Free to Move: the Costs and Consequences of Restrictions on Migration

60 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2021

Date Written: November 17, 2016


Negative misperceptions about migration abound. People greatly overestimate the immigrant share of the population and many wrongly believe that openness to migration harms Britons’ job prospects, burdens public finances and services, and makes housing prohibitively expensive.Openness to migration actually brings big economic benefits. These stem primarily from the very thing that makes immigration so controversial: the fact that migrants are different – with diverse attributes, skills, perspectives, and experiences that tend to complement local resources, needs, and circumstances. The UK government ignores this evidence and seeks to restrict net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ of people a year. Citizens from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) must meet elaborate conditions to obtain a work, student, family, refugee, or other visa from the government. The work visa tiers in particular are arbitrary and absurd, with government officials second-guessing the needs of the economy and migrants’ future economic contribution. Just as free trade is economically optimal, economic theory and evidence suggest that the first-best economic policy for migration is freedom of movement. This currently works successfully for EEA citizens and could be expanded, with limited exceptions such as known terrorists, agents of hostile foreign governments and those carrying highly infectious dangerous diseases. Free movement to work does not imply immediate citizenship or voting rights.

Keywords: UK, Britain, EU, European Union, economic integration, immigration, migration, free movement, economic development

JEL Classification: O11, O15, F13, F15, F22

Suggested Citation

Legrain, Philippe, Free to Move: the Costs and Consequences of Restrictions on Migration (November 17, 2016). Institute of Economic Affairs Monographs, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

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