In the modern world, political leaders queue up to wax lyrical about the wonders of the free market. Free markets, David Cameron tells us, improve “human wealth and happiness”, “lift people out of poverty” and even “promote morality”. Well isn’t that fantastic! The neoliberal ideology espoused by Cameron promotes the free market as the path to human salvation, where human wellbeing rests on the simple, unadulterated function of movement, trade and capital. Just try telling that to the “bunch of migrants” trapped in a living hell in the refugee camps at Calais or Dunkirk. Because within the bizarre neoliberal ideology stands an increasingly tense and untenable contradiction; if free markets are the magic bullet for human success and prosperity, why are we increasingly cracking down on the free movement of people?
Reports from the likes of the European Union have noted the many benefits migration can bring to developing world while simultaneously finding ever more elaborate, expensive and destructive ways to slam the door in the faces of developing world migrants. In fact, the European Union and its member states often link foreign aid directly to the enactment of migration control policies from these beneficiary states. Immigration policies in the developed world increasingly favour systems that encourage migrants with specific skills that are in short supply, while rejecting those who do not. Migration is increasingly about what you have to offer, not how much you deserve.
The neoliberal ideology argues that a successfully functioning free market is self-balancing, as people are able to relocate to areas of higher prosperity, thus sharing the wealth of these areas more equally. Yet free market principles are unevenly applied to different types of commodities, with the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund chasing free market movement of goods and capital with considerable ideological zeal, which governments remain ever-more hostile to the free movement of labour. Ignored scholars studying neoliberalism, as well as neoliberal economists themselves, have frequently pointed this out. Writing in The Financial Times, for example, Martin Wolf argues that “controls on immigration create the world’s biggest economic distortion – the discrepancy in rewards to labour” but that “nobody seems to be suggesting the obvious answer: free migration”. In short, migration restrictions are a tacitly ignored contradiction of free market ideology, despite undermining the core component that, according to the theory, makes free market economics work: competition. If movement of people is restricted, money can move into areas of higher wealth but people cannot follow it, thus an increasingly large amount of money is shared by the people within that restricted area with decreased competition for those financial resources. The current neoliberal order is therefore not a free market at all, but instead operates to move money from areas of deprivation to areas of prosperity. Africa, it is estimated, loses $192bn per year to capital flight, a direct result of its position within the global financial free market, but this is an irrelevance to the very people propagating free market theory. This partially free market therefore has the opposite effect that a truly free market would purportedly have, in that it actually greatly distorts the market and exacerbates inequality. Put simply, the free market we are told has made us all the prosperous simply doesn’t exist.
The tragedy of this is that these contradictory and destructive policies leave desperate migrants with little choice but to attempt increasingly dangerous journeys to achieve their dream of a safer life. Between January and September 2014, at least 4,077 migrants died trying to achieve the market-driven dream of a better life, 3,072 while crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Neoliberal ideology fails to note that its unbalanced, incoherent free market policies are the direct cause of enormous global inequality, and, as the Spanish Guardia Civil responsible for policing Spain’s borders ironically notes in their training material, migrants “will keep coming since there exists no wall capable of stopping people’s dreams”. As different routes are reinforced, migration flows simply move to the next path of least resistance, until this one is also restricted and they are forced to move to a new route again, with their methods becoming increasingly dangerous with each further step. As illegal immigration becomes more and more difficult, the profits made by people smugglers facilitating illegal immigration increase, directly funding other forms of criminality like drug smuggling. The irony of illegal immigration restrictions and their destruction of the free market of movement is their creation of a dangerous criminal free market outside of official control.
Controlling immigration overwhelmingly benefits large multinational corporations at the expense of individuals; preventing workers migrating from the developing world maintains an oversupply of labour which depresses wages and therefore maintains low costs (and poor working conditions) in the manufacturing sectors of emerging economies. In the developed world, if these multinationals require skilled workers that are not available, current neoliberal migration policy will still allow them entry on condition of job fulfilment, but only if this is perceived to be financially beneficial to the host country. Unlike free market ideology, which dictates that everyone must be liberated to follow their own entrepreneurial freedoms, mobility has become a privilege of the wealthy, who can settle freely in virtually any country in the world, while those from much poorer states are heavily restricted by visa regulations and residency permits which are much harder to obtain. Quite literally, many countries of the Global North demand that residents of ‘high risk’ developing countries prove they have a certain amount of money in their bank account before they are granted even temporary access. In the UK, even existing British citizens must earn £18,600 per annum before their foreign spouse is permitted residency, demonstrating just how much immigrants are viewed purely in financial terms.
European societies have actively reinforced the idea of ‘economic migrants’ who wish to enter the EU for improved employment opportunities as a negative force that threatens European cohesion. The implication is that those who simply want to work in countries of the Global North are undeserving of that opportunity because they have not been forced to move under threat of death, just severe hardship. British Home Secretary Theresa May, for example, has underlined the importance of measures to “ensure that people arriving at Europe’s borders are being properly dealt with… so that… when they are illegal economic migrants they can be returned”. The implication is clear: those who are travelling under the free market ideology of liberated “individual entrepreneurial freedoms” have no right to stay in Britain and will be turned away.
Clearly, then, the free market is an ideology that gets willfully abandoned by its rich and powerful proponents when its ideology no longer suits their self-interested cause. The US-led neoliberal hegemony largely encompasses democracies, whose leaders are responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of their voting public, or the satisfaction of their best intentions or worst prejudices. Free market ideology that demands the free movement of people is unacceptable to Western populations when they believe that migrants will take something they have. This has been seen even within the comparatively wealthy states of the EU; the British hysteria surrounding relatively poor Bulgaria and Romania joining the single market showed the power of paranoia among democratic voters when it appeared that migrants might threaten their wealth. Sometimes free market ideology suits the Western agenda, at other times it doesn’t, and is shown the door. It’s a shame the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean or festering in concentration camp conditions in Calais, who have had free market ideology destructively thrust upon them, do not have this option.