Open Borders: The God That Failed

Henry Watson

November 23, 2023

In every election since 1997 the winning party has committed to reducing net migration. The topic of immigration further played an important role in the success of the Leave campaign and, in light of the crises facing housing supply and public services, mass immigration to the UK continues to represent a pressing issue for the British public. Though the liberal position must be to defend the economic virtues of a free movement of labour, it would be naive to ignore the social and political realities of the United Kingdom as a nation-state. 

We unfortunately do not live under the laissez-faire conditions a more open borders policy would require. Perhaps, the most relevant feature of our system that should be pointed to as evidence is our expansive welfare state, which now encompasses free education, free healthcare, and the provision of social housing and social security. The level of public spending per capita on the welfare state makes a net contribution to the public finances unachievable for most. Consequently, the economic benefits of mass immigration are not so certain.

According to a 2018 Migration Advisory Committee report commissioned by the Government, whilst EEA migrants were estimated to have contributed £4.7 billion more in taxes than they took out in welfare and public services, non-EEA migrants had a deficit of £9 billion in the 2016/17 fiscal year. By this estimate, immigration thus resulted in a £4.3 billion cost to the Exchequer. The large number of dependents arriving is partly to blame for this. Recent immigration figures further demonstrate a trend towards a greater intake of non-EEA immigrants, with the 925,000 non-EEA nationals dwarfing the 151,000 EEA nationals in 2022. This could lead to greater deficits. Whilst some dynamic analysis of immigrants’ lifetime financial contributions has suggested ultimately positive contributions for all categories of immigrants, these figures were questionably adjusted under the assumption that there would be, in the long-term, balanced budgets and zero government borrowing.

Beyond the balance sheets, mass immigration does not appear to have brought about massive increases in productivity and technological innovation. Nor has it solved labour shortage issues, as its proponents have promised it would. The International Federation of Robotics has pointed out that the UK in fact has the lowest level of industrial automation in the developed world. The recent period of mass immigration has also coincided with the slowest era of growth in the past two and a half centuries. By artificially incentivising people to come to the UK with easy access to public services and welfare, might we be preventing proper investment in automation? After all, it was the anti-capitalistic importing of free slave labour to the antebellum American South that impeded economic development there. Similarly, high fertility rates in Sub-Saharan Africa have not brought about economic prosperity for those people either. 

The problems mass immigration has contributed to are palpable. The housing stock is severely inadequate, largely due to political NIMBYism. Last year, as many as  230,000 new homes were required to keep up with demand in England, yet there were only 178,000 net dwelling completions. Couple this with hundreds of thousands more people entering the rental market year on year and there is simply not the political will nor ability to satisfy the level of demand. The same problem arises for access to public services. Lengthy waiting lists and limited school places are now established features of our welfare state. A record 7.47 million people were waiting for routine hospital treatment this year. Simultaneously, the same welfare state is incentivising millions of people capable of filling our skills gap to stay at home through out-of-work benefits.

All of these issues result from state interference with the essential principle of free association. In the same way that private property owners strictly police who may enter and use their property, it seems reasonable that the state could be expected to also sensibly police the use of ‘public property’ on behalf of the real proprietors of that property – the taxpayers. However, the current de facto open borders policy represents a compulsory opening up of public property against the wishes of the taxpayer. Taxpayers are then forced by the welfare state to subsidise and share with those they would not voluntarily choose to. 

For now, the public should be sceptical of mass immigration and attempts by the political class to socially engineer the population. But rather than an opposition to immigration based on protectionism or distrust of market forces, the correct and liberal case against mass immigration ought to be founded on the principle of free association.


  • Henry Watson

    Henry recently graduated from Durham University with a degree in Law. He is currently Head Intern at the IEA and hopes to gain a valuable insight into Westminster and the world of think tanks. He intends to pursue a career as a commercial solicitor.

Written by Henry Watson

Henry recently graduated from Durham University with a degree in Law. He is currently Head Intern at the IEA and hopes to gain a valuable insight into Westminster and the world of think tanks. He intends to pursue a career as a commercial solicitor.

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