:: Article

Still the Tyranny of Geography

Andrew Stevens interviews writer and journalist Philippe Legrain about his latest book, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.


3:AM: Firstly, what would you say to those who often claim the main immigration issue is one of basic fairness — people who were born in Britain or came via legal channels shouldn’t have their employment opportunities and social infrastructure undermined by those who come here illegally or would come here freely under an open borders solution?

PL: The case for open borders — or for freer immigration — is three-fold: it spreads freedom, it widens opportunity and it enriches the economy, culture and society. So let me pose the question differently: is it fair that the rich and the educated can circulate around the world freely while people in poor countries are expected to stay put in the country where they were born? Is it fair that under the government’s proposed new immigration points system people from developing countries who lack the qualifications that the government deems necessary will have no legal route to come work in this country? Is it surprising — or unfair — that if it is impossible to come work in Britain legally that some people do so illegally?

Let us be clear: there is no evidence that immigrants harm the prospects of British workers — which is why the TUC, which after all represents the interests of British workers, supports freer immigration. Although Britain has opened its doors to the 75 million citizens of Poland and the other seven poor ex-communist countries that joined the EU in 2004, the employment rate for British workers remains at a historic high and wages continue to rise — so fast, indeed, that the Bank of England is worried they are rising too fast. Of course, some individuals may lose out: an unreliable British builder who does shoddy work may find himself out of work. But most people (including most builders) will not, because immigrants don’t only take jobs, they also create them when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work: an influx of builders, for instance, creates extra demand for suppliers of building materials and interior designers. Even if Polish builders work for lower wages than British ones, they don’t necessarily deprive British builders of work: if it is cheaper to do so, more people can afford to have their house done up, so that the influx of Polish builders increases the total size of the market and enables less well-off people to afford house improvements. And often, immigrants’ labour is complementary to that of British workers: a foreign child-minder may allow a British doctor to go back to work, where her productivity is enhanced by hard-working foreign nurses and cleaners.

Nor do immigrants undermine Britain’s social infrastructure. On the contrary: without foreign workers, the NHS would collapse. The immigration minister, Liam Byrne, estimates that immigrants make up 8% of the population but contribute 10% of GDP. If he is right, their net contribution to the British economy is around £24 billion a year. Even if, then, having more foreign people in the country requires spending some of that £24 billion on extra investment in public services, Britain is still better off as a result. If the government fails to make the necessary investment, then that is the government’s fault, not immigrants — just as the overcrowded Tube is not due to American tourists, Welsh people studying in London or Polish workers, but to the government’s failure to make adequate provision for public transport.

3:AM: Your point about spreading freedom is good and worth developing. In an interview with 3:AM a few years ago, Paul Kingsnorth remarked:

“As for Philippe Legrain — I took part in a public debate with him at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, and his problem — one which he shares with every defender of global capitalism that I have ever come across — is that he doesn’t seem to be able to define what he means by ‘globalisation’. It is an unhelpful word, but if you’re going to defend (or attack) it you need to say what it is. I am talking about the spread of neo-liberal capitalism across the world. Philippe is talking about everything from free trade to air travel, UN agreements to international sporting events — in other words, ‘globalisation’ is defined by him as ‘pretty much anything happening internationally.’ Which is useful when he’s trying to evade questions about all the damage that his beloved free market is causing.”

What would you say to his criticisms? Does the latest book and your first one follow the same line of argument about the ‘tyranny of geography’?

PL: Perhaps Paul Kingsnorth hasn’t actually read my first book, Open World — or perhaps he is conveniently misquoting me. On pages 4-7, I describe what globalisation is, while on pages 10-12 I describe what globalisation is not. I define it thus: “This ugly word is shorthand for how our lives are becoming increasingly intertwined with those of distant people and places around the world – economically, politically and culturally.” I go on to explain that globalisation includes not just the economic ties of trade, investment and migration, but also political ones, such as the growing framework of international rules and institutions in areas such as trade, the environment, human rights and much else, as well as the swelling ranks of cross-border pressure groups that are fomenting the beginning of a global politics — newish campaign groups like Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International, as well as long-established bodies like the Catholic Church and the international labour movement. Last but not least, come the cultural ties: the mixing of cultures through migration; the rapid spread of news, ideas and fashions through trade, travel and the media; and the growth of global brands that serve as common reference points. All of this globalisation is driven partly by cheaper, easier and faster transport and communications: airplanes, radio, television, telephones, the internet (and before that railways, steamships and the telegraph). Yet globalisation involves more than technological change: it is also a political choice to open national borders to foreign influences. The explosion in cross-border links is as much a result of government decisions to remove restrictions on trade, foreign investment and capital flows as it is of better transport and communications.

