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I’ve heard a few people imagine an alternate history where people are completely free to live in whatever country they choose to. Countries/city states would have to maintain a high standard of living in order to keep people from moving away, creating an almost free market where nations compete to keep their citizens happy.

I’ve always sort of grouped this with sentiments like “instead of war we should play chess” which sounds amazing and would be great it just wouldn’t work very well in the real world. But recently with everything going on I’ve started to wonder if this could work.

So specifically, can anyone imagine a plausible scenario in which instead of nation states with defined borders and immigration policy, the world is instead made up of spheres of influence of various governments that allow people to move freely in and out of them.

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    $\begingroup$ Lots of things are possible. Lots more things could be possible. The real world's rewards and restrictions governing behavior have changed many times, and will continue to evolve. Worlds-without-borders and benevolent governance exist in other folks' fiction. They can in yours, too. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Aug 14 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ I think my big question is it possible for a modern world to have such a different concept of a modern nation state that there is no restrictions on immigration, and how could this world stay functioning. What issues arise? This isn’t so much for a story as much as this a utopian idea I heard years ago and I haven’t seen it debunked like a lot of other similar ideas $\endgroup$ – Alex Aug 14 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ Most of the planet Earth, up until about 200 years ago. Of course there may have been local variations, such as the locals killing or enslaving the newcomers, or vice versa. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Aug 14 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ The bit in the question about polities competing to have a high standard of living so people don't leave makes me suspect you misunderstand how immigration restrictions work. They're to keep people out, not to keep them in. With the possible exception of a handful of ultra-repressive dictatorships, anyone who wants to leave their country already can. The hard part is finding somewhere else that will let you stay there after you leave. $\endgroup$ – Dave Sherohman Aug 14 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ The question seems contradictory -- if these nations don't have borders, how can you move into and out of them? $\endgroup$ – workerjoe Aug 14 at 12:30

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Such a world has been the norm until roughly WW1

That was the time when mass transportation became cheap enough to even allow migration to be of sufficiently large enough numbers that getting more immigrants became a recurring problem. (Singular large-scale immigration incidents were handled on a case-by-case basis, sometimes repelled, even by military means, sometimes invited such as when Huguenots fled France and were welcomed by the King of Prussia.)

Borders did exist, but in the middle ages, they were more important for defining who can draw his income from what area of land; state bordes were only relevant to the kings, much less to their barons, and totally irrelevant for peasants.
Law didn't regulate day-to-day issues, that was left to the local population, who defined their law. So emigrating to a different countrly was just as easy or just as hard as relocating to another village!

As travel became faster and cheaper, immigration became more common, so issues around immigration (such as immigrants not knowing or not caring about local law) became more commonplace, so immigration laws sprung up, and border controls became more important to be able to enact those laws.

Another reasons for immigration control were epidemics.
If you know that Genua has an outbreak of The Plague, you want to know where your immigrants are coming from, so you can turn any Genuese away. This didn't help much, but the ability to tell where somebody came from was useful in other ways, so whenever a stricter identification scheme was introduced, it stuck, and the world gradually moved from travel permits to passports to border controls to security checks.

Since this checking was annoying and time-consuming, actors tend to cut that down; the world has been trying to find a new balance for this, and different areas have been experimenting with different policies, according to administrative capability and need.

So, for worldbuilding, you need to know what your states' needs and capabilities are, and organize them so they either cannot or don't want to enforce border controls.
A world where states are powerless to enforce immigration would be one answer - this could be either medieval (lack of capability to control), or very modern (legal restrictions over controlling immigration).
The other answer would be a world where states are disinterested. People would have to be powerless to do anything relevant (a machine world where humans do not matter much at all and are a nuisance at best), or a post-scarcity post-epidemic world (Iain Banks as written a lot in such a setting). Humans would have to be unable to access weapons of mass destruction, such as explosives or bioweapons, to make that work - otherwise you need to control humans for their motives, which usually translates to controlling their origin.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the only answer that points out that the "inevitable" immigration control is a recent artifact of history. The fact that the modern nation-states themselves are also a recent artifact might be worth mentioning. $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 14 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Another issue on these lines is welfare payments. If citizens are entitled to something that foreigners are not, then there is an incentive to be very particular about who does or does not belong. But for a long time, there was no such issue. $\endgroup$ – Robyn Aug 14 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ I've always had the impression that a lot of governments historically didn't do much about this either because a.)they had excess population and were glad to be rid of some of it, or b.) They assumed people didn't have much mobility and were therefore unlikely to leave. Cultural differences were also a high barrier to people leaving their homeland in the past. My ancestors were shipped off as teens unescorted to the US to avoid being drafted into the Prussian army, relying on German-speaking church groups in the US for support when they got here. Their parents couldn't afford to come. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Aug 14 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ This is rather skewed. This was true during the age of colonialism because governments wanted thier people to spread out to deal with overpopulated motherlands and underpopulated fronteers, but in the grand scheme of things, not so much. In the ancient and medieval period most people were owned to some degree or another, and were not free to leave thier lord/master's service. And if you were free, you would have likely had some level of citizenship that is non-transferable. So, while a citizen of Athens could live in Carthage, he could not hope to be a citizen of Carthage. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Aug 14 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I agree that there were many more obstacles to emigration than just cost of travel. It's just that this answer is already too long to elaborate on all these details. (It's also somewhat rambling, but I couldn't easily come up with a more focused text; feel free to set up a better one :-) ) $\endgroup$ – toolforger Aug 15 at 8:02
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When people aren't important to governments:

