I was going to wait a while before tackling this issue, but it has become topical in so many countries, including those of most of you reading this, that it’s appropriate we look at it today. It isn’t a cut and dried issue, and there is no one-sentence solution that is at once practical, possible, just and Libertarian. But let’s have a look and see where the first principles of Liberty take us here.
The Ricardian Fallacy
Before we can look at immigration per se, we need to re-visit a principle of economics which LibertyGibbert tackled nine months ago: Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage. To refresh the memory of those who (like me) lack any formal training in economics, English economist and politician David Ricardo (1772-1823) demonstrated his law using a hypothetical example in which there were only two countries, England and Portugal, and only two products manufactured in each: cloth and wine. Portugal produced wine more efficiently than it did cloth, whereas England produced cloth more efficiently than it did wine. Portugal, moreover, produced both more efficiently than England produced either.
He then used some simple arithmentic to prove that it was in the interests of both countries for Portugal to abandon its textiles industry, even though it was better at it than England, and for England to cease winemaking, and for the two countries to concentrate on what they did best and trade for what they do not produce. It all adds up, of course. Provided that the only output parameter that matters is the total output of goods (or GDP, if you will).
But imagine now that you are an English winemaker at the time faced with this situation. You and your family have been in the winemaking trade for generations. Then one day, a government bureaucrat knocks on your door and informs you that henceforth, you may no longer produce wine, and will have to switch to weaving instead. Sorry about that, old chap. You can start Monday.
Only, you’re fully aware that it would take many years for you to become a proficient and prosperous weaver. Even after many lean years of apprenticeship, you’d only find yourself in a marketplace alongside all the long-established weavers who know all the tricks of the trade and with whom you couldn’t realistically compete for decades, or even generations, if ever. So, you start thinking. You’ve also heard on the grapevine (pun intended) that lots of new opportunities for winemakers have just opened up in Portugal, whose government had recently announced a huge expansion of its wine industry. So, there’s really only one intelligent solution that benefits you personally—GDP and the country be damned. You’re going to pack up shop and move to Portugal.
For that matter, now imagine you’re an English weaver. You’ve heard the government’s announcement regarding the massive expansion in the English textiles industry, and that’s all well and good. It’s just that, there are no more people than before in England to buy all that cloth, and you’re being told the excess product will have to be sold in new overseas markets, like Portugal. You’re highly sceptical of this, sensing a coming market glut and hugely increased local competition (from all those re-trained winemakers), and as far as the promises of new export markets are concerned, you suspect the government is spinning you a bit of a yarn (OK, I’m done punning now).
What’s more, you’ve heard that there’s a huge new opportunity opening up for weavers in Portugal, whose government may have mandated the closure of its textiles industry, but whose bureaucrats are rather less rigorous than their British counterparts in enforcing such diktats, and who in any case are happy to look the other way in exchange for a few escudos’ worth of a backhander. Furthermore, Portugal has better raw fibres available for textiles manufacture than does England, and produces bigger and better weaving looms. Didn’t Ricardo say so? In other words, you can make a lot more cloth in a year in Portugal than you can in England, and more cheaply. You, like the winemaker who lives in your village, have decided there is only one sensible course of action: emigrate to Portugal!
Now, Ricardo was intelligent enough (just) to realise that mass migration, fuelled by the promise of personal advantage, would pull the rug out from under his neat little formula. So implicitly, migration is disallowed under a Ricardian economy. He believed in practice the social dislocation involved in migration would dissuade most from wishing to do so anyway:
Experience, however, shows, that the fancied or real insecurity of capital, when not under the immediate control of its owner, together with the natural disinclination which every man has to quit the country of his birth and connexions, and entrust himself with all his habits fixed, to a strange government and new laws, checks the emigration of capital.
Ricardo thus betrayed his own blinkered, imperialist mindset, along with his inability to grasp the desperation of those faced with poverty and ruin at the hands of his own top-down, centrally planned, totalitarian, ahuman theory.
Capital and Labour
It’s telling that prior to the nineteenth-century export of Ricardian economics to the British Empire, and thence the world, migration of labour was a fairly unrestricted affair, in peacetime at least. Any man who wished to do so, and could find the means of transport, could pack up his bags, jump on board a ship, and pretty much go withersoever he wished. It was the movement of capital that was restricted, in the form of tariffs, duties, excise and bond. This, it is true, was in the age of colonial expansion, when the economies of the New World were booming, land supply appeared unlimited and labour, both skilled and unskilled, was in desperately short supply. It was in this atmosphere that American poet Emma Lazarus penned in 1883 the words of The New Colossus, now inextricably linked with the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Today, in an era of Ricardian, global interdependence of food, commodities and credit, the situation is exactly reversed: it is capital which can fly from nation to nation at the click of a mouse, and labour which is constrained within national borders, with ever-increasing determination.
