Saturday, July 5, 2014

Migration, history and countries as club goods

This is based on comments I made here and here.

Thin conceptions
There is a line of argument which holds that if free trade in goods and services is good for economies, if free trade in capital is good for economies, then surely free trade in labour would also be good for economies. So, just as one should have open access for goods, services and capital, one should also have it for labour. Thus, migration should not be hindered. It is basically a "maximise the gains from trade" argument.

There is a related line of argument which holds that free trade in labour would result in net improvement in the overall human condition, so should be permitted. It is much the same as the previous argument, except that there is no implied preference for existing residents of a given territory--an unbounded "maximise the gains from trade" argument.

A more robust moral argument is that open borders represents acceptance of the primacy of personal liberty. People should simply be free to live where they want.

All these arguments ultimately rest on very thin (indeed, literally incredibly thin) conceptions of society and human interactions. People are treated as completely interchangeable economic agents without histories, collective preferences or issues of loyalty and affinity. Polities are treated as utilitarian service providers. It is a world literally without history. These arguments have almost no popular resonance for exactly those reasons--that people have far "thicker" conceptions of themselves, their societies and their polities than are acknowledged in the framings on which the above arguments rest.

Thicker concerns
Looking at dysfunctional polities (of which there are many) provides a salutary corrective. Indeed, open borders libertarianism suffers from the revealing irony that libertarians typically bemoan the insufficient commitment to liberty of the freest societies on the planet but completely fail to notice how unusual any such commitment is among contemporary or historical polities. Or draw any conclusions from same. It is as if the structures and habits which create free societies are taken to magically descend on folk, rather than being painful historical evolutions.

It is true: the case against open borders is based on failing to treat people as if they were goods, services or capital because they are very much more than that. As are the connections between them.

Goods and capital don't vote, they don't commit crimes, they do not serve in the protection of others, they do not fight, they do not create (or destroy) communities. (Though they can be tools, instruments, for all these things.)

A society is much more than a set of transactions, a set of potential gains from trade. And migration policies change societies in all sorts of ways. For example, a society which is largely monocultural can manage much denser policy structures than a more diverse society. While migration creates costs within the host society which are not evenly distributed. Costs which are profoundly affected by who migrates, in what numbers and where.

Migration can also be a weapon of one group against another. Hence the so-called Curley Effect (pdf)--using migration to attract in folk likely to vote in a particular way and the results to drive away folk who vote differently.

Nick Rowe has posted on his excellent way of teaching comparative advantage. But if one adds in issues with costs of communications and different expectations across language, cultural and religious groups, it hardly works quite as smoothly. Especially if there is geographic clumping. Adding in history, in other words, shift the analysis some.

Policy variance 
Immigration can be handled more or less well. Australia handles migration comparatively well and has a very high rate of foreign-born residents by Western standards (around 28%)--for example, migrants to Australia actually do better in school on average than locally-born, which is not a normal pattern. But Australia is a prosperous, English-speaking island-continent, so border enforcement is relatively easy and we can cherry-pick migrants (which we do quite effectively).

Australia also has diverse migrants, which helps greatly. Indeed, the most problematic migrant community are Lebanese Muslims in Sydney because:
(1) Sydney is Australia's least socially-functional metropolis.
(2) Unlike Maronite Lebanese, they do not plug straight into well-established Catholic networks.
(3) They were brought in an unusually large "lump" with minimal selection procedures.
(4) There are specific issues for Middle East Muslims settling into Western countries.

The US has much less difficulty with Muslim migrants than Europe does because the US is set up as a settler country, its migrants are relatively diverse, its Muslim migrants are generally better educated, "God-discourse" is much more conventional part of public life while organising through your local mosque just replicates established patterns of organising through your local synagogue or church.

Varying experience
In Australia, opinion polling had become somewhat hostile to migration since the mid 1970s. The polls improved dramatically after the Howard Government (1996-2007) made a big play of "stopping the boats", despite running a considerable migration program, the least Eurocentric in Australia's history up to that time. The Government's slogan of "we will decide who will come here" seriously resonated. The costs and benefits of migration are not evenly distributed, and giving voters a sense they have no say or control is not healthy. It is that sense of powerlessness is surely a very big driver of popular responses.
Native-born Americans

In Without Consent or Contract Robert Fogel documents the significantly adverse effects of mass migration on locally born US citizens during the C19th. The nativist movement expressed rational antipathy to mass migration. The new Republican Party brilliantly finessed that into antipathy to "the Slave Power".  Access to resources for existing residents can be reduced by migration--this is what happened in C19th US, for example. The dysfunctional EU labour markets also share some of such features. Another way in which the "it is just about gains from trade" analysis does not work.

The sense that your rights will be under threat if a particular group gets sizable is another factor. Mass migration of Muslims into a society (or even developing world Christians) might not be good for the freedom of queer citizens. So queer folk are not likely to be keen on large scale Muslim migration, especially if the fight for equal protection of the law is not yet fully won or is otherwise precarious. Polities make rules, migrants become voters and vote. It makes a difference.

We have to take into account peoples real world preferences. The Rawlsian (behind the veil of ignorance) analysis is both not applicable and instructive. Over the longer term, the game of migration policy is about the rules as much as anything else, where rules are openly up for grabs and preferences about rules are not the same as preferences within individual transactions.