Globalisation is not shorthand for the way the world is today, let alone everything you dislike about it. Nor is is it the same thing as privatisation and deregulation. Deregulation or privatisation need not imply globalisation. For instance, America deregulated its airline market in 1978. US airlines are free to set their fares competitively; they can decide whether or not to ply routes; new companies can enter the market. Yet foreign companies are still not allowed to buy American carriers or fly American domestic routes. The US airline industry has been deregulated, but not opened up to international competition. Or consider Europe. British Airways, Air France and Lufthansa have all been privatised, but do not yet face American competition on routes within Europe. Conversely, globalisation need not imply deregulation or privatisation. American drugs companies, such as Merck or Pfizer, face vigorous competition from foreign pharmaceuticals companies such as Britain’s GlaxoSmithKline or Switzerland’s Novartis, yet the American market remains tightly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Britain’s Post Office faces competition from foreign courier companies like Germany’s DHL and America’s Federal Express, but is still state-owned. Clearly, privatisation can encourage globalisation if a foreign firm takes over a domestic one, as can deregulation, if it allows in foreign competition. Clearly too, if a government wants to increase competition, it may have to deregulate as well as lower its trade barriers. Also, if you believe in free markets, you are likely to support both, although not necessarily: intelligent free-marketeers realise that markets can fail and regulation is sometimes needed. Globalisation is not the same as, and need not imply, an end to state intervention.


On page 13 of my new book, Immigrants, I define globalisation as “the combination of distance-shrinking technology and market-opening government policy that is bringing the world closer together”. I think this is perfectly clear. Perhaps Paul Kingsnorth’s real problem is that my definition differs from his in several important respects. First, I don’t use jargon such as “neo-liberal”, which is a term so woolly that it is almost meaningless. Second, I do not accept that globalisation is synonymous with the spread of capitalism, “neo-liberal” or otherwise, around the world. Sweden is one of the most open economies in the world: open to trade, open to international capital and increasingly open to migration too, yet it is also a successful social democracy where the state accounts for half the economy. It is globalised, but it is not “neo-liberal”. That distinction is fundamentally important. Kingsnorth’s definition is both too narrow — it omits the political and cultural aspects of globalisation — and too broad: it lumps together market-based domestic reforms with moves to increase international openness.

To put it another way, I don’t believe that globalisation is necessarily “right-wing” or “left-wing”: I believe that it is as compatible with Swedish-style social democracy as it is with US-style capitalism. In the same vein, I don’t believe that freeing up international migration is “right-wing” or “left-wing”: it would enhance freedom because it would give people in poor countries the freedom to move across borders that we in rich countries take for granted; it would widen opportunity because it would give people in poor countries a broader set of opportunities to better their lives by going to work in a rich country if they choose to do so; it would enrich the economy, culture and society, because migrants contribute both through their individual efforts and through the collective benefits of the extra diversity and dynamism that they bring, whether that is expressed in new ideas, new businesses, new art etc.

3:AM: Regarding the recent proposed amnesty here in Britain, the reaction in the media and political world has been total hostility, if not at least no sympathy for the situation of irregular migrants. Given this, don’t you view open borders as impossible to achieve? Similarly, when you say “Is it surprising — or unfair — that if it is impossible to come work in Britain legally that some people do so illegally?”, what would you say to those who claim freer immigration rewards illegality and we need to be tougher on law-breakers, not more sympathetic?

PL: I accept that most people in Britain today would not support open borders, but that does not mean that current immigration controls are justified. We should still campaign against them so that one day they might be abolished. After all, abolishing slavery or women gaining the vote once seemed like pipe dreams but eventually became reality.

