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?