Diamond, Greenland, Lifeboats and Resource Depletion
Whether or not you agree with his broader thesis, scientist, author and activist Jared Diamond captures the fin de siècle atmosphere of today’s immigration crisis in his 2005 work Collapse. In it, he analyses the means by which several societies failed; though the proximate cause is different in each case, Diamond argues the ultimate cause in each case was the failure to manage, and adapt to, the local natural environment. Chapter 8, Norse Greenland’s End, describes the dire predicament facing the Norsemen in their two settlements in Greenland at the end of the Medieval Warm Period, in particular Gardar, the largest farm in the more prosperous Eastern Settlement; it is worth quoting him here at length:
Compared to Western Settlement, Eastern Settlement lay further south, was less marginal for Norse hay production, supported more people (4,000 instead of just 1,000) and was thus less at risk of collapse. Of course, colder climate was in the long run bad for Eastern Settlement as well as Western Settlement: it would just take a longer string of cold years to reduce the herds and drive people to starvation at Eastern Settlement. One can imagine the smaller and more marginal farms of the Eastern Settlement getting starved out. But what could have happened at Gardar, whose two cattle barns had space for 160 cows, and which had uncounted herds of sheep?
I would guess that, at the end, Gardar was like an overcrowded lifeboat. When hay production was failing and the livestock had all died or been eaten at the poorer farms of Eastern Settlement, their settlers would have tried to push their way onto the best farms that still had some animals: Brattahild, Hvalsey, Herjolfsnes, and last of all Gardar. The authority of the church officials at Gardar Cathedral, or of the landowning chief there, would have been acknowledged as long as they and the power of God were visibly protecting their parishioners and followers. But famine and associated disease would have caused a breakdown of respect for authority, much as the Greek historian Thucydides described in his terrifying account of the plague of Athens 2,000 years earlier. Starving people would have poured into Gardar, and the outnumbered chiefs and church officials could no longer prevent them from slaughtering the last cattle and sheep. Gardar’s supplies, which might have sufficed to keep Gardar’s own inhabitants alive if all the neighbours could have been kept out, would have been used up in the last winter when everybody tried to climb into the overcrowded lifeboat, eating the dogs and newborn livestock and the cows’ hoofs as they had at the end of Western Settlement.
I picture the scene at Gardar as like that in my home city of Los Angeles in 1992 at the time of the so-called Rodney King riots, when the aquittal of policemen on trial for brutally beating a poor person provoked thousands of outraged people from poor neighborhoods to spread out to loot businesses and rich neighborhoods. The greatly outnumbered police could do nothing more than put up pieces of yellow plastic warning tape across roads entering rich neighborhoods, in a futile gesture aimed at keeping the looters out. We are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon on a global scale today, as illegal immigrants from poor countries pour into the overcrowded lifeboats represented by rich countries, and as our border controls prove no more able to stop that influx than were Gardar’s chiefs and Los Angeles’ yellow tape. That parallel gives us another reason not to dismiss the fate of the Greenland Norse as just a problem of a small peripheral society in a fragile environment, irrelevant to our own larger society. Eastern Settlement was also larger than Western Settlement, but the outcome was the same; it merely took longer.
Has it really come to that in the world today? Do the rich nations of the West represent overcrowded lifeboats, into which are desperately scrambling the poor of the developing world? And if so, where is the morality in us trying to keep them out? How does this square with our embrace of the principles of Liberty?
I look forward to your thoughts on this. In the meantime, I’m going to suggest the explanation of the current immigration crisis, together with the solution, lies somewhere other than the issues of environment and resources.
Warfare and Welfare: a Tragic Imbalance
In my article last August on the Welfare State, one point I should have covered but didn’t (not wishing to get sidetracked) was the drawing force presented by a nation with more generous welfare arrangements than those of its neighbours. As I mentioned to Izen the other day, the immigrants currently arriving in Australia by boat from south Asia have bypassed several peaceful countries en route, spurning the chance at asylum in countries with little or nothing in the way of state welfare, and risking the long and dangerous sea voyage to wealthy Australia. I imagine that, were Mexico separated from the United States by a string of poor Central American nations, instead of merely the width of a river, immigrants from Mexico would not be satisfied having reached Honduras, Nicaragua or El Salvador; they would be lured onward by the promise of wealth in generous America.
Two facts need to be emphasised here. Firstly, there is emphatically not a world shortage of food. Yet. In the West, millions of tons of food are thrown away annually, having passed their use-by date or unable to be sold at profit. Furthermore, all Western food-producing nations are participants in any number of food aid programs, some permanent, others temporary as and where needed. Australia, with a population of 22 million, actually feeds 60 million people. The terrible images of emaciated bodies we see from third-world dictatorships are not of people starving: they are of people being starved.
