A Victoria University professor on New Zealand immigration

By the end of World War Two there hadn’t been much net migration to New Zealand for 20 years.


There had been a big wave of assisted migration in the first half of the 1920s –  almost all those moving to New Zealand then were substantially financially assisted, initially largely by the British government, keen to assist ex-servicemen to resettle in the dominions, and then by the New Zealand government.  Financial assistance to migrants had long been a feature of New Zealand (provincial and central) government policy –  compared with the option of moving to Canada or the US (or even just staying in the UK), moving to New Zealand was expensive (time lost as well as fares).  But inflows to New Zealand dropped off after the mid 1920s and government assistance to migrants was largely discontinued from around 1927.  Over the twenty years, 1927 to 1946, annual net migration to New Zealand averaged less than 0.1 per cent of the population.  Not surprisingly, there was little movement during the war, and in the 1930s the outflows of the first half of the decade –  the UK was much less badly affected by the Great Depression than New Zealand was – largely balanced out the moderate inflows later in the decade.

At the end of World War Two, there was considerable angst about population prospects.  Birth rates around the advanced world, including New Zealand, had been low, and in many countries there was unease about what a flat or falling population might mean.  And the war itself had brought to the fore the idea that a lightly populated country might be unnecessarily prone to invasion threats.

There were no legal obstacles to immigration to New Zealand from Britain (or the other Dominions): as New Zealanders could move freely to Britain, so Britons could freely move here (as they could until the 1970s).  But in 1947, the government restarted the assisted migration programme – initially those selected had to contribute £10, but within a couple of years that requirement had been dropped.  Even though life in post-war Britain was pretty tough, and the gap in material living standards then was probably as large as it ever was, the government didn’t find it that easy to fill the number of free places it was offering.  But total immigrant numbers did pick up sharply and (as illustrated in the chart above) by 1952, the net inflow of immigrants had almost reached the sorts of levels soon in the first half of the 1920s.  And despite earlier worries about the birth rate, the “baby boom” happened here too.  In 1952, the total population increased by 2.5 per cent –  an even larger increase than we’ve experienced over the last year or so.

In 1952, Professor Horace Belshaw, an immigrant (as a child) himself, former student of Keynes at Cambridge, and by then McCarthy Professor of Economics at Victoria University and one of the most widely-published New Zealand academic economists of his day, turned his attention to the question of immigration to New Zealand.  In his short (32 page) booklet, Immigration: Problems and Policies, Professor Belshaw discussed some of the economic (and other) effects of high rates of immigration.

I’m going to reproduce here some of Belshaw’s material.  Regular readers will probably note a certain similarity with the economic analysis I have been presented about more recent New Zealand immigration policy (although I only found the Belshaw material a few years ago).

In beginning his discussion, Belshaw notes

In considering the volume of immigration which is in “the best interests” of New Zealand, it is necessary to distinguish between the “absorption capacity” at any particular time and what is desirable over the longer period…..we must compare the effects of a given growth of population with the effects of the larger population resulting from this growth.

…for example, the long run position will be affected by whether or not more intensive production in agriculture will yield a lower return per head with a somewhat larger population, whether the supply of electric power can be economically expanded to satisfy not only the increased use of electricity per head of population, but also the larger number of heads.  And the answer in both cases may be affected by technical discoveries not yet made.

Belshaw discusses a number of the transitional issues

Cultural absorption.  As he notes, most of the migrants at the time were from the UK and Northern Europe, and so

There will be personal misfits enough and the need to give assistance in orienting to the New Zealand way of life, but the cultures they bring with them at sufficiently close to our own to raise no special difficulty of absorption, and there are no social or political reasons to fear the growth of minority problems among groups which preserve a separate identity, such as have plagued the United States. On the other hand, migrants bring with them new skills, different accomplishments, and ways of looking at things which should prove economically advantageous and culturally enriching.

Immigration and the Labour Shortage

At the time when there are more vacancies than workers, it is natural to assume that immigration will relieve the labour shortage. This however, is a superficial view.  The immigrants are not only producers but also consumers. To relieve the shortage of labour it would be necessary for more to be contributed to the production of consumer goods or of export commodities used to buy imported goods than the increased numbers withdraw in consumption.  That is unlikely….[and] there will be some temporary net additional pressure on consumption.

Immigration and Capital Needs

Of much greater importance is the fact that each immigrant requires substantial additional capital investment, not in money but in real things.  Houses and additional accommodation in schools and hospitals will be needed. In order to maintain existing production and services, and even more to maximize production per head, there must be more investment in manufacturing and farming, transport, hydro-electric power, municipal amenities and so on.

To anticipate a little, immigration is not likely to ease the labour shortage while it is occurring, and is more likely to increase it because although additional consumers are brought in, more labour than they provide must be diverted to creating capital if the ratio of capital to production is to be maintained.  So the unsatisfied demand for consumers’ goods and therefore for labour to produce them will not be met.

…the fact remains that while it is occurring a population increase of the order under consideration will reduce the volume of capital per head, and for the time being cause production per head to increase slower than with a smaller rate of population increase. Immigration must be assessed in relation to its contribution to this situation.

The expansion of population of itself will increase inflationary pressures, for the net effect is to create additional purchasing power to finance capital creation without producing an equivalent volume of consumers’ goods and services.  This is another way of reiterating the point that it will not reduce labour shortages….. A sufficiently austere fiscal and financial policy might curb the inflationary effects, but not the necessity for capital formation nor the reduction for the time being in living standards.

As capital formation proceeds, the contribution of increased population to consumption will grow, and after five or six years may exceed current consumption per head. Meanwhile, however, each successive increase in population exerts inflationary pressures until such time as the aggregate increase in production from a larger population exceeds the annual capital formation needed by the growing population,  This would take a very long time.

He summarises his conclusions “in respects of current effects of immigration and population increase”.  Extracts:

2. Immigration of the scale contemplated is likely to increase inflation pressures and of itself increase rather than reduce the shortage of labour.

3. It will also increase the balance of payments problem and the need for credit controls, higher interest rates or import controls.

6. While it is occurring and for some time thereafter immigration on the scale contemplated is likely to lower living standards, either by reducing the supply of manufactured consumers’ goods or of facilities and amenities such as school and hospital accommodation, or by imposing additional strains on existing private and public capital.

My general conclusion is that the effects of such a volume of immigration on the New Zealand economy while it is occurring at the present time , are on balance prejudicial.

From the effects of immigration while it is occurring (and for several years afterwards), Professor Belshaw then turned more briefly to consider the effects of a larger population, once any transitional challenges had washed through.

Is it in the interests of New Zealand that the population should double in, say, 28 years (ie increase at a rate of about 2.5 per cent per year) and that immigration of a scale necessary to bring this about by supplementing natural increase should be arranged?  We reiterate that the problem is posed in these terms because immigration and natural increase have many similar effects.

He briefly looks at some non-economic factors

Strategic considerations.  In some quarters increased immigration is supported for strategic reasons. I have seen no analysis of the real issues by the proponents of this view, and in the absence of such a study confess to some reluctance to attach much weight to it in modifying opinions arrived at on other grounds.     ….a more likely strategy [than invasion] would be to blockade us into submission or ineffectiveness. The contribution of any conceivable immigration to New Zealand’s manpower then seems likely to make little difference.

Humanitarian Aspects of Immigration.  Presumably the immigrants will be better off than in their own countries, and the New Zealand community might be prepared to incur some sacrifices, if these prove necessary, to satisfy such a humanitarian impulse; but any possible volume of immigration will have a very small effect in relieving pressures in the home countries of the migrants.

Belshaw goes on to note that our then, in effect, “white New Zealand” immigration policy was unlikely to command much international admiration no matter how many migrants we took.

