Closed borders are holding us back

By Grant Wyeth

Posted Fri 28 Mar 2014, 3:01pm AEDT


PHOTO: The desire to “protect local jobs” stifles economic activity. (ABC News: Lisa Maksimovic)

Want to double global GDP while eliminating global poverty? Then put aside your nationalist hang-ups and throw open the borders between countries, writes Grant Wyeth.

The Australian Government’s “border protection” policy relies on the view that the free movement of people is unnatural and disadvantageous to “us” (and as such is unfairly advantageous to “them”).

Our national meltdown over a small number of asylum seekers, the previous government’s attempts to curtail 457 visa holders, and the Fairfax papers’ current fear-mongering about Chinese property buyers all feeds into a vision of this country as a paranoid fortress hostile to outside interaction.

The idea of a culturally pure state, neatly encapsulated within strict borders, has always been a fantasy, and one that increasingly bears no correlation to human communication and exchange in the 21st Century.

It even bears no correlation to the multicultural makeup of modern Australia. But it is a persistent idea that continues to be sold by various public powers.

Australia is an unusual case because we are an island nation, and our national psychology has been deeply affected by not having land borders with any other country. The number of asylum seekers who come via plane greatly exceeds those who come via boat, yet this isn’t deemed as threatening. This, combined with our young (post-colonial) history and problematic national mythology, gives us a skewed perspective towards people movement.

We now recognise the advantages that the free movement between our states has for both our material wealth and personal circumstances and desires. But this was not always the case. The continent’s post-colonial pre-Federation borders were not open, they were restricted. But the idea of paying a tariff to move goods, services, or even oneself between Australia’s regions would seem absurd these days. There would be uproar if we curbed someone’s ability to move from rural Queensland to Melbourne in order to enhance their opportunities.

Most of us, apart from an amusing alliance of cultural protectionists and Marxist relics, extend this logic internationally to goods and services. But we have not yet done so for people.

However, economists and mathematicians at the University of Chicago have done so. And their research has evolved into staunch advocacy for an increase in the openness of borders for people. They even declared March 16 “Open Borders Day” in order to boost recognition.

Their analysis indicates that global GDP would double and global poverty could be eliminated if the restriction on human movement were discarded.

It has been well over 200 years since Adam Smith first identified the natural “invisible hand” of human interaction, and yet what Smith argued remains wilfully misunderstood. Even by those who claim an adherence to it.

Smith’s observation should involve the free movement of humans, not just goods and services.

The “Great Fact” of a surge in human prosperity that has been fuelled by an increase in the free movement of goods and services over the past 200 years could be even greater if it were to be extended to people. Yet we still have this negative “us versus them” mentality that bears little relation to how humans collaborate and combine their efforts.

In the language we use about asylum seekers, a distinction has been created between the worthy “genuine refugees” (although they aren’t treated so) and the unworthy “economic migrants”. Yet this is a false moral binary.

Why is consigning people to economic insecurity morally superior than consigning them to persecution?

Poverty without opportunity is a slow, painful death. In this sense, hostile borders towards “economic migrants” are a less direct form of persecution, but persecution all the same.

Economic migration is a massive release valve for global poverty. Not to mention a significant economic and cultural boost to destination countries.

Last year migrant labourers from developing countries transferred over $400 billion to their families.This is triple the amount of worldwide government aid, and has the added advantage of being direct grassroots transfers that goes towards education and health, not money that is used and abused through various bureaucracies and sticky fingers that barely reaches those in true need.

The massive benefits of migration, including poverty reduction, indicates that an increase in the openness of borders should have been part of the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet in Australia economic nativism, a perspective common to both Left and Right, prevents us from using foreign labour to remedy our major infrastructure lag. The desire to “protect local jobs” halts necessary infrastructure from being built, ironically inhibits local job creation through stifled economic activity, and maintains global poverty levels. It is frankly a cruel position to hold.

Ideally the role of politicians is to gather evidence-based information and communicate this to the public in a succinct and relatable manner. But perception, not evidence, has always been the easy option in democratic politics. The facile nationalism sold to us by politicians continues to equate freer global movement with a swarm of parasitic welfare cheats who will undermine the purity of our culture.

In particular this highlights the strange alliance of liberalism and conservatism in our modern political discourse. At the moment “The Right” love to clothe themselves in the rhetoric of liberalism. But their adherence to the benefits of freedom and choice is in my view surrendered to racial and cultural prejudices as they desperately cling to their fantasies of Australia being a Westphalian state (that is, a state that is ethnically and culturally pure with sovereignty within its own borders).

The freedom they espouse is not one that they can actually handle.

These small-minded chauvinisms aside, there is a persistent failure to make the connection between the movement of goods and services and the movement of people that needs to be overcome. The two are intrinsically entangled, both philosophically and in practice.

This will obviously be deemed a radical view by some. Convincing the electorate of the merits of more open borders will take time, and implementation will come in stages of increased openness. Yet we already have some models in place that can guide our policies.

Young Europeans use the Working Holiday Visa to escape Europe’s economic troubles. At present French and Irish 20-somethings in particular are using this scheme and this is much to Australia’s benefit, as well as to the individuals involved.

Extending ideas such as these to a wider range of peoples and wider scope of operation will be a significant step towards the expansion of worldwide opportunity, and the reduction in global poverty.

Grant Wyeth is a freelance writer and political analyst. View his full profile here.