Open borders in Scandinavia: a brief case study

Now here is an interesting account of migrant workers who live in overcrowded quarters and work for relatively magnificent wages doing menial work which natives don’t deign to do. The twist, of course, is that the migrants are Swedes working in Norway. It’s fascinating, and it illustrates, I think, to a large degree that the social problems presented by migrants will never go away completely.

After all, Sweden and Norway are both relatively rich countries with a shared culture and history. If ever there were two countries better suited for open borders, it’s hard to imagine, and so it is of course unsurprising that their borders are in fact open to each other. Yet none of this has made all the common stereotypes about migrant workers go away: Swedes are seen as living in filthy, overcrowded lodging, doing menial work and being uncouth, uncultured. Employers simultaneously prize them for their work ethic and willingness to accept lower wages than the natives.

All this of course overstates the tensions that exist between the two: clearly, Norway is not on the brink of social collapse because of a horde of unwashed Swedish masses. The natives and migrant workers may coexist uneasily, but I do not think anyone would suggest that Norway’s taking in Swedes has harmed Norway, or Sweden for that matter.

The lessons of this tale are many, and can really be marshalled to support any stance you like on open borders. What I would focus on is of course the optimism — that even if we can’t make inherent anti-foreign bias or mistrust of foreigners go away, there’s no reason to expect your society to break down just because you admit most any foreigner to work and live in your country. What a pessimist would focus on is how Norwegian issues with migrants might be magnified if Norway opened its borders to most anyone — since, after all, plenty of us around the world would be willing to take on Norwegian summer jobs that pay 30 or 40 US dollars an hour!

At the same time, one must be careful to nuance the picture: 13% of all Norwegian residents are already immigrants, with the top 3 source countries being Poland, Sweden, and Pakistan in that order. Poland and Pakistan are clearly no Sweden, and yet there is no evidence either that immigration is threatening Norway. The author of the Swedish migrant worker account asserts (without citation) that “Over the past ten years, Norway has taken in more foreign labor than any other European country.”

One might cite Norway’s immense mineral wealth as a factor in its resiliency to the harms of immigration here — it’s interesting to note that policies in natural resource-rich countries in general seem more accepting of migrants — think Canada, Australia, Malaysia, the UAE, and I suppose, Norway. But I am not sure if that is the whole story, as I can’t think of an obvious prima facie reason why mineral wealth, as opposed to wealth in other forms such as industrial or human capital, should substantially matter here. If we are talking about wealth redistribution to immigrants, that’s one thing — but a lot of these countries have limited if not zero redistributive policies for many if not most migrants. Good luck trying to take advantage of the UAE or Malaysian welfare states — and it’s not like Canada or Australia are giving away the farm to most people who come over either.

Overall, I think the Norwegian case supports revising upwards our prior probabilities of the potential success of open borders. At the very least, it supports that relatively uncontroversial (I hope) notion that more liberal immigration policies in some countries would be a good idea. It certainly does little, I think, for the common supposition that rich countries generally either don’t benefit much from immigration, or are actively and substantially harmed by immigration.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


One thought on “Open borders in Scandinavia: a brief case study”

  1. You write: “I can’t think of an obvious prima facie reason why mineral wealth, as opposed to wealth in other forms such as industrial or human capital, should substantially matter here.”

    The prima facie reason is that mineral wealth is less likely to get corrupted, whereas human capital-related wealth relies on a network of trust and cooperation that can easily get disrupted by migration, if migration leads to a decline in social capital. Note what this is saying: it’s not just saying that migrants have low social capital themselves, and this brings down the average. The argument, rather, is that migration breaks down the bonds of trust and other forms of social capital between natives, and this form of disruption is something to which mineral wealth would be more resilient.

    Is that what actually happens? I think that the case for social capital decline is overstated. That said, I think this is the first-cut prima facie reason why mineral resource-rich countries might be more resilient to immigration in ways that other countries are not. On the other hand, it might also mean that mineral resource-rich countries have less of a potential upside from immigration — Silicon Valley, which relies almost exclusively on human capital, probably has far more to gain from open borders than Norway.

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