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Migration is complicated. Don’t pretend it’s not

The concept of freedom of movement is quite different to that of the freedom of goods

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

9 September 2017

9:00 AM

I expect you’ve already noticed it, but in case you’ve been living in a cave or an economics faculty for the past ten years, I’ll repeat it. Goods are not like people. Goods only move wherever they are needed. They don’t come laden with an attachment to a homeland or a social network. Your Bosch dishwasher doesn’t pine for its washing-machine mates back in Stuttgart. Your Ikea sofa doesn’t claim benefits. If you buy a Mercedes, you don’t suddenly find two Audis and a Volkswagen turning up on your drive claiming to be close relatives and demanding to live in your garage.

So, looked at dispassionately, the principle that the free movement of goods is somehow linked with the free movement of people is quite an odd idea. Goods don’t mind emigrating; people often do. (Even in the US, where you can travel 1,000 miles in a straight line and find yourself in a town pretty much indistinguishable from the one you left, most people lead their entire lives in the state where they were born).

Yes, people value freedom of movement, but they value the freedom of non-movement too. In many ways, the euro was an assault on the freedom to stay put. Since eurozone countries with lower productivity can no longer devalue their currencies to become competitive, and since efficient countries are full of grim Lutherans who are unwilling to subsidise inefficient ones, the only remaining solution is for people from low-productivity countries to move to countries where they can become more productive themselves.


‘Free movement of labour’ rests on the normative economic assumption that people, just like goods, should be happy to move countries on the basis of economic expediency alone. But if you assume this, you end up extending privileges towards the few (mostly young) people who can and will emigrate — at the expense of the majority who can’t or won’t. Migration is a highly uneven way of spreading wealth.

Unfortunately, the rootless ‘Anywheres’ of David Goodhart’s new ‘Anywhere-Somewhere’ tribal divide do not understand attachment to place at all. I remember a Davos panjandrum being asked by a young man where he should work. His answer was simple: ‘China. Look at the annualised GDP growth.’ Now I’m more than averagely greedy, but even I thought this was a rather narrow basis on which to decide where to live. In any case, my advice to young males would be to spend time in a place where there are more attractive women than attractive men — Finland, perhaps, or Glyndebourne.

The only strong opinion you can sensibly hold on migration is ‘it’s complicated’. The problem with this debate, not unlike the nature-nurture debate, is that it has become one of those topics where the people with extreme ideas (‘it’s all X’) consider themselves sane, while the people who hold normal, balanced opinions (‘It’s a mixture of both’) are treated as heretics. I am in favour of managed, diverse migration, but frequently find pro-EU voices to be in the grip of some alarming religious fervour.

So allow me to propose a useful experiment. A natty trick to play when a debate has become morally charged is to ask a parallel question which has many of the same features of the other debate, but which has acquired none of the same shibboleths or signalling baggage. At your next dinner party, for instance, try asking this closely related but morally neutral question: ‘Do you think that, with 500 million people set to join the global travel market in the next decade, some cities will have to impose limits on tourism?’ The very same people who would start frothing or sobbing in any debate on migration will give thoughtful, nuanced and intelligent answers. I wonder why this is.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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