The UK government has recently announced that it is raising the income threshold for non-EU citizens who wish to immigrate to the UK from £20,800 to £35,000. This threshold will apply not just to new immigrants, but also to those who have lived in the UK already for more than five years. It is the contention of this post that this new £35,000 threshold is not just unwise or poorly thought out, but also unjust.
Jesper Pedersen considers this issue with admirable even-handedness, but what if, rather than doing anything akin to sitting on this particular fence, we wanted to vault right over it, and claim – as I do here – that the policy is unjust? What support for making this statement could we muster?
Possible arguments could be run based on a sort of utilitarian calculus: in short, the new policy seems to do more harm than good; its consequences seem more undesirable than desirable; it certainly seems to do little to make anyone happy. But let’s leave this sort of argument to one side for now – the maths of any utilitarian calculus are notoriously imprecise and hard to pin down (and it might be years before the full effects are visible or measurable). We could also run the argument – as Jesper points out – that borders are inherently wrong.
But for now, let’s accept, as Jesper does, that states have a right to control their borders . Given our acceptance of this right, exercised by, let us assume, a legitimate government of a democratic state, in accordance with correct procedure, how can we still say that the £35,000 threshold is unjust?
There are many responses to this, but let me here simply sketch one way of answering this question – I argue it is discriminatory in an unjust way – before concluding with two more concerns regarding the justice of the income threshold. This answer has two components: the first is the relevance of the income criterion; the second is the role of choice and brute luck.
Even if a state has the right to determine its membership, an income threshold is not a relevant way of doing this – and it is therefore unjustly discriminatory. Let’s consider some parallel examples. Imagine you were barred from a pub, nightclub or restaurant, or from certain lanes on the motorway, because you don’t earn £35,000. It’s highly likely you’d consider this to be unfair, because it’s hard to see what how much you earn has to do with such restrictions. But imagine instead you weren’t let into the pub, nightclub or restaurant because you didn’t meet the dress code, or you couldn’t use a motorway lane because it was reserved for buses (and you weren’t driving a bus). You might still be annoyed, but you’d be hard put to say it was unjust: the reasons were relevant.
In contrast, it’s hard to see why £35,000 is a relevant threshold to immigration. Many people – nurses and many teachers, for example – earn less than this and yet still clearly make an important contribution to society in the UK. Equally, many people earn over £35,000 while the contribution they make to society is opaque, to say the least (and even more opaque, should they manage successfully not to pay the level of tax we might expect them to). If the UK government genuinely cared about only letting in those who would contribute to the UK, there are many more sophisticated and effective ways of doing this than applying a blunt income threshold.
There are often barriers to entering membership organisations, nightclubs or societies. To get into a club, it’s often important to dress in the required way; to be member of professional organisations you might require certain qualifications or experience. The key thing about these barriers is that we can do something about them: we can dress in the required way, or (within reason) attain certain qualifications. We would feel very different about another class of barriers. Imagine a club or a society that let in only white men over six-feet tall: this is quite clearly unjust, because if you happen not to be a tall white man, there is nothing that you can do about it. Your not being a lanky white man is not a choice, and therefore it is unjust to block your membership because of that fact.
While clearly not as offensive as the racism and sexism of white only or male only establishments, an earning threshold is unjust in a similar way, as it is unclear that everyone is able to do something or change something in order to earn £35,000. (If it was so easy to earn this much money, then you would expect everyone to be doing so. The reality is that the median, mean and mode annual salaries in the UK are rather lower.) Not earning £35,000 is not a choice, just as not being 6’ tall isn’t a choice or being white or male isn’t a choice. Therefore, the threshold is discriminatory in an unjust way .
Two thoughts to finish, which may (I hope) lead to further discussion. The first is what the threshold says about the way in which current citizens of the UK are valued. Effectively, the policy says that those citizens who earn less than £35,000 wouldn’t be allowed in, save for the fact that they happened to have been born here. This certainly prompts the question of how just a society is if it judges people’s worth (and citizenship potential) on their income rather than any other criteria: it seems that in assessing people’s eligibility for citizenship, economics trumps ethics or morality.
The second concerns the UK’s role as a (former) colonial power. Having spent much of the 18th and 19th centuries forcing other parts of the world to open up their borders to trade (and the colonial administrators and government that accompanied that trade), and having grown rich and prosperous through the resources and labour gained through empire, it seems the UK now wants to pull up the drawbridge on the world. This, too, seems manifestly unjust.
 Seyla Benhabib, for example, notes that ‘all democracies presuppose a principle of membership, according to which some are entitled to a political voice while others are excluded’ in Dignity in Adversity: Human Rights in Troubled Times (Cambridge, Polity, 2011), p. 143.
 One objection to the examples I give here might be that such organisations operate in the context of states, where there is an established system of rights and duties, whereas states do not operate in such a system: in other words, they do not have duties to non-members. I do not think this objection is sustainable, as we would find the unjust actions of the organisations unjust even without a system of law within a state as a reference point: we do not need a system of law, for example, to tell us that racism is unjust.
Thanks Matt, thought provoking article. I have a couple of qualms though.
You stipulate that states have a right to restrict migration, but I think your arguments come close to collapsing into the view that such restrictions are never acceptable. Could you give examples of the sorts of criteria for restriction that you think avoid your objections?
For example, I’m not sure that income is such a terrible proxy for social contribution. It might be better to draw up lists of shortage professions, but this is likely to be administratively burdensome and dependent on the knowledge constraints of civil servants. Particularly for a right-wing government, I think it’s easy to see why market income seems a more elegant (and perhaps more reliable) indicator of the same underlying value.
Similarly, on your first finishing thought – the disrespect shown to low income UK citizens – I am not sure if there is any system of restrictions that wouldn’t exclude**some* UK citizens, so isn’t this a point against restrictions in general?
Matt Hann (Guest Author)
Thanks for your Comment, Aveek. I agree my argument tends to lean towards a relatively minimal account of when states my restrict migration. I think there are more sustainable grounds to be found in criteria based on (for example) criminal records or perhaps public statements (you could justify, I think, not admitting someone whose stated goal was to overthrow your democracy). I think, though, it’s possible to both support a state’s right to control migration and suggest that there aren’t very many legitimate grounds to exercise that right.
I agree it’s possible to understand the temptation for a right-wing government to view income as a useful proxy for social contribution, but understanding this doesn’t mean that we have to accept this rationale. I think it’s mistaken to see income as such a proxy (though this is something that could be fleshed out at greater length another time). I certainly think behind this proxy there’s a temptation to think that people on higher incomes pay more tax and therefore contribute more, and I think this way of thinking is mistaken also.
On the first finishing thought, I think again that one of my implicit problems (and perhaps I should have made this more explicit) with the policy is the use of income to assess worth. I think my point here is a point against any system that imposes restrictions that don’t seem to relate to desert so much as luck (I think achieving a £35,000 salary depends to a significant extent on luck).
I hope this provides a useful response!