Monday, May 27, 2013

Open borders a well-meant road to chaos

Free passage of people may be a liberal ideal but democracy gets in the way 

SOME Liberals, and even a few on the Labor side, regard the Centre for Independent Studies as the repository of their deepest yearnings, offering prospects of uninhibited ideological pleasures, if only voters weren't watching.

But they may blush at the latest offering in its magazine Policy: that we tear down our borders and allow the free movement of people between countries. Chris Berg, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, which is a kindred spirit of the CIS, writes that "the free movement of people should be recognised as one of the central goals of classical liberalism as much as free trade is. After all, a philosophy that believes goods and capital can go wherever they want but people cannot is an incoherent one".

AdvertisementThere's a certain logic to Berg's argument. With a few remaining exceptions, such as in the textiles and car industries, we have removed barriers to imports of goods. As he puts it: "It doesn't matter whether products are made in Rajasthan or Ringwood, we are happy for them to be freely brought into and sold in Australia."

Immigration and free trade are two sides of the same coin, Berg argues. Migrants from developing countries working in developed countries send about $US300 billion a year back home, much more than the global foreign aid budget. "If we reject or restrain immigration, we limit one of the most effective ways by which the Third World can pull itself out of poverty"

So that you don't think he is just engaged in a theoretical exercise, Berg deals with several practical objections. Wouldn't immigrants attracted to our relatively high levels of government benefits become a burden on the welfare state? Not if we build a wall around welfare, as Australia already does through measures such as the two-year wait for most Centrelink benefits.

What about the common concern that large numbers of migrants would change our culture? "Generation after generation of migrants in Australia have adopted liberal values rather than Australians adopting the potentially illiberal values of some migrants' origin countries," answers Berg.

By coincidence, another advocate of open borders emerged this week. Deakin University professor and former member of the migration and refugee review tribunals Mirko Bagaric also argues that the best way to relieve Third World poverty is by a huge increase in Western immigration. Even if people rejected research suggesting immigration had a net positive economic effect in the host country, a slight fall in Western living standards was a small price to pay for reducing global destitution.

"We must accept that restrictive immigration policies are racist unless there is a morally relevant basis for tightly limiting migrants," he wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald. "People ought to be able to travel and settle in any country of their choice, so long as they do not present a security threat and the nation has the resources to sustain them."

Yes, there is a problem with all this. It's called democracy. Until we abolish nation states and establish world government (a change that, despite conspiracy theories on the right and the left, is not going to happen), voters will not elect politicians who advocate open borders. That is why John Howard's line in the 2001 election about deciding who comes to Australia and the manner in which they come resonated so strongly. It is what the present emerging debate on population and immigration is about: however strong the evidence that immigration has benefited the nation, Australians want control of their destiny.

Berg's argument also is an example where ideology can lead you. People are dazzled by the beauty of a logical argument. It is classic liberalism that gave us the phenomenon of the self-correcting market, aided by the superior knowledge of economists and mathematicians. Financial markets moved funds around the world with extraordinary speed and efficiency. All risks were offset through infallible financial instruments. Booms were no longer to be followed by busts. Best of all for classic liberals was that governments had no role to play at all, other than butting out. There is no greater thrill than when your prejudices coincide with a theory.

Except that it didn't work. A mass loss of confidence was not something factored into the equations. If governments had allowed the markets to correct themselves, the world would have had not a great recession but a great depression.

In Goodbye to All That?, edited by Robert Manne and David McKnight and published this week, philosopher Jean Curthoys explores the parallels between neo-liberalism and Marxism as ways of thinking. She argues both turn the highest political ideals into an ideal economic system.
Both produced positive results: decent living conditions for working people in one case and an increase in overall wealth in the other. But blind faith led to disaster, though Marxism was more destructive than neo-liberalism.

The free passage of people may be a logical extension of the free movement of goods and services and also, as Berg argues, of universal human rights: we believe individuals have the same rights, wherever they live.

It may even be the best way of tackling global poverty. We have a version of the Berg ideal in Europe, where many border controls have been removed but the differences in incomes, culture and political systems are relatively small.

Opening borders on a world-wide scale would cause chaos. Voters, rightly, would see governments abrogating their responsibilities.

That does not mean we cannot apply liberal principles to specific issues. Berg claims, together with Kevin Rudd, that deterrence of asylum-seekers of the kind practised by the Howard government doesn't work.

He also argues, together with the remaining small "l" liberals in the Liberal Party, that such measures are deeply illiberal. Deterrence relied on crude calculations about what extremes were necessary to be effective.

"We can see how these calculations have played out in Australian refugee policy," he writes. "No liberal model of law and order could deprive some-one of their freedom and then insist they pay for it."

This refers to the Howard government's policy, abandoned by its successor, of giving asylum-seekers a bill, sometimes amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the cost of their detention.

Tony Abbott sounded like a liberal a few months ago when he delivered an Australia Day address. Immigration to Australia had been a success almost unparalleled in history, he said, yet people regularly expressed concern about it.

One reason is boat arrivals that raise fears that the nation's borders are not controlled.

But, he pointed out, Australia's problem is smaller than that of the US, which shares a border with Mexico, or Europe, where would-be immigrants only have to cross the Mediterranean or move across an increasingly borderless continent.

"Many conscientious people continue to be dismayed by what they see as the harsh treatment of boatpeople," he said.

But, he concluded, they should ask themselves at what point the size of any unauthorised influx became a concern, while supporters of border protection needed to understand it was no reflection on boat people that they wanted to come to Australia.

It was too much to hope that such reason and reasonableness would prevail throughout an election year. Abbott now sounds as strident as any conservative in promoting a return to temporary protection visas, offshore processing and turning back boats. It is liberalism's loss.

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