Issue 5, May 2007 | Lucy Young

Immigrants: the Market Needs Them

On 23rd February 2007, Phillipe Legrain gave the annual Bill Warnock Memorial Lecture as part of the Words and Ideas programme of the Perth International Arts Festival. Legrain is a British economist and an advocate of globalisation and free migration, and he was speaking about his new book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.

Developing and implementing an immigration policy is an immense political and bureaucratic challenge. For an immigration policy to be ‘successful’ in Australia, it needs to anticipate and fill skilled and unskilled labour shortages, consider the environmental impact of thousands of new residents, manage their integration into the community, and tackle the headline-grabbing issues of terrorism and refugees. Legrain used his lecture to advocate what he considers to be a solution not just for Australia, but for the world: open borders, or the unrestricted movement of people between nation states

He presented plenty of compelling evidence as to why open borders, or at least greater numbers of migrants, would benefit developed countries such as Australia. Migrants provide an endless supply of unskilled labour, and they are willing to take jobs that locals do not want - Afghani workers at abattoirs in the south-west come to mind. This frees up residents to take up skilled employment, in turn improving their standard of living. Legrain also touched on the benefits to poorer countries, and he expounds upon them further in his book. He argues that money sent by migrants to their families in developing countries is the most effective kind of aid the first world can provide, because the money reaches its intended recipients with a minimum lost to bureaucratic middlemen. For Legrain, minimising government interference with the market is the key to realising greater global equality.

Legrain advocates removing bureaucrats from the selection process, and instead allowing migrants to self-select in accordance with the rules of supply and demand. In a world of open borders, people can follow work around the globe. The role of the market also provides his answers to conservative critics: if migrants were to follow the job market, they would not need to rely on social welfare, and they would be less likely to remain permanently in a developed country.

Legrain seemed to assume that the audience for his lecture would be packed with populist critics who needed convincing that migrants would not steal their jobs or destroy their culture. I was left feeling uneasy and condescended to, and these feelings were articulated during question time by an audience member who told Legrain that not all Australians agreed with John Howard or the opinion writers of the West Australian, and he shouldn’t assume that they do (I am paraphrasing her sentiments).

It is possible to be sceptical of Legrain’s proposal without a misguided fear that migrants will steal jobs and pensions. He does not adequately address the prospect that migrants will not be supported or protected from exploitation. Legrain acknowledges that ‘[s]ome critics object to creating a new class of foreign workers with fewer economic, social and political rights than national citizens…’. However, he gives the problem almost no consideration: ‘it would be better if everyone had the right to move, work, and settle freely around the world. But in practice, they can’t, and until this is politically acceptable it is surely better to allow in temporary workers who choose to come voluntarily than to try to shut them out entirely, leaving them poorer if they stay at home …’.

Legrain does not consider that rather than wanting to ‘shut them out entirely’, his audience may not wish to see the development of an immigrant underclass of with limited rights or recourse to the law. The market may be more effective than bureaucrats at filling skills shortages, but I am not convinced that it is the harbinger of equality that Legrain makes it out to be.  A policy of ‘open borders’ raises fundamental questions about political representation, the provision of social services and the maintenance of employee’s rights, none of which were adequately dealt with by Legrain.  In arraigning racism and xenophobia as the imagined targets of his proselytizing, he rhetorically side-steps even more fundamental issues.  It is the act of a neo-liberal adopting the pretence of left-cultural progressivism in order to advance an ideologically ambiguous agenda.

During the lecture, Legrain seemed unwilling to engage with opposing ideas and resentful of the implication that he was not a champion of liberal values. He was defensive when confronted with questions about the impact of increased migration on the environment or the challenges posed by including people of different cultures in the community. He answered that these were ‘political’ issues not ‘immigration’ issues, and the latter was not to blame for either. Similarly, in response to a question about the Paris riots, Legrain responded that these were not riots about race, but riots about poverty and social exclusion. Even if he was correct and some of the rioters were white French nationals, the idea that considerations of ethnicity, class and social exclusion should be isolated from each other is not convincing.  In the real world, policy problems do not observe the neat compartmentalisation on which Legrain seems to insist.

Legrain argues that Canada is a model nation due to its acceptance of high numbers of migrants and the strong adherence of both immigrants and residents to liberal values, including tolerance and the rule of law. He suggests that other developing nations should stop clinging desperately to old-fashioned notions of a distinctive national identity and embrace the Canadian model.  Putting to one side a troublingly un-complicated view of Canadian political history, Legrain does not consider the significance of controlling borders for constructions of national identity. Policing borders is possibly the strongest assertion of national identity that remains available to a modern nation. The control of migration is the final (symbolic) bulwark of the state against globalisation.

Canada does welcome large numbers of migrants from developing countries, but selection is a complex bureaucratic process relying on criteria that reveal the kind of person upon whom the nation is willing to bestow the rights and privileges of residency or citizenship. There is little incentive for the Canadian government to abandon its immigration programmes because surrendering control does little to enhance legitimacy and removes a vital mechanism for shaping Canadian society.

Legrain concedes that ‘nation states still matter’, but leaves the reader with no doubt that he believes globalisation will continue until borders are completely porous and communities thoroughly diverse. To resist the breakdown of national borders is futile, so why not accommodate the movement of people that accompanies it? The reason is that free market globalisation may be inevitable, but that does not make it desirable. Legrain gives up on persuading his audience to his way of thinking, and settles for making shrill and insistent pronouncements about the end of the geopolitical world as we know it. Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the market to determine the most efficient and compassionate immigration programme for Australia. We may benefit from asking some of Legrain’s questions, but we can discard his simplistic answers.