Why do libertarians have such a hard time understanding, and being understood, on the most contentious issue?
Next to taxation, immigration is possibly the most contentious and emotive issue of the last decade. This seems odd for us of a libertarian bent, as the evidence seems crushingly in favour of allowing people in to Britain. Indeed, this magazine has contributed to the debate on several occasions, most recently with this corker from Olly Neville, and my own humble offering here.
So what’s the problem? Why can’t people accept the numbers? The answer is that immigration isn’t just about numbers.
As any libertarian who has found themselves in a debate on immigration will tell you, it can be a frustrating and asymmetric experience. It’s not that the copious amounts for studies we copy and paste links to are refuted, rather our opponents are arguing about something far more nebulous and unquantifiable.
For most people, immigration isn’t about tax revenue or dependence ratios; it’s about national identity, integration, and real or perceived access to social services. And its that mindset that we libertarians can’t quite get our beautiful, beautiful heads around.
While we see immigrants keeping our labour market flexible and goods competitive, others see a race to the bottom and ‘their’ jobs being taken. Arguing that it is not their job or that we all benefit from cheaper goods just makes us come across as aloof and out of touch. Libertarians already have a reputation as being a bit heartless, and this isn’t helped by our habit of engaging with people via spreadsheets and obscure studies.
We’re even worse equipped when it comes to national identity. As I argued here, this is an incredibly difficult area for libertarians, given that so many reject the premise out of hand. For many of us, national identity is little more than embryonic racism, an irrational and primitive sentiment that must be ignored or shouted down.
This, in my view, does more to put people off libertarian ideas than almost anything else, because we’re questioning and ridiculing the very core of how most people identify themselves. We do the same with religion, but national identity goes deeper: anthropologically speaking, humans are hard-wired to feel affinity and bonds to people who look, sound and behave like them.
Even when you can drag your opponent back to numbers, warm comfortable numbers, you’ll still be approaching the issue from wildly different perspectives. Not without good reason, libertarians look at the macro economic data, big picture numbers and global trends. But others insist on focusing on how immigration impacts on the individual, (invariably including an anecdote about somebody they know). For them, class sizes, doctors waiting rooms and social housing waiting lists are the effects of immigration. It doesn’t matter that immigrant paid taxes to pay for teachers, or that immigrants staff the NHS or build the very same social houses. In their eyes, these all can and should be done by native Brits, and no about of academic literature can argue with that.
While we know that keeping wages under control is good for the economy in the long term because it keeps down inflation and allows more money for investment and growth, most people have more immediate concerns, and see only their monthly pay packet looking worryingly similar to how it did three years ago.
For most people, take home salary IS the economy. Access to social services IS the size and scope of government.
This is not to say we should throw in the towel and say why bother. Immigration is too important to be left to those who would make policy on emotion and short termism. But equally, we’d find our hand greatly strengthened if we tried to be a shade less cerebral and acknowledged that politics extends beyond bar graphs and little known philosophers.
Libertarians are the Sheldon Cooper and C3-P0 of British politics. And when it comes to disseminating our ideas to a wider public, that’s not a good thing.