Thinking about the positive value of free movement (a bleg)

by Chris Bertram on April 3, 2022

One of the consequences of Brexit is that British people are more limited in their freedom of movement. Whereas previously they could travel, work, retire, settle in other European countries, today the default is that they can only visit the Schengen area for 90 days in any 180 day period and lack rights to work. EU citizens are similarly more limited in what they can do than before, though only with respect to the territory of the UK. (Irish citizens, being part of both the EU and a common travel areal with the UK, are uniquely privileged).

I mention these facts purely as an entrée to my main subject, which is to begin thinking about the positive value of free movement across borders, a topic that is little considered by political philosophers and theorists and is low down the agenda of many politicians, who are more concerned with keeping out the unwanted and security at the border than they are with the liberties of their own citizens to travel, settle, work elsewhere and to associate with people in other countries and of other nationalities than their own. I take it that all of these liberties are valuable to a person and enhance their autonomy for the same reason as the freedom to travel within a country’s borders is valuable.

When philosophers and political theorists write about free movement it is mainly in a negative, protective and instrumental register: people need the freedom to escape across borders, to get away from their persecutors or from grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. To be sure these things are of the greatest importance and the fact that such freedom is denied and that people are penned into unjust regimes and poor lives is the worst aspect of our global mobility regime, but we need to make the positive case for free movement too.

The freedom of movement that mainly rich (and white) people enjoyed before 1914 — as later regretted by such figures as AJP Taylor and Stefan Zweig — was in part supported by the sense that such people had that they were entitled to go about their business without impertinent questioning and impediment from puffed-up officials. The situation today is almost the exact opposite, where border guards have almost unlimited rights to question people about their purposes and to detain and refuse them and where we all approach the passport check as the meekest of sheep, convinced that any sign of disrespect or recalcitrance might cost us our ability to enter a country and perhaps be marked on official records and surveillance systems to cause us problems for the future.

Sparing travellers from impertinent questioning is of small importance though compared to the positive benefits of free movement. Free movement also gives those who have no particular desire to live elsewhere the ability to visit and enjoy the natural and cultural heritage that belongs to humankind as a whole. Why should someone born in Burkina Faso be denied the opportunity ever to visit the Grand Canyon or to see the Mona Lisa, for example? The positive arguments for the value of free movement are going to be mainly about these autonomy-enhancing properties: it simply gives people a wider range of choices for how to make and shape their lives and frees them from the restricted menu that is available in their current location.

What are the counter-arguments going to be? I suspect there will be some who argue that we should hold back on pursuing free movement for some until we can achieve free movement for all. This was an argument put during the Brexit referendum by left-wing opponents of the EU who argued that European free movement is racist, since Europe permits free movement only to the predominantly white citizens of the European Economic Area and yet has a hard external border that keeps out Africans, Syrians, Iraqia, Afghans etc. Of course the hard external border is wrong, but the idea that we should deny freedoms for some until we can achieve the same freedoms for all also seems unattractive, at least in some cases. So, for example, most states introduced universal male suffrage long before women got the vote, and it was always unjust that women were denied it, but should the earlier extension of the franchise have been resisted on the grounds of this injustice?

It may well be that there is a tension here though, because when states reach reciprocal agreements to extend the free movement rights of their own citizens, such agreements could include clauses requiring greater control of the movement of people who are not citizens of either contracting state, co-operation on wider immigration control etc. If so, the free movement of some would be bought at the price of limiting the movement of others, and such clauses are both unjust and inimical to the wider aim of promoting free movement.

Free of movement also comes, potentially, as a cost to those already in the places that people choose to move to or visit. I’m thinking here not of the familiar arguments that immigrants are bad for wages or whatever (arguments I generally find unconvincing) but rather cases involving not settlement but visiting. If you live in Venice or Barcelona then a high volume of tourists, while welcome for the money they bring, can also make life unbearable in other respects. I think in cases like this the right answer probably lies not in banning people as such, but rather in planning and regulating movement so that everybody who wants to visit has the opportunity to do so, even if they might have to wait until a slot is available.

