disadvantaged people, this presents a real dilemma.
Of course, it’s not a complete lose-lose from disadvantaged people’s point of view. The immigrants themselves might be disadvantaged, and by permitting their entry you’re making them better off. But there’s no getting around the fact that some people lose out, and those are the people that left-wing activists claim to care about.
Does low-skilled immigration really hurt the native working class? I’m not going to do a detailed survey of the literature (maybe another time), but the short answer is: yes.
Unlike high-skilled immigration, low-skilled immigration is extremely unpopular. Now, voters don’t always know what’s in their best interests, but their stated preferences are a good place to start. And understanding the effects of immigration doesn’t require a lot of technical knowledge, as with say the effects of taxing capital gains at such-and-such a rate.
Here’s a representative example of British public attitudes to immigration, taken from a 2017 survey by Ipsos MORI. For each of several types of immigrant, respondents were asked, “Do you think we should allow more or fewer of them to come to Britain than at the moment, or do you think the number should stay about the same?”
As the left-hand chart shows, voters are actually quite supportive of high-skilled immigration: more than 50% said “slightly more” or “many more”, while only 12% said “slightly fewer” or “many fewer”. (There may be some social desirability bias here, but not enough to substantially skew the results.) Yet as the right-hand chart shows, they’re strongly opposed to low-skilled immigration: just 18% said “more”.
The fact that voters express such different views when it comes to high- versus low-skilled immigration puts the lie to the notion that they are wildly ill-informed or simply prejudiced toward foreigners. In fact, other evidence indicates that their preferences are largely “rational”. They’re more favourable to groups that have low crime rates and that make positive fiscal contributions.
Lest I be accused of cherry-picking, a recent paper refers to “numerous studies” confirming that voters prefer high-skilled migrants. As the authors note, the preference for such migrants appears to be be a “universal trend.”
Okay, so high-skilled migrants are universally preferred, and for good reason: they tend to have low crime rates and tend to make positive fiscal contributions; they don’t compete with native workers for jobs (in fact, they increase demand for native labour); and they’re less likely to form ethnic enclaves on the outskirts of cities. Recognising all this, why don’t left-wing activists simply focus on boosting high-skilled immigration?
Well. For the same reasons that having more high-skilled people around is a plus for host countries, having less of them around is a minus for sending countries. Talented, hard-working individuals are the single most important resource for a country’s economic development. They’re more important than good trade links, more important than free-market institutions, and more important than abundant natural resources.
Which means that enticing them to leave their countries of origin is going to make the remaining citizens of those countries worse off.
Short of coming under a communist dictatorship or being subjected to US-style “regime change”, it’s hard to think of anything worse for a developing country than the emigration of its most talented individuals. This is particularly true given that such countries’ smart fractions tend to be small to begin with (a lower average has a disproportionate impact in the tails).
Indeed, Western countries like Canada, Australia and the US have already hoovered up many of the the most talented individuals from some of the world’s least productive backwaters. The chart below plots GDP per capita against % of high-skilled citizens living abroad. (Data were taken from the World Bank and the IAB Brain Drain dataset; the latter figure is for 2010 – the latest available).
With the exception of some moderately well-off Caribbean islands (tiny dots in the upper centre), there’s a negative association between GDP per capita and % of high-skilled citizens living abroad; countries with the most brain drain tend to be poor. And even this understates the trend: a lot of the high-skilled citizens from Western countries are living in other Western countries (Brits working in the US, Americans working in Britain etc.)
As Ed West observed, the potential for high-skilled emigration to harm sending countries was laid bare in the recent debate over what to do about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Various commentators, including EU officials, suggested fast-tracking visas for highly qualified Russians in order to “accelerate Russian economic brain drain” and thereby weaken Putin’s regime.
Quoting West, “For decades the official line has been that poorer European nations benefitted from migration; now we’re being told it’s also a way to punish regimes we don’t like.” Indeed.
The claim that high-skilled emigration somehow benefits sending countries, because migrants send back remittances, was always bogus. It’s the second part that’s correct: such emigration “punishes” sending countries by depriving them of much-needed human capital.
Left-wing activists who support higher immigration face a fundamental problem. Low-skilled immigration hurts the native working-class, which helps to explain its extreme unpopularity. High-skilled immigration, on the other hand, hurts the working class who’re left behind in the country of origin. Since both these groups are disadvantaged, there’s no type of immigration that doesn’t hurt people that left-wing activists claim to care about.
One option for such activists would be to call for a representative cross-section of sending countries’ populations to immigrate – comprising people of high, low and intermediate skill-levels.
While this would go some way to addressing the arguments I’ve outlined here, certain problems associated with low-skilled immigration couldn’t be compensated by the additional tax revenue and job opportunities that might be generated by high-skilled immigration. This is partly because the skill distributions of many poor countries don’t perfectly overlap with those of Western countries – they’re shifted to the left, in some cases considerably. And it’s partly because difference itself is divisive.
The only type of immigration that’s relatively benign from pretty much everyone’s point of view is immigration between advanced Western countries. But of course, that’s the type that’s least appealing to left-wing activists.
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
Please consider supporting our work with a paid subscription and follow us on Twitter.