On February 23, 2007, Phillipe Legrain gave the annual Bill Warnock Memorial Lecture as part of the Words and Ideas program of the Perth International Arts Festival. Legrain is a British economist and an advocate of globalisation and free migration, and he was speaking about his new book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.
Developing and implementing an immigration policy is an immense political and bureaucratic challenge. For an immigration policy to be “successful” in Australia, it needs to anticipate and fill skilled and unskilled labour shortages, consider the environmental impact of thousands of new residents, manage their integration into the community, and tackle the headline-grabbing issues of terrorism and refugees.
Legrain used his lecture to advocate what he considers to be a solution not just for Australia, but for the world: open borders, or the unrestricted movement of people between nation states.
He presented plenty of compelling evidence as to why open borders, or at least greater numbers of migrants, would benefit developed countries such as Australia.
Migrants provide an endless supply of unskilled labour, and they are willing to take jobs that locals do not want - Afghani workers at abattoirs in the south-west come to mind. This frees up residents to take up skilled employment, in turn improving their standard of living.
Legrain also touched on the benefits to poorer countries, and he expounds upon them further in his book. He argues that money sent by migrants to their families in developing countries is the most effective kind of aid the first world can provide, because the money reaches its intended recipients with a minimum lost to bureaucratic middlemen.
For Legrain, minimising government interference with the market is the key to realising greater global equality. Legrain advocates removing bureaucrats from the selection process, and instead allowing migrants to self-select in accordance with the rules of supply and demand. In a world of open borders, people can follow work around the globe.
The role of the market also provides his answers to conservative critics: if migrants were to follow the job market, they would not need to rely on social welfare, and they would be less likely to remain permanently in a developed country.
Legrain seemed to assume that the audience for his lecture would be packed with populist critics who needed convincing that migrants would not steal their jobs or destroy their culture. I was left feeling uneasy and condescended to, and these feelings were articulated during question time by an audience member who told Legrain that not all Australians agreed with John Howard or the opinion writers of the West Australian, and he shouldn’t assume that they do (I am paraphrasing her sentiments).
It is possible to be sceptical of Legrain’s proposal without a misguided fear that migrants will steal jobs and pensions. He does not adequately address the prospect that migrants will not be supported or protected from exploitation.
Legrain acknowledges that “[s]ome critics object to creating a new class of foreign workers with fewer economic, social and political rights than national citizens…”. However, he gives the problem almost no consideration: “it would be better if everyone had the right to move, work, and settle freely around the world. But in practice, they can’t, and until this is politically acceptable it is surely better to allow in temporary workers who choose to come voluntarily than to try to shut them out entirely, leaving them poorer if they stay at home …”.
Legrain does not consider that rather than wanting to “shut them out entirely”, his audience may not wish to see the development of an immigrant underclass with limited rights or recourse to the law. The market may be more effective than bureaucrats at filling skills shortages, but I am not convinced that it is the harbinger of equality that Legrain makes it out to be.
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