Tuesday, 25 June 2013


"I was ... dining at an Oxford college. When I said to my neighbour, one of the country’s most senior civil servants, that I wanted to write a book about why liberals should be more skeptical about large-scale immigration, he frowned and said, ‘I disagree. When I was at the Treasury I argued for the most open door possible to immigration … I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’"

What is your reaction to that anecdote?
For many people, I suspect, the story is quite emotive. The Oxford college setting certainly adds flavour. The story is one of the privileged denizens of a comfortable, cloistered world, insulated from the harsh realities of everyday life, who embrace moral theories at odds with the intuitions and language of their compatriots - and then force them on the rest of us. Who actually uses the phrase "maximise global welfare" at the dinner table? Who is grandiose enough to think that that is their job?

Before I get to my reaction, I want to start with a thought experiment.

There are 5 people in Richland, each of whom has an income of 10. There are also lots of people in Poorland, each of whom has an income of 1. The government of Richland can do nothing, or it can choose one of the following three policy options.

Policy A would allow 1 person from Poorland to immigrate to Richland. That person would be the best qualified person in all of Poorland. As a result of letting him in to Richland, everyone in Richland would be better off. Richland would end up with 6 people, all of whom would have an income of 15.

Policy B would allow 5 people from Poorland into Richland. Choosing 5 people would inevitably result in a less impressive mix of immigrant skills. The result for Richland would be 10 people, all with an income of 12.

Policy C would allow 20 people from Poorland into Richland. They would be much less impressive characters and would even tend to drag down the average income. The result would be 25 people with an income of 9.

What should the government of Richland do?

There are things to be said for each policy. Policy A results in the biggest per capita increase for the currently existing citizens of Richland. Policy C results in Richland's total income going up by the most; it is also best for global welfare. Policy B results in a large increase in global welfare, while not hurting (indeed, improving the lot of) the current citizens of Richland.

This is the sort of normative economics discussion that sounds pretty theoretical but can be quite fruitful in flushing out people's moral intuitions. You can add bells and whistles. For example, I haven't told you anything about the people left behind in Poorland: what would you think if they are left worse off by Richland creaming off their talent? Or better off as the emigrant(s) sent money back home? Also, Richland and Poorland are both very egalitarian societies in the examples above: what difference would it make to your answers if immigration increased (or decreased) equality in either Richland or Poorland? What if immigration was bad for the worst-off in Richland but good for the best-off? What if the immigrants only attained income of 5, i.e. better lives than they had in Poorland, but worse than everyone they now lived with?

As I say, there is much to take from these kinds of example. Moreover, they are not wholly theoretical. The governments of the Richlands of this world might have a shrewd idea of the effects of immigration on the incomes of various categories of their current and future citizens. The senior civil servant in the anecdote must have thought that he had something like such data available to him.

But the question I asked above was, what should the government of Richland do? The answer must be - surely - that this a question to be decided by the 5 current citizens of Richland. And in any real-world situation those 5 people would be interested in a lot more than just income. For example, are Poorlandians close cultural relatives of Richlandians: are we talking South Koreans and North Koreans, or Swedes and Somalis? Do Richlandians view Poorlandians as victims of circumstances beyond their control or feckless indigents: are we talking Ugandan Asians or [insert offensive stereotype of your choice here]? Do Richlandians feel they owe obligations to Poorlandians, e.g. ones of gratitude or guilt? And so on. All of these kinds of factor are hugely important in real life.

The government that imposed policy C (or indeed any other policy) against the wishes of the Richlandians would be behaving wrongly, regardless of its good intentions in doing so. It is perfectly open to the people of Richland to reject even Policy A. They might prefer the exclusive company of their current compatriots to an increase in income. That would be mean-spirited of them, but surely national self-determination includes the ability to make such a decision.

That, it seems to me, is what is most disappointing about the anecdote above. No British government has ever been elected on a platform of maximising global welfare. Immigration and foreign aid are consistently very unpopular. And yet someone working for the British government somehow thought that it was his job to maximise global welfare. He was wrong about that. He was paid by the British taxpayers to protect and further the interests of the British people. Whether it is morally preferable to work for the good of mankind as a whole rather than that proportion of it living in the UK is beside the point. His job was to fight Britain's corner.

You would be outraged if your lawyer told the Court that the other side had the better case, or if the manager of your football team told the players to go easy and let the other side score a few goals. Whether it would be better for justice or the game of football if these things were to happen is not the concern of the individual lawyer or manager. The principle is the same for the government.

Politicians and civil servants are the trustees and managers of a vast estate, inherited from our ancestors and to be passed on to our descendants, enriched with assets both tangible and intangible, and encumbered with debts and liabilities legal, practical and moral. Immigration is an issue to be viewed as part of the proper management of that valuable estate. The preservation of the countryside, indigenous institutions and our way of life; the debts of obligation or gratitude owed to the peoples of former overseas territories or of former allies; ties of love or family that cross borders; economic growth; the preservation of peace - all these are proper considerations for those trustees. Maximising global welfare is not.

The anecdote itself comes from The British Dream by David Goodhart. (I've actually taken the quotation from here but the story is in the introduction of the book: see Michael Howard's review.) Even some of the reaction to the book confirms the perception I noted above (although by and large it has been respectfully received). For example, the author was snubbed by the Hay festival, while Jonathan Portes, writing the London Review of Books, describes it as 'dangerous'. (You might think that 'dangerous' is a word better applied to the Afghan asylum-seeker who strangled a Scotsman at Marble Arch, a story reported elsewhere in the very same edition of the LRB, or to leaving a bomb outside a mosque. Another book about immigration, written by a respectable journalist and reflecting pretty mainstream views, can hardly be called 'dangerous'.)

As it happens, I favour immigration. I'm persuaded by the economic arguments. I like both the idea and the reality of living in London, a busy city full of diversity. For me, immigration means nice new restaurants and increases in the value of my property. It's probably much the same for the civil servant having dinner with Goodhart. But I recognise that my views and experiences are not the same as everyone else's.

A lot of the heat in the immigration debate stems from the perception that people with my views have had too much influence on immigration policy; that there are large numbers of people with too much power (e.g. the senior civil servant) who look at a thought experiment like the one above and feel able to decide what is best for the people of Richland, regardless of their views; that the trustees do not run things in the beneficiaries' interests. The anecdote shows, unfortunately, that that perception has some basis in reality.

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