The belief that migrants are a drain on the economy is like the popularity of Boris Johnson, homeopathy or conspiracy theories

Britain has an immigration problem - but not of the sort generally supposed. The facts show that immigrants are a net fiscal benefit rather than a cost, and that immigration is, except for a small negative effect at the bottom end, a net positive for wages (pdf) and for economic growth (pdf). The problem is the public do not believe the evidence.

Migration

Britain has an immigration problem – but not of the sort generally supposed.

Let’s be clear. The facts show that immigrants are a net fiscal benefit rather than a cost, and that immigration is, except for a small negative effect at the bottom end, a net positive for wages (pdf) and for economic growth (pdf).

Economically speaking, then, immigration is (net) a good thing.

So, what’s the problem? It’s that the public just don’t believe the economic evidence. I don’t think this is simply because they hold economists in low esteem: the man on the Clapham omnibus does not devote his waking hours to thinking “that Jonathan Portes talks some shite.”

Rather, I suspect the problem is a more general one – that irrationalism plays a big role in human affairs.

There’s an analogy with the MMR scare of a few years ago. The idea that immigration is an economic problem is like the belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Both views are founded upon a mix of anecdote and the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: “my son got the jab and then was diagnosed with autism”; “a lot of Latvians arrived in town and my son now can’t find a job.”

In both cases, scientific evidence is weak against vivid anecdotes and well-organized campaigning.

You only have to listen to 6-0-6 to know that opinion and evidence coincide only accidentally. The belief that migrants are a drain on the economy is like the popularity of Boris Johnson, homeopathy or conspiracy theories.

It would be easy – and right – to complain that politicians and the media amplify such irrationalism rather than challenge it.

But there’s a caveat here. Irrationalism is not wholly unreasonable. Yes, the belief that immigration is doing serious economic damage is wrong, as it lacks a good evidence base. But an uneasy feeling that change can have unforeseeable effects isn’t so stupid, being rooted in a reasonable conservative disposition – and in the fact that, as Diane says, there’s much we don’t know about the effects of immigration.

One way to combat this instinct, as I’ve said, is to remind people that immigration is nothing new and is part of our “island story.”

But there’s something else. We know from financial markets that risk aversion rises in bad times, and falls in good. This is one reason why, as Ben Friedman has shown, people become more intolerant in recessions – it’s because downturns cause them to see the downside of change, openness and diversity more than the upside.

Perhaps, then, an economic recovery would soften attitudes to immigration – although it’ll take more than this to convert people to the case for free migration.

24 Responses to “The belief that migrants are a drain on the economy is like the popularity of Boris Johnson, homeopathy or conspiracy theories”

  1. emma

    It’s not about economics, people are against immigration because they just don’t like foreigners and they’re a convenient scapegoat.

  2. Mick

    That sounds incredibly condescending. And even if the public being savages was true, that’d still be no reason to defy their wishes on the issue, if they’ve voted for a government which pledges to cut back on any influx.

  3. Mick

    LFF have forgotten the definitive House of Lords select committee which proved that immigration actually has negligible net benefit. (And as the Left say similar things about the Mail, the Guardian will hardly go against the Left’s gut instincts on issues like this.)

    And it’s interesting to consider the huge logjam of 320,000 immigration cases awaiting resolution, which officials say will take 24 years to clear. Google BBC BORDER AGENCY MAY HAND AMNESTY TO MIGRANTS, MPs WARN. No wonder Theresa May wants to scrap it.

    And my comments in LEFT FOOT FORWARD ENDING THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM ON IMMIGRATION brings up a few more points as well.

  4. henrytinsley

    On that basis, I assume you oppose the government’s bill to private much of the NHS. They certainly didn’t vote for – or approve of – that.

  5. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  6. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  7. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  8. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  9. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  10. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  11. LB

    Typical left wing racism.

    Migrants are better than the Brits, who are crap.

    No different from some Muslims are terrorists so all Muslims must be terrorists.

    E.g some migrants are good for the uk, so all migrants must be good.

    So here’s the correct question to ask, you spend 11k per person per year. Ignoring the increase in debts, how many migrants earn 40k each for a single person, 80k for one with one dependent, 160k for a family of four with one earner? That’s the beneficial test.

    Hardly any.

  12. LB

    No. It’s because they see lots of people getting something for nothing, and they are footing the bill.

    Now look at the claims. Migrants are better than the British. How racist is that?

  13. blarg1987

    I think the underlying concern people have is that migrants are doing jobs that peoplee do not want to do due to the wage structure. Go back a generaton ago many jobs that you are seeing immigrants do paid enough that a family could be suppoerted and have a reasonable standard of living. Now that is not the case, there should be a push to name and shame employers who pay structure is poor and actively goes abroad to employ labour then in the UK. Trouble is we complain about migrants comming here doing jobs, yet are happy if it means we get lower pricews and higher share dividens, which do we want?

  14. Cole

    Why do you write such rubbish about everything?

  15. Cole

    I notice you didn’t reply to the point about the NHS.

  16. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  17. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  18. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  19. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  20. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  21. LordBlagger

    Lots of facts.

    Complete racism from Watt

    Your reply? Devoid of any detail. Which bit are you disputing and why?

  22. LordBlagger

    How abot addressing tax? It’s rocketed and tax home pay is down

  23. LordBlagger

    They didn’t vote for an Nhs that kills 40’000 a year. BMJ figurs

  24. LB

    Abu hamza is a migrant. He’s good for Britain apparently.

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