Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Immigration is one of the most difficult issues of our times. As part of our focus on demography, we are presenting various perspectives on the debate.

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Although many Western nations have below replacement fertility rates (that is, fewer than 2.1 children per woman on average) and have had such rates for some time now, we have not seen their populations decline in a sustained fashion. There has not been a western European or North American or Australasian parallel to Japan’s experience over the last decade for example.

This is for two reasons. 

First, a population can endure a below replacement fertility rate for a number of years before its population begins to decline. This is because people are living longer and the great bulge in most nations’ population pyramids filled by the baby boomers has not yet reached the apex and then disappeared. In the next few years, as the baby boomers shuffle off this mortal coil, the death rate will rise dramatically and the natural population growth will, for many countries, slide rapidly downwards into negative territory.

Second, many nations are replacing the children that they aren’t having with migrants from other nations. For example, Italy has seen its population naturally decline (more deaths than births) every year since 1993 (except for 2004 and 2006). And yet, over that 26 year period, Italy’s total population has grown by nearly four million people (a growth rate of over 7 percent growth since 1993). In many ways migration is seen as the answer to low fertility rates: migrants can fill the workforce, pay tax and support the ageing native born population. It softens or even completely alleviates the economic blow that an ageing and declining population would otherwise bring with it.

However, largescale migration is not without its political and social risks.

A recent book by Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities, seeks to explore the impact of immigration on Western societies and explain how it is driving populist politics in the USA and Europe. Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, manages to discuss unease with demographic change without descending into calling those who are uneasy “racists”, “white supremacists” or “white nationalists”.

He argues that it is not necessarily the amount of diversity that underlies political upheavals, but instead the speed of demographic change. Furthermore, he makes the argument that scepticism of mass immigration does not promote illiberalism and bigotry. But when mainstream politicians treat such concerns as illegitimate, demagogues fill a sizeable hole in the political marketplace. Kaufmann notes that parties that are decried as “far right” or “populist right” are often far from right-wing when it comes to economics. Indeed, these parties are not principally concerned with economics, but with culture.

Kaufmann believes that the best way to marginalise white racism is to accommodate white fear of too-fast demographic change, especially via moderate immigration restrictions. Unfortunately mainstream political parties often seek to do the opposite. As an adviser to Tony Blair once said, “let’s rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date”. The trouble with this approach is that it drives people away from a society which offers them no future and into the arms of the “alt-right”.

As the editor of the American Conservative notes, there is an over-emphasis on white opposition to large scale migration in Kaufmann’s book, especially in the US context. Kaufmann himself gives the example of Proposition 187, a 1994 California ballot initiative that attempted to block taxpayer funds from going to illegal aliens. It won majority support among blacks and Asian-Americans and a third of Hispanics.

There are many reasons to restrict large-scale immigration (values, language, loss of shared customs and the belief that illegal immigration is unfair) that are not inherently racially-based. A country’s sense of nationhood does not have to be identified with one particular race. (As an aside, how often do we hear concerns about migrants' different belief systems decried as “racist”? Another example of the paucity of thought and goodwill that pervades political debate nowadays…)

Kaufmann’s book is a timely discussion of a political issue that many nations are grappling with: large-scale migration. As birth rates fall and death rates rise, migration will become increasingly important for more nations if they wish to stabilise or grow their populations. How this can be done without excessive upheaval and societal disruption will hopefully enter into the minds of politicians and policy advisors in the years to come, Kaufmann’s book would be a useful guide.

Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...