On the issue of illegal immigration, there are two responses. The first is one of principle: if a law is wrong, then breaking it is not a bad thing. The second is pragmatic: if a law is ineffective, indeed counterproductive, then surely it is better to abolish it, or at least to mitigate its harmful effects, than to deny reality.

It’s time that Europe’s politicians admitted to voters (and themselves) that governments cannot stop people moving across borders. Despite efforts to build a Fortress Europe, over a million foreigners bypass its defences each year: some enter covertly; most overstay their visas and then work illicitly. While draconian policies do curb migration somewhat, they mostly drive it underground.

That creates huge costs: a humanitarian crisis, with thousands drowning each year trying to reach Europe and thousands more detained; the soaring expense of border controls and bureaucracy; a criminalised people-smuggling industry; an expanding shadow economy, where illegal migrants are vulnerable to exploitation, labour laws are broken and taxes go unpaid; an explosion of criminality; an undermining of faith in government, because politicians cannot deliver on their promises to halt immigration; a corrosion of attitudes towards immigrants, who are perceived as law-breakers rather than hard-working and enterprising people; a perverse incentive for foreigners who would rather come temporarily to settle permanently, because if they left they would face an ordeal if they wanted to return; and the mistreatment of refugees in an attempt to deter people who want to come work from applying for asylum, besmirching our commitment to help those fleeing terror.

These problems are generally blamed on immigrants, but they are actually due to our immigration controls, which are not just cruel, but ineffective and counterproductive. Far from protecting society, they undermine law and order, just as Prohibition did more damage to America than drinking ever has. Pragmatic governments surely ought to legalise and regulate migration instead. All the more so since immigrants are not an invading army, but mostly people seeking a better life who are drawn to Europe by the huge demand for workers to fill the low-end jobs that our ageing and increasingly wealthy societies rely on but which our increasingly well-educated and comfortable citizens are unwilling to take.

Those who claim that tougher measures could stop immigration are peddling a false prospectus. Even if Europe became a police state, its borders would be permeable. Even if, at huge cost, the EU built a wall along its vast eastern border, deployed an armada to patrol its southern shores, searched every arriving vehicle, boat and container-load, denied people from developing countries visas altogether, and enforced stringent internal checks on people’s right to be there, migrants would get through: documents can be forged or stolen, people smuggled, officials bribed.

It would be best if our borders were open, not just within the EU but also to non-Europeans. But if that is not politically acceptable for now, Europe should at least open up a legal route for people from developing countries to come work here. Over time, hopefully, we can move to a position where borders are completely open.

3:AM: Would you take a similar line on, say, drugs or prisons?

PL: Let me be clear: I don’t think immigration is a bad thing, so I don’t believe in restricting it in any case. But I think that even those who perceive immigration as a threat should realise that trying to ban it does not work and causes more problems than it purports to solve, so that they should prefer that migration be legal and regulated, rather than illegal and unregulated.

In the case of drugs, I think that people should be free to do things to themselves that will potentially, or are likely, to harm them – be that smoking, drinking, taking an E or mountain climbing. The law should only intervene where people do harm to others or put them at unacceptable risk: driving drunk, neglecting your kids (whether because someone is taking drugs, or for other reasons), stealing etc. At the same time, I think that even those who (inconsistently) believe that some drugs should be illegal even though alcohol and tobacco are not should realise that banning drugs doesn’t work and causes more problems than it purports to solve, as the recent report by the RSA said.

3:AM: What cultural benefits do you think immigration has brought to Britain?

PL: One big cultural benefit of immigration is that it broadens the diversity of cultural experiences available in Britain: whether it is eating curry or Vietnamese food, listening to reggae or samba music, or practising tai-chi and Buddhist meditation. A second is that this mingling of cultures leads to distinctive innovations: British-Indian food such as chicken tikka masala as well as Asian fusion food; hip hop and R&B; new holistic therapies that blend Eastern and Western influences; writers of mixed heritage such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith.