Cultural and Economic Enrichment.  Regarded from New Zealand’s own interests, a sizeable volume of immigration should prove advantageous in more ways than one…..The New Zealander who returns home after some time abroad [as Belshaw recently had] is often depressed at the unnecessary drabness and uniformity in the New Zealand way of life, and at the paucity and low level of achievement in many of the arts and crafts.  New blood may perhaps weaken the complacency with which these are accepted, and add spice and variety.  And there is no reason why these should be gained at the expense of those conditions and those national qualities which still make New Zealand so pleasant a place to live.  Is it really necessary, for example, that even in our main cities, our restaurants should be so reminiscent of the pioneering epoch (flies and all), and that the best food in the world should be so cavalierly treated?

As he notes, before turning back to economic considerations

this general line of argument supports the case for immigration, but not for any particular figure.

In commencing his economic discussion, Belshaw notes that

Presumably we should like to see such a trend of growth of population as is conducive to the maximum real income per head

while acknowledging that the answers and his opinions “must be very largely conjectural”.

He notes

it is a reasonable assumption that over the longer period immigrants will contribute much the same to both production and consumption per family as the general population. So we need not distinguish between immigrants and indigenous population when considering the effects of larger size, except insofar as the immigrants have brought new stimuli, arts and crafts, which we might otherwise lack.

Belshaw notes that there are some genuine economies from a larger population

As population becomes larger we should expect a variety of economies to result, increasing the effectiveness of labour applied to a given volume of capital.  The transport system would probably be more effectively utilized as the volume of traffic reduced overhead per unit of transport service…..There seems no reason why the machinery of government need increase pari passu with population apart from the extension in the range of government functions.

I believe these advantages to be real; but there is another side to the story.

….Here the capital requirements for population growth come into the picture. Previous discussion will have indicated that in my view these requirements are of such dimension as to greatly retard the increase in capital per head of population  Failure to increase, or even maintain capital per head will in large measure offset the benefits from a bigger population, increase the problem of bottlenecks, such as in relation to power, and by virtue of inflationary pressures distort the economy.  It seems unlikely that the annual increase in the production of consumers’  goods facilitated by a bigger population will offset the transfer of production to capital formation required by an increasing population. I fear that with a population increase of 2.5 per cent, we shall be faced with continued incentives to controls, primarily as a check on inflation…. Such controls may actually discourage enterprise. On these grounds I should consider that a smaller dose of inflation –  and therefore a smaller rate of population increase –  would be preferable.

Belshaw also discussed the scope for growth in exports, having devoted a considerable portion of his career to agricultural economics

The trend of external demand seems likely to be buoyant for farm products, though there may be recessions from time to time. Currently there are shortages in forestry products; but I have insufficient information to offer a judgement on prospective world demand some years hence. On the other hand, diversion of production to capital formation and the consequent internal inflationary pressure will adversely affect internal costs [in other words, raising the real exchange rate ] and divert labour away from farming and so impede expansion.  My view is that in consequence there will be less expansion in farming with a 2.5 per cent increase in population than with a smaller increase.

…I anticipated that we shall derive an expanded real income from overseas as a result of improvements in the terms of trade and of expanded exports; but reiterate that this expansion is likely to be larger with a smaller population increase….Hence on this score also we should expect a larger income per head with a lower population  increase.

Belshaw concludes his paper thus

Some probable developments favour immigration and others are unfavourable. But it is those elements favourable to the case for population increase which are most conjectural and uncertain. The current recurring disadvantages of a large population increase, and therefore of a large volume of immigration, seem to be more clearly demonstrable than the advantages of the larger settled population which would result from them.

The economy, and particularly the policy structure around it, in 1952 was different than it is now, and so not all the language easily translates into current discussions.  We don’t have exchange controls or (many) direct credit controls, and on the other hand, interest rates are much more variable, as are the nominal and real exchange rates.  But the essence of Belshaw’s story, almost 65 years ago, is really very similar to the lines I’ve been running about New Zealand.  Rapid population growth, now driven largely by immigration policy, almost inevitably puts considerable pressure on domestic resources, skewing resources away from production for consumption or exports to simply keep up with the capital requirements of a larger population.  Immigration doesn’t ease labour shortages, and if anything exacerbates them (at any economywide level).

