Is the world better off with a Bigger Australia, or with more Australians?

Michael Fullilove, of the Lowy Institute, last week gave a speech espousing the established (non-radical) centrist view that more immigration to Australia is highly desirable – that migration is an essential step to A Bigger Australia.

I like immigration. In fact, my gut supports something a flea’s dick away from open borders, and my head constantly feels its not being fair dinkum when trying to justify policy much more restrictive than that.

Yet I am utterly unconvinced by the Bigger Australia arguments, of which Fullilove is but one proponent.

I like immigration because of the (modest) benefits to existing Australians, and the (immense) benefits to new Australians.

It is probably the single best way Australian policy can help the welfare of humanity (whether measured in in crude economic metrics like GWP or otherwise), but entails costs that are so modest we’ve had to create a vigourous passtime imagining them on talkback radio and odious comment threads[1].

In short, my gut tells me that the freedom and productivity of people can be immensely increased by a free choice to move country, at no net cost to others, then restricting that choice is not just irrational, it is deeply immoral, whatever the practical politics are.

But it does not seem to be welfare of Australians old and new that motivates a Bigger Australia advocate, and least not primarily. Their concerns do not seem to lie with Australians, but an entity called Australia.

Fullilove automatically links a more populous Australia with bigger defence budgets. Big Militaries are something Big Nations Do. He invokes the weight a Bigger Australia can have at international summits, and that a bigger force of DFAT bureacrats is needed for the Bigger Australia to throw its bigger bulk around.

We seem to be coming to the similar policies in radically different ways.

I always see Australia as a collection of people, current and future, living their lives and engaging with the world. Part of this involves granting responsibilities to a state, because there are some things states are good at. But this is but one part of Australia. Immigration provides benefits to both current and future Australians, and it is because Australians benefit, that Australia that they collectively make up is better. In this view Australia is greater than China, because Australians live better.

The Australia of invoked by Bigger Australia advocates is the state. More people grant more power for representatives of the Australian state when speaking to representatives of other states. This Australia only engages internationally through diplomats, other engagements like trade, culture and romance may occur, but they are not Australia engaging. In this view Australia is lesser than China, because China’s representatives have more capacity to make others cower.

Are we coming from different, but undeclared and unexamined philosophical foundations?

I guess I absorbed, conciously or not, an English speaking tradition through Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Mills, Bentham and Rawls. People matter, states exist to serve them in some tasks.

But does that mean that a sizable part of orthodox centrism, of which Fullilove is but a part, has absorbed the thought of Hegel and others in Koenigsburg? The state is the highest representation of the will of the people – its acts are their acts and by serving it they serve themselves?

How on earth could this occur? How on earth did it become conventional wisdom that migration was good, not necessarily for the good it does for people, but to boost the government in G20 pissing contests?

We are rapidly approaching the centenary of the August Madness of 1914, yet National Greatness has entered centrist wisdom as an unexamined Good Thing again.


[1] and were our planning policy less gerontocratically anti-housing, the costs would be lower still.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Is the world better off with a Bigger Australia, or with more Australians?

  1. Interesting commentary for the day-after-Open-Borders-day.

    However I don’t agree with this for a number of reasons.
    “It is probably the single best way Australian policy can help the welfare of humanity”

    1. Immigration is open to the most well off from the developing world. I don’t think Bangladesh would like it if all their doctors moved to Australia.

    2. Wouldn’t giving resources to people be the bet way to help? We seem happy to divert our military to various wasteful tasks – couldn’t we have a military-type of organisation that simply built stuff for poor regions – roads, bridges, power lines, water supplied. At least you would help the very poor.

    3. Would opening borders simply make it more difficult for Australia’s existing poor to improve their lot? I imagine intense competition for low-skilled work etc.

    To get a better view of my thoughts try this post.

    plus many more comments and discussion below this cross-post

    • paul walter says:

      Thanks Cameron and thanks, Richard.. this and the other couple of new threads really relate also to the pressing issue of our time, asylum seekers.

      The resistance to people-movements has not been totally irrational and gut racist ( It is supposed to be an accommodation we masses make to Wall St and City plutocrats to facilitate the War Economy and oligarchic dominance; our own subjugation- feudalism rather than free enterprise) any more than fear of being blindsided by technological change, perhaps caught out on the Oldest Ponzi Scheme of all, marriage and nothing to show for all the promises offered you at school about “society” and “democracy” and “reason” and “humanity” but an unpaid mortgage.

      We live in a culture of medieval ignorance, as was demonstrated in the bizarre treatment afforded the Greens in Tasmania.
      After all this time they should have been embraced as visionaries and society returned to science, rationality, humanity and use value.

