Thursday, 14 July 2011

A level playing field?

I recently came across this passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:

“Some men feel threatened by women’s competition. In Hebdo-Latin the other day, a student declared: ‘Every woman student who takes a position is stealing a place from us’. That student never questioned his rights over this world. Economic interests are not the only ones in play. One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior”.

These words, particularly the idea of mistaking unjust privileges for rights, put me in mind of Iain Duncan Smith’s comments a couple of weeks back. Then, Duncan Smith tried to make the case for stronger immigration controls on the basis that too many jobs that could be filled by Britons are taken by foreigners.

One argument he made was that “We have to ensure that our immigration system works in the interests of Britain”. This claim is controversial in itself. Firstly, I definitely do not think it is obvious that British immigration policy should be determined solely by the national interest. Taken literally, this would imply that Britain ought to be indifferent to the suffering of refugees, for example. Furthermore, it is debateable whether tighter immigration restrictions are in fact in the British national interest: this opens up a whole host of questions regarding migrants’ contributions in tax and economic activity.

I do not want to enter either of these moral or economic disputes here. The argument Duncan Smith made which intrigues me most is his claim that further restricting migration is necessary to create “a level playing field” for the British unemployed. This is a point which, like that of de Beauvoir’s student, crumbles into incoherence on the slightest reflection.

The metaphor of the ‘level playing field’ is a fairly straightforward and unambiguous one. It implies that there is a competition, and that one set of the competitors has an unfair advantage over the others. What IDS is implying is that migrants are better off than the British unemployed in ways that the do not deserve, just as the football team kicking downhill have done nothing to earn their fortune.

This is perverse because it seems like the exact opposite of the truth. Unemployed Britons have certain advantages many migrants could only dream of: educational support and opportunity, the security of the welfare state. Perhaps most significantly, most British workers have a linguistic and cultural advantage over foreigners. What IDS fails to ask is why British companies would want to hire foreigners when bosses and customers would almost certainly prefer to interact with people who sound, look and act like them.

Of course, all this is even before we consider the added handicap faced by those outside the EU of having to jump through the various hoops necessary to get a visa to the UK.

The only sense I can make of the claim that economic competition in the UK is skewed against Britons is perhaps in the possibility that their wage claims are ‘undercut’ by people willing to work for less money. But isn’t that exactly what economic competition is supposed to be – different providers jockeying to offer their goods and services at lower prices than their rivals? Working for lower wages than other workers is no more ‘cheating’ than a football team scoring more goals than their opponent.

To reiterate, I am not saying that economic competition should be the only thing we care about, or that workers undercutting each others’ wages is good or desirable. All I’m saying is that far from subverting competition, it is essential to it.

And all this gets to the heart of the tension in the Conservatives’ position on immigration. More than the other parties, they are supposed to be the ones with greatest faith in the virtues of the market. And yet in their strict limitations on the freedom of the labour market, they strangle the economic competition they profess to favour.

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