Imagine there’s no country….

This blog is a comment on Martin Wolf’s Column in the Financial Times of Friday April 4, 2008, “Four falsehoods on immigration”.

Martin and I have crossed swords before on the issue of immigration. Our disagreement is fundamental and based on different ethical premises. Martin believes that existing residents of a country have a right to control who enters their country. The House of Lords select Committee shares this view, as is clear from their Report, The Economic Impact of Immigration, which asserts that the criterion to be used to assess the costs and benefits of immigration for the UK is the impact on the existing resident population.

I reject that view. The wellbeing of the existing resident population is no more, and no less, relevant than the wellbeing of any potential immigrant to the UK, wherever in the world he or she may be. I recognise private property rights. My home is my castle and I can deny entry into it to anybody at any time. I don’t recognise national property rights. A country is not like a private home. A country is an open club.

The subject is complicated in part because normative issues (what ought to be) tend to get tangled up with positive issues (what is). So to avoid any unnecessary flaming about my lack of historical knowledge and failure to understand how people actually feel and think about the country or countries they belong to, let me state that countries certainly historically have not been the kind of clubs I am talking about. My argument is (1) that clubs is what they ought to be and (2) that, with a bit of luck and with a bit of help and effort, at least some countries, including the UK, may be moving in that direction.

Despite our fundamental disagreement on whose wellbeing matters, I have no problem with 3½ out of Martin’s four falsehoods on immigration. Clearly, the impact of immigration on the size of the economy, however this is measured, is of no significance. Immigration does not strengthen the fiscal position. Immigration helps defuse the pensions time bomb if and only if immigrants arrive here aged between 18 and 21, immediately find work and remain employed, don’t marry, don’t have kids, don’t get ill and retire and drop dead at age 65.

Martin’s remaining falsehood “,…immigration lowers vacancies and relieves job and skill shortages” is only a partial falsehood. Selective immigration obviously can relieve skill shortages. The various ‘key worker’, ‘essential worker’ and ‘(skill) points schemes operated all over the world and proposed for Britain can certainly relieve skill shortages. You can wait for domestic markets and other institutions to correct the shortages without immigration, but you may have to wait a long time. In the UK, you may have to wait forever, as among the arrangements and institutions that have to respond effectively are the public funding of education and training and the private and public institutions delivering education and training. In the UK, these changes occur in geological time.

Countries as open clubs
Back to what a country is and what it isn’t, or ought not to be. Christopher Caldwell, in a discussion of Lord Goldsmith’s report “Citizenship: Our Common Bond” puts it very well:

“Citizenship is bound up with identity. National identities traditionally arose out of people’s sense of themselves as a “people”, in an ethnic or a historical sense. But in a world of globalisation and mass migration, promoting that kind of identity sounds bigoted. Old republics like the US and France seem to have an easier time of it. Their self-understanding is “creedal” – it is built not on belonging to a people but on holding certain core philosophical beliefs.”

I have tried to say something similar in the language of the theory of local public goods. To me countries are, or ought to be, clubs. Importantly, countries are open clubs.

Countries are territorially based clubs for the provision of public goods and services – defence, law and order, defence of property rights and other fundamental human rights, basic healthcare, education for minors, the collective insurance of privately non-insurable risks and perhaps a few other things.

Countries as territorially based legal and social and entities exist because people need land to live. Countries are a partition of the globe (they divide it exhaustively but without overlap), because for most people it is difficult to be in more than one place at a time. Land – territory – is scarce and can be subject to overcrowding and congestion.

Countries have states associated with them (institutions that have the monopoly of the legitimate use of coercion or force (through taxation and through prescriptive or proscriptive regulation)) because of pervasive free rider problems associated with the financing of public goods. There is a minimal efficient or optimal scale for the provision of most public goods, but it is not the same for all public goods. This has produced Federal arrangements and proto- or quasi-federal arrangements like the EU. There are also, after a range of increasing returns, diseconomies of scale and scope associated with country size and the number of tasks performed by the state. This is why we don’t (yet) have a single global state, or indeed any form of global provision of public goods.

They should be open clubs: anyone who is willing and able to abide by the rules of the club ought to be able to join. The members of the club (the citizens of the country) have the right to deny entry (membership) to persons who are not willing and able to abide by the rules of the club. They also have the right to expel existing members who are unwilling or incapable of abiding by the rules of the club. Banishment or exile for members of the existing resident population are the natural complement to the denial of membership to would-be immigrants unable or unwilling to abide by the rules of the club.

Expulsion/exiling of residents/citizens of a country is something that should not be considered lightly. It is a sanction of last resort for repeated transgressions against the rules. It also presupposes that there is a place/country to which the no longer acceptable resident/citizen can be banished without this exposing him or her to the risk of maltreatment, torture or death in his/her place of exile. Extraordinary renditions of the kind engaged in by the Bush administration, to its eternal shame, are never acceptable. Some other way of protecting the country/club from those who do not accept and constitute a material threat to its fundamental values and binding rules will have to be found (internal exile to a small uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides comes to mind).

The next key question concerns the nature of permissible or legitimate rules the clubs can adopt. I would deny the validity of any rule that discriminates in favour of or against someone because of birth, territoriality, ancestry, heritage, race, ethnicity, history, religion or culture. No Blut und Boden – ethnicity or citizenship based on descent and homeland. The sharing of common values should be the necessary and sufficient condition for membership in the polity.

