I don’t wish to be alarmist, but I wonder how many Canadians know their country is being invaded. It doesn’t get a lot of attention in the mainstream media, but there is a massive influx of people coming into this country every year: nearly 400,000 in the past year alone.
These are people, I should point out, who have no means of supporting themselves; who have no knowledge of Canadian history or culture; who not only cannot speak either official language, but cannot walk or feed or even dress themselves; people who will be a net drain on the taxpayer for many years after their arrival.
I speak, of course, of the hundreds of thousands of babies born in Canada every year. There are fewer of them, proportionately, than in the past – at just under 1 per cent of the population, the birth rate is barely a third of its postwar peak – but they still have an enormous impact, not least in terms of public spending. Yet somehow, whenever the discussion turns to population growth and the eternal question of my God how will we ever accommodate all these people, the native-born in our midst never seem to come up. It’s always about immigrants.
Just now we are having one of our periodic flutters of panic over immigration, occasioned by the recent release of the latest federal immigration plan. From 405,000 in 2021, to 431,000 in 2022, to 465,000 this year, the annual intake of immigrants is projected to continue to rise to 500,000 by 2025. And that’s not counting those here on temporary work or study permits.
These are invariably described as “record” numbers, and so they are, in absolute terms. But relative to population, immigration is not particularly high: At just over 1 per cent of the receiving population, it is roughly in line with its historical average. There have been periods when it was lower, but there have also been periods when it was higher – much higher: before the First World War (in some years it exceeded 5 per cent of the population), and after the Second. Even today, population flows across our borders are dwarfed by population movements within; again, while the former excites all the attention, the latter passes unremarked.
What people mean when they say immigration is “high” is that it is higher than it was in the recent past. The implication is that recent levels of immigration are “natural,” such that anything higher must inevitably invite disaster. But in fact there is no such thing as a natural rate of immigration, any more than there is a natural level of population; if there were, it would be a remarkable coincidence to find that we were exactly at it. Current immigration rates have no more or less claim to being natural than any other. They are just more familiar.
At one time, immigration hysterics focused on its alleged doleful effects on unemployment, or wages: The increase in the supply of labour, it was reasoned, must surely outpace the demand. That’s proved hard to sustain in the face of high employment rates and record-high real wages. So instead the focus has shifted to the ways in which immigration must lead to an excess of demand over supply: in housing, say, or health care.
It never seems to occur to anyone that immigrants might be a source of both demand and supply – that they are not just workers, but consumers, and not just consumers, but workers, at the same time.
Will immigrants add to the demand for housing? Undoubtedly. Hmm. We’ll certainly need to build a lot more houses for them to live in. I wonder where we’ll find the workers to build them? Ah yes: from immigration. The health care system is a mess at the moment. It was also a mess, you may recall, 30 years ago, when there were 10 million fewer Canadians using it.
A moment’s thought, and a little research, should make clear: Neither the unemployment rate, nor the standard of living, nor the level of environmental degradation, nor anything else about a country is primarily a function of the number of people in it. The decisive factor, rather, is the organization of economic life – how efficiently or otherwise resources are used.
In an economy based on prices, that means “getting the prices right” above all – letting prices signal where resources are in greater or lesser demand relative to supply, so as to avoid either shortages or surpluses. Get the prices right, and wealth will be maximized, waste minimized, no matter how many people a country contains; get the prices wrong, and the reverse will be the case, no matter how few.
That works both ways, of course. We don’t “need” immigration to maintain a particular standard of living, either: Lots of countries that are smaller than us, with slower population growth, do just fine. Canada would have a higher GDP with a larger population, but not a hugely greater GDP per capita.
Still, that’s not to say immigration has no impact, or that there are no reasons to favour higher immigration rates to lower. Larger populations, first, can spread fixed costs over larger numbers of people – economies of scale – in ways that cannot readily be duplicated through international trade: Trade within nations, research shows, is of much greater “intensity” than trade between nations. Countries with higher population density, likewise, enjoy cost savings relative to those whose population is scattered over greater distances.
Less quantifiably, bigger countries offer more opportunities to their citizens, in the same way that big cities offer more opportunities than small towns. They are magnets for the ambitious, the talented and the entrepreneurial. And they have a clout in the world to match – a greater ability, other things being equal, to shape events in line with their interests and their values.
We should not underestimate the impact on our sense of selves. It is striking to read commentators from those early 20th-century days, when our population was growing at such a torrid rate: the exuberance, the self-confidence, the conviction that we were destined to be the next big thing. You know Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s famous line about the 20th century being the century of Canada? In the same 1904 speech he predicted that, within the lifetimes of some members of his audience, Canada would have a population of 60 million people. That was only a commonplace of the time. Others predicted we’d have 100 million people by now.
Needless to say, we fell a long way short of that. Yet it’s hard not to notice the positive effects of the population growth we have enjoyed. Canada is a much more interesting, dynamic place than it was in my childhood, when it was half its current size. It is also a more tolerant place. Had you predicted then that nearly a quarter of Canada’s population would one day be foreign-born – it is over 50 per cent in our largest cities – you would no doubt have been met with terrified prophecies of racial conflict.
Yet we seem more at ease with each other than ever. Popular support for immigration, likewise, is not only strong, but growing. The national and international data on this are conclusive: The greatest hostility to immigration is found in places with relatively little experience of it. Where people regularly encounter people from different backgrounds to their own, on the other hand, it is popular. Familiarity, it turns out, breeds respect.