The artificial nature of national borders

The artificial nature of national borders

Summary: 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?

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TOPICS: Government AU
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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.

Topic: Government AU

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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60 comments
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  • Historical context

    The rise of restrictions is directly related to the
    rise of unions. As they gained strength, they
    used that strength politically to create
    protections for their members. That political
    strength also elected more statist governments
    that created various bureaucracies to protect
    workers. One of those would be the one
    controlling work permits.

    Those same sort of ?protections? even remain
    in the US between states. If you were a
    pipefitter or iron worker from Oklahoma and
    came to New York City, you would not find
    work because you were not a member of the
    union. If you went to join the union, you might
    find that you could not get in, no matter your
    skill level. However, if your father or uncle
    were in the union, and in good standing, you?d
    get in and get work.

    Whether you think the above is right or wrong,
    that?s the way it is.

    By the way, since you said you had problems
    with Switzerland, and you?d previously said you
    worked for the UN over there, I assume you
    were locally engaged rather than being hired in
    New York and transferred to Switzerland.
    j.m.galvin
    • In Switzerland

      I worked for local companies for awhile, first a startup that went belly up within 4 months, and then Orange Communications. It was only later that I worked for the UN, and that was for about an 8 months stretch.

      That is true, unions are certainly a strong force for protectionism, kind of like the old guild system. Whether what they want is good for the country is a separate question.
      John Carroll
    • Revisionism

      [i]The rise of restrictions is directly related to the rise of unions. As they gained strength, they used that strength politically to create protections for their members. That political strength also elected more statist governments that created various bureaucracies to protect
      workers. One of those would be the one controlling work permits.[/i]

      A nice theory, but it doesn't square up with the history of American immigration. The Irish are a good example, but hardly the only one.

      In Europe, it goes back much farther. The key difference is that the rise of "rule of law" has caused the earlier ways of excluding foreigners (e.g. the local baron's fiat) to give way to bureaucracy. However, there are still plenty of countries on Earth where citizenship is conferred [b]only[/b] by inheritance and naturalization is effectively unknown.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Many unions now favor illegals.

      If the illegals join the union, they're part of the membership. And because many unions are now representing workers at lower income, illegals are often added to the rolls.

      This is not true in every situation, of course; the view that illegals take jobs and depress wages has made some unions antagonistic to them. But your generalization, like all generalizations, is incorrect.
      Anton Philidor
  • Legalize illegals, not without them paying.

    My wife and I have paid >$3,000 to get her greencard and on the road to citizenship. That's having married a US Citizen. If we get a refund for every penny paid to the government, I'd consider changing my point of view. But I do not, in any way, support converting 10-20 million illegal immigrants without them having sever financial consequences for their actions - they pay the maximum tax base on their wages + PENALTIES for their time in the U.S. - if given a temporary permit before and went home, penalties begin from the date of expiration of their permit. Or a blanket $5,000 - payable in installments, garnished from their paychecks until paid off. Additional requirements too - Need to learn English, need to volunteer in programs to better their communities and make them better places to live. Do some good with any legislation that will come about, don't just wave a wand, forgiving them for breaking the law.
    jeffwh
    • That was the approach

      ...the victors in WWI took to Germany. Don't see why we think "penalizing" people whose only crime was wanting to escape abject poverty - or worse - and crossed a 2000 mile artificial border is supposed to breed international amity.

      They broke an artificial law. I jaywalk, too, and frankly, I consider illegal workers to be about as bad as jaywalkers.
      John Carroll
      • Assessing penalties.

        Penalizing the illegal entrants into the US would be both expensive and futile. That far, I agree.

        But the people who are gaming the system in order to make a substantial amount of money by hiring illegal entrants have committed an offense which can be punished severely enough to have an impact.

        If a company relying on illegal entrants goes out of business, if wealthy people lose more than a few high profile government appointments by employing illegal entrants as nannies, then rational economic thinking will begin.

        The first 5 year jail sentence given a prominent CEO for inadequate attention to the background of the person taking care of his children will cause a substantial change in the illegal entrant problem.
        Anton Philidor
    • English will happen on its own

      People who are illegal are less likely to learn English because they tend to separate themselves from English speakers and only spend time with other illegals. Legal residents send their kids to school (where they learn English), watch English TV, work with english speakers, and learn English in short order.

