The Invention of Borders

Imagine Fife is inexplicably hit by a massive freak snowstorm. Teaching is suspended for the next week and you and a friend decide to escape the cold by jetting over to Morocco for a few days. You book a couple seats on the next budget flight out, reserve an Airbnb, and set out. Reaching Edinburgh Airport, you pass security, display your ticket at the gate, and get on the plane. Arriving in Morocco you step off the plane and climb into a taxi. No tourist visa is needed and you left your passports at home. You never saw a border guard and nobody record your entry into the country. It sounds fanciful, but just over a hundred years ago it was the global norm.

‘The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth’, wrote renowned economist John Maynard Keynes in 1919, ‘…could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, [and] he could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality.’

Image Courtesy of Official Portrait via Wikimedia Images © 1940, public domain

For most of history ‘borders’ were purely political; they denoted where one state’s authority ended and another’s began. Governments took note of border crossings by soldiers and statesmen (though in many parts of the world even this was rather fluid; American soldiers routinely ventured into Mexico for various reasons without consequence well into the 20th century, for example), but to regulate the movements of private citizens would have seemed excessive if not undesirable until the First World War. In fact, until the outbreak of war in 1914 the above paragraph held true for the average middle-class individual in most industrialized countries. Regulated borders and controls like passports, visas, permits, and tariffs were created about a hundred years ago.

What is interesting about this is that, historically speaking, there was no general trend towards borders. The world was actually becoming increasingly open, both economically and culturally. Its end was abrupt. Walls began to go up all of a sudden at the outbreak of war. The next decades saw isolationism, fascism, the Iron Curtain, protectionism, and so forth. American western hegemony and Soviet socialist-internationalism never approached the global openness of the pre-1914 period. Today, it seems like the seemingly-inexorable forces of globalization in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union are on the wane. Nations from Russia to the United States (and everywhere in between) are seeing a resurgence of right-wing populism which advocates against immigration and in favour of ever-stronger and more stringent border controls.

These new developments are driven partly by economic anxiety (people don’t want to lose their jobs to immigrants), partly by feelings of cultural incompatibility (people fear immigration will erase cherished traditions and ways of life) and partly by concerns about security (people are afraid that immigrants from, for example, the Middle East, will bring with them radical ideologies and terrorism).

Celebrity historian Rutger Bregman, who made waves earlier this year when he chastised a stunned crowd of billionaires at Davos for not paying high enough taxes, has famously argued for a renewal of open borders in his 2016 book Utopia for Realists. Yet despite his rising influence, especially amongst people with leftist political leanings, Bregman remains an outlier, and no sane politician in the west would advocate for open borders, despite a vast number of studies which demonstrate that it would have a hugely positive impact on the world economy.

Instead, it looks like controlled borders are here to stay. No one in this country is unfamiliar with the sort of anxieties which cause people to build walls: many have argued that concerns over open borders and immigration were key to the Brexit vote. In the U.S., fears over immigration and refugees were a major factor in the election of Donald Trump, who has made a literal pledge to build a massive, thousands-mile-long wall across the U.S.-Mexico border. There is a chance this could change in the next few years: President Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May are both deeply unpopular, and the next wave of elections could see left-wing governments brought to power in both countries. But even should that happen the pendulum is not likely to swing too far in the direction of Keynes’ picture of an open world. For now, don’t leave your passport at home.




Banner Image: Image Courtesy of Phillip Capper via Wikimedia Images © 1990, some rights reserved


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