The immigration blind spot

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Martin Wolf is worried about immigration. The FT’s globally esteemed economics commentator has a new column out this week, under a headline proclaiming that “the benefits of migration are questionable.” And his exhibit A is Denmark:

Is it important to increase population? The answer surely is no. Merely increasing the population of a prosperous small country, such as Denmark, would not increase the standard of living of its citizens. But it would impose sizeable investment and congestion costs.


Yes, the same Denmark that has had a fertility rate below replacement level since 1969:


The problems of a shrinking population in Denmark are so broadly accepted that the country now has television advertising campaigns with the aim of getting young Danes to procreate more. And the rest of Wolf’s argument is similarly thin. What he calls “investment costs” here, and characterizes as a bad thing, he usually just calls “investment,” and extolls as a good thing. And “congestion” is better known as “density”—arguably the single most important engine of growth in a world where more than half of the people on the planet already live in cities. The bigger and denser cities get, the more efficient and productive they become.

The economic arguments for increased immigration, especially into the rich countries of northern Europe like Denmark and Wolf’s native England, are compelling and strong: as Thomas Piketty says, increased immigration is Europe’s best hope for staving off economic stagnation or worse.

Which is why Wolf’s column is so strange. A second-generation immigrant himself, he nevertheless maintains that “citizens always come first,” and implies that because immigration “affects the current and future values of a country,” those citizens have every right to preserve their country as it is, rather than embracing the “diversity and cultural dynamism” that immigrants bring.

As an economist, Wolf nearly always supports the policies that lead to the greatest growth and the greatest wealth for the greatest number of people. But when it comes to immigration, he’s saying, the rules change. Even a celebrated economist, it seems, has no problem with nativist emotions trumping rational analysis when it comes to immigration.

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