Hence, part of the "thicker" concept of country is that it is not just a mass of one-off transactions. Not even the concept of repeated transactions allows trade analysis to be "deep" enough. The rules and affinities powerfully affect not only which transactions take place, but their content and effects.

Since polities need to be able to claim the loyalty of citizens (not being able to do so is not a survival trait in a polity) and as political entrepreneurs exist (see the recent EU elections) telling large numbers of citizens that their preferences on entry to their country have no standing, no matter how important it is to them, is not conducive to political or social stability.

Increased communication costs and dispersal in preferences also affect what public policies become more or less viable. The "Scandinavian model" in public policy fairly clearly rests on high levels of communication and shared preferences. The more migration reduces such flows of communication and disperses the range of preferences, the less viable the Scandinavian model becomes. As that becomes clearer, the costs of migration may well lead to rational antipathy to said migration.

Of course, pandering to anti-immigration feeling can have other political entrepreneurial uses. It may be a lot easier than, for example, dealing with dysfunctional labour markets. Even when said dysfunctions have a great deal to do with how dysfunctional the banlieue are, for example. Regulations tend to defend social incumbents (see dysfunctional labour markets): but well organised/politically focused incumbents rather than just any incumbents.

A defender of open borders on liberty ground can claim that: The only question is whether you believe in liberty or not. It's about principles. In fact, the debate is about how to conceptualise human interactions and what countries are. And yes, one can "win" a debate by simply ignoring or denying those parts of the social world which are awkward for one's own case. But that is not going to be remotely persuasive to folk who are not up for that.

I do not find any sort of anarchism persuasive, for example, as (1) state societies have achieved so much more than non-state societies and (2) a lack of a state just creates a market niche for entries to the "state" market. That, after all, is what protection rackets are: competitors to the state in extraction-via-coercion.

Conversely, using the family as an analogy for country bothers me, as I feel some connection to fellow citizens, but not that intense a one. Moreover, talking about countries as being like families is a favourite rhetorical ploy of socialists, nationalists and fascists, so has uncongenial, even dangerous, collectivist associations.

Polities as clubs
A way to think of polities in economic terms is that they are a uber-club good. A way of providing public goods. They are not fully voluntary associations, because one is born into a polity, so membership is partly "by blood". Which makes them territorial clubs (a bit like gated communities).

The effect of new entrants on the rules is another way polities are club-like. And there are a reason clubs have membership rules and rights to exclude. Clubs want people to "fit in", not be disruptive, hopefully be active in supporting the activities of the club.

Of course, border control can have its ugly aspects. And making unapproved migration illegal without sufficiently effective border control creates a population of "illegals" who, being isolated from normal legal protections, become vulnerable to exploitation, even labour bondage and slavery. Nevertheless, managing a successful polity is a more precarious enterprise than supporters of "let anyone in" seem to understand.

Thinking of a polity as a device for making political bargains, large and small, if anything increases the power of the club analogy. If group X rejects group Y as someone to make deals with, this is deeply disruptive to making bargains. (See Sunni and Shia in Iraq; Protestants and Catholics in Ulster.) The greater the entrenched associations of common loyalties, the more somewhat antagonistic diversity can be dealt with. The Catholic v Protestant fights in Australia could be managed through a mixture of past Britishness and future Australian aspirations. The Ulster divisions were so entrenched because which polity they should be part of was precisely what was in dispute, while "Iraq" clearly has little standing except as a useful device for whichever group is in control of the state apparatus to repress the other(s).

History matters. Really, it does. Which is why the argument for simply open borders both fails to resonate with the wider public and simply fails. It just does not take history, the requirements of effective politics or the depth of human interactions seriously enough.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. I think your analogy of polities as clubs is an excellent one. Indeed I have made the same analogy in the other direction. There have been a number of times that I have chaired discussions about membership fees and service fees (event fees) and by what proportion or amount they should be in excess of costs to provide revenue for the club to purchase equipment or supplies (infrastructure/services). I've often in these discussions referred to the membership fees as "taxes".

    For example in the Mens' Shed movement members pay to join and those funds are used to not only cover the costs (tea, coffee, electricity, rent, etc) of the club but also to purchase more tools and supplies. In any club some members are just interested in a place to chat while others want to do wood work and others want to do metal work. In a club where members want a new metal lathe but others want a new wood lathe a political discussion ensues on whether to get neither, both or one or the other. No matter which option is chosen other than none the "taxes" of the members who just want a place to chat and drink coffee are subsidizing those who want to use the tools. If the membership fees are too high those just drinking coffee become disenfranchised.

    The problem I have with the analogy is that people have to belong to a nation state club. If they are so unfortunate to have been enrolled in a bad club by accident of birth then if they are not free to join another club then they are pretty much stuffed. While there are very good reasons why it would be difficult for those of us in "good" clubs to open the doors to all new members we have to acknowledge that when we don't we are to a certain degree being selfish.

    To deny membership of our club we are also not extending any duty of care to our fellow humans. While that is all to human and understandable, I as a Christian have to ask myself "Who is my neighbour?". Consistently the in this globalised world the answer is everyone.

    1. While that is all to human and understandable, I as a Christian have to ask myself "Who is my neighbour?". Consistently the in this globalised world the answer is everyone. Admirable, as long as it is remembered what we individually can make decisions for. Convincing the members of the club to broaden entry is very different from directly or indirectly sabotaging their ability to make such decisions.