top of page

Opinion: One simple fix could make Britain an economic powerhouse

Immigration shouldn't be about filling short-term labour shortages, but shaping the future of the country, writes Garett Jones.

The boats are getting all the attention, but UK migration policy should be about more than boats: it should be about creating a better UK for generations to come.

That means migration policy shouldn’t be about filling a labour shortage in this or that region of the country: it should be about inviting people whose children and grandchildren are likely, on average, to become great successes, who are likely to become educated, informed voters, who are likely to be socially, religiously, and sexually tolerant, and who are likely to themselves become magnets for global capital investment and job creation.

The goal should be a bigger, smarter, more skilled UK – I’d suggest 20pc bigger in 20 years, so about 700,000 new people per year, overwhelmingly made up of highly-skilled, technically competent young people from middle-income and poorer countries who’d be likely to plant roots in the UK rather than plotting a brief stint as one checked box in a jet-setting career.

Within a decade, the UK would see a rise in new venture capital, foreign direct investment, and portfolio investment flying toward firms hiring these young people, and within two decades the UK would be improved beyond recognition. More importantly, their well-educated children and grandchildren would take leadership positions across the worlds of business and politics. This is a chance for the UK to choose its future economy – and its future society. It should choose the best futures possible by peacefully welcoming the best people possible.

Where can the UK plausibly find that many excellent people each year? Start by taking America’s excellent Stem graduates – we’re not using them. At least not enough of them: America graduates about 300,000 Stem students each year who came from China and India alone, and many of them have to leave the US because of its overly restrictive skilled worker visa programs. Yes, some U.S. Stem degrees come from schools with low standards, so the UK should insist on seeing decent SAT or GRE scores, taken in the U.S. where the chances of cheating are lower. Could the UK make a play for 100,000 or 150,000 Stem graduates per year with a generous, long-term visa for skilled US graduates? Sure!

Then extend that approach, making practical changes as needed, for the rest of the world: free ride off of the world’s colleges, let other countries pay for the education while you reap the tax payments and (eventually) the technological excellence. Hand out long-term residency visas to students in India who went to its famed IIT universities and other top schools, to graduates of South Korea’s universities who’d like to escape soul-crushing work demands, to the young engineers of Malaysia – a nation where about two million people every year graduate with Stem degrees. Africa, the greater Middle East, Latin America, everywhere: skim the cream, offer long-term residency, and keep an eye on the future. The global pool of venture capital will soon let you know you’re doing it right.

But why should you believe that this first generation of global Stem grads will usually have children and grandchildren that turn out better than average? One reason is pretty obvious: the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree. Children and grandchildren of successful people are more likely than average to be successful themselves. Economist Greg Clark of University of California, Davis, has nailed this down in his book The Son Also Rises – a pun on the Hemingway novel, designed to remind us that the kids of the successful pass on some of that success to their own children.

Plus, we know from generations of psychological and family research that smarter parents are more likely to have smarter-than-average children. And we’ve also learned from political science and economics research that on average, the better-educated are more likely to be socially tolerant, patient, and a bit more in favor of competitive markets – itself a key driver of national prosperity. Migrants and their descendants will be some of your nation’s future voters, so why not invite migrants who are more likely to steer policy and national values, even slightly, in the direction of human flourishing?

The UK is already a great success by global standards: it’s one of the world’s leading scientific innovators. It ranked fourth in top science publications for the entire planet in 2018’s Nature Index and it’s routinely in the top 10 for research and development spending. Plus, its legacy of Nobel Laureates is second only to the vastly larger US. The UK could choose to do nothing and still remain one of the finest nations the world has ever known.

But it could be better. And a greater Great Britain, creating pharmaceutical, engineering, and computational innovations that would eventually spread worldwide, would create a forever gift to the entire world. America’s finest ex-president, the great Jimmy Carter, got it right with the title of his memoir: “Why not the best?” That should be the question the UK asks when creating its immigration policy.

And the key to creating that greater UK is to remember an old political adage: Personnel is policy. If you want left-leaning policies, hire left-leaning staffers. If you want right-leaning policies, hire right-leaning staffers. And in a democracy, we always have to remember: the citizens are the personnel. The citizens shape the policy. There are no guarantees in the card game of life, but you should still load the deck the best you can. Load the deck with the world’s finest immigrants, using whatever flawed, imperfect measures work well enough to get the job done.

About the Author: Garett Jones is author of ‘The Culture Transplant’


bottom of page