No country (club) should be able to deny membership to outsiders by imposing membership rules that violated certain universal human rights. There are several places where their essence is stated. One is the Bill of Rights – the first 10 Amendments to the US Constitution, with the exception of the Second Amendment, which has, regrettably, been hijacked by the gun lobby. Another useful statements of criteria that have to be observed by all countries is found in the first 21 Articles of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the remaining Articles, numbers 22 to 30, are either meaningless or refer to aspirations and hopes, rather than rights that should be granted regardless of circumstances),

But subject to that, everyone ought to be welcome everywhere. Or at least anyone from anywhere, should be admitted everywhere with equal rights and obligations to those of existing residents, even if not truly welcome. Sensible solutions to free-rider problems will have to be designed, of course, but that is not beyond the ken of humanity.

Why open clubs as the norm?

In an earlier exchange with Martin Wolf on immigration, in response to Martin’s Column “Why immigration is hard to tackle”, I wrote:

“From a normative point of view, I am with Philippe Legrain who believes that freedom of movement is a human right. For me, when it comes to the rights of nations and countries, libertarian political instincts combine with religious convictions: The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Not: Britain for the British or Scotland for the Scots, or even British jobs for British workers. I do not recognise national property rights.”

I continue to hold strongly to the views expressed in the 24th psalm.

Martin stated in his reply to my comment: “Interestingly, Willem quotes in support of his position the psalmist’s line: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” The words come from the Hebrew Bible, that is, from my own religious tradition. Willem will note the irony: the idea that the earth was the Lord’s was deemed by the Hebrews to be entirely compatible with the notion that God’s people enjoyed special rights to the land of Israel. Indeed, the psalmist – assumed to be King David – was a notable warrior against those who sought to conquer his country.

David, second king of Israel, was one of the most fascinating, complex and contradictory characters in Scriptures full of fascinating, complex and contradictory characters. He may not always have practiced what he preached (or sang), but this in no way affects the truth and beauty of what he sang. I named my son David partly because of the joyful way King David danced half naked before the Ark of the Covenant as it entered Jerusalem, partly because the name means ‘beloved’.

I like to believe that David wrote the psalms attributed to him in the Bible. David’s authorship of any of the psalms attributed to him is, of course, an open question among scholars. The Hebrew inscription commonly rendered as “A Psalm of David”, may equally well be translated as “connected with David,” “for David,” “in the style of David” as “by David”. It is by no means clear that authorship is indicated.

If the psalmist of the 24th Psalm is indeed David, it is a universalist, poetic David, the David of the lament over Saul and Jonathan and of the many other achingly beautiful psalms attributed to him. It is not the cruel, vindictive David who cursed his wife Michal when she criticised him for prancing around in front of the Ark. She considered this undignified behaviour for a king – a not unreasonable position for a guiding and directing wife. I am sure my wife would have thought the same.

It is not the particularist, homicidal David who gave as dowry to King Saul, his future father-in-law, the foreskins of two hundred Philistines he had killed (this was for the same Michal he cursed into barrenness after the Ark episode); nor is it David the grim conquerer and destroyer of the Philistines, the Amelekites, the Jebusites, the Moabites, the Ammonites and assorted other inhabitants of the lands that became Israel and Judah. The consolidation of the conquest of the promised land under David involved genocide, just like the earlier stages. I recognise the reality of the horrors of particularism, but I strive for the promise of universalism.

Conclusion: a country is not a home
The existing British residents or citizens of the United Kingdom do not own the United Kingdom, nor should they be able to restrict the entry of anyone wishing to live in the country, as long as these immigrants are willing to live by the fundamental rules that define the United Kingdom as a country. This means that violent homophobes have no place in this country, regardless of what religion they adhere to. Those who deny equal rights to women, those who impose forced marriage on others, or who practice female genital mutilation (aka female circumcision) likewise do not belong here.

If tolerance is indeed a defining characteristic of the United Kingdom, as I believe, then intolerant behaviour cannot be tolerated. Liberalism will have to develop sharp teeth if it is to survive. But there should be no special consideration given to those who happen to have been born here, or to those whose ancestors at some earlier point in time came to this country as economic immigrants, as political refugees or as raping and pillaging invaders.

The key point that separates Martin and me is that for Martin, in the UK immigration debate, it is only the wellbeing of the existing residents that counts, while for me their wellbeing is neither more nor less important that the wellbeing of anyone who might want to emigrate to the UK.

Martin also makes the point that immigration could be desirable if one believed that a population that is both substantially larger and substantially more heterogeneous than today’s would be beneficial. I don’t believe that a substantially larger population for the UK would be beneficial. Quite the contrary, I consider the UK, or at any rate the English nation, to be overpopulated. However, other parts of the world are both poorer and even more overpopulated than the UK, so a significant migration from those countries to the UK would be the desirable from the point of view of global welfare, even if it were to make the existing UK residents worse off.

As regards greater heterogeneity, however, I have no doubts whatsoever. When I first came to the UK in 1965, the UK was overwhelmingly white, much more homogeneous than today, and very boring and uninspiring indeed. It had come to the end of the Imperial, Post-Imperial and co-victors of World War II roads but was not yet ready to assume its role as a middle-sized European country. The food was terrible – the coffee undrinkable. The only food both edible and affordable on a student budget was the local Indian. The only manifestations of creativity were found in pop music and the sub-culture that surrounded it, and those were pretty much straight imports from the USA. The parochialism and ignorance of the rest of the world was crushing. This was a country going nowhere fast.

Today the UK, especially in its creative urban centres, is one of the most ethnically, racially, culturally and religiously diverse countries in the world. While this creates huge tensions, it also makes it the most exciting, creative and innovative place on earth. It is immigration that revived the UK and immigration that will keep it alive, if the country is confident enough to let it happen. Those who don’t like what the country has become are, of course, free to leave and go elsewhere – to join a club more to their liking.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website