No good reason not to open our doors

Andrew Coyne
National Post
October 11, 2002

The tendency of Hollywood studios to deliver several films on the same theme at the same time is well known. But how odd to observe the same behaviour among publishers of monographs on Canadian public policy.

In the past two weeks, no fewer than three such publications have crossed my desk, all making essentially – no, exactly – the same point: Canada is admitting too many immigrants, of the wrong kind, with consequences too dreadful to contemplate.

The similarities among the three – by Diane Francis, Martin Collacott, and Daniel Stoffman – are remarkable. The same arguments are repeated, the same factoids cited, the same authorities quoted. Nevertheless, Mr. Stoffman’s Who Gets In is clearly the pick of the litter, and so I will focus on it here.

Mr. Stoffman makes three types of argument. There are the usual ad hominems: If you disagree with Mr. Stoffman’s call for radical cuts in immigration, you must either be self-interested (Liberals trawling for ethnic votes, employers seeking cheap labour, realtors hoping to boost land prices) or a fanatic. Of the latter group, Mr. Stoffman discerns two kinds, each with their own "hidden agenda": right-wingers, who see immigration as a way to force government "to eliminate the minimum wage and disband the welfare state," and left-wingers, "cultural radicals" who "look forward to the day when people of European ancestry are a minority in Canada."

A second preferred mode of argument is to beat up on straw men. Mr. Stoffman mounts an impressive case against two "myths" about immigration: that it will make us all rich – indeed, that without it our economy would collapse – and that it can reverse the aging process. With magisterial command of fact and logic, he is able to disprove the notion that Canada’s prosperity depends on ever-accelerating population growth.

There is just one thing to mar the perfection of this tour de force: I don’t know anyone who thinks such a thing, or has ever argued it. There may be some people who believe that, without immigration, Canada could not prosper, but no serious advocate of immigration has ever said so. Indeed, many of us have made the opposite point, to counter the fears of "over-population" alarmists: namely, that every individual is, not only a consumer, but also a potential creator of wealth, and that the standard of living any country enjoys does not depend on how many people it has in it, so much as how their talents are combined.

Likewise, while popular accounts have perhaps overstated immigration’s role in offsetting those familiar demographic forces that have conspired to increase the proportion of the elderly in the population, it has never been maintained that it could prevent this altogether. The most any serious immigration advocate has said is that it would help. And it would: the projected "dependency ratio" (retired plus children, as a percentage of the working-age population) is significantly lower, even at current rates of immigration, than it would be without.

While there are some economic and other benefits from a larger population – potentially large ones – the best reason to open the doors is that there’s no good reason not to: If there are no great costs to the current population, we should lean in the direction of human freedom. Ah, but there are, Mr. Stoffman replies. And here we get to the third and best of his arguments. I hope he will not object if I call it by its proper name: protectionism.

The effect of admitting so many unskilled immigrants (actually, the proportion of the unskilled is falling, but never mind), he argues, is similar to what happens when we trade with other countries. Workers among the host population, especially those lacking skills, find themselves under competitive pressure, forcing wages down. Sure, he’ll concede, that might mean higher profits for their employers, or lower prices for consumers, but the distributional impact is perverse. He cites figures – based, it appears, not on observation but the application of a dubious-sounding formula – showing that immigration results in a loss to existing workers of $30.7-billion, while boosting the incomes of the rest of the population by $33.8-billion. Even though that’s a net gain of $3-billion to the country as a whole, in Mr. Stoffman’s view it is nothing more than an "income redistribution scheme that benefits the wealthiest members of society."

There are several possible responses to this. One, "redistribution" is usually thought of as resulting from some act of government intervention, not the absence of it. It is in fact Mr. Stoffman who proposes to redistribute income, by government intervention to prevent immigrants from coming. Two, if people lack the skills to earn a good living, the usual approach is to improve their skills, not to forbid others from earning a living at all. Three, it is not clear the transfer is as regressive as Mr. Stoffman makes out. Suppose we slashed immigration, as he advises. Wages in immigrant-hiring industries go up, and so do prices. Who is hurt most by higher prices? The poor.

Four, nothing attracts capital like the smell of fat profits. If lower wages mean higher profits, capital should flood into those industries, from here and abroad, raising the amount of capital per worker and bidding up wages. Five, immigrants often bring capital with them. Six, most workers in this country themselves own capital, whether directly or through their company pension plan. The stark conflict between labour and capital Mr. Stoffman draws is as simplistic as the one between workers and consumers.

Seven – well, you get the idea. In the best of the recent books, the best argument offered for cutting immigration is rank protectionism, the oldest and grossest economic fallacy. It’s all downhill from there.

Andrew Coyne is a regular columnist with the National Post and is a member of Energy Probe Research Foundation‘s board of directors – the umbrella organization for the Urban Renaissance Institute.


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