The purpose of this post is not to evaluate whether Keynes was right on every detail, but to just state what he thought on this subject in the years before the First World War.
On 2 May 1914, Keynes gave a paper called “Is the Problem of Population a Pressing and Important one Now?” at New College, Oxford, at a meeting of the Political Philosophy and Science Club (Toye 2000: 44–45; Toye 1997: 2). That paper is an interesting record of his early views on population and immigration.
The text of Keynes’ short unpublished draft manuscript from 1914 that was the basis for his paper on population can be found in Toye (2000: 53–72).
In essence, Keynes noted that high birth rates existed in much of the Third World and so very serious overpopulation too, e.g., in India and China (Toye 2000: 62–63, 65). He noted that birth rates in the West had shown a tendency to decrease from the late 19th century (Toye 2000: 62, 67).
Keynes also thought that overpopulation in the Third World inhibited economic development there, and that many such nations had not yet escaped from the Malthusian curse of overpopulation and the limitations of food supply (Toye 2000: 61–63). But Keynes thought that, at some point, both the Third World and the West must face limits to the productivity of agriculture and increased food production in the face of population growth, even if there had been a remarkable increase in the latter in the 19th century that had overcome Malthus’ predictions (Toye 2000: 65).
Keynes therefore favoured birth control to limit population growth to avoid shortages of food and to assist economic development and more rapid improvement in the standard of living (Toye 2000: 70–71).
Keynes thought that the West should eventually achieve a population “equilibrium” (Toye 2000: 70, 71), or what would now be called a fertility rate at replacement level to maintain the population. (On this, we now know Keynes’ musings in 1914 were wrong, since fertility rates in most Western nations have fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1. However, by 1937, Keynes had realised that low birth rates in the West might eventually cause a falling population.)
So what did Keynes think about the kind of immigration policy that Western nations should adopt?
Keynes understood that differential birth rates had emerged between the West and the non-Western world (Toye 2000: 66, 71).
At the end of his lecture notes, Keynes pointed out that mass Third World immigration into the West would be a threat to the standard of living in the Western world:
“Almost any measures seem to me to be justified in order to protect our Standard of life from injury at the hands of more prolific races. Some definite parcelling out of the world may well become necessary; … Countries in the position of British Columbia are entirely justified in protecting themselves from the fecundity of the East by very rigorous Immigration laws and other restrictive measures. I can imagine a time when it may be the right policy even to regulate the international trade in food supplies, though there are economic reasons, which I cannot go into now, for thinking this improbable.” (Toye 2000: 71).In modern language, we would say that such large-scale mass Third World immigration would tend to lower per capita GDP, lower real wages and decrease living standards through overpopulation.
Keynes also thought that, as the West reached a replacement fertility rate, immigration restriction would be needed to stop mass immigration of people with higher birth rates from the non-Western world:
“If custom and practice [sc. regarding use of contraception in the West] are encouraged to develop along their present lines, it is just possible that western nations may reach of their own accord a position of more or less of equilibrium. They may protect themselves from the fecundity of the East by very rigorous immigration laws and other restrictive measures. And eventually they may be in a position to mould law and custom deliberately to bring about that density of population which there ought to be.” (Toye 2000: 69–70).So we know what Keynes’ opinions were, at least at this stage of his life.
To put it bluntly, (1) Keynes was clearly not in favour of the demographic replacement of Europeans with people from the Third World, given differential birth rates and mass immigration into the West, and (2) he thought that population control worldwide and immigration restriction in the West would be necessary for economic reasons to increase and maintain living standards and quality of life.
What would Keynes think of Britain in 2017, where the effects of open borders and mass immigration are undoubtedly lowering the quality of life, and native British people are well on their way to being a minority in their own country by the late 21st century?
Dimand, Robert W. 2003. Review of Keynes on Population by John Toye, History of Political Economy 35.4: 784–785.
Harcourt, G. C. 2002. Review of Keynes on Population by John Toye, The Economic Journal 112.480: F391–F394.
Toye, John. 1997. “Keynes on Population and Economic Growth,” Cambridge Journal of Economics 21.1: 1–26.
Toye, John. 2000. Keynes on Population. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
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