A third benefit is both broader and more profound: that being confronted with different types of people, different points of view, different ways of thinking and different lifestyles helps us to understand the world better, to understand our own culture better, to understand the values and assumptions that lie behind it, and hopefully to help us to progress as individuals and a society. For example, post-war immigration highlighted the racism prevalent in British society and stimulated a long battle to combat discrimination; and while clearly this still exists, there is much less racism than there was fifty, thirty or even twenty years ago. The debate about forced marriages and genital mutilation has exposed the limits of cultural relativism and strengthened many people’s belief in asserting the importance of values such as the equality of men and women. And in places such as London, many people of my generation, who have grown up in a multicultural society, find it not only normal but desirable to live with people of different backgrounds, with diversity not something to be tolerated but something to be cherished. A fourth benefit is more personal: it opens up a whole new set of possibilities for friendship, and potentially love, as the increasing number of mixed-race and mixed-culture relationships shows.

3:AM: It’s commonly accepted that a state requires territory to be governed, a government to govern it and a polity to be governed. If we opted for open borders then wouldn’t that lessen the ability of the state to exist in a meaningful sense?

PL: I don’t see why. Britain did not have any immigration controls until it adopted the Aliens Act of 1905 to keep out “undesirable” — read “Jewish” — immigrants. Britain and Ireland have long had an open border without this preventing them being separate states, and Britain now has a largely open border with the rest of the EU without this undermining our ability for self-government. I think it is important to distinguish between the ability (or right) to move freely across borders, the ability (or right) to work wherever you choose, and the ability (or right) to become a citizen and vote somewhere. I am not advocating that anyone who turns up should be able to vote in Britain, but that anyone (except criminals, terrorists etc) should be free to come work here. Only if someone stays the requisite amount of time, applies for citizenship and fulfils the requisite criteria will they become British citizens and earn the right to vote.

In such a world, most people who crossed borders would do so temporarily, because most people don’t want to leave home forever, and they would have the right to work in Britain but not the right to vote, just as Polish plumbers and American bankers do now. Others would stay longer and acquire the rights that go with residency, but would choose not to become citizens (like my French father, for instance, who has lived in London since 1970 but is not a UK citizen). Finally, some would become citizens, just as many long-term immigrants now do, as do others who marry UK citizens, and so on.

3:AM: Finally, how do you think the book and its arguments have been received? What are you working on next?

PL: The book is doing well in terms of sales, not only in Britain but also abroad, notably in Australia, and it is due to be published in the US by Princeton University Press in August. It has received good reviews, notably in the Guardian, where Robert Winder said: “In all important respects Legrain is right on target… In the context of the fearful chatter that surrounds the subject, sense as good as this needs cherishing.” I am getting lots of invitations to appear on TV and radio, write articles and speak at events, so the book is having some impact. And it is really heartening when people say how much they enjoyed the book and how they are glad that someone is saying something positive about immigrants for once.

Having said all that, it is pretty clear that many people are opposed to immigration, some bitterly so, and that most people in Britain are worried about it. According to a recent YouGov poll, 65% of people think limiting immigration should be a priority for Gordon Brown when he takes over as prime minister. That’s why I think the argument for immigration has to be made at several levels: a principled case: it increases freedom and reduces injustice; a humanitarian case: it helps people in developing countries; an economic case: it makes you richer; and a pragmatic case: it is inevitable, so it is in everyone’s interests to make the best of it. On the plus side, I think generational change will change the terms of the argument: as the baby boomers retire, they will start to worry about who is going to look after them when they are old, and younger people who have grown up in a multicultural environment are generally more open to immigration; on the negative side, worries about terrorism and Muslim extremism are turning many people against immigration.

For now, I plan to devote myself to putting the case for open borders and freer immigration, through the book, articles, media appearances, public speaking and so on.

Philippe Legrain is a London-based journalist and writer, the author of Open World: The Truth about Globalisation (2002) and Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them (2007). Having studied at the London School of Economics, he then worked for The Economist, before going on to work at the World Trade Organisation (briefly as an adviser to director general Mike Moore) and then as Chief Economist for the Britain in Europe campaign. He has written for the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman and The Ecologist, as well as The New Republic, Foreign Policy and the Chronicle Review. Kundera, Garcia Marquez and more recently Murakami rock his boat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 14th, 2007.