“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” ~ American Indian proverb.

"With all things and in all things, we are relatives." ~ Lakota (Sioux) saying.

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper

8 November 2013

Immigration: our public debate misses the main point

Our public debate on immigration in Britain almost always focuses entirely on money and thereby misses the main point, a point that our political-media class finds difficult to deal with and that many regard as almost illegitimate.

This is how people feel.

It is emblematic of the state of democracy in Britain that any sort of negative opinions about immigration routinely get shouted down and lambasted as ‘wrong’ by the siren voices of people and institutions, most of which are on the supposedly ‘liberal-left’ side of politics. It is particularly disturbing the way that anyone who talks about negative effects of immigration is routinely attacked (often by hordes of lefty people on Twitter) as ‘racist’.

These voices have a huge and in my view poisonous impact on the debate, forcing anyone who wants to make some nuanced points about immigration and identity into defending themselves against charges of racism, which is well established as one of the the worst offences one can commit in public life. Those shouters use their apparent moral superiority to full effect in their bullying.

In polling, immigration always scores highly as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Yet, the response of the self-styled ‘anti-racists’ is to damn people as ‘wrong’ for feeling this way. Their views are treated as illegitimate.

That tendency was again very well exercised earlier this week when a study on ‘The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK’ from University College London was widely trailed in our media, with the BBC for example appending the headline: "Recent immigrants to UK 'make net contribution'". As I saw from my Twitter feed, this was widely taken by conventional lefties as a closing of the debate and a final nail in the coffin for all ‘racists’.

However, as is the case with most detailed statistics, alternative interpretations are entirely possible if we try to take statistics as some sort of gospel. The study found that European Economic Area (EEA) immigrants had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits. However it also showed between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from non-EEA countries claimed more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

So, if you are an actual racist, believing in the determinism of skin colour, these figures could easily provide fuel to your prejudices.

But these debates around ‘net contribution’ and the like will never reach a final answer and never resolve the question because that is not what statistics do (statistics always provide a limited picture on a limited question and miss out far more than they include). Immigration like other things is a political question, and we are blessed to have a democratic society that (at least in theory) values every citizen equally, whatever their skin colour or ethnicity.

In a democratic society, it shouldn’t be the role of superior minds to dictate what is legitimate and illegitimate for people to consider important and to close off avenues for alternative views to their own. This is a road in which views get suppressed, and thereby become tinged with resentment and anger, and debates become polarised. But this is what has happened to us in large part; left and right repeatedly split apart and shout at each other; meanwhile the mass of people who don’t like either extreme get squeezed out.

As for how people ‘feel’ about immigration, a statistic of 35% seeing it as one of their principal concerns doesn’t really tell us that much. It does however tell us that immigration is imbued with meaning.

I see it as largely a question of territory, of land and of a sort of ownership over place that is perhaps best expressed by the word ‘home’.

British society has become increasingly fragmented and atomised over the years since the Second World War, and immigration has become a part of that story. However, there is another aspect to it, in that many of the immigrants coming in have integrated very well, but many have done so not into the society as a whole but into their own diaspora communities, which have grown in number and cultural strength.

As we are human beings, remaining very much part of the animal kingdom, the existence of groups separate and apart from ourselves setting themselves up on 'our' land and growing in number represents an existential threat. This is normal. It is happening all over the world as migration flows increase, and is nothing especially new to human societies.

The development economist Paul Collier* put it this way on Radio 4 a few weeks ago:

“The most powerful driver of immigration is having a stock of the diaspora already in the country because migration from a poor country to a rich one is daunting, it’s costly, and the poorest people can’t move. So what we get is people leaving countries where they have some money, but where they have good connections. And so as the migration builds up a stock of the diaspora, that’s why migration accelerates.”

He also said:

“Some diversity is good. It gives the society more innovation, gives it more variety. But if you have too much diversity, trust starts to erode; cooperation erodes; generosity erodes. And so there is a right amount of diversity. I can’t tell you how much the right amount is, but that’s what every society’s got to antagonise about.”

