As is now a familiar theme, many people oppose immigration into the UK because they fear the social and cultural effects (eg, from Muslim parts of the world) more than they do for the economic impact (supposed negative/positive effects on low-skilled wage rates, effects on productivity, and so on). In general, the classical liberal “open borders” approach states that the issue, in as much as it is an issue at all, is immigration+state welfare. The problem is the state welfare.
An argument that has got an airing today in the Daily Telegraph, via Jeremy Warner, is that immigration, of the “low-skilled” sort, hits productivity. The argument goes something like this: firms have less of an incentive to invest in improved methods of producing goods and services if they can hire cheap labour instead. This is a simple issue of factors of production (labour/capital) being substituted for one another depending on the relative costs of each. Now of course we want higher productivity in the medium to long run so that the whole pie expands; but that is not just a function of increasing output per hour by some restriction on the number of people in a workforce – there is also the increase in the division of labour that one can get with a larger number of people, at least potentially. And even if people are seeing wages for low-skilled labour hold steady rather than rise, it is better that people are in work rather than sitting idle. (Again, one has to consider the welfare impact here in shaping the incentives to take or not to take certain types of job.)
In any event, the supply of people able/willing to perform types of labour is not infinite (let’s not forget that a large number of people have also emigrated from the UK). History also does not seem to back up Warner’s fears: In the 19th Century, there was a population explosion in the industrialising West, for all sorts of reasons (lower infant mortality, better nutrition, health care, and so on), and yet by the turn of the century, real wages, when adjusted for inflation were higher than it was in 1800. (That is hardly a controversial statement. Data by the likes of Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert, in “English Workers’ Living Standards During the Industrial Revolution: A New Look, The Economic History Review, 1978, clearly backs up this point.)
But what Warner seems to overlook is that if an influx of immigrants can be blamed for holding down productivity, cannot the same be said if, say, a significant number of British citizens move from one part of the country to another, as indeed happened in the early parts of the Industrial Revolution when people moved from farm-based jobs to factories and offices? Warner says he favours a sort of levy on employers who use “cheap labour”:
“No free market liberal would argue the case for preventing employers from hiring foreign labour but there are other forms of state intervention that might indeed be appropriate were it not for the fact that the European Union makes them unlawful – for instance, imposing levies on use of cheap foreign labour. By making low skill employment more expensive, the levy system would provide a powerful incentive for productivity gain in construction, retail, social care and other largely domestically bound industries. These levies could then be channelled back into tax incentives for training and other forms of business investment.”
Warner is damn right that no free market liberal would touch such regulation with a bargepole. The levy idea is also foolish, in my view, since how does Warner know how high/low to set it? What is the supposed ideal rate of productivity growth that he thinks should be the target, and in any event, should there be any target at all?
Ultimately, Warner’s analysis involves an unconscious assumption that there is a “UK plc” where we are all working towards a single, or fixed, set of ends, rather than an open society in which people transact and enter voluntary exchanges with others for things/services they wish to buy and sell. Of course, that leaves open other issues surrounding the proper role, if any, of a state, of welfare, of the need to protect borders against those who would enter this territory to do its inhabitants harm. But on the economic point of view, Warner’s argument makes no sense to me. He also ignores the rather basic fact that with a larger population entering an already advanced economy, that increases the potential division of labour, which increases overall productivity. If a person can now afford to hire a cleaner for his home, a child-minder to care for the children, or a gardener, or any other “low-skilled” job, that frees up that person to do something else, and possibly, increase the whole economic pie. And of course these “low-skilled” people can get more skills, develop a track record of reliability and diligence, and become more valuable and productive themselves than they would have been had they been forced to stay in presumably less favourable places where they moved from – since why did they move in the first place?
As a response to Warner’s kind of thinking, I can recommend this article from Daniel Kuehn.