Immigration has been an important and divisive issue in most Western societies for years now. Complicating this issue is that fertility rates have been dropping in developed nations for decades. The media and public have just caught on to the reality of fewer babies in the last few months.
There are many nuances to the discussion, and thoughtful people can have sincere differences. However, in our hyper-polarized times we can divide the sides of the issue into two distinct groups, both of which have no tolerance for the opposing team or for any dissent within their group. The groups somewhat play along the left and right of the political spectrum, but the correlation is weak enough to render politicization of the issue unhelpful.
On one side we have those who advocate for de-facto open borders, or at least favour mass immigration. They use the incomprehensively banal cliché that “immigrants built this country.” In fairness, in the case of the United States, Canada, and Australia, this fact is true since only a tiny fraction of people in those countries carry 100 percent of the genes of native populations. But adherents to this side of the debate don’t differentiate between highly productive farmers and entrepreneurs arriving in the 18th and 19th centuries with gang members who crossed the border last week. Nor do they concede that nations change over the decades and centuries.
They do point out, correctly, that immigration fuelled the growth of North America to the point where the United States went from a backward group of settlements of persecuted religious groups to the world’s dominant economy and culture. Canada went from a frozen wasteland not taken seriously by the European empires to, for all its current woes, a nation with a high standard of living and the world’s ninth largest economy.
This side of the immigration debate omits another seeming benefit of immigration: an endless supply of cheap labour that will do the dirty and low-paying jobs that must be done and are deemed beneath those born here. This side is quick to label any questioning of their moral superiority as racist and xenophobic.
On the other side, we have those who are not anti-immigration per se, but are alarmed at the number of immigrants flooding into their country. They are also concerned that those entering their country are far different from them culturally than their ancestors were from the local population in the past. Of course, this opens the door to the pro-immigration argument of bigotry, but if one is being honest, there is a difference, economically and socially, between a farmer entering America in 1823 and introducing new farming techniques to his neighbours, and a gang leader starting a human trafficking ring in Brooklyn. The major difference is that our farmer friend was productive; he was fleeing a society that stifled his ability and entering a society offering free and fertile land. The human trafficker is the exact sort of person who made his country of birth a hellhole to begin with.
Most issues are nuanced, and immigration and population growth are no different. Let us dispel some myths. Not every immigrant is the same. Every host country is different and has its own strengths and weaknesses. In fact, different areas within nations have different effects than others. An example is Canada. Much of the country is underpopulated, and for generations people have left the towns and smaller cities in favour of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. One-third of the population of the globe’s second-largest country by land mass is located in just three cities. Those three cities attract the majority of immigrants. Toronto, in less than three decades, has gone from one of the most livable cities in the world to just another overcrowded and filthy North American city. The huge population growth coupled with dysfunctional government policies has resulted in an entire generation not being able to afford single-family homes that could be afforded by their working-class parents and grandparents. Infrastructure spending is appallingly low relative to population growth.
Developed countries do have a demographic issue. The United States is in comparatively decent shape at a fertility rate of about 1.8. Canada has a more serious issue at between 1.4 to 1.5. We would be facing population collapse without immigration. Many European nations, as well as South Korea, Japan, and China, have low fertility rates. There is an assumption that population decline is disastrous for an economy. I doubt this is true in reality. Many countries have recovered after wars which saw all too many of their young and most productive men die on the battlefield.
We even have current examples where gradual declines in population did not seem to have a negative affect on the economic well-being of the population. Eastern European nations have seen slight population declines while experiencing economic growth rates that have been impressive. There may be less Hungarians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Czechs around than a few years ago, but citizens are better off economically.
In contrast, Canada has seen its population rise by 60 percent since 1980 but has dropped in GDP per capita from a top-five country to somewhere in the mid-20s. I’m not saying Canada’s economic failures were due to immigration, but it was used as an attempted panacea to obscure incompetent and foolhardy economic policies. Furthermore, those policies have disincentivized our best and brightest from having children at replacement levels. The birth rate is lower for highly productive people than the less economically productive and gifted.
There is an elephant in the room that few want to address with respect to immigration policy that we have eluded because it is a third rail issue. Every nation is different and has unique circumstances and needs, but the brutal reality is that adding people who are less productive than the existing population is a net negative for the economy. Adding highly productive people improves a society’s economic future. This is not a racial issue nor is it Western bias. An Indian immigrant with a STEM degree (science, technology, engineering or medicine) will, on average, have a positive affect on a country. One can only hope they will have many children. A locally born drug- and welfare-addicted woman having multiple children from multiple men will negatively affect the economy. We have a heavily graduate tax system in Canada. The productive pay much and cost little, while some pay nothing and cost the economy dearly since they do not pay much in tax but cost in terms of welfare programs and the justice system.
Canadians are below a sustainable replacement rate. Between 1.4 and 1.5 in 2023—well below required 2.1. At current replacement rates, if there was no immigration, Canada will decline from 40 million to 27 million by 2050. This assumes constant replacement and death rate and no immigration. We can do little about death rates, and extending life expectancy without increasing retirement ages would have economic consequences. Increasing birth rates of old stock Canadians would require a change in government policies and a change in culture. Population decline affects overall GDP and a nation’s economic power, but the jury is out if those preaching catastrophe are correct. Some small Europeans countries have low population growth and are rich and happy. Fast-growing developing nations are facing starvation.
Orderly and gradual population declines do not spell ruin for nations. Population growth, especially through immigration, probably does not cause prosperity to a large extent. Rather, prosperity and opportunity attract people and cause population increases. Good policy aids the economy. Poor policy hurts it.
Remedies include encouraging immigration of productive people contingent on population growth realities. Even if immigration is not needed, make room for the super-talented. Also, find ways to encourage family formation. Incentivize the intelligent and productive young people with family and civil values to have more children. Stop incentivizing people who are burdens on our society to have more children, albeit unintentionally.
The way forward is simple, but courage is needed.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.