October 31, 2019 Reading Time: 7 minutes

Immigration is rapidly becoming one of the great political issues of our time. In many countries, polls put it at the top of questions that concern voters. It is a highly divisive “point issue” in the United States, with Donald Trump making opposition to immigration and the building of a wall on the Mexican border one of his central policies, while the Democrats at the local level have resisted this through things like the policy of “safe cities” where the local authorities do not pursue illegal immigrants. 

In several European countries, such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is the issue that seems to drive rising support for so-called “right-wing populism” (or national collectivism as I would prefer). Immigration is thus one of the key issues in the new and increasingly solid divide between nationalist “Right” and cosmopolitan “Left.” 

As such, it is also the question that increasingly divides people who were formerly on the same side of politics. Among those who broadly favor free markets, there is an increasingly bitter division between those who support much easier migration or even completely open borders and others who either support existing border controls or think they should be tightened. 

One way of thinking about this internal division within broader liberalism is that it is a divide between those who think liberty and other liberal goals are universal goods that should be achieved by everyone and those who support what we might call freedom in one country. The latter position makes a defense of American or British liberty rather than freedom in general — it is a case of supporting and advocating “freedom for us” where “us” means a specific political community.

Much of the actual political debate is not conducted at such a high level of abstraction, however. Instead the focus is often on a series of concrete economic arguments. Here we can actually say something about how well-founded the arguments against easier migration are, as there is a great deal of empirical research on this. 

Arguments Against Easier Migration

The evidence of that research overwhelmingly supports the case for easier migration and falsifies the arguments against it, particularly what we might call the popular ones. It is not true that immigrants take jobs away from the indigenous population; in fact, immigration leads to higher levels of economic activity and more employment opportunities. Immigrants do not disproportionately live off welfare benefits — the exact opposite is true, and they make a net contribution to the national treasury. 

The argument is often made that immigration depresses wages (by increasing the supply of labor), but in fact for most of the income range it makes no difference and for the top of the income range it actually leads to a rise in incomes. There is a depressive effect on the bottom 10 percent of the income range, but this is very small. 

Finally, there is a perception that a rise in population from immigration puts pressure on public services and things such as housing, but this reflects rather rigidity and slowness to adapt by the suppliers of those services (usually the government — you seldom hear private companies complaining). Moreover, an increase in the population due to immigration is no different from one caused by a rise in the birth rate, and those who complain about the first are usually silent about the second.

However, there is also a range of non-economic arguments that are put forth by opponents of easier immigration. By their nature, these are not as susceptible to empirical confirmation or disproof, as they are normative arguments or ones of taste rather than matters of fact. These are arguments not about economic costs and benefits but about identity. 

Research on the motives of voters suggests that it is actually these arguments and concerns that drive debate and voting patterns rather than the kinds of economic argument alluded to above. An interesting question is, Why, if that is so, are so many of the public debates dominated by economic arguments? A possible answer is that most political argument these days is couched in economic terms, even when this is not appropriate. 

Another is that identity-based arguments are often seen as illegitimate, although this is changing. The argument here is that large-scale immigration brings about significant and irreversible cultural change and that many people prefer things to stay the same and remain familiar or at least not to change so profoundly or rapidly, particularly if that change is of a kind or in a direction that they do not welcome for other reasons than simple aversion to change.

A Misleading Debate

In both kinds of debate, however, most of the participants are arguing from a misleading starting point, which obscures the real nature of the question. The assumption is that political borders are somehow natural and that therefore there is a difference in kind between movement by people that takes place within a political border and movement that goes across such a border. 

This is not so. In terms of type or class of action, there is no difference between the two. In other words, there is no difference in kind between moving within a political community and moving from one political community to another. There is a legal and administrative difference, but that comes from treating the two as different when in fact they are not. What this means is that we should not talk about immigration (or emigration for that matter): we should talk about migration. That is what we are talking about here: people moving and changing their locale.

So, what is migration, how should we understand it, and what does it do or lead to? It is individuals who choose to move from one place or part of the world to another, and that choice reflects their personal circumstances and the incentives they face. However, as with most human action, when the individual actions and decisions are aggregated we get large-scale patterns and structured phenomena because many people face similar situations and respond in similar ways, and because of structural factors (such as ease of movement to certain places, which depends on a combination of geography and technology, or personal links and connections, which lead to the phenomenon of “chain migration”). This means migration is not simply random at the aggregate level. 