      No, I still don't agree with severe penalties. These are human beings whose only crime is they didn't want to starve.
      John Carroll
      • Or worse

        [i]No, I still don't agree with severe penalties. These are human beings whose only crime is they didn't want to starve.[/i]

        Or, in at least one instance, admired the USA so much that he came here from to join the Marine Corps and die in action.

        Can't have that now, can we?
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • if done legally..

          If they do it legally, there is no problem. We had to pay for my wife, NOBODY gets it for free except in severe cases because that is unfair to those who follow the law. It would have been better for us to keep my illegal and work tax free all these years, instead of paying her 'fair share'. They are humans - but they still need to follow the law or face the penalties.
          jeffwh
          • It's unfair...

            ...that people were born in the "wrong" part of the world, where making a living is nearly impossible.

            She shouldn't have had to be "illegal" in the first place, IMHO. And, a solution that carries draconian penalties is not a solution so much as a way for people to wreak vengeance on an undesirable sub-population.

            The current laws are BAD. The way to solve that proble is to change the BAD LAWS as soon as possible, and leave vengeance to god.
            John Carroll
          • if done in a fair manner, yes.

            Like I said, we paid thousands of $$ so my wife could be legal - I'd want that back. She was born in Poland... is it her fault that they are poor, hadn't existed as a country for hundreds of years and had to sit behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union? We need to have mercy on her - and give me my money back so we can do something better with it than support the US Government and the things they do for us - streets, public programs, etc.

            Those who want to come to this country legally, need to follow the proper steps and if they cannot 'afford' it then they will pay over time - a little bit out of each paycheck until the proper fees are paid in full. Because, it is my understanding that the $100 to file the applications is out of their ability to pay at once, so there is room to help ease th pain to them.

            But no free rides - born in the wrong part of the world, a world that is over populated ... maybe those countries should create laws on births, instead of families having 4 or 5 kids, limit them to 1 or 2. The countries need to grow up, come into the modern world, and quit encouraging their residents (V. Fox of Mexico) to head North where the U.S. will take care of you.
            jeffwh
  • It's them durn furriners

    Nothing new, John, and it has nothing to do with foreign workers slurping up State benefits (as illustrated in, for instance, France: they never complained about the Algerian dolists.) The Irish got the same treatment a century and a half ago (a bit of family history for both of us) along with the Italians and Ashkenazi Jews more recently.

    What is [b]is[/b] about is plain xenophobia [1], dressed up as something more palatable in public discourse. Thus the various laws sprouting up (esp. in the Southwest) requiring "proof of citizenship" for everyday activities.

    Please note that you never see any blue-eyed blondes being carded. Drive from Las Cruces north on I-25 and traffic all goes through a checkpoint. As soon as the light hits my face I get waved through, but (and I've done the experiment) my kids' American-born Lebanese friend gets the full treatment, right down to waiting while they run a records check.

    This, in a State with more Hispanic than Anglo citizens.

    [1] Or, more bluntly, racism.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Profiling does happen

      ...it's the easiest way for the impossible task of managing hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border. Of course, it all falls apart if you have a name that is on the homeland security special list (having a common Irish name has its own problems ;)

      You are also right there there is a certain amount of xenophobia involved. The best way to change the mind of xenophobes, however, is to (try to) explain to them how their exclusivity approach makes the problem to which they are responding (cultural erosion, wage erosion, overloaded and underfunded medical services) worse. Oddly enough, a policy that legalized mexican workers which would have the salutory effect of making xenophobes less xenophobic, as people who work alongside the object of their xenophobia (which is more likely to happen if such workers were fully legal) are less likely to be xenophobic.

      Would that work? Xenophobia isn't a rational impulse, so how do you combat it? On the other hand, what choice do we have but to try?
      John Carroll
      • Combating Xenophobia

        [i]Profiling does happen it's the easiest way for the impossible task of managing hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border.[/i]

        John, look at a map. I'm talking about I-25, not a border crossing. Drive from New Orleans to Denver and you're going to go through it.

        [i]You are also right there there is a certain amount of xenophobia involved. The best way to change the mind of xenophobes, however, is to (try to) explain to them how their exclusivity approach makes the problem to which they are responding (cultural erosion, wage erosion, overloaded and underfunded medical services) worse. Oddly enough, a policy that legalized mexican workers which would have the salutory effect of making xenophobes less xenophobic, as people who work alongside the object of their xenophobia (which is more likely to happen if such workers were fully legal) are less likely to be xenophobic.[/i]

        John, the worst "xenophobes" I know have lived in territory acquired by the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_guadalupe_hidalgo]Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo[/url] and the primary targets of their "xenophobia" are "Mexicans" whose families have been here since long before Statehood.

        In contrast to the families of the loudmouths, who have generally been here barely long enough to qualify as residents for purposes of running for the US Senate.
        Yagotta B. Kidding
        • Good point

          Funny how its often the case that the ones most against Mexican immigration are recent immigrants themselves.

          [i]John, look at a map. I'm talking about I-25, not a border crossing. Drive from New Orleans to Denver and you're going to go through it.[/i]

          Guess I read your post too quickly. Interesting that we now treat internal borders like international ones in the interest of "homeland security"
          John Carroll
          • Internal borders

            [i]Interesting that we now treat internal borders like international ones in the interest of "homeland security"[/i]

            I haven't looked at a map of New Mexico, so the checkpoint I'm describing might be at the edge of Lincoln County or something similar. Otherwise, the nearest "border" is either Texas or Arizona at about three hours away.
            Yagotta B. Kidding
    • edited

      ...it's the easiest way for the impossible task of managing hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border. Of course, it all falls apart if you have a name that is on the homeland security special list (having a common Irish name has its own problems

      You are also right that there is a certain amount of xenophobia involved. The best way to change the mind of xenophobes, however, is to (try to) explain to them how their exclusivity approach makes the problem to which they are responding (cultural erosion, wage erosion, overloaded and underfunded medical services) worse. Oddly enough, a policy that legalized mexican workers would have the salutory effect of making xenophobes less xenophobic, as people who work alongside the object of their xenophobia (which is more likely to happen if such workers were fully legal) are less likely to be xenophobic.

      Would that work? Xenophobia isn't a rational impulse, so how do you combat it? On the other hand, what choice do we have but to try?
      John Carroll
  • A very important issue in todays world.

    Could not agree more on this particular issue.
    I have also worked in the US and I was extremely well received.
    I simply loved to stay there (although it was for some months only, short term, right after University graduation), and it was some years before 9/11, I did not even had any problem whatsoever obtaining permits.
    I fully agree in this regulation matter. Specially between the US and Europe, I see no reason whatsoever to put up barriers to trans-Atlantic work.
    It is simply silly and unjustified. And it is diminishing the Technology capacity of both parties.
    I do not also see a huge migration on both ways :) Although definitely there would be and increase in cross Atlantic work.

    But the income imbalance in the world can be a problem if the borders are declared totally open for all working labor force. There is no labor market capacity in the US and Europe to give work to all labor available in the world, particularly in the countries that need it more, the ones now in the way to development, which by the way is improving worldwide very fast.
    I also did not knew about barriers between the US and Canada!?!?! This is even more strange and unjustifiable!?
    Canadians or Americans working cross border is just like working in their own countries ... home is always one to three hours away in a airplane.
    I really see no reason to make working barriers!

    In the case of Europe/USA, your reasoning is also the same. But you have to understand that Europeans have problems working inside Europe's neighbour countries so ... no wonder USA citizens may have even more problems.

    In the particular case of IT the cross-border work is more complex though ... one as to count on telecommuting and off-shoring.
    This makes the Actual IT market less affected by the work barrier problem.

    Regards,
    Pedro
    p_msac@...
    • Re: labor capacity

      [i]But the income imbalance in the world can be a problem if the borders are declared totally open for all working labor force. There is no labor market capacity in the US and Europe to give work to all labor available in the world, particularly in the countries that need it more, the ones now in the way to development, which by the way is improving worldwide very fast.[/i]

      I agree, and that's why I'm not suggesting anything more than open labor markets with the "near abroad" for now. You have to start somewhere, and current American policies simply do not work. Better to think of more radical solutions that consider the special relatonship between the US and a country with a 100 million people with whom we share a 2000 mile border.

      In future, I think labor restrictions should be eradicated. You have to do that in a sensible fashion, however.

      [i]In the particular case of IT the cross-border work is more complex though ... one as to count on telecommuting and off-shoring. This makes the Actual IT market less affected by the work barrier problem.[/i]

      As I've noted in past articles, however, it's cheaper to offshore than to bring people to America where they are paid American wages and have American benefits. That's why worries of H1-B visas are overdone.
      John Carroll