“Imagine there’s no countries/It isn’t hard to do” – John Lennon
In 1990, for the first and only time in history, a capitalist state, West Germany, reunited with a socialist one, East Germany. What followed serves as an adequate representation of the effects of removing a border: the merging of two different economies caused a detrimental effect on the German welfare state, which needed to be publicly financed by high employment and productivity.
Unfortunately, unemployment skyrocketed to 4 million in 1992, East German industrial production plummeted 72% in the same period, and Germany was sent into an economic recession2. There was a clash of political ideologies, and the German government feared a mass exodus from the East to the economically favourable West.3 Yet, miraculously, Germany’s economy has resurged and boomed since 2010, to attributing nearly 8% of global exports in 2011.4 On the one hand, there is the idealistic view of a homogeneous economic and political world without borders which John Lennon has popularised in popular culture since 1971; on the other hand, geopolitical chaos, which certainly ensued in the case of Germany, seems inescapable.
Political and economic mayhem
In his article5, Xingting raised the example of NAFTA, which effectively removed an economic border between the US and North/Central America. The resulting influx of economic migrants from Mexico6 posed a major political problem: some US citizens feared a devaluation of their political integrity, calling for federal government action to strengthen border security and reduce illegal immigration. In a world where no immigration is illegal, it can be inferred that mass migration from regions of low economic opportunity to highly developed, economic safe havens will occur. Since it has been seen with the case of US/Mexico, public discrimination or exclusion may occur due to feeling “hard done by” by the intrusion. However, without rights to keep immigrants out, the disappearance of physical borders may result in social ones; perhaps a polarisation in wealth between existing inhabitants who hold tenure, and economic migrants will occur.
However, crucially, problems in areas of existing economic hardship will be amplified; current international migration poses many problems to the origin country. The ratio of young workers to elderly non workers in origin countries has been dropping hugely, causing a high dependency ratio and difficulties in maintaining social welfare systems. The phenomenon of “brain drain”, where skilled workers have been attracted to developed countries has caused a skill deficit in the origin country.7 With free immigration without borders, these issues will only be amplified by increased economic migration. Therefore, whilst it may be intuitive to assume that a borderless world will cause more equity across the globe, the actual effect may be quite the opposite.
Then there is the problem of government. The above diagram8 shows the diversity of the world’s systems of government. Borders act as political divisions, where across one boundary can be a radical change in how a state operates. In the case of North and South Korea, a one party totalitarian dictatorship simply cannot function with free movement of political ideals from a neighbouring capitalist state. Perhaps a reunification in this scenario could be preferable in the long term, however the initial economic crisis would be far worse than that of Germany, with an exodus costing over $1 trillion9. However, certainly in the case of China, an undermining of its socialist market economy would offset years of economic planning.10 Effectively, it would be difficult to impose hardline policies on any group of people. Naturally, wherever has the most desirable government will attract the most people; this also means that populations with similar political ideals will form, rather than ones with similar cultures. Xingting proposed in his article the idea that borders act as symbols of cultural identity. Without them, the subtleties of the world may homogenise.
However, that is not to say that a pre-existing borderless world cannot be better. There is a reason why things such as the European Union exist: borders restrict the flow of goods; open trade policy increases a country’s economic growth by 1.5% a year11. The concept of primary product dependency relies on the idea that countries are stuck in a cycle of low value exports and expensive imports.
Instead, if we had structured the world differently; regions of primary industrial activity and richness in raw resources freely trading with regions of secondary production with access to renewable energy, with high population metropolises dispersed across the world in areas of ideal accessibility and climate, all without borders; perhaps a utopian society could have been birthed. Specialist economic zones created by Deng Xiaoping worked in China; they could work even better on a global scale with free trade. TNCs could thrive further, companies could experience the multiplier effect. If the world had taken on not the model of animals, territorial creatures, but of fungi: a synergised network of economic activity, pulsing together in rhythm; perhaps things could have been very different.
It is the hypothetical nature of the argument for no borders which is its flaw. There is already concrete evidence for the negatives removing borders may bring, and countless more effects, social, environmental, may yet have been foreseen. It is clear that in the current state of the world, borders are very much beneficial; they act as boundaries for a government’s power; they retain cultures, protect peoples. Yet, they restrict people’s opportunities for change; they restrain trade; they separate the rich from the poor. Perhaps the ideation of borders within society was inevitable; it is within our instinct to be territorial, to be defensive. Perhaps it is for the better. However, I can’t help but wonder at the endless opportunities a borderless world might have brought – the utopia which could have been.
1 Ghaussy and Schäfer, The Economics of German unification (1993) p 64
2 Burda, Michael C., and Jennifer Hunt. “From Reunification to Economic Integration: Productivity and the Labor Market in Eastern Germany.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, vol. 2001, no. 2, 2001, pp. 24-27
3 Christian Dustmann, et al. “From sick man of Europe to economic superstar: Germany’s resurgent economy.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28.1 (2014): 167-88.
4 Xinting, Adrian W. “Violence at the border: borders and their deleterious socio-political effects on international migrants”
5 Nevins, J., 2010. Operation gatekeeper and beyond [electronic resource]: the war on illegals and the remaking of the U.S.-Mexico boundary 2nd ed., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge.
6 Baptiste, Nathalie (25 February 2014). “Brain Drain and the Politics of Immigration”. Foreign Policy In Focus.
8 The Economic Costs of Korean Reunification, Joon Seok Hong, Stanford University.
9 Rambures, Dominique (2015). The China Development Model: Between the State and the Market.
10 Stanford Graduate School of Business, Economics Research: What Would Happen if We Removed Borders? (2004).