With Europeans no longer prioritised over “engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”, Theresa May’s Brexit deal is turning out to be far from the open society that post-Brexit Britain could provide. May has attempted to reassure us that we will “be fully in control of who comes here”, but the use of the royal “we” is merely a mask for handing power to the bloated bureaucracy of Whitehall. What people really need is to take back control for themselves and their businesses.

Immigration is all too often framed as a black or white debate. Sometimes, unfortunately, quite literally. Pseudo-intellectuals like to punctuate their monologues with numbers and academic ranks of the immigrants arriving into the UK. However, little emphasis is given to the methods by which these immigrants ought to be allowed to enter and selected other than the all-too-familiar “Australian points-system” platitude. It is no surprise that every country that has instituted a points-based system is taking measures to reverse this trend.

Two issues are clear: the demand for citizenship exceeds the willingness to supply citizenship rights, and there is yet a pragmatic solution to overcome this problem.

In a market economy, immigration may be paralleled with any other good or service whereby a price mechanism results in a decreased demand and increased supply. Currently, a price mechanism is already in place.

For example, a typical tier one “exceptional talent” applicant pays only £585 to apply, while a typical tier two “general applicant” for a three-year visa pays between £587 and £1267.

One such solution – in a similar thought – which has not been given the attention and debate it deserves, is the opportunity for migrants to purchase citizenship rights. While “citizenship for sale” makes for fiery politically-charged headlines, those who instantly leap into battle to rubbish the idea are mistaken – citizenship and migration have always carried costs that immigrants have borne.

Ninth-century Swedes had to risk life and limb due to attacks by the Khazars in the Rus, making significant cultural sacrifices to avoid long-term conflict. In more modern times, Italian Americans sacrificed their language and their homeland for a better chance to own property, as did Pakistanis in Bradford.  Today, it is Syrians who camp in Calais and North Africans who travel across the Mediterranean to migrate to Western nations.

To denounce this policy based on the principle that citizenship ought to not be for sale is inconsistent with temporal and geographic patterns. Despite decreasing transport costs worldwide bringing down the costs of citizenship, there has and always will be a cost to attaining what is a much sought-after commodity.

In practice, businesses may pay for potential employees they deem to be worth the cost of the government’s citizenship fee. Should they wish to have more visas to recruit employees they may auction for them.

Companies could even bypass the state completely and charge employees directly for the citizenship right. In this way, businesses would be able to choose workers according to the skills they demand (providing they pass normal state security measures), rather than the somewhat arbitrary criteria of a points system, which does not always determine the employability of an immigrant.

A one-off cost of $50,000, for example, as Gary Becker himself proposed, would help persuade those on the right of the benefits of immigration, who too often mistakenly assume all incomers are burdensome on public services and a parasite on the British labour market despite the plethora of evidence against this view. By contributing toward government revenue, it would also appease those who are concerned with balancing the books.

To some, the implementation of the price mechanism for part of the UK immigration policy may reek of social Darwinism. However, while it is true that those who can afford the fee will be able to jump the queue, others are free to make the tradeoff they choose to save up and purchase the citizenship. It need not be a zero-sum game: inequality relating to routes to citizenship is a mask for greater choice, for both businesses and the migrants themselves.

This idea, previously proposed and popularised by Becker, clearly did not go very far as a policy proposal in the UK.  Though his recommendation was one of his more ambitious suggestions, elements of Becker’s ideas ought to be considered as a way of coming to a compromise between the “open-border” left and the “xenophobic” right.  

Brexit provides a particularly expedient opportunity to implement such solutions, but May’s, perhaps well-intentioned, attempt to appease both sides of the debate makes this unlikely. She is mistaken that the electorate only cares about reducing immigration; a recent YouGov poll revealed that of those who had decided, the ratio of those opposing May’s deal was an embarrassing 63:37.

The prime minister must modify her proposal to promote optimism among businesses instead of playing with brinkmanship at the whim of the EU, as it is they who bring us prosperity, not politicians.

Written by Ananya Chowdhury

Ananya Chowdhury is an intern at the Adam Smith Institute.