For me personally, living in London, I have mixed feelings about mass immigration. On one hand, my city is undoubtedly a more interesting and vibrant place for the impact of mass immigration and the masses of overseas visitors who come to visit.

But ‘interesting’ is a very different concept to ‘home’.

One day recently I took one of my normal journeys across town on train and tube and found myself in a whole load of places in which there was barely an English or British voice. My feeling of belonging and of being ‘at home’ dissipated. I felt it and I knew it, and I knew why.

Similar, seemingly rapid, social changes are happening in my local area. It is now normal for me to go out and hear only foreign languages as I walk my local streets and travel on local buses. Also, the primary school of which I am governor is facing extra challenges from around half of its new children having English not as primary language, and many having no English at all.

These changes are not all bad by any means – far from it.

But we should reflect on what they mean and whether what they mean for many people matters. For me, that is an issue primarily for democracy, and not one for the economists and technocrats and those obsessed with race to dominate with their narratives.

With the Office of National Statistics estimating that Britain’s population will rise by 9.6 million to 73.3 million by 2037 largely down to the impact of immigration, I think we should be enforcing strict limits on further incomings, giving some breathing space for existing migrants to integrate on their own terms and the wider society to settle down rather than be subject to further significant social pressures.

* See here for audio/video feeds of a lecture given by Collier to the LSE recently on the topic
'Exodus: immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st century'.


  1. You want to watch it: you might get arrested for “inciting racial hatred” (i.e. “disagreeing with the political left”).

    Anyway, congratulations on having tumbled to the bigotry and fascism that is inherent to the political left. But I suggest that even you have fallen for one aspect of their propaganda, as follows.

    In relation to the “immigrants from non-EEA countries” who “claimed more in benefits than they paid in taxes” you say “if you are an actual racist . . these figures could easily provide fuel to your prejudices.”

    Well hang on. One of the two main elements of the normal dictionary definition of racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. Now if EEA immigrants earn more than non-EEA immigrants (which they do) that is evidence (but not proof) that one race is superior to another. No “prejudice” there at all, I suggest.

    Similarly in the US, it is clear that some races earn more than others (with Orientals being at the top).

    If brown horses win more races than black horses, it is not “prejudice” to say that is evidence that the average brown horse can run faster than the average black horse, is it?

    1. Ralph: When one refers to evidence, one means evidence against or supporting (though more likely just "not against") a particular theory. The original post had it spot on: if your theory is that some kind of people are inherently worse (in an economic sense), then this data would not contradict that theory. Your suggestion that this is evidence to support the racist theory isn't correct; the evidence merely does not contradict this theory.

      To say "this evidence suggests that person group X is superior (economically) than person group Y" means that (a) you are proposing the theory that there are inherent differences between person groups that affect their economic performances, and (b) you think the evidence supports this theory. Same with your brown horse/black horse example, though in that case it might be easier to find the true cause of the difference because there are far fewer confounding variables.

  2. I disagree strongly with you on racism Ralph; that EEA immigrants TEND to earn more than non-EEA ones is not evidence that one race is superior to another; statistics don't explain *why*, and they certainly don't attribute some sort of ultimate cosmic superiority and inferiority - they just measure what they measure, nothing more nothing less.

  3. Hello Ben, a thoughtful piece.
    I'd go one further, that the "economics" view of immigration is also heavily tainted by a certain assumption in economics.

    There's an assumption that aggregate increases in wealth are distributed and/or losers are compensated. This is largely not the case with immigration in practice. Your local primary school is unlikely to get extra funding (theoretically to be taken out of the extra wealth that immigration generates for the country) to defray the costs that immigration imposes.

  4. I’m sticking to the point I made above which was that in the case of EEA immigrants etc, earnings differences are “evidence (but not proof)” of racial differences. And when you add to that the differences in earnings of different races in the US, and the differences in IQ found by psychologists, I think you have to be blinded by political correctness to then claim there are no racial differences.

    Re “ultimate cosmic superiority”, that’s getting a bit vague. It may be that dogs have more beautiful souls than human beings, thus on the “cosmic superiority” index, dogs may be superior to humans.

    But as far as more mundane and down to earth criteria go: IQ, tendency to obey the law, ability to earn money, etc. I see nothing wrong with idea that there are racial differences.

    1. Racial differences in earnings can easily be explained by social factors. Differences in IQ can easily be explained by "stereotype threat" and social factors such as teacher-bias (IQ is not as good a measure of inherent ability as its proponents might have you believe). "Tendency to obey the law" can be explained by institutional racism affecting arrests and court decisions.

      My theory is that "racial differences" are social constructs, and all the things you mention are "evidence for" my theory just as much as they are for yours (i.e. they aren't, they just don't contradict the theory).

      Do you think that different groups of humans have evolved all that differently in the few thousand years that our populations diverged?

  5. Thanks for the comment Metatone - I agree

    Also thanks Ralph for your comments, though I do disagree strongly with you as I said before. Differences measured statistically measure what is going on in reality, in a very limited fashion. They give us indications of how things are panning out, but they give us very little idea of cause unless we delve very deep into those stats and improve on their detail. The 'racial' differences you talk about are surely more about cultural differences and the accommodations between for example the work culture in this country and the cultures of immigrants from places which are very different (including language of course).

    To ascribe racial differences per se, you would need to compare like with like. With such things as running, there are clearly differences - you could say 'superiority' and 'inferiority'. But in terms of doing 'well' in society determined by race, there's no evidence that I'm aware of.

  6. 1. It does neither side any good if both consistently try and portray themselves as the brave underdogs. I see these "bravery debates" as an extremely pernicious mode of discussion, that we should ideally wipe out entirely, as persuasive as they can be to many people (e.g. see http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/05/18/against-bravery-debates/ and http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/06/09/all-debates-are-bravery-debates/)

    2. I agree that pro-migration side essentially has easily won the economic numbers game. There is pretty good evidence that migrants ease the fiscal burden, increase productivity, cut prices, but boost jobs and wages. It's important to note this because, contra what you say, so much of the anti-migration case is driven by a view that immigrants to the UK "take jobs" and use more services/welfare than they pay in taxes. This is in fact not the case.

    3. I find the case that migrants undermine social capital somewhat persuasive. But I have never seen anyone provide me with numbers to suggest this. I have never seen proper controlled research, pointing to the conclusion. Of course, even if migrants do undermine social capital + trust quite a lot we might favour substantially more open borders (the UK's are very closed by any meaningful measure) because the benefits to impoverished foreigners are insanely high and the costs to us, even if real, don't appear to be catastrophic.

  7. Ben, look into Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist who studied /diversity/'s effect on social trust, close enough to immigration: http://boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/08/05/the_downside_of_diversity/

  8. Thanks fritz - I'll check it out. It seems to have a lot in common with what Paul Collier has been saying.

    Ben Southwood - your talk about 'brave underdogs' is strange and seemingly irrelevant. It seems to me indicative of a certain kind of argument that jumps from what is said to what *might* be inferred.

    Also, calling 'these "bravery debates" .. an extremely pernicious mode of discussion, that we should ideally wipe out entirely' is really rather disturbing. You want to 'wipe out' what I'm saying do you?

    That would mean 'wiping out' me as a person.

    The process through which someone can come to say that from an apparent belief in *goodness* in people is precisely the sort of thing I am looking to address, but it still shocks in its vehemence and authoritarianism.

    I would prefer if we argued on the basis of what is actually said and what the actual facts are. The fact of a great many people (and I like to think of myself as a tolerant and accepting person) feeling uncomfortable about high levels of immigration is deserving of respect as much as any others. Unfortunately, as we can see, the views of some who proclaim 'diversity' are not as comfortable with actual diversity as they proclaim - they in fact want to eradicate elements of it.

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  10. I agree with you Ben on economics and would add that other great paranoia White Flight which the Political Elite and the idiot left like to ram down throats are notions that do nothing to the debate but are very good excuses to put down anyone who dares to challenge the effects.

  11. Hi Andy, yes it's interesting the way 'White Flight' generally gets ascribed to nefarious, racist ways of white people. But then the tendency of immigrants to cluster in areas (an entirely natural process that we can all understand) is not questioned at all. It is basic double standards and a basic inversion of conventional racism. White = Bad. Non-white = Good. It's not good and not clever either.

  12. We had a sad example of this "economic" type argument when in early February, László Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, turned up at Bristol University to talk about EU migration to the UK. His lecture was a highly publicized event; after all, the EU Commission is a substantial sponsor of juicy jobs for academics, so it was no wonder that the pro-vice chancellor and the Sociology Department's most senior academic showed up to introduce the Commissioner, who had formerly risen to the heights of being Associate Lecturer at a Hungarian university.

    His talk, we were told by both academics and by Andor himself, wouldn't just be any old sociology. It was "fact-based" sociology. It was therefore very different from other sorts of sociological stuff and had special authority. Indeed the title of the lecture suggested as much: "An Inconvenient Truth". Not an inconvenient perspective, or an inconvenient point of view. Truth. For the truth we were about to be told, may the Lord make us truly grateful.

    There followed a detailed run-through of the standard economic arguments. Or rather, basically two arguments.
    1. It is more economically efficient to have a common labour market, people can go where they are needed;
    2. Immigrant EU workers are not, in fact, more likely to claim benefits than UK residents.
    That was about it for ideas, but they were elaborated on at great length.

    A few of the somewhat stunned seeming audience raised a few desultory questions, but almost all questions stuck to the very narrow area of economics that the Commissioner had elaborated on. There was a tangible feeling of ideological closure. No-one seemed to have emotionally-acceptable conceptual tools with which to broaden the debate. The narrow economic focus was accepted by the audience as "the way these things are talked about", though I would imagine many of the audience felt considerable internal misgivings and confusion. One thing above all no-one felt able to raise, one thing no one could talk about - God! There are racists in the audience! - was the issue of feelings.

    Unlike the writer of this blog who now lives in London where the native-born white population run at below 50%, and feelings he can - tentatively - grumble about it.

    When I raised the fact that such cross-border migration tends a) to be pro-cyclical, i.e., it exaggerates economic booms and busts, and b) puts enormous temporary strains on recipient country housing stock and on education systems, effectively requiring both the host country and the country of departure to build extra stock, the suggestion was just laughed off: "Well I consider any extra spending on schools is a plus..." Well, thank you László, so do I, but that is not the point - the point is that the Euro area creates enormously divergent outcomes in different countries, doesn't allow the member countries to restore competitiveness through devaluation, but instead attempts to solve unemployment (created by the effects of the Euro system) through huge migration flows from one Euro-area country to another, flows which then get reversed when it turns out, as it did in Ireland and Spain, that far from being a matter of fundamental economics, the divergence was a temporary cyclical phenomenon, i.e., an over-spending and housing boom exaggerated by the absorption of massive numbers of extra labourers housed in extra housing and extra schools. Which in the case of Spain and Ireland are now lying semi-empty, with their EU immigrant labourers unemployed.

    What was infuriating about the lecture was the closure of debate, its limitation to a narrow economic sub-focus, and the exclusion of any more fundamental ideas, let alone the venting of the "feelings" mentioned in this blog post (which are surely as important as any number of economic ideas).

    1. Thanks for the comment Matthew - very interesting and spot on with the arguments you make in my view.

      We are being ruled and lectured to by an elite which has its own agenda and doesn't care about people who disagree with them, whose opinions are claimed spuriously as scientific, when they are engaging in a very old trick of using selectively-picked facts to justify ideology - in this case a form of neo-liberalism in which roots and communities of space are superfluous or irrelevant, or even downright racist.

      It is basic authoritarianism and is only just starting to be fought from left-wing perspectives. It's a deep shame that the right has colonised this space for so long with their stupid, ineffective and sometimes genuinely racist arguments.


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