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:
How is anyone surprised that loads of healthy working age people are net contributors because they’re foreign? This isn’t news you fuckwits.
— Left Outside (@leftoutside) November 5, 2013
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.