In a post-scarcity future where people are citizens (or not), then those people are not a significant issue for governments to deal with. Property is owned by governments, or perhaps AI's who actually DO all the work. Taking care of citizens is a relatively trivial issue, so the government feeds anyone who asks for food, arrests anyone who breaks a law, and provides free housing for anyone who wants it, wherever they happen to be. The important things to governments, like mines, power stations, citizenship of AI's, and manufacturing facilities, are all unaffected by the petty needs of mere humans.

Doubtlessly, some governmental AI is tracking everyone in the world constantly, but that is easy. The government simply DOESN'T CARE if citizens leave. They don't NEED people any more. Anywhere they go, the same rules apply. When people aren't needed for labor,they aren't a threat and aren't an asset. At the same time, the people have no say in how things are run, because even if there was voting, there are 200 trillion AI personas with voting rights, so human input is irrelevant. Humans can't sabotage anything, as machines are watchful and smarter than we are. Humans can't betray their state, as nothing they could do is a real threat.

So if you want governments to have no restrictions on what people do or where they go, simply make people unimportant to the state. Humans are a side issue, a distraction from the new upgrade to national computing systems and the exploratory mission to Alpha Draconis.

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    $\begingroup$ We track hundreds of thousands of birds as they migrate across the world yet nobody complains about ‘Those damn immigrant geese coming here and stealing our breadcrumbs’. Why would we? The geese aren’t relevant... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Aug 14 at 8:51
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Nomads.

sioux

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sioux

Nomadic people range over large territories. Within a territory one would likely have an idea of what peoples one might encounter there. The inhabitants might attack you, or welcome you, or ignore you but not because of the particular piece of ground where you met; it is just because you met. If people decide to range more widely there is nothing stopping them. You can go where you want to go. If you decline to go into a place occupied by a given people, it is because you are avoiding those people, not because of rules they are enforcing about arbitrary boundaries.

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  • $\begingroup$ This was my first thought, but it made me wonder if instead of border control, there would be migration route control. $\endgroup$ – Pureferret Aug 14 at 13:56
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Today, overpopulation is a problem. We procreate faster than we are able to generate jobs.

That's the main issue: immigration is seen as a threat to wealth because of additional hungry mouths to feed.

This is not true. Economists around the world show regularly that immigrants increase wealth and boost economics wherever they go. That's because they have an adventurous mindset which let's them take more risks when founding a company. They are also more likely to take jobs the natives don't want if they don't make their own enterprise.

However, what I said first is what the people feel. And that is why so many governments close their borders, it's pressure from within.

Now take the US as example. They are a bond of many states with different laws, sometimes different cultures and totally free movement. Also, there are really vast differences in richness.

And do all the poor people from the central land storm the islands of richness? No they don't, as long as they can reasonably stay where they are, close to their friends and relatives. They even accept poverty if they just can stay where they were born.

So if a policy would be set up worldwide, which allows to manage countries in a way so that they all become safe places to stay in, migration will become a non-issue. Then you can as well open the borders.

Today it's a sad fact that there are countries where you starve or get bombed if you stay. Yes of course, this is where people leave. Because they have no choice.

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    $\begingroup$ Increasing GDP isn't really relevant. What counts is increasing GDP per capita. High immigration actually correlates with low wage economies. $\endgroup$ – DrMcCleod Aug 14 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ @DrMcCleod: IIRC it also correlates with high wage inequality countries... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Aug 14 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ Continuing the US example, to scale up to global proportions would require a single global federation which forbids its constituent states to regulate migration and prevents any state or combination of states achieving sufficient combat power to usurp its authority. You might want to contrast that with other recent examples such as the EU and USSR. But fundamentally, if you want uniform practice over a certain area, it needs a single government with sole jurisdiction over that area and practice. $\endgroup$ – Mark Wood Aug 14 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Down-voted for the tiresome, lazy definition of “immigrant”. There are many types of immigrant. For example there are indeed enterprising, hard-working migrants who obey the law, pay taