Why is there such strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the industrialized democracies, and why does it get focused on Muslims? The shooting rampage and bombing by anti-immigrant Islamophobe Anders Breivik has raised these questions to a fever pitch. But the answers are just not obvious.
I’m not generally a big fan of Milton Friedman. I like my food and drugs and banks regulated, and think I know what happens when they aren’t. But on immigration issues, Friedman had some important insights. Immigration is mostly a response to labor demand, and it is probably fruitless to try to control it too closely. And it could even be economically counter-productive to do so, as Arizona is finding out.
It is mostly a myth that immigrants take jobs away from locals. The places in the US with the highest immigrant populations are not the places with the highest rates of local unemployment. Many immigrants do jobs that locals do not want to do, like pick strawberries or clean toilets in hotels. Others are high-skilled people with imagination who think up ways of enriching people that locals never would have. Remember that labor demand is elastic, not fixed. Sometimes immigrants do labor that just would not get done otherwise (California would have to import strawberries and pay more for them). The evidence is that immigration actually [pdf] benefits the host economy pretty much across the board.
If they are able to do so, labor immigrants tend to return home when the labor market contracts and there is no work for them. (This is the irony of the wall-builders in the US– they are probably forcing immigrants to stay in this country who would otherwise leave).
Let us just consider Poland. In the past 7 years, since it joined the European Union, Poland has lost 2 million residents, declining from 38 to 36 million. At least one million of those are estimated to be permanent emigrants. Most have gone to the British Isles and to Ireland.
Britain has over half a million immigrant Poles now, and they are second only to Indians as hyphenated Britons. The tabloid press has been accused of whipping up anti-Polish sentiment.
But it is baffling. Britain gained the skills of immigrant Poles without having to pay for their educations for the most part. They would not have come if they could not have found jobs that employers would hire them to fill, which means that they met a demand for labor. (Contrary to what some people believe who have not studied economics, labor demand in a society is elastic– it isn’t a zero-sum game, and the pie can expand. A zero-sum game is one where the pie stays the same size and if one person gets more of it, somebody else gets less. Half a million new Polish-British citizens might buy British-made goods and create more jobs). Poles are from a Catholic background and that might make for integration issues in largely Protestant Britain, except that I don’t think young Poles are mostly very religious. Nor are the British. As for ideology, the Poles are hardworking capitalists in this generation and one can only imagine the Margaret Thatcher types approving of them.
Even by 2006, former East Bloc immigrants to Britain were estimated to be contributing over $4 bn. a year to the British economy. The British response to this windfall? The government has now implemented a cap on the immigration of [non-EU] skilled workers that is likely to hurt economic growth! The number of high-skilled workers in a society is predictive of economic growth there, and all the countries that ever amounted to anything brought in a lot of them from abroad. Of course, it is desirable that the wealth they help create be taxed and used to educate and train people of the country for the future, as well. But, again, it is not a zero sum game. Sullen, poor, nationalist little countries that keep out foreigners seldom generate the resources to educate their own high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and so they stay sullen, poor, little nationalist countries.
In contrast, Poland has lost 2 million energetic, educated, mainly young people, and half of it is a long-term loss. So who has done better out of this immigration? Britain or Poland? What have the British really got to complain about here? Note that Poland could lose another million citizens permanently over the next generation. Who will support their old? Where will their productivity come from?
Poles are second only to Indians in numbers as immigrants. There are at least half a million and perhaps over a million Hindus in the UK. I am sure they face some discrimination. But I’ve never heard of loonies stocking weapons and killing people over their presence in Britain. Barry Kosmin estimated about a million in the US as I recall. Despite some Indophobia, Western host societies don’t obsess about Hindu immigrants the way they do about Muslim. There is no reason to obsess about either. If the argument is that the hatred of Muslim immigrants has to do with a lifestyle distinct from that of the host population, then it is hard to explain the difference here. If some ethnocentric Western group wanted to make up a charge sheet against Hindus, they could. You have militant groups like the RSS and some terrorism, you have attacks on Christians in India and right wing pogroms against Muslims. Hindus are polytheists and have filed friend of the court briefs in the US against evangelical attempts to put the Ten Commandments in public spaces and schools. I hasten to underscore that this tactic would not be fair, but then neither are similar tactics deployed against Muslims fair. I am glad there is no campaign against Hindus. I am just suspicious that there is such a campaign against Muslims (which predated 9/11), which suggests ulterior motives in the latter case. The Muslims, after all, have all that oil that actually belongs to us and they won’t acknowledge it, and they resist attempts to make their countries mission fields, and they haven’t gone along with our attempt to erase the Palestinian nation. They are therefore set up in various ways as fall guys.
Countries that shun immigration, such as Japan, face shrinking and aging populations. The economic implications of this situation could be dire for Japan. Likewise, how likely is it to remain a substantial world power if it falls from 127 million to 90 million over the next few decades and ends up with disproportionate numbers of retirees? Who will pay for their social security, with few young workers coming up behind them? Who will serve in the Self Defense Forces?
Societies with sophisticated economies and fair economic growth naturally attract labor immigrants. Keeping the latter out will just stunt the growth of and make the country poorer and weaker. Most immigrants in European countries are not Muslims, as the Indian and Polish cases in Britain demonstrate. Likewise, contrary to Mike Huckabee, there is relatively little Muslim immigration into the US, comparatively speaking (about half of US immigrants are Latinos from the New World). Even where immigrants are Muslim, there is no good evidence that they are less assimilable than other ethnic groups. Even their extremists are less prone to carrying out attacks in Europe than European separatists, the looney left, or the Right Wing.
Hatred of immigrants is for all these reasons counter-productive. It is another piece of evidence that human beings are perfectly capable of messing things up, big time, just because they entertain funny ideas divorced from reality.