Nothing seems to generate as much controversy as immigration. My post the other day in support of Chris Berg’s call for freeing up immigration laws is a good example. But what is interesting to me is how it seems to cut across usual right-wing and left-wing divides.
The right-wing case against immigration has to do with rights. Australia supposedly has a right to self-interest and to pick and choose who gets to come here based on self-interest. That self-interest often includes getting the right cultural mix. The left-wing case against immigration is similar. It often has to do with jobs and the protection of them by erecting immigration barriers. Sometimes it includes housing and even the environment in that mix. In each case, there is a presumption that nations should operate according to a group interest and choose who gets to join and enjoy the fruits of the group.
Here is how I see the case for free migration. The presumption that immigrants are coming here and getting an automatic upgrade in their wealth seems spurious. For the migrants we are consistently blocking, they do not end up in the higher echelons of society. Now, I should note here that for those against immigration, this is part of the point. We have a set of redistributive policies in place and so recent immigrants are beneficiaries of that. The right wing response is perhaps to suggest that those policies are the problem. But that is not the way I see it. As a member of the higher income echelon of society, if I am going to be contributing towards redistribution, I don’t care whether the beneficiaries are Australians or not. But I do care that they are living nearer to me as that is the way we conveniently divide our responsibilities around the globe. If there are more people living near me, so be it.
But the key issue is the reason for migration. Paul Romer has usefully emphasised the diversity of rules — including good and bad ones — that distinguish countries. What people are migrating for are a preference for Australia’s set of rules — born and evolved out of our history. Those rules are political as well as economic and migrants might place weight on each. Some of those economic rules give immediate benefits but, in reality, my guess it is the prospective benefits of the rules that are spurring migration.
When we do not have free migration, we stop people being able to match different rules to their preferences. Personally, if someone in Sri Lanka prefers our rules, why should they be forced into convincing everyone else around them to adopt them rather than just moving? The problem is that we make that extremely costly. That creates two things. First, there is scope for brokers to expropriate and prey on would be migrants. Secondly, there is no legitimate route for information to properly assess that our rules are the rules you really want. That leads to distortions and potentially to disappointment and hardship. This serves no one.
This lead naturally to the counter that our rules are not fixed and having migrants will cause them to change. To this I say, so what? For starters, if self-selection is working, those changes are hardly likely to be significant. However, it is also unclear that such changes would be bad. Are our rules optimal for us? They can’t be for everyone and this is just another force for evolution
If we changed our starting point to recognising that Australia’s rules were good and having others being able to live by them was a compliment rather than a threat, this could lead to a more sensible set of outcomes. I suspect the right-wing advocates for free migration would not agree, but I see an active government role in brokering and providing information to assist migrants make decisions. I also see them as playing a role in freeing up migration across all countries. After all, the thicker the market for rules, the better it will operate. And I respect the notion that that market will be imperfect and distortionary until there is a global policy. That is perhaps the only reason for caution on unfettered migration but that does not mean we could not move much further on this.
In the end, I see migration from poorer countries to Australia as no more of a threat to us than Toorak is threatened by people choosing to move there from Fitzroy (or Sydney). Yes, migrants might enjoy and even congest public goods provided in each case but the freedom to vote with your feet for rules that work for you is something we should not impede in the name of group self-interest.