The nation as a club?

In a moment of weakness a while ago I agreed to participate in a Goethe Institute and New Zealand Initiative panel discussion. “The Sharing Game” later this month.  Here is a link to event for anyone in Wellington who would like to come along.

The topic is written in a perhaps rather Germanic style

Sharing and exchange are basic human cultural practices. They play as big a role in poor countries as in affluent societies. But when do we share – and with whom? What social and cultural developments emerge from the various forms and manifestations of sharing and exchange in times of immigration from cultures that are foreign to ours? How is New Zealand’s face changing through an ever increasing influx from immigrants – rich and poor? Is a bicultural society a utopia?

But I take it as a discussion and debate around diversity and its implications for New Zealand.   I presume I was invited as someone who has been a bit sceptical about the economic benefits to New Zealand of our large-scale immigration programmes.  Since most of those arguments were independent of who the migrants were –  they would apply if the migrants were all from the Home Counties –  the diversity issues are not ones that I have previously focused on very systematically or for very long.

But in thinking about the topic, and reflecting on the importance of openness to new ideas in the historical success of nations, I’ve also been wondering what a nation state means today.  What, for example, if anything does it mean to be “a New Zealander”, (is it just citizenship of this legal entity)?  Are there things that unite us, and how does an immigration programme like ours affect that over time?    Is the decline of religion – itself once an expression of a society’s shared understandings – relevant to the answer?   Quite how is the distinctive position of Maori in New Zealand affected?

This post is an advertisement rather than one offering any answers.  But as I was reflecting on the issue this afternoon and reading around the (unpersuasive to me) open borders literature I stumbled on this stimulating blog post by the Canadian (but British immigrant to Canada) economist Nick Rowe on whether we should best think of the nation as a club.

Don’t think of a country as an area of land. Think of a country as a club, to which a group of people belong. Nomadic tribes were not attached to any particular area of land. Settled agriculture on scarce land is a recent and contingent fact.

Clubs provide club goods to their members. Club goods are (at least partly) non-rival and (at least partly) excludable. Mutual defence is the most obvious club good that countries provide their members, but they often provide others too.

Membership of a club brings with it both rights and obligations. Membership of a club is itself a good. It’s an asset that provides a future flow of benefits (and costs). Membership of a successful club, that non-members want to join, is a very valuable good. Should that very valuable good be priced at zero?

Open borders is not about free trade in land or labour. It’s not about physical geography. Open borders is a proposal that membership of a club be a non-excludable good, and must therefore be priced at zero. Anyone can become a member of any club, without the club being required to give its consent. Countries may not charge non-members a one-time enrolment fee (or cherry-pick applicants) to become a member. Anyone who applies for membership must be granted membership, and pay exactly the same annual schedule of dues (taxes) as existing members to benefit from using the club goods.

Rowe uses the image to build a possible case for an entry fee for migrants, perhaps a substantial one. But it is also prompts a thought around whether there is a sense in which the club has, or needs to have, some meaningful common identity or sense of purpose (the basis for the provision of public goods).  I’m not sure, but as Rowe he notes later in the comments (as much worth reading, in many cases, as the post itself).

My thoughts themselves are not at all clear on the migration question. I just think that the Open Borders people are missing some important stuff. They think of open borders as something like free trade (they say in labour, but I would say in land). But countries are a lot more than just land. Even thinking of countries as clubs seems to me to be leaving out a lot of what is important. Countries are also homes, and extended families. We are born into one, and changing countries is a big deal, both for the migrant and for the hosts (if there are a lot of migrants).

I’m a migrant myself. My views have changed over the years. I have become more small-c conservative. I don’t like too much change, and I can respect others who don’t like too much change either. Countries, and communities, and social institutions, don’t just create themselves overnight.

I find it an interesting perspective to reflect on, and to wonder about the implications of.  I’m suspect the other panellists will be more optimistic than I am, but I wonder if any will lean strongly towards an open borders approach for New Zealand?

4 thoughts on “The nation as a club?

  1. There is also the issue of the members who are not present. We have a lot of New Zealanders who live overseas some with dual citizenship (joined another club) and some not. And at the moment we allow all of those people access to the club goods (health care, tertiary education etc) without them paying any club dues (taxation to NZ).

    I have recently had two experiences where older NZers living in Australia faced with going into a retirement home (in one case) or major surgery (in another) deciding that despite the fact that they have not lived in NZ for decades they will come and claim their share of the club goods. In another case, a NZ family living overseas sent their daughter (born in NZ left when she was c2 years old) to Auckland University because she could get in there when she couldn’t get into the university where they live. (It also was much cheaper).

    So how do we think about the non-resident NZers in your club world?


  2. interesting point. I suspect it drives in the direction of a move towards a user-pays world, and less generous social assistance models as people implicitly say “i didn’t pay my taxes to fund these jet-ins”). I’d have some sympathy with a move in that direction in some respects, but in others it would leave me quite uneasy.

    I’ve written previously about the NZD dimensions of this ( )

    And I’m conscious of the other side of this. Two of my kids are members of the US club (by birth), but aren’t of American descent and left before they turned two. And yet easier access to US state universities in-state is already an option they are weighing.

    On a small scale, I suspect these things wash out – there are modest unfairnesses, but they don’t deeply impinge on the public consciousness or willingness to pay. On a larger scale, the issues can quickly become much more pressing.


  3. All the more reason why we have no choice but to go compulsory Kiwisaver and drop Universal Super. We have a million kiwis overseas that may not have overseas pensions to draw on and would likely return to NZ for that universal retirement income benefit.


  4. The first thing we should do is to close our border to the 600 refugees that we are bringing in. It is impossible to have a decent vetting of the identity and the purpose of those refugees. With normal visas identities are easily checked on passport computer systems at every entry and departure of every country and a police report is usually part of the vetting process. With refugees this vetting is near impossible. We are just rolling dice each and every time. Seems to be a convenient way of getting a trained radical into a usually closed border environment.


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