Although I agreed with his conclusions, I didn’t find Belshaw’s analysis of the implication of a larger population as persuasive as his analysis of the transitional (multi-year) pressures.  But we know that there is no evidence that larger countries have achieved faster growth than smaller countries.  And I’d emphasise some different points than Belshaw does, especially the apparent constraints of distance/location, which would have been much less apparent in 1952, when agricultural and pastoral exports alone still produced top tier incomes for a small distant population.

But it is just a shame that successive governments in the 1950s and 1960s –  and again since the late 1980s –  have paid more attention to plaintive short-term cries from employers of “skill shortages, skill shortages” (only ever apparently relieved by recessions) than to the lack of good analysis and evidence that high rates of immigration actually make New Zealanders better off. Perhaps high immigration benefits native populations in some places and at some times –  I’m quite open to that possibility – but there is little sign they have in the past, or are now doing so, in post World War Two New Zealand.

After all, when Belshaw wrote, New Zealand had probably the third highest material living standards in the world.  Now, depending on the list you consult, we are no better than about 30th.  Other things have contributed to that glaring failure, but the repeated pursuit of a larger population (as a matter of policy) certainly shows no sign of having helped.  It was bad enough that the cautions of Belshaw –  and other economists –  were ignored back then. It is much worse now when for decades there has been a steady net outflow of New Zealanders, dispassionately assessing the prospects for themselves and their families in the country they know best, and deciding to leave.

6 thoughts on “A Victoria University professor on New Zealand immigration

  1. Interesting stuff; think this pre dates the ideas of growth theory – a bigger labour force likely leads to a higher rate of growth?; perhaps the productivity boost is just around the corner – the long run comes one day I guess; no doubt Belshaw would be able to identify and opine on cuurent immigration policy relatively quickly but imagine trying to explain the ability to order an array of culinary delights via an ‘app’ – and some think innovation is a dying art….


    • Yes, he was certainly writing pre-Solow, but in the pamphlet you certainly find references to fresh ideas. new perspectives etc – not dissimilar to today’s discussion – and pretty strongly implicit are the ideas that more people might boost the size of the economy, but that overall income per head matters rather more.


  2. As you stated “[…]there is no evidence that larger countries have achieved faster growth than smaller countries.” Yet reading a BusinessNZ article recently and an article by Shamubeel Eaqub, the authors were still advocating for a larger population. I find it interesting that the wealthiest nation per capita in Africa (Botswana) has a population of 2 million and a large land mass. Also Iceland with a population less than Wellington and being relatively isolated doesn’t do too bad. I’m not too sure of their long term growth rates relative to NZ, but I’d be interested to know.


    • Both have grown quite a lot faster than NZ (per capita or per hour) over, say, the post-war period.

      Of course, my argument has never been that a country can’t do well and be distant, just that it is unlikely to make much sense to puts lots of people in such places. My hypothesis – not easily testable – is that if NZ has a population of 2.3 million (rather than 4.6m) per capita incomes here would be higher than they are. And that if Botswana imported a couple of million people from say Zimbabwe or ANgola, average per capita incomes in Botswana – where diamonds play a vital role – would be less than they are.

      Of course, the skills and economic culture of the people matter too. It is a touchy subject of course, but brinigng people in he 19th C from the most advanced economic culture in the world to NZ enabled per capita incomes earned in NZ to be much higher than previously/otherwise. (to be clear, It isn’t some genetic or inherent racial thing – Britain was a poor relative to Mediterranean Europe 200 years ago)


      • You can actually fit 10 million people and 4.6 million people onto the same footprint as 2.3 million people. But you cannot fit 10 million cows onto the same footprint as 10 million people. People are by nature enquiring and enterprising. You need to go back to human psychology. Maslow hierarchy of needs. Your Angola example is a emphasis on survival. But put an extra 1 million people into a small space equipped with the latest technology and plenty of food and shelter and they will create new businesses and new ways of doing things.


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