Imagine There's No Countries

Dr. Stephen Davies is Head of Education at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Distinguished Fellow in History at the John Locke Institute. He is the author of The Wealth Explosion: the Nature and Origins of Modernity and The Street-wise Guide to the Devil and His Works.

As international travel has become more common in the last fifty years more and more of us have had the experience of standing in line at a border checkpoint somewhere in the world, waiting to present an official document to a government official and have it stamped so that we may legally enter the country in question. In the last decade or so the question of movement across national borders has become one of the central questions of politics and this shows no sign of changing soon. We may find the experience of waiting at checkpoints irritating and tiresome or we may have views on one side or the other of the increasingly heated debates about immigration and emigration. Most of us, however, are not aware of the long history of attempts by rulers to control the propensity of human beings to move around, nor of the distinctive perspective on this issue that comes from thinking about it from the economic point of view.

In many places and times in human history there was no general right to move around freely for work or any other reason, or to change one’s abode. This was particularly true for members of the lower social classes, above all the peasantry. Under classical feudalism serfs were ‘bound to the soil’ and unable to leave the estate on which they were born without their lord’s permission or for very specific reasons. This system gradually broke down and had vanished by the Renaissance in Western Europe but was given a new lease of life East of the Elbe river, in Poland-Lithuania and Russia in particular. Here strict controls on the movement of serfs were imposed from the fifteenth century onwards, and did not cease in Russia until the Emancipation of 1861. Perhaps the longest lasting and best known system of controls on movement was that found in China, from the early period of Chinese history until now (although much reduced in recent years). This is the Hokou system in which everyone has a registered address and has to get official permission to change it. This is enforced through a system of internal passports, which must be carried at all times when people travel and which tie their holder to the original official residence. Similar systems have existed historically in other East Asian societies and the same principle continues to apply in Russia.

Throughout the Europe of the Ancien Regime a system of passports was widespread. However these were not used in the way they are today, as a requirement to cross a geopolitical border. Instead they were documents issued by a sovereign ruler asking other rulers or their agents to allow the bearer to move around freely within those other rulers’ territories. So they were documents giving a right of passage generally, not simply entry to a territory. In fact border controls as we understand them were almost unknown because states at the time did not have the administrative capacity to enforce them in many cases. What they did do, however, was to restrict the free movement of their own subjects, and the passport was a way of showing that you were not bound by those rules.

During the later eighteenth and nineteenth century this system broke down. Industrialisation and the movement of people from the country to the city made the old rules almost impossible to enforce. (The same has happened in recent years in China). Developments such as the railway and the steamship made it much easier and cheaper for people of ordinary means to travel long distances and relocate, either permanently or for long periods. At the same time the demand for free movement and the abolition of controls on the right of movement, however residual they had become in some cases, was a central demand of the liberal movements that sprang up in all parts of Europe as the nineteenth century went on. Adam Smith, for example, had made a sharp critique of the British Laws of Settlement (which prohibited people from travelling out of their parish to look for work), one of the main themes of The Wealth of Nations, and subsequent economists and classical liberal activists followed his example.

"In 1914 only two European states required a passport for entry."

The result was that by the end of the nineteenth century most European states had stopped issuing passports. In 1914 only two European states required a passport for entry, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and the general view was that this was a reflection of the backwardness of these two states politically and socially. The century was a great age of migration, particularly after 1870. Between 1840 and 1940, 56 million Europeans emigrated to other parts of the world, with the great bulk of this happening before 1920. (Of these, 37 million went to North America and 10 million to Latin America, particularly Brazil and Argentina.) There were also significant migrations of Indians (30 million) and Chinese (51 million) but these were not as large, proportionately, as the European movement. Long distance migration of this kind went along with massive movement over shorter distances, within Europe or China for example. (Manning, 2015)

All of this stopped in 1914, and the Great War and its aftermath saw the creation of the system we are now familiar with, one where in most countries there is freedom of movement within a state’s borders but rigid regulation of movement across those borders, from one state to another. (China and Russia are the two main examples of the persistence of controls on internal movement, with Apartheid South Africa another major example). We take this for granted but in fact it is historically recent and is also under increasing pressure, as happened to the previous system of controls from the late eighteenth century onwards.

Why, though, did this change happen and why is the present system so politically popular, with a strong popular sentiment in many countries that it should be tightened rather than relaxed? The initial impetus in 1914 was clearly to do with national security – belligerents did not want foreign nationals wandering around their territory and picking up sensitive information. Today questions of terrorism are often cited. However, further thought tells us that this cannot be the main reason, either for the move to border controls on migration or for its persistence and continued legitimacy. Why was there absolutely no move to revert to the status quo ante after the Great War ended or in 1945? Why did neutral and non belligerent states such as Sweden also adopt this system? Terrorism has been around in fact for a long time but has only been used as a justification for border controls since 2001.

One conclusion is that in this case (as in others such as controls on the purchase and use of drugs and firearms) war provided an excuse for politicians to do something they wanted to do anyway for other reasons. These other reasons may also explain the widespread popularity and legitimacy of the system. The most obvious is the growth of the modern regulatory and welfare state. A state of this kind has to be able to have clear records of who is in its territory, who the tax payers are and who has rights to welfare transfers. All of this, and more general macro-economic management, is very difficult in a world of relatively open borders. You could go back to the system found in Europe from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century, in which free movement across borders was combined with controls on movement within those borders for the majority of the population. This, however, was not compatible with either the increased ease of travel as compared to the earlier period or the nature of the modern democratic state, in which a right of free movement within a country (but not between countries) was a basic citizen right.

"Restrictions on movement prevent people from moving to the place where they will be most productive; so they diminish human welfare."

This reveals what is probably the ultimate cause of the shift, which is the ideology of nationalism and the real phenomenon (whatever its origins) of national consciousness. Modern states in many parts of the world derive their legitimacy from the equation of a subjective identity (national consciousness) with political identity (citizenship) and this means that large scale movement of peoples is politically subversive. It also leads to increasing competition for welfare rents which translates into increasingly fractious politics.

From the economists' point of view the argument of Adam Smith still applies. Restrictions on movement prevent people from moving to the place where they will be most productive and so diminish human welfare. Moreover, there is no difference, economically speaking, between movement within a country (e.g. from rural China to the coastal provinces) and movement that crosses a geopolitical border (from China to the United States, for example). In both cases people are moving from a place where they are less productive to one where they are more productive. Both kinds of movement lead to cultural transformation, so there is no difference in that regard either.

The real challenge is that of how to find a legitimate source of political order that is not tied to nationality. We should also recognise that controls on movement, from the American South to contemporary Russia and China, have always been about preserving privilege and preventing ordinary people from bettering their condition. Ultimately you cannot in today’s world control borders without controlling the lives and choices of the people who live within those borders at any point in time.

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