The second fact is that all nations of the West are signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 protocol, which expanded its terms of reference from its initial restrictive definition encompassing only European refugees fleeing the debris of the Second World War. A significant exception, the United States is signatory only to the 1967 protocol and not the original Convention. Under it, a refugee is defined as
A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
Signatories to the convention are bound by a non refoulement clause in its wording; that is, they are prevented from returning those claiming refugee status until such time as that status is determined legally; a process made far longer and more difficult if, as is often the case, refugee claimants destroy or “lose” their papers en route. Even then, appeals against unfavourable rulings may be made by petitioning the UNHCR directly, appeals which may take years to resolve and which in many cases persuade governments to relent and grant disputed refugees residency status anyway. Human traffickers in the strife-torn developing world know this full well. So, it comes down to the subjective definition of well-founded. Despite the overwhelming circumstantial evidence that new arrivals are “economic refugees” rather than genuine humanitarian asylum seekers, our current international treaty obligations compel us to treat them as the latter.
Humanitarianism versus Social Cohesion
I’m not aware of too many Western social problems whose roots lie in immigration which occurred three or four generations previously. I suppose one could point to the Sicilian Mafia in the United States, but from what I have read the current generation of mafiosi there are at least partly recent immigrants, having fled the clutches of the law in their own country; in any case, the new RICO statutes in the U.S. appear to be well on the way to cleaning up the remainder. In general, it is the first generation of migrants that experience the greatest social dislocation, their children less so, and their grandchildren are more or less completely assimilated. Certainly, many retain such cultural nostalgia as food, language, music and dance; this is not the multiculturalism that has proven such a spectacular failure in Europe particularly, but a recognition, indeed a celebration, of our diverse roots and backgrounds, now subsumed by an overriding commitment to the country of our adoption.
I remember in my early years of convent schooling, four decades ago, the boys in our class were divided socially into the “Aussies” and the “wogs”—the latter being a disparate group of Greeks, Germans, Italians, Maltese, Sri Lankans and Christian Lebanese. We looked down on them as dirty and inferior, and our inherent racism was tolerated, if not actually encouraged, by the Irish nuns in whose charge we were. Such a distinction along national or racial lines being accepted would be unthinkable today, yet you only have to look at any inner-city schoolyard to see mankind’s natural instinct towards tribalism being played out.
I’m not going today into the very real social problems currently occurring in Europe and largely associated with concentrated, inner-urban populations of migrants predominantly from Muslim nations. Our recent discussion on France’s new burqua laws was an offshoot of this broader issue. My own sense of this, entirely based on discussions with many Muslim migrants in Sydney, is that the problem is blown way out of proportion by the media, and is traceable to a small coterie of ratbags who are a complete embarrassment to the Muslim community generally. It’s no surprise that most terrorist acts by Muslims in Western countries are committed by individuals outside the Muslim mainstream; any known groups with jihadist leanings tend to be infiltrated by willing spies (you’ll never hear the MSM telling you that) and whose activities are thus well-known in advance to the intelligence services.
I’m also not going into the issue of new arrivals presenting health risks. I’ve heard all the activist arguments supporting the right of the HIV-positive to move freely across borders. No country with any aspirations to long-term survival is going to seriously entertain the prospect of admitting anyone carrying a deadly, communicable disease (of any kind), and that alone sums up the issue for me.
So, what is the Libertarian Position?
Freedom of movement is one of the core preconditions requisite for a free society. Totalitarian societies, by contrast, have always sought to restrict the movement of its people, and closely monitor their whereabouts, either by banning travel outright, or by enforcing a system of internal passports. In an era when international travel is comparatively cheaper, and certainly faster, that at any time in human history, freedom of movement would appear at first glance to raise the spectre of unwashed hordes swamping the hard-won wealthy lifestyles of the West: turning us, in other words, into an overcrowded lifeboat.
Yet it need not be so. What we need to return to is the primacy of citizenship. All the rights typically and carelessly bestowed on entire populations—such as welfare, health care, free education and the franchise—should become the exclusive preserve of the citizen. And citizenship for new arrivals should become difficult to attain, and granted only after many years of productive, well-behaved residency; something to be earned, valued and treasured. Citizenship entails responsibilities, too, and this period of trial should serve to demonstrate the prospective citizen’s ability to shoulder these responsibilities, and his commitment to the ideals of his adopted country.
Australia’s libertarian political party, the Liberal Democratic Party (with which I’m not associated) has a policy of promoting a system of Free Immigration Agreements, not dissimilar to free trade agreements, with like-minded countries. Australia currently has more or less this arrangement with New Zealand, meaning that as an Australian passport holder, I have not needed a visa on my recent business visits to that country. It certainly obviates the need for marshalling the resources of a country’s military simply to keep out unwanted arrivals, as is the case today in so many countries of the West.
That’ll do for today. I’ve done little more than gloss over some of the main issues connected with immigration, and I’m sure we’ll be revisiting various aspects of the subject in the near future. I am aware that the Libertarian approach is unconventional, even counter-intuitive in some respects, but I do believe it would lead to a more just, free, and ultimately, a safer society in the long run. Let us not forget that many of us are immigrants too, or the descendants of immigrants. The sacrifices they made, the leap into the unknown, are in no small measure the reason we are able to enjoy the freedom we do today. As one New Zealander put it:
Over to you.