Why people should just admit they want some foreigners to die

Ben Cobley makes a good point that far too much of the immigration debate focuses on facts when what really matters is how people feel. Earlier this week we had a report published that showed that European migrants paid more in tax than they claimed in benefits. As I said, perhaps uncharitably, on twitter:

Excuse my French, but as Ben says this is about feelings not facts. Precisely no people will change their mind due to this report and precisely no useful arguments were had on twitter as a result. The whole debate could be better framed. It would save Jonathan Portes his health at least if he could just admit that people don’t care about the facts. After all, there’s grist to everyone’s mill here.

Ben points out that between “1995 and 2011, immigrants from non-EEA countries claimed more in benefits than they paid in taxes.” Now this doesn’t surprise me after all a large number of these people will be asylum seekers who were banned from working or are children. We’re straying towards facts here. Which I concede isn’t that useful. But I’ll just conclude that children and those banned from working are likely to be a drain on  the public purse, but not terminally so.

Anyway, Ben is sympathetic to migration but still thinks that with Britain’s population possibly rising by 9.6 million to 73.3 million by 2037 we should be enforcing strict limits on further migrants to give time for existing migrants to integrate. I’m not going to discuss the merits of this plan, I want to talk about how I feel and how I think other people feel.

The status quo is that a small number of migrants are allowed to enter the UK but that most people in the world are kept poor or persecuted. “Most of us do not merely let people starve, but also participate in starving them” as Thomas Pogge says. Undoubtedly, more immigration would help solve this problem. And that’s where my emotional response begins. But most people are unmoved by this argument, in fact they pretend it doesn’t exist.

This apparent callousness is okay. People support policies that cause pain and suffering on a huge scale. That’s normal. All I want is for people to admit it openly. Yes, I think the immigration debate in this country is boring but not because my side call too many people racists (although that’s unhelpful). It is because restrictionists refuse to make the honest argument “this many million people must suffer on my behalf.” 

So I guess that’s how I feel. People support policies that will kill people. Lots of people. I don’t think they’re bad people for wanting that. They’re normal people. I don’t want to go through life thinking 99% of people are evil: why would I bother with politics if humanity was so unredeemably awful? But I’d like to see some admission that there’s a trade off. Some people must die or live in drudgery and cholera so that I can feel a certain way. 

You shouldn’t set policy so that people are expected to behave like superheroes. We can expect someone to pull a drowning girl out of a lake, but not to give up their day job to become a free range lifeguard. The same is true of immigration. Leaving people alone is a heroic act and people feel justifiably odd admitting that. That’s the real reason our debate around immigration involves people shooting facts back at one another. It’s a smoke screen because some things are too horrible to say.

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2 thoughts on “Why people should just admit they want some foreigners to die

  1. Undoubtedly, more immigration would help solve this problem.

    I don’t want to kick off a debate over this because the chances of either of us changing our minds are about as significant as the chances of James Delingpole joining the SWP. By way of clarification, though: some of us who support migration controls do not accept that free migration would have a significant impact on the world’s poverty and health. Mass immigration doubtless improves the lives of a number of migrants but it is my view that unrestricted immigration would be liable to provoke to conflict and dysfunction on such a scale as to reduce standards of living and social cohesion in prosperous countries to the point that they are less productive and inventive, which would do developing nations no good at all.

    This is not to claim that my support for migration controls is inspired by charitable universalism – or that I deny that such policies ensure that some people are unable to improve their lot – but I do not think they spell doom for millions.

    1. Well, I think your argument is more logically coherent, but I think it’s pretty clear that a country can sustain sizeable in migration without anything close to civilisational collapse occurring. A migrant population equivalent to a few percent of the local population a year has been easily managed by several countries (Australia, US, Canada for example) and this would correspond to millions entering the UK annually.

      There’s less space in the UK, and increasing population density has lots of negative consequences, but none significant enough to limit migration.

      The historical record of tolerable migration implies that significantly more open borders are entirely manageable.

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