The artificial nature of national borders

A recent article that popped up on Digg on a mildly unrelated topic (essentially, it discusses fears of a Nafta superhighway stretching from Canada into Mexico) got me thinking about a subject that, at least nominally, affects IT workers. Why do we as humans restrict to the level we do who is allowed to work in a particular country?

A recent article that popped up on Digg on a mildly unrelated topic (essentially, it discusses fears of a Nafta superhighway stretching from Canada into Mexico) got me thinking about a subject that, at least nominally, affects IT workers. Why do we as humans restrict to the level we do who is allowed to work in a particular country?

I, personally, have been affected by such restrictions. Not only did I have to jump through a lengthy array of hoops to work in Switzerland, but I nearly got denied entry into Ireland (where I lived after Switzerland) at Dublin airport because the residency permit officials in Waterford had a nasty habit of being closed on the days I went to visit them (just tell them you are on vacation, they said - ha), and I HAD to make a trip to Switzerland. Why were European nations protecting their workers so intensely from American workers? Conversely, why were Americans protecting themselves from European workers? If the rules went away, would there be a sudden influx across the Atlantic that would overwhelm the economies of either side?

Of course not, but every time I ever suggested that it was a bit weird for rich nations to protect themselves from citizens of other rich nations, I got looks normally reserved for people walking naked down the street wearing a tophat and heels. Most simply never considered the notion.

Things have not always been this way. Roll back 100 years to 1907, and you would find that most people could hop on a boat, sans-passport, to live and work at their destination for as long or short a period as they desired. Our habit of balkanizing ourselves behind nation state-sized labor walls started during the Great Depression, and those policies simply never went away.

As Niall Ferguson points out in a book I'm currently reading - The War of the World - much of the motivation for the construction of such labor walls was the evolution of the state from a thinly-funded center that accounted for a small fraction of national GDP to large, well-funded welfare states. When the citizens of such a country contribute so much to a collective pot, they become wary of foreigners who might try to skim the benefits.

Unfortunately, such exclusivity is part of a tapestry of protection that breeds conflict, a fact mentioned by Niall Ferguson but shouted by people like Friedrich Hayek. My experience in Europe was that those most favorable towards America and Americans were those who had spent extended periods in the country, and I'm sure the reverse would be true (which is another reason why it is useful to make it as simple as possible for foreigners to visit America - if not stay for extended periods of time).

All this exclusivity, however, MIGHT make sense if there were real benefits to be derived from such protections. I question, however, whether it isn't a relic of bad policy ideas crafted during a difficult period in economic history which are hard to remove because, culturally, they have become intertwined with modern conceptions of the nation state.

The case is easiest to make vis a vis workers from other rich nations. Really, are we that concerned that relatively affluent Canadians will flood across our borders and "steal" work from Americans? Most Canadians I know have zero interest in moving to the United States. Heck, most people, if given a choice, would choose to stay close to friends and family.

The situation is a bit different with respect to workers from lower-income nations. A global open labor policy would be difficult. There are simply too many people whose poverty and desperation motivate them to leave friends and family, contrary to their natural inclination. Until the income divide gets lessened, a blanket reduction could truly overwhelm rich nations.

Mexico, however, is a special case. 13 million Mexican nationals already live in the United States illegally, the result of a 2000-mile border that is impossible to control without a system that would make the Berlin wall seem like a fence around a nursery school. Even if you could justify throwing every illegal resident out of the country (which I don't think, morally, you can), it would whack, by some estimates, 5-7% off GDP in one go and decimate the economies of most American cities. Los Angeles would be a ghost town.

More radical prescriptions might be in order. Consider the following problems, and how a legal worker program might solve them:

  • Hospitals overrun by illegal immigrants who don't pay taxes? Make them legal, and the tax issue disappears.
  • Too many illegal immigrants driving down wage and labor standards? Make them legal, and they become subject to the same minimum wage and labor standards as other Americans.  Likewise, native-born Americans have language and cultural advantages which become more important if they are competing with foreign workers with legal work status.
  • Worried about too large an influx of foreign-born residents? Make crossing the border less of a risk, and many Mexicans - who tend to be a rather nationalistic lot - might make their stay in the US temporary rather than long-term
  • Consider a large influx across the border to be a security risk? Obviously, making them illegal hasn't stemmed the flow. Most, however, would opt for legal status simply because it means less hassle, which means we'd have a lot more information on the people in our country with a legal worker program.

Borders are accidents of history, and though cultures have created a certain romantic attachment to them, it doesn't make them any less artificial. Most Americans found it odd that Chinese citizens were not allowed to leave the village in which they were registered (an internal form of labor control which still applies in certain areas). Why are international restrictions on the movement of labor any less bizarre?

Granted, change can't happen overnight. Europe, however, has chosen to integrate those closest to home in a growing zone of free movement. The same logic could apply to the United States.


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