One of the problems that we have with talking about Freedom of Movement is that what people are usually either defending or objecting to is engineered movement. What do I mean by this. Well, it relates to a great question that people have been asking. Most debates about the costs and benefits of immigration focus on the implications for the receiving nation but don’t ask what about the consequences for the country where people are emigrating from. Whatever effect immigration from Eastern Europe has had on the UK, there has been a negative effect on countries like Poland and Romania where there are now skills shortages in key areas. So, does that make free movement a bad thing.
My response is that we should not jump to that conclusion because we rarely see actual free movement. There is always an element of managing and engineering the movement. There is a reason why we see an influx of foreign workers into the NHS. In fact, there are multiple reasons. The first I would suggest is that by failing to fund, train and recruit into those roles, we have artificially created capacity issues. This demand acts like a vacuum that will suck the supply of labour into it. One problem is, I believe, the turning of whole professions like nursing and policing into graduate careers, excluding a whole range of people from them. The second factor is that we have been proactively sending people to other countries to mass-recruit. We may also wonder too whether a university funding system heavily dependent on overseas students doesn’t factor in.
There is a further factor to consider when looking at Eastern Europe. I have talked often this year about what happens when you suppress something. Once the lid lifts and suppression ends, you see a sudden spike or surge. This applies to viruses and it also applies to social behaviours such as migration. Now, think about what happened in Eastern Europe over 50 years. The answer is that freedom was suppressed including freedom of movement and outside human factors severely damaged economies. This is another example of outside human factors influencing movement of people.
Similarly, what tends to cause major migration crises is not the normal day to day, year to year normal flow of people between countries but some form of outside intervention. It can be a natural disaster, though things like flooding and volcanos tend to have a temporary effect and even droughts and famines are often affected by human intervention (which means we need to be thinking seriously about how climate change might affect migration patterns). However a lot of the migration crises we have seen over recent years from the middle east and north Africa is a direct result of conflict, brutally repressive regimes and a certain level of western military intervention.
The point I’m coming to is this. If you have a naturally functioning system at work, then it is likely to gradually find a place of balance or equilibrium over time and the best thing to do is to allow it to find that place with minimal outside human intervention. Our interventions are more likely to destabilise and have unforeseen consequences.
Now here is the thing. A lot of people who sit naturally on the centre right of political thinking get this when it comes to the free movement and trade of goods and services whilst a lot of people who identify as on the left seem happy with the free movement of people. Yet there seems to be a mirroring blind spot to the other factor. So, the argument for free market economics is that Governments who try to pick the winners and decide where to intervene in the economy with subsidies and nationalisations tend to come a cropper. However what are you doing when you introduce things like points based systems if not attempting to pick the winners and operating a command and control approach.
Finally, I want to talk about another parallel freedom. A lot of people I meet online are strong advocates of freedom of speech. They argue that we can recognise that certain examples of speech (usually around things like racism) are harmful and wrong but that it isn’t for governments to become authoritarian and restrict free speech. So, we at least have to consider that form of argument when it comes to emigration/immigration too. Other countries may consider emigration harmful and often in history that has meant that they have chosen to impose tight restriction on who can leave and what they can take with them. We have tended to consider that wrong, immoral, a denial of freedom/ so it would be strange for us to claim that we are in effect policing their borders for them and for their own good to stop emigration out. Now, my position here arises out of an approach that favours free trade and free movement of goods, services and people. It is a position that arises out of scepticism about state intervention. It is legitimate of course to disagree and to make an argument for the role and benefit of the State on these matters but it is crucial that we take and hold to a consistent position on such things. If you think that there are benefits to the state getting involved in controlling immigration them it is reasonable to expect you to support a similar level of intervention in the economy and the market too (and vice-versa).