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Book Review: Immigrants: your country needs them by Philippe Legrain

The following review first appeared in the October 2007 newsletter (PDF 516K) of Sustainable Population Australia

Book Review: Immigrants: your country needs them by Philippe Legrain (Little Brown Book Group, UK, 2006) A$35.00 review by Mark O'Connor.

Some angst was caused in February 2007 when Philippe Legrain (with this book in tow) was featured at Perth Writers Week. The problem was not that a debate on migration was irrelevant to a literary festival but that there was no debate--and that the supposed expert (Legrain) seemed ignorant of Australian conditions.

I am struck by how little and how selectively Philippe Legrain has read in the area on which he claims to be an expert. Despite his Australian publicists' claim that he offers a lucid and enlightened account of "Australian policies, facts and statistics" the facts he states are frequently incorrect or slanted. His index is barren of references to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which perhaps explains his bizarre claims that Australia's population is 19 million, that its net migration is some 90,000 a year (see p. 9), that births are not keeping pace with deaths (p. 108, in fact they are twice deaths), that immigration was slashed from 1996 by the Howard government (see p. 53) and so on. In fact we have never had such a high-immigration government as Howard's. Only in the immediate post WWII period, when most of our migrants were war refugees, has immigration been so high.

Australia, along with Canada and the USA is one of Philippe Legrain's three best examples of countries which have sought and accepted what is by world standards a bizarrely high level of immigration. For Australia, he seems to have relied on interviews with a couple of high immigration advocates (Stepan Kerkyasharian and Abdul Rizvi). The rest of his figures on Australia could have been gained from half-an-hour's googling---some time ago. Of critics of high immigration in Australia he seems ignorant. There are no references in his index to CSIRO's Ecumene project, to People and Place, to Sustainable Population Australia or even to the numerous publications of the Bureau of Immigration Research, which at least attempted a certain objectivity.

On the UK and the USA (his main market target) he seems only a little less ill-read. When referring to critics of high immigration he concentrates on Peter Brimelow and Samuel Huntingdon, but seems unaware of such important players as Britain's Migration Watch Committee or America's Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Centre for Immigration Studies. All of these have websites that could have provided him with an encyclopedia's worth of articles and information on relevant issues of which he seems ignorant. But I get the impression that Philippe Legrain is a gentleman who likes to make up his mind and then not disturb it by looking at inconvenient facts or contrary opinions.

A crucial document is the 1994 plenary resolution of the Australian Academy of Science on Australia's population options. This specified that our population should probably have been capped at 19 million, but must in any case be capped at no more than 23 million, and that net migration must therefore be kept below 50,000 a year.

1994 was also the year of the Cairo Conference on Population, in which the nations of the world pledged (with only a few selfish exceptions) to hold their populations in check, and not to use emigration as a way of unloading their population problems upon others. Needless to say, Cairo also is missing from Legrain's index. Nor does he mention the way in which the USA's immigration-fed increase has prevented its population stabilizing and made it dependent for its life-style upon a risky pursuit of foreign oil.

Nor does he mention the issue of the vast increases in greenhouse effect caused by migration from the low GHG to the high GHG producing countries. Most telling of all, against Legrain's irresponsible vision of open borders, is the fact that the two large-population countries that have had spectacular success in reducing their population growth (Iran and China) did so precisely because they had quarreled with the West and could not lean on it to take their emigrants. By contrast, those countries like Mexico and the Philippines, where families could hope that an extra child might be the lucky or talented one that would get to the US and bring in the rest of the family, have neither solved their own problems nor ceased to drive up population in the wealthier countries. Legrain complacently notes that the Philippines relies on remittances from its emigrants for something like 40% of its economy. (And still the babies keep coming.) By contrast, Legrain asserts (p. 20) that "freer migration is one of the best ways to help poor countries." For a capitalist economist Legrain is oddly naïve about the problems of population socialism. A visit to might trouble--yet expand--his mind considerably.

Legrain seems to share the common economist's delusion that growth can go on for ever, that there are no other species or environments to be considered, and that almost the only thing we lack (to fuel an eternal bonfire of growth) is more people.

Overall, this book, despite its parade of academic references, is not a serious attempt to examine the issues. It should be read as a piece of rhetoric: a first speech for the government in a student debate "That this house believes the world should have open borders". Legrain's 'lucidity', which some foolish reviewers have praised, is largely a reluctance to explain his economic modeling. He simply asserts. He claims at one point (p. 64, cf. p 19) that studies show freer immigration could 'potentially' make us all far richer--which is code for saying he won't explain the assumptions behind the calculation. [ revised: He offers no refutation--only an ad hominem put--down but no adequate refutation --of the detailed calculations of the Harvard economics professor George Borjas, a much more eminent economist, who draws the opposite conclusions. Legrain's calculations of the economic effect of immigration in the USA seem based on the assumption that one need only make sure that the supply of capital increases in proportion with the workforce. Then more immigrant workers simply make everyone better off. The inconvenient issues of resources, space, greenhouse emissions, and environmental degradation are ignored by Legrain (and one suspects by those economic studies he cites on his side). Perhaps Legrain knows he is writing for people who want a feel-good sense of moral superiority, and don't want to be bothered with inconvenient details. ]

Yet if Legrain can get us used to using cheap immigrant servants and cooks and nurses, he will then try to make us feel guilty about "the anonymous people whose existence you barely acknowledge . . . We just never bother to ask" (pp. 26-27). It doesn't make much sense. But as I say, Legrain is a rhetorician, not a thinker.

Perhaps most irritating is Legrain's glib sense of moral superiority--backed by his publisher's predictable assertion that he is offering an original "challenging and powerful" version of the open borders case. Not so. If the facts were as Legrain claims, and if the only issues to be considered were the ones he propounds, then everyone would come to his conclusions. Intelligence and moral superiority don't enter into it. Naivety and ignorance do.#