There are many reasons to migrate, which scholars divide into the two broad classes of “push” (trying to get away from bad things) and “pull” (the attraction of good or better things). The common factor though is that people, as rational beings, choose to move so as to improve their condition (this is different from forced migration, where it is not a matter of choice because it is a matter of moving to avoid death or enslavement, or of being taken as a slave — refugees and slaves are different in kind from voluntary migrants). 

Economic Benefits

In economic terms, people will tend to move if by doing so they improve their economic condition. The root of this is moving from a place where one’s labor is less, to one where it is more, productive. What this does is to increase the productivity of all of the various factors of production. 

Clearly the productivity of labor is increased, but the same is true of both land and capital. Farmers in the UK today who hire seasonal migrant labor from Bulgaria are able to use their land more productively. In the 19th century, farmers migrated from Europe to the New World and made the land of countries like the US and Argentina more productive, to give two examples. Capital goods of all kinds become more productive when there is a more abundant and varied supply of labor, both skilled and unskilled. The movement also creates higher and different demand, and this leads to a response on the supply side. 

The place the labor comes from also gains as labor becomes scarcer and incentives to use resources more effectively increase, while remittances sent back by migrants create a cash flow to often-impoverished households. This is true regardless of whether the migration is across a geopolitical border. For example, much of China’s recent growth has been driven and supported by a massive movement of people from inland and Northwestern China to the Eastern and Southern coastal provinces while a lot of 19th-century American growth was driven by the massive migration across the Atlantic. Only one involved crossing a border, but the effect was the same.

Cultural Angle

It may seem more difficult to argue that there is no difference between the two kinds of migration in cultural terms. History shows otherwise. There are many examples of massive cultural change and social transformation brought about by movement within a political community. In the United States, there was a huge migration from the Southern states to Northern cities between the 1930s and 1960s that brought about significant cultural and political changes. All of this was within the US. 

In the UK, migration from Ireland to Great Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries transformed England and Scotland from being overwhelmingly Protestant societies to ones with a large Catholic minority. Wales went from being 90 percent Welsh-speaking in 1871 to only 15 percent in 1911 because of English migration into Wales. 

What migration does is to transform both the migrants and the recipient culture mainly through cultural borrowing and the formation of hybrid cultural forms. Something is undoubtedly lost, but much is also created and gained.

The evidence also is that as long as movement is easy, both the economic effects and the cultural ones are self-limiting. In the economic case, this is because of diminishing marginal returns. As the gains from moving decline (due to rising income in the sending part of the world and diminishing gains in the recipient), fewer people do it. This can be seen in Europe, in the case of Poland and the UK, for example. 

Paradoxically, hard borders make it more likely that people will move permanently rather than for a limited time. In the cultural case, as well as hybridization, there is a kind of natural selection of ways of life and cultural forms. If the recipient culture is sufficiently vibrant and attractive, incomers will mainly acculturate to it, as happens in the United States both historically and today. 


If migration is the same kind of thing regardless of whether it goes over a border, then certain things follow. Logically, if you support governments controlling movement across the borders, then you should support their having the power to control movement and residence within borders. Historically in fact this was normal, and governments did have that power (even if they found it hard to exercise it). 

The egalitarian philosopher Brian Barry took this view, arguing both that the two kinds of movement were the same and that governments should have the power to tell people where to live. (The government might decide to allow free movement within the borders, but this would be a matter of policy not a recognition of a right.)

In other words, control of migration over borders is one aspect of a wider sovereign power to control and regulate movement and abode. The right of individuals to move within a state, if it is one that overrides and excludes any political power to control movement and residence, should also extend to a right to move across political borders — as long as you think that right is a natural one in some sense and not granted by a political community. 

If we thought about migration in this way, we would have a very different argument. It would not focus on bad and spurious economics. Rather it would focus on questions about the nature of political communities, the power they have over their members, and how extensive that power should be. An individualist position on those questions leads to some very radical conclusions, in today’s terms. Thinking about migration per se, rather than immigration, will also make collectivists more explicit (and self-aware?) about how they conceive of the political community and the degree to which they see it in terms of collective identity rather than individualism.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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