      What we got instead was profit only at any cost and policy as means for delivering dominance outcomes rather than economic ones.

      • paul walter says:

        Whaddya know!

        Fred, do you comment at Gary Sauer Thompson’s site Public Opinion?

        Either way, that is a beautifully explication..had I scrolled half an inch more I would have read it first and not needed to comment myself.

  2. Fred says:

    I agree with the views of Kelvin Thomson MP that Bigger Australia is just a giant Ponzi scheme:
    Population growth is also the main driver of infrastructure and skills shortages. I draw your attention to a really important piece of economic analysis by the University of Queensland academic Jane O’Sullivan, called The Burden of Durable Asset Acquisition in Growing Populations.

    I know it sounds dull, but for anyone who seriously wants to understand the challenges facing governments in Australia today and understand why governments of all persuasions struggle to meet people’s needs and expectations it is very important.

    The problems and disadvantages of population growth have been overlooked by contemporary economic analysis. Instead of talking about population size, we should examine the economic impacts of population growth and population growth rate. The ability of a society to meet its population’s needs depends on its stock of durable assets, infrastructure, plant and equipment, and skilled workers.

    Different items of infrastructure have differing life spans, but a cost-weighted average is likely to be around 50 years. That would mean a society with a stable population needs to replace two per cent of all infrastructure annually. But if a population is growing at one per cent per annum, for example, the society needs to expand its entire stock of infrastructure by one per cent per annum; otherwise we build up an infrastructure deficit. This increases the burden of infrastructure creation by 50 per cent compared with a stable population: the two per cent replacement plus the one per cent for population growth.

    However a one per cent increase in population is likely to increase GDP and tax revenue by approximately one per cent. One per cent more GDP or tax cannot pay for 25 to 50 per cent more public infrastructure, or 50 to 100 per cent more housing construction.

    So economic activity gets diverted to the task of capacity expansion and consequently is withdrawn from other provision of goods and services. It is like walking on a treadmill: you are going faster but not getting anywhere.

    It’s why electricity, gas and water bills are rising much faster than the CPI. It’s why Council rates are rising much faster than the CPI. It’s why Councils, State and Federal Governments can’t afford the infrastructure the community wants, and come up with dubious ideas such as selling off public assets, or putting tolls on roads, to pay for it.”

    • conrad says:

      If you’re talking about professional workers coming to Australia (c.f., refugees, family reunions etc. who we invite in for altruistic reasons, and thus should be treated as qualitatively different), then the current problem is that unless you don’t want doctors, dentists, IT professionals, engineers, various types of scientists etc. in the short-medium term, then it’s very hard to see where they are going from if you don’t have immigration (perhaps doctors have finally be solved). The basic problem is the high school system has gone down hill, universities offer ever more crapified degrees, TAFE has been gutted in NSW and VIC, and employees have no obligation to train anyone out of altruistic reasons like they previously used to, and nor does anyone expect that of them. So there is no really great place Australians can get trained in many professions (or at least not in the number they are needed). This is amplified by an increasing trend in the number of well qualified Australians leaving.

      Given this, since I don’t want to see the economy fall to bits without these people, unless someone wants to suggest how to fix the previous things, I don’t really see any alternative but to allow reasonable numbers of immigrants in.

      • “then the current problem is that unless you don’t want doctors, dentists, IT professionals, engineers, various types of scientists etc. in the short-medium term, then it’s very hard to see where they are going from if you don’t have immigration”

        This is a very anti-utilitarian perspective. Surely the countries of origin of these professionals would also like these people to contribute to their society.

        • conrad says:

          I’m sure they’d love them, and we’re surely being greedy taking them in some cases. Alternatively, at the level of the individual, I don’t see why we should stop people from moving if they can (this is true even of countries that arn’t poor — I doubt people finding it hard to get a dentist in NZ are too pleased). Otherwise, what you are really saying is that people should somehow be responsible for unknown others in a non-direct way, and we should try and force this responsibility upon them, including by restricting their freedom of movement and establishment. Applying this logic to any number of similar cases leads to fairly bizarre conclusions. When do we stop forcing people to do such things? To me, you’re trying to prohibit one of the great new freedoms for well educated people. You don’t like your government? Just move somewhere else.

          One way around this would be for Australia to offer training for people from overseas depending on those that they take. So, for example, if we took a doctor from Bangladesh, we could train one back. This would solve the brain-drain problem and still allow individuals to move at a cost that would not be excessively large for Australia if we just did it for poor countries.

          Also (a) some of these people are more or less wasted in their own countries; and (b) some countries have surpluses of some groups that Australia does not. For example, it’s well known that many scientists are wasted in Australia and so move to the US. Another example is that most universities in Aus now have Iranians and Chinese teaching in their engineering faculties. This is not such a problem for these countries because both produce lots of engineers, and thus fits both (a) and (b). There is some actual literature on this — basically, loss of people is not nearly as bad for large countries compare to small ones.

      • john Walker says:

        I agree, and what makes it far worse is that our education system is already costing a shirtload and is only going to get dearer.
        “how to fix the previous things” should be on all minds, No?

  3. Hasbeen says:

    Open borders & who would come? Those wanting to escape the hell hole they have created at home.

    Would they wash of their hell hole creating ability as they came? Not bloody likely, taking for example the problems Islanders, Lebs, & certain Africans now cause in previously comfortable communities they move into.

    So what do we Ozzies get from this? Not just the hell hole the incoming migrants come from, but a quagmire of different hell holes they have brought with them. A swamp of slime fighting for breath.

    It is great for elites to be magnanimous with the less well off of the world, They will never have to live cheek to cheek with the result. I would like them to do it in their world, not mine, thanks.

    • conrad says:

      The average migrant creates less crime than the average Australian born citizen (many groups, far less). Groups like the much maligned Lebanese have imprisonment rates very similar to the average Australia — probably less if you want to consider their demographics (i.e., younger and more male). The data can be found here:[email protected]/DetailsPage/4517.02013?OpenDocument

    • Julie Thomas says:

      Mr Hasbeen, I actually do live among these people that you apparently are so worried about and I am not an ‘elite’ unless you mean that I am possibly smarter than you? Do you think that you are so scared of them and living among them because you do not know any? I have heard that this is the real difference between righties like you and lefties like me; that your type of person is scared of progress.

      But about those brown people who are coming here. You might be interested in this piece of hypocrisy by a couple of LNP people taking credit for what ‘the left’ has done re integrating brown and black people in my area of the world.

      The article begins:

      “The Federal Coalition is committed to strengthening migrant and refugee settlement programs to ensure strong regional migrant communities such as Toowoomba have the most effective support networks in place.”

      Who said that do you think? Article goes on to say:

      ““Toowoomba and the Darling Downs have had a steadily growing migrant and refugee population for several years, particularly with a thriving Sudanese community. But the latest Census data shows that this region is being chosen as a new home by people from a diverse range of backgrounds in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe,” Mr Macfarlane said.

      Yep Mr Ian Macfarlane. Is he an ‘elite’?

      “While the region is welcoming and provides great opportunities for new migrants and refugees, moving to a new country can be overwhelming especially for people who have fled violence in their own country.

      “Some of the important matters that have to be dealt with when resettling in a new country include language skills, housing and employment services.””

      What? Spend money on helping ‘them’ integrate? Who said that?

      My doctor is from Africa and is a very competent physician and a very interesting person with a wonderful life history. The pharmacist I go to comes from Iran and is the quickest and most efficient one in town.

      The large Sudanese population that come from the hell hole in Sudan that is largely the result of tensions created by the unfairness of geography and the distribution of resources that the West wants, are doing very well because of the ministrations of the churches in town and this is backed up by the council and the attitude of the police and other institutions in the area who realise that we the people are benefiting in many ways from the diversity that this influx of people with enough entrepreneurial spirit to get up and move to a better place, has created.

      There is also a Uni in town that has a population of overseas students and through my son who is a student there, I have met young people from all over the world and that has benefited my life. From these encounters, I understand a lot of interesting things about Nepalese politics, for just one example of the benefits of knowing people from the rest of the world.

      I also have learned a lot about family life in Nepal and Nepal isn’t a hell hole – although the neo-liberal drive for profit is stuffing up a lot of development projects there – and that this young man will return to his country one day with lots of understanding of our people and culture and that will benefit both his country and ours. His father is a doctor in Nepal.

      One interesting thing he has noticed about our country is that the old people seem to be so unhappy and angry. He said that is not the case in Nepal where the old people are very happy.

      • Hasbeen says:

        Julie Thomas I don’t have to live with them, as they congregate is ghettoes. I’m too far out. Not in walking distance of their target prey. You like yours do you? My son was living in Allawah. Walking home from the train, in broad daylight he was attacked by 4 Lebs, who jumped out of a car, & saying things like Get the whitey.

        His skull will never be the right shape again, but after 4 operations he is almost recovered. The double vision only reappears, 18 months later, when he is very tired. The next operation should correct the hollow below his left cheek, & is really only cosmetic. That was from a steel capped boot, the surgeon recognized the shape. He sees a lot of it in the area around the Ghetto.

        Unfortunately we don’t all have that option of living else where. Like my daughters in-laws, who want out of Penrith, their home for 23 years, after 4 robberies in 2 years. The neighbors have advised the appearance of the gangs as African. We of course also know where they come from, the public housing ghetto down the road, but they appear to be immune from police action.

        They installed a radio opening system on the garage door, as the lady won’t leave the house, except in a locked car. Of course she may be a nervous fool, overreacting to the muggings. It is not her fault she lives in fear, but that of people like you, with your stupidity.

        Yep they want out, but the “new” residents have cause property values to drop so much, the price they can get won’t buy them another house anywhere within commuting distance of the blokes work.

        What’s that you say, just a little collateral damage? Yep for sure, caused by ratbags who want to fill our country with the worst kind of garbage.

        • Julie Thomas says:

          OMG, why did I think that a Hasbeen like you would think rather than react with resentment and an arrogance that you are the bringer of truth? Go back to OLO, Hasbeen that is your level of intellectual debate. :)

          And, it is another well-known fact about you righties, that you can only react to ideas, you don’t have any actual ideas yourselves, just an irritable and envious approach to others who work hard to make their community *not* a ghetto.

          The idea to avoid ghettos is to welcome the people into ‘your’ community. We do that and we reap the benefits while you nurse your racism and resentment and hatred.

          And, you are just nasty, look at all those words you use that are deliberately chosen to represent people with different ideas than your own as *not* acceptable. Do you see anyone else here being so ill-mannered, but I know that it is standard practice where you usually spread your resentful bile and disdain for ordinary Australians like me.

      • Hasbeen says:

        Why did you ever think? Come off it love, you’ve never thought about the results of your bleeding heart behavior, just how good it makes you think your are.

        • conrad says:

          As noted from the statistics, the average Australian born citizen is doing as much crime as the average non-Australian born (more in fact). Thus you are just as likely to be a victim of violence from white gangs, white trash etc., than Lebanese gangs (more in fact, because their more of them).

          Thus the best hope for everyone that worries about things like this is that low crimes groups, like Chinese and Indians, buy up their neighborhoods and turn them into low-crime ghettos (if one wants to call them that).

        • Julie Thomas says:

          Hasbeen why not liberate yourself from your ‘hasbeen’ status and get a life? As an official bleeding heart I can tell you that it doesn’t hurt and that getting a heart is better than getting ahead.

          And dude……everyone is a bleeding heart these days even Libertarians! You can google that you know to find out that I speak the truth. You do know how to google don’t you?

  4. David Tanner says:

    Fred, that is what the dullard pseudo economists don’t understand. We are on a treadmill going increasingly faster and we are never going to catch up. This is particularly so when we have populist governments both trying to reduce taxes. We need to go back to the house styles of the fifties which are all that most people can really afford anyway.

  5. Henry says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful contribution Richard. I agree “we seem to be coming to the similar policies in radically different ways.” But I’m not sure I’m as concerned as you. If G20 pissing contests have some positive externalities, then so be it. Maybe this isn’t a sustainable way to progress, but given the debate in Australia relative to other countries, at least we’re starting on solid foundations. I’m confident about the future.

    Cameron: Isn’t your first question an empirical one? What if the Bangladeshi doctors were a net positive as emigrants? There are multiple articles on African health care professionals from a variety of countries that show this isn’t a simple question of where the doctor lives. Resources too are fragile – it would be better if we gave people more, but what happens when this occurs? I’m aid agnostic at the moment given the work of Easterly et al needs a more coherent response from advocates.

    Finally, when we consider Australia’s poor (which we most definitively should), we must also consider the status quo. How are these people faring now? The counter-factual is hard, but the immense suffering of the here and now deserves a better response. In the past two decades, Australia’s poor have gained substantially from immigration. Granted – this is due to the composition of the skill levels as a largely complementary workforce, but even the most pessimistic outlooks from the U.S. find only the slightest economic effects on poor people, something like a seven per cent decline in income over a 25 year period (Borjas). Others claim this is bunk (see David Cards work).

    I’ll admit I find the environmental argument against more immigration very difficult to follow. If we talk about climate, isn’t Australia in a better position to respond than the citizens of extremely poor people? If we talk about water, how about irrigation? This stuff doesn’t make sense in isolation as a simple migrants or environment argument.

    I don’t believe in open borders, but I believe the case for a substantially larger immigration intake is stronger than the status quo, including a greater degree of people from the developing world, be they skilled or unskilled.

Comments are closed.