On the Supposed Logical Consequences of Free Movement

(Part 1 here). The other thing my Leave-voting friend said (echoing things I’ve heard in conversation from others) was this:

“Secondly, if migration is a right and A Good Thing, then logically population will flow to the 1st world cities and eventually you will have a few incredibly densely populated conurbations and the rest of the world largely abandoned.  Is that a good outcome?  Many countries – the UK for one – constructed policies to prevent that happening within their states because most people felt it was not.”

 I can see where this concern comes from, but as stated I think it’s a kind of ‘spherical-cow physics‘: if you simplify your model enough, with a single metric of desirability and people’s choices explained simply by desirability, then the logical result will be everyone living in a few super-cities (which, for the record, I don’t think is a good outcome). But such simplified models aren’t really useful, for various reasons:

  • People vary in what’s desirable to them (hence lots of people either never move to big cities, or actively move away from them);
  • People have lots of reasons not to move, like attachment to home, family, culture, etc.;
  • There are feedback effects (a destination can become less attractive if it’s too densely populated);
  • Things other than migration affect population, like birth and death rates (if one area has much higher fertility than another, migration from the first to the second would stabilise populations, not concentrate them);
  • Timescale matters – a problem in ten years is one thing, a problem in a hundred years is i) probably beyond our ability to affect, and ii) may well not happen just because some other parameter will change drastically in the intervening period.

But it’s a bit unfair to harp on issues like these. I suspect the point isn’t really about mathematical modelling, but more a sort of test of what sort of disagreement we’re having: are supporters of free movement so fanatical that they’ll say ‘yeah, even if it would lead to dystopian overcrowding in London, I’d still oppose deportations etc.’? Or will they instead say ‘no, if that was the foreseeable result I’d support border controls, but that’s not what will happen’? If the former, I come across like a crazy zealot; if the latter, I seem to have conceded the principle and the disagreement is just empirical.

And it’s not like overdemand for housing, infrstructure, etc. resulting from sudden rushes of people to the same big city isn’t a real issue – that kind of ‘overcrowding’ has been a big thing, for instance, at least since the industrial revolution (though my understanding is that it’s debated how much this was about the carrot of jobs and how much about active stick-type efforts to drive peasants off the land). Sometimes people arrive faster than housing, transport, and other sorts of infrastructure is expanded, and that’s a problem.

But I still think the choice which my friend’s argument tries to push onto supporters of free movement is sort of a false one. Mismatches between where people are moving and the infrastructure to support them can be addressed in a variety of ways – coercive intervention, subtler forms of incentive-manipulating (e.g. policies to encourage jobs or people to go to places more able to accommodate them), greater investment in infrastructure, etc. Saying that coercion isn’t a legitimate tool isn’t saying you can’t do anything at all.

(To use the reproductive analogy I like to return to, sudden changes in people’s reproductive habits can also be disruptive to public services etc., and that warrants political effort to solve those problems. But coercing individuals into having kids, or into not having kids, isn’t a legitimate tool for that political effort.)

Moreover, border controls arguably cause more severe overcrowding than they prevent – they just push it into refugee camps, detention centres, and developing countries that happen to border war zones. My friend’s question suggests abstracting from here-and-now to consider hypothetical long-term outcomes, but the problems worried about are already happening, in part because of the policies the question seeks to justify.

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4 Responses to On the Supposed Logical Consequences of Free Movement

  1. joanroelofs says:

    Read Bill Blum’s Killing Hope. If people had been allowed to promote justice in their own countries they would be happy to stay there.
    In a country as large as the US, there are plenty of near-ghost towns that welcome immigrants. They also tend to be the strongest supporters of capitalism.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      There’s definitely a special edge of irony and outragousness in how often the source countries that refugees are fleeing have previously been victimised or destabilised by the present destination countries. And I think a lot of people would probably want to stay home as long as their prospects there were even just decent and slowly improving, even if those prospects were much worse financially than they would have if they migrated. At the same time, I’m not sure that covers everyone – if nothing else, I myself am a counter-example, having travelled overseas for work even though my destination country was stable and wealthy.

  2. Allan Olley says:

    I have often thought about this kind of issue in terms of the fact that this makes the problem with freedom of movement a matter of money (or equivalently resources, we need more toilets for more people is the way I like to some it up) and so justifies charging for residency/freedom of movement (to build more toilets), but I get the feeling that the people arguing that their is a resource option are not willing to endorse such a mercenary approach to residency etc., but to me this objection makes it about money (also as you point out the cost of allowing entry etc. may not exist etc.).

    Reading this post I thought about the fact that I would have taken it that in order to meet our obligations to refugees we would have to wave any such fees (putting the price of paying for toilets on others). Potentially the people creating the resource crunch could all be refugees, in which case I would wonder, are people really saying that they would send a shipload of Jewish refugees back to the 3rd Reich rather than suffer any material loss from overcrowding etc. because that sounds much more cold blooded position than most people would affirm.

    There could be a lifeboat or triage situation where essentially you can not help everyone and must essentially weigh the lives of one group against another, but as you suggest there are lots of ways you might operationalize this sort of consideration rather than just blanket bans etc, it does not yield some simple principle of action. Also such a stark and extreme situation is far more desperate than actual immigration issues (unless you are actually in a warzone perhaps), it totally misrepresents the issues. One could imagine that the argument is if we don’t deter migration with restrictions then somehow some such a desperate situation, but I don’t think that the basic logistical problems would reach the truly desperate triage level even if the entire poor part of the world were somehow to decide to mob the rich world if we relax migration restrictions (and I don’t think human motivation works that way).

    I would have said of the scenario you commentator suggested where all human population being concentrated in a few major centres does not sound like necessarily a big a disaster to me, there could be many advantages from the point of view of things like the logistics of providing goods and services to the reduction of environmental impacts etc. Clearly such a concentration of the human population could be bad but it depends how it happened.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Yeah, there’s a trend in a lot of thoughts here that does seem to make it all about paying a sort of ‘price tag’ (or perhaps an ‘investment’, if one thought that many refugees would be productive once properly integrated). There’s a really cool discussion here of the idea of ‘virtual citizenship’ for refugees, essentially an idea to de-couple what state you physically live in from who pays the cost of your public services. That way each refugee taken in by a country comes with their own income-stream to defray the costs of supporting them, paid for by something like a UN fund or whatever. I think that would be a big improvement over the status quo in policy terms (though it’s weirdly like a sort of UN-paid dowry…), but I don’t know how much it would do to blunt the force of anti-immigration or anti-refugee sentiment.

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