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How to be a responsible globalist Immigration isn't only about economics — so we need to reframe the debate



September 30, 2019   5 mins

Let me start by putting my cards on the table. I am a big fan of immigration. I am a product of immigration. I also voted to remain in the European Union; not hesitantly, based on economic calculation and a fear of rocking the boat, but wholeheartedly, as a passionate supporter of the European idea. I simultaneously see myself as a Briton, a European and a citizen of the world.

Yet I find myself at odds with many ostensibly like-minded people, for at least three reasons.

First, those in favour of immigration often claim that they are simply right and their opponents wrong. On top of this they also underplay the outsized political influence of their camp beyond their numbers. Finally, they seem to feel that immigration is the totem issue on which we should fight for a more tolerant society. On all three points, I would differ.

We have tended to frame the debate on immigration as a technical one. The bean counters have told us that immigration has positive overall economic impact; therefore, it is a good thing. Those who vote for lower immigration should be educated (after all, we are the clever ones), or perhaps ignored (because if they insist on being wrong, they must be racists).

The problem with this argument is that immigration isn’t only about economics, but also identity. Few people who voted for Brexit believed the nonsense about it improving Britain’s growth prospects – most explicitly chose identity over income. Traditional economists call this irrational, but humans value more than just the access to resources for which money is a proxy. Even deeper runs the desire to be part of a group that makes them feel safe, and there is nothing irrational in that.

Robert Putnam, an American academic who supports immigration, demonstrated a decade ago the uncomfortable fact that diversity negatively impacts what he calls “social capital”. His findings, gathered in a careful study of hundreds of US voting districts, have been corroborated in many other countries. Put simply, increased racial diversity did not make people poorer, but they did socialise less, were less happy, less likely to vote and had fewer friends among both minorities and members of the same group. Tellingly, Putnam found that these negative effects were counteracted by higher levels of education and income.

This puts a different spin on the wealthier, more educated pro-immigration camp. Instead of simply being in the right, they have a different subjective experience of immigration, which does not damage their social capital in the same way.

To get a sense of why, consider the impact of strangers who do not speak English moving in next door – on the one hand, for someone whose social network consists primarily of their neighbours in a street where they have always lived; and on the other, for someone with far-flung friends from university, who has themselves recently arrived on a wave of gentrification. The former need not be racist to feel less socially connected. The latter might not even notice their new foreign neighbours.

We live in a democracy, but when voters are simply wrong, they should be told as much. If the majority of people want to stop vaccinating their children, the government and the medical profession has a duty to disabuse them of this misguided view. After all, we can be confident that voters do not want their children to die of disease.

But immigration is not as clear-cut, and the only way to measure the balance between economic benefits and social costs is by asking the public. Elections are the most representative surveys we have; when the majority tells us that they want to reduce the flow, we should listen.

Supporters of immigration should also appreciate the outsized influence we wield, over-represented among the leaders of every field – whether academia, politics, business or the professions. Once we have accepted that being powerful doesn’t make you objectively right, we will understand how undemocratic it can feel that advocates of immigration have so much more influence than their votes alone.

Of course, having lost the Brexit referendum we can continue to make the case for what we believe in. But we should also acknowledge that fears of an “establishment plot to reverse Brexit” are understandable.

Above all, we should be more strategic about how we realise our vision of a more tolerant, open world. Ignoring the social costs of immigration and telling voters they are stupid or racist is not a winning ticket.

The solution is to broaden the identities to which people belong. Immigration is what happens when foreigners move into a community, and it carries social costs, but the definition is not fixed. For instance, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and German-Americans all once considered each other foreigners, but now they share the identity of white Americans. Race has not gone away, but identities have gradually broadened.

The same has happened in Europe. The 48% of Britons who voted to remain in the European Union represent a huge proportion of people who see themselves as Europeans, rather than simply Britons. Sadly, it wasn’t quite a majority in that vote. However, in the long term, global trends such as the huge increases in air travel, access to social media and proficiency in the English language offer the possibility of an ever-broader feeling of belonging. Half of all humans watched the World Cup last year. One fifth are monthly users of Wikipedia, that communal trove of human knowledge. The foundation for a wider view of who we are is in place, if only we can get the politics right.

Rather than insisting now on maintaining or even further liberalising immigration in the teeth of the majority, we need to fix the underlying reasons that half of society is not yet convinced. It is not because they are congenitally tribal, nationalist or ignorant. It is because they see more costs than benefits in an integrating Europe and a globalising world.

First, voters need to feel that they have some control over the dizzying changes that are taking place. If that means slowing the pace of immigration, so be it. If unprecedented numbers of arrivals have created a negative backlash, tightening restrictions can have the opposite effect. Surveys have shown that the G7 country most in favour of immigration today is Britain.

Second, the immigration lobby should focus on refugees and students. Accepting refugees is a moral duty. We have done no service to that argument by intentionally conflating that duty with our preference for more liberal immigration overall. Focusing on refugees while conceding the argument on economic migrants means that we need to end the Mediterranean dance of death between smugglers, migrants, NGOs and populist governments.

The best solution would be humane, speedy and generous processing for asylum seekers before they make the crossing. To date, the very idea of asylum processing in North Africa has been viewed by many as an impossible capitulation to the populists.

Meanwhile, students should be allowed to come and study because they represent a huge export industry – and create much less social impact than other forms of immigration. Most go back home after their studies, but they are put off from coming in the first place if that is their only prospect. When they are in the UK, they mostly live in highly cosmopolitan university towns where opposition to immigration is low. That is why even Boris Johnson, while devotedly courting Brexit voters, has felt able to recently announce a loosening of restrictions on students.

Finally, we need to put far more energy into international projects on which globalists and nationalists can agree. One clear example is tax reform. Globalisation, along with the liberal immigration policies it has ushered in, has been seen by many as a conspiracy of the rich against the poor. A great part of that anger stems from wealthy people and corporations using the international system to make wealth everywhere and pay tax nowhere.

Closing those loopholes through a new, powerful international treaty on tax would demonstrate the power of global action, while also being a victory for those angry about the inequality that globalisation has allowed.

Climate change is another example. Some people still have their heads in the sand, but the majority in every country – including the US, UK, China, India and Russia – say that global institutions should have enforcement powers on the issue of climate. That is because people everywhere understand that a warming planet will affect everyone, regardless of the community to which they belong.

That common threat holds the promise of knitting humanity ever closer together in common cause. We should push for a broader view of who we are, recognising no foreigners, only fellow humans, on this shrinking planet. But until that argument is won, we should rely on democracy to tell us when the pace of change is too great.

Hassan Damluji’s book, The Responsible Globalist, was published this month.

Hassan Damluji is a development expert and author on global affairs. He is Deputy Director of Global Policy & Advocacy at the Gates Foundation. His articles for UnHerd are written in a personal capacity.

Hassan’s first book, The Responsible Globalist, was published by Penguin Allen Lane in 2019.


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