Other issues are going to include the environmental costs associated with mass travel. If we want to combine the autonomy-enhancing possibilities of free movement with a concern with the planet and greenhouse gas emissions, then we have to develop means of travel that impose low or no carbon costs. In other words, freedom of movement justly pursued, will have to be free movement that does not impose unfair costs on others. There is no good environmental rationale to stop people from walking, cycling or swimming across borders, but other means of transport will need pricing or rationing mechanisms so that travel doesn’t impose unfair costs on others.

There are also barriers to free movement that people, especially younger and able-bodied people, don’t think about all that much. As we grow older (or if we suffer from a disability) it becomes difficult to move or even to visit another country unless you can be reasonably assured that your health care needs will be met there in a way that will not bankrupt you. One of the features of the UK’s Brexit deal was to preserve some reciprocal arrangements on health care, but when people turn 70 the additional insurance they need can still be expensive and can limit the time that they are covered when abroad. So if we want to promote access to free movement as a human good, then we also have to think about the kind of arrangements that permit those who are not young or able-bodied to travel elsewhere.

So, Crooked Timber readers, why do you think free movement is valuable for a person (if you do). And what arguments for and against it have I neglected to consider here?



Tim Dymond 04.04.22 at 12:20 am

In Australia, our governments are notorious for being obsessed with ‘border security’ against all manner of potential entrants – particularly refugees who arrive by boat. However during COVID not only the national government closed our borders, but the constituent state governments of the Australian Federation closed borders to each other. While some parts of Australia got hit particularly badly by the pandemic, border closures did slow the spread to other places until vaccines arrived. I realise extreme cases (such as COVID) make bad law – but closing borders did have a positive effect of slowing or halting the spread. Is there a way of combining the principle of free movement with the usefulness of borders in situations like a pandemic?


John Quiggin 04.04.22 at 1:56 am

You haven’t said much about the importance of being able to form permanent relationships with partners who don’t have citizenship of your own country, and to maintain permanent relationships with family members when separated by a national border. That seems to me to be the biggest issue of all.

As regards costs, one of the big perceived (and at least partly real) costs is that of the “left behind”, notably old people in declining areas from which young people are leaving.


Adam Roberts 04.04.22 at 7:34 am

I support immigration for several reasons, not least that it makes for a more ethnically and culturally diverse country (my country is England), and diversity seems to me a good, making the body politic stronger and more interesting: for example — not the most important example, but it’s one that has broad appeal — the more open borders of the mid-20th century led to a wealth and variety of different restaurants and national cuisines in every British town. The human rights inalienability mentioned in the blog is also an important consideration of course: that it is wrong to deny people the opportunities for them to flourish, wherever is best fitted for them to achieve that

But I don’t understand why the right-wing in my country is so hostile to immigration, just on a cost-benefit calculation. UK-born workers must be educated, their healthcare attended to through their childhood and adolescence and so on, before they can start to work, pay taxes and contribute to the common wealth. But adult immigrants come to us those expenses having been met by another country: they contribute to the national wealth through work and taxes without the debit side. Why wouldn’t you (assuming you are a free-marketeer, maximise-profit type rw-er) want that? Perhaps it only means I’m working with an outdated sense that the right-wing in my country is still a Thatcherite market-rules-all ideology (perhaps the current rw government, and its electoral appeal, draws on a Brexity, nativist, racist congeries of prejudices). Of course there’s a counter argument that countries, like the UK, that can attract qualified, talented immigrants are thereby depriving their homelands of these people and their skills and so impoverishing them.


Gareth Wilson 04.04.22 at 7:45 am

I thought all those British people who voted to restrict their travel to Europe were idiots. But then I realised that I’ve had the right to live and work in Australia for 45 years, and I’ve never taken advantage of it. I’d still vote against a “Tasman exit”, but it wouldn’t affect me personally. Presumably the Brexit voters had no desire or opportunity to work in Europe.


John Quiggin 04.04.22 at 10:45 am

@4 A striking feature of Brexit voters (often characterised as “Stayers”) is that so many of them were nostalgic about the old blue passport. They wanted to travel overseas, but not to live or work there.


TM 04.04.22 at 12:37 pm

Most people in the EU have already personally benefited from the ease of travel, to the extent that they have gotten so used to it they can hardly imagine it being any different. This includes tourism of course but so many people also have family or friends in other countries that they visit, or get visited by. I don’t know where to find good statistics regarding the number of people who work or have already worked or traveled in a different EU country but it must be a substantial proportion except among the old.

When border restrictions were imposed due to the Pandemic, people suddenly realized how much they missed open borders.


Matt 04.04.22 at 12:40 pm

They wanted to travel overseas, but not to live or work there.

A majority – I think a large one, but I’m too lazy to look it up right now – of people all over the world live very close to where they were born. In the US, about 72% of people live in or very close to the city they were born in, despite the fact that they US has a reputation as a place where people move around a lot, and there are no legal and relatively few cultural barriers to moving. For a large percentage of people the right to move to another country for good is a right they are not at all interested in.

This doesn’t mean it’s not an important right, or that it’s not an interest that should be protected. I’m sympathetic to all the points mentioned by Chris and others above. But, in thinking about how to address the issue, it might be useful to keep in mind that for most people it’s just not something they take very seriously. No doubt for many “remainers” the thought “what if you want to go live or work in Spain?” was about as persuasive or plausible as “what if you want to become a prima ballerina?” – maybe something to day-dream about but not a real consideration. Of course, that’s not so for everyone, but it is for most. (I’ve moved all over myself, and tend to feel a bit restless if I live anywhere for very long, but on the other hand, all of my siblings live in our (my) home town, even if they left for a bit, and are raising their kids there, close to our parents.) Again, this isn’t to denigrate the importance of the interest, but is, I think, worth thinking about when we think about how to present the case for the interest or right being important.


Sean 04.04.22 at 8:57 pm

Matt: I would hope that current events in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc. help people understand why the right to move from where you live can be a matter of life and death. Its in the third paragraph of the OP (“When philosophers and political theorists write about free movement …”) but I would emphasize it. The different situation of Central Asian refugees and Ukrainian refugees who wish to enter the EU makes it very clear why its dangerous to rely on the goodwill of destination countries.


M Caswell 04.04.22 at 9:30 pm

Without freedom of movement, borders are evil– a necessary evil, according to their defenders; an unnecessary one, according to their critics. With freedom of movement, borders can become profoundly beautiful.


Chris Armstrong 04.05.22 at 6:51 am

I’m glad you mention the planet’s natural and cultural heritage, Chris, because I think it’s a neglected argument. I’m not sure it’s as important as the ability to engage with like-minded others, but I think it’s very important. I think being able to engage with other ecosystems has really enriched my life and imagination, just as being immersed in other cultures has done. And of course I think that the effective freedom to do that should be more equally distributed.


J-D 04.05.22 at 8:46 am

But I don’t understand why the right-wing in my country is so hostile to immigration …

For the defenders of hierarchy, scapegoats for the ills produced by hierarchy can be useful.


John Quiggin 04.06.22 at 8:00 pm

Australians are becoming a bit less mobile, but still in any five year period, around 40 per cent move house and a large proportion of those change cities. In Brisbane, where I live now, natives are a minority, and even among them, a large proportion are “returners”, not “stayers”. And, excepting the last couple of years, nearly everyone travels internationally, despite the cost and distance. That seems to limit resistance to migration (30 per cent of the population is born overseas). There’s a widespread, but not intense, feeling that total levels are too high, cities overcrowded etc, but not a strong push to change things.


Stephen 04.07.22 at 6:45 pm

Adam Roberts@3:
“the more open borders of the mid-20th century led to a wealth and variety of different restaurants and national cuisines in every British town.”

It is possible to overstate a good case. I can remember good Chinese and Indian restaurants in British town, even quite small ones, before the opening of borders; and have since enjoyed the food of Thai, Mexican, Argentine, Persian and Turkish restaurants despite no very obvious opeming of borders to those nations.

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