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'They're Taking Our Jobs!' - Dispelling Immigration Myths

18/03/2013 13:35 GMT | Updated 16/05/2013 10:12 BST

It's about time we outlaw this fallacious lamentation from whence it came. It worries me, and should worry you too, the sheer tenacity with which the myth that an influx of immigrants leads to a net reduction in native employment clings to the national psyche. Now I don't necessarily have a problem with opposition to immigration for other, more sensible reasons; and those do exist. It is specifically this piece of illogic I struggle with.

Consider what is actually being suggested here by the 'they're taking our jobs!' brigade. The assumption here is that there exists a fixed number of jobs in the UK and an influx of people results in a greater number competing for the same quantity of jobs. In that scenario, it may well be the case that natives end up occupying fewer of the available vacancies than they otherwise would. But this is clearly not the way things work. If it were, then we are incredibly lucky to have any job vacancies at all in the UK, since our population has been growing exponentially for centuries, not to mention the huge spike in immigration during the 20th century. No, what should be quite apparent to you by now, if it wasn't before reading this article, is that an influx of people actually creates jobs. How does it do this? Every single person coming into the country has needs; they increase the demand for goods and services. Now any increase in demand is usually met by an increase in supply unless there is some extraneous constraint. An increase in supply is achieved by employing more people.

What drives this myth is anecdote. It is the old economic fallacy of noticing only that which is seen and ignoring that which is not seen. It is obvious when an immigrant is given a job before a native, you can see it with your own eyes, you hear about it from friends. However it is difficult, even impossible, to see the jobs being created as a result of the influx of immigrants.

Potentially, we could construe the myth another way. Suppose that, for any reason, immigrants are more preferably employed for jobs than natives. This hypothetical scenario would result in a net reduction in the relative number of natives that are employed, in spite of the new jobs created by immigrants. In response to this, it is first necessary to clarify that neither the job market, nor the labour pool, are homogeneous. Some jobs will be better suited to the kinds of skills that immigrants will bring to the country, and other jobs will be most effectively occupied by natives, depending on their respective skills. There is no good reason to believe that immigrants will be more preferably recruited into all kinds of jobs such that the net employment of natives drops in relative terms. We should be advocating 'good immigration' (a clumsy term which I use here only for convenience), the kind which ensures that immigrants who can do jobs with greater skill and greater efficiency are employed in said jobs to increase wealth for everyone. However the idea that immigrants will be preferred in every stratum of employment is fantasy.

A not too dissimilar myth about immigration is that immigrants will swamp the labour market and reduce wages overall. Again, this assumes that the labour market increases for a fixed number of jobs. This, as we well know, is not the case. As long as inward immigration results in a jobs increase alongside the labour force, we have no net increase in the supply of labour relative to the demand for it, and wages do not drop. Furthermore, we must once again remember that the labour pool is not homogeneous, so immigrants who bring in a specific set of skills will meet the demand for those skills, while at the same time creating jobs for which there is a demand for skills found more frequently in the native labour force.

If indeed immigrants are 'taking our jobs' then why are we not experiencing unemployment at staggeringly high numbers after over half a century of mass inward immigration? The answer is simple. The kind of thinking that leads to these myths is fallacious and based on what French economist Frédéric Bastiat dubbed, Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas - "that which is seen and that which is not seen". We are acutely aware of that which is seen; the immigrant who takes the job that you applied for, the anecdotes exchanged over a pint, the Daily Express headline declaring Britain bursting at the seams. But as we have seen, this neglects all the unseen effects of immigration, which have just as real an impact on the economy and on our lives as the seen. Let us therefore be rid of this unhelpful piece of rhetoric and focus on some of the real issues pertinent to immigration.