Brexit, Immigration, and the Experts

A lot of commentators seem to be singling out immigration as a root cause of the dissatisfaction that led the British people to vote to leave the European Union. Here’s Reihan Salam in Slate:

Ever since the 1960s, when large-scale Commonwealth immigration sparked intense controversy, the Conservatives have been seen as the more anti-immigration party. And during the Blair years, Conservatives struggled to shake their image as narrow-minded bigots…In more recent years, however, the challenges presented by mass European immigration complicated this neat picture of the prejudiced Conservative…Once the less-skilled immigrants at the heart of the immigration debate were Poles and Bulgarians rather than blacks and South Asians, one could more credibly argue that anti-immigration sentiment was driven by concerns about the fiscal and environmental impacts of immigration, not a blind hatred of outsiders.

Donald Trump has weighed in as well:

I think a lot of it has to do with immigration…[The British people] got tired of seeing stupid decisions, just like the American people are tired of seeing stupid decisions…the border where people just flow across the border like Swiss cheese…I really do see a parallel between what’s happening in the United States and what’s happening here. People want to see borders. They don’t necessarily want people pouring into their country that they don’t know who they are and where they come from.

And here’s David Frum in the Atlantic:

Is it possible that leaders and elites had it all wrong? If they’re to save the open global economy, maybe they need to protect their populations better against globalization’s most unwelcome consequences—of which mass migration is the very least welcome of them all?

Frum poses a fundamental question: Haven’t the experts told us over and over again that immigration is good for everyone? Don’t we all know that immigrants do jobs that natives don’t want to do? Don’t we all know that diversity is great and that, in Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s words, “assimilation is a crime against humanity”? Can’t we all see that our social insurance systems would collapse if we did not import immigrants to fund our retirement? How can we plebeians be such a bunch of xenophobic, narrow-minded, protectionist racists?

Having hung around the expert class my entire adult lifetime, there’s one little secret I have learned that I wish was more widely known. The experts pretend they know a lot–their income and reputation depends on getting others to buy into their pretention. Many of them, in fact, are  so articulate that they can make hour-long speeches about things they know absolutely nothing about. (I will never forget a meeting where a leading older luminary haughtily dismissed all of popular music by claiming that composing and producing a hit song was a trivial exercise that anyone with half a brain could replicate). But, in fact, practically all so-called experts know almost nothing outside their very narrow field of expertise. And much of what they know within that narrow field is colored by both self-interest and by the ideological lens through which they view the world. If the experts gain from living in a globalized world (which they do!), then expert evidence will tend to confirm that a globalized world is good.

Experts know and have told us many times that immigrants do not make anyone worse off. And how do they know that? By buying lock, stock, and barrel into any evidence that points in that direction. By nit-picking apart any evidence that lies outside the narrative. And, as David Frum himself pointed out a few months ago, by engaging in “data dredging on an industrial scale” when an unpleasant result needs to be utterly destroyed.

The British people, like the American people, know that the experts’ claim that immigration does not make anyone worse off is a lie. Some of us gain, and some of us lose. The people on the ground know that, but the experts continually refuse to see it or admit it. The people also know that man does not live from a larger per-capita GDP alone–although practically all of the economic experts’ advice hinges on whether they believe a particular policy makes the economic pie larger or smaller. As British political scientist James Heartield aptly summarizes:

The vote shows that very few of the experts, the academics, the media, lawyers and politicians have any insight into the will of the people, or even understand the meaning of the words sovereignty and democracy.

 

Author: George Borjas

I am a Professor of Economics and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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