The flood of illegal refugees into Europe might be our version of Attila’s march on Rome. But we are the barbarians.
What do you do with a man who slips across borders, puts his life at risk by jumping trains and trucks and crosses a continent to enter your country illegally? Give him a job, of course! Where else will you find that kind of ambition?
UK Prime Minister David Cameron sees things differently. He wants to build better fences, line them with sniffer dogs and toughen security. As he puts it “you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live”. Of course he would say that, but I understand his dilemma. Still, I think the best his approach will do is stick another finger in a crumbling dike.
The fact is that as soon our ancestors left their trees, they began moving towards greener pastures and richer hunting grounds. If they hadn’t, Britain wouldn’t today be inhabited. So telling people they mustn’t move from poor countries to rich ones is just plain daft. ‘But they must respect border controls!’ those who would pull up the drawbridges will insist. But let’s think that one through for a moment.
In 1800, average per capita incomes across much of the world were roughly on par. While every society had its rich and its poor, on average, what a farmer or tradesman got paid in China was roughly equivalent to what his counterpart did in Britain. Then began two centuries in which the Western countries, using every technological advantages they had at their disposal, tilted the seesaw upwards. British gunships opened China to opium exports from India, and thereby made the Chinese pay for imports from British factories. The US later did the same thing to Japan (minus the demand that the Japanese buy opium). Europeans, having just finished a couple of centuries of enslaving Africans and putting them to work on Caribbean and American plantations, then went into Africa and carved up the continent, creating imperial trade-zones which supported the expansion of European industry. In all of this our ancestors were going to where the riches were, and using them to make our lives better. And trust me, they weren’t stopping to ask permission at borders.
It would be an injustice to our ancestors, and to the historical record, to say that our wealth is merely the result of two or so centuries of plunder. We did more than simply live off the riches of other people. We used it to power technological change and raise incomes in such a way as to sustain demand for not just our industry, but the global economy as a whole. China went backwards and got poorer after its forced opening but many other parts of the world, like India, actually experienced rising incomes. But as I write in my upcoming book, The Money Cult (Simon & Schuster), colonial riches pumped the fire of our Industrial Revolutions higher; then, to ensure we got to keep a disproportionate share of the riches that resulted, we slapped controls at our borders. Incomes may have risen across the board in absolute terms, but they rose much faster in Western countries than in the colonies. Significantly, they rose in all Western countries, because while we controlled the flow of people and capital between our countries and the Third World, our governments were more liberal when it came to trade and the movement of people among the developed countries of the West. So Switzerland didn’t need to take colonies, since it was helping everyone bank their money.
The result is that by the middle of the twentieth century, the average Westerner had a per capita income that was now thirty times greater than that of a person in the colonies. Now, after the Second World War, European countries supposedly saw the light and gave their colonies independence. Yet the state system into which these new countries were born had already been created, with the United Nations regulating relations and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade governing trade. These bodies tended to operate to the advantage of the Western countries. Meanwhile, the initial lack of administrative capacity of most former colonies meant they turned inwards and tended to be rather passive at international negotiations. The end result was that the global economic structure remained more or less imperial, but with the cost of administration in the ‘provinces’ being out-sourced to a new set of what were, in effect, client-states. It was a big win for the West. The world economy continued operating to its advantage, but without the cost of colonial management. Not surprisingly, between 1950 and the turn of the millennium, that income-gap grew from 30:1 to 60:1. How could we honestly persuade ourselves we could maintain such an imbalance without some kind of response from the five-sixths of humanity marginalised by our model?
In The Fall of the Roman Empire, my friend and colleague Peter Heather has a lovely passage that challenges our assumptions about who the real barbarians were in the fall of the Roman Empire. Sure, the Romans built a fabulous civilization which gave us monuments, like the Colosseum, which still fill us with awe. But then they used the Colosseum to put on shows of feeding captives from their provinces to lions. In Heather’s reading of history, Rome fell to the barbarians because its triumphs came back to haunt it. Having originally gone into the provinces to plunder them, the Empire provoked peripheral states to organise for defensive action, to the point they were able to turn the tables on Rome.
Interestingly, in its latter stages, Rome also tried to out-source the cost of administering its provinces, and to buy off some of the more restive warlords, by turning them into client states. But this merely kicked the can down the road. These client-states were good for a time at maintaining peace on the Empire’s borders, but they proved too weak to resist the pressures that the attractions of the Empire’s wealth had to outsiders. When Attila led his army into the provinces, they began collapsing, and the jig was up. That’s a salutary lesson we should take into our assessment of the scenes in Calais and the European refuges crisis. Client-states that, even if notionally unfriendly to the West (like Syria, Iraq, or Gaddafi’s Libya), were effective at policing the frontier, have been collapsing in the face of the onset of their own economic imbalances: the rising population that has exceeded the ability of regimes to create enough employment opportunities. The Arab Spring that unleashed the anarchy we are now seeing across much of the Middle East and North Africa was largely triggered by unemployed youth, though opportunists like ISIS who would like to launch their own march on Rome then stepped into the resulting vacuums to gain advantage. Had we, way back when we dominated the world, spent more time worrying about the development of these poor countries and less time trying to get as rich as possible, we might not now be facing the crisis that is starting to get close to home.
But does that mean we are doomed to just collapse before an onset of a modern wave of invasion? Actually, the future may be rosier than that, and this refugee crisis could actually present us with a unique opportunity. I will write about that in another instalment of this series. The key thing to note for now, though, is that the world economy, which for two centuries operated to the West’s relative advantage, is no longer doing so. That, more than a tide of refugees, is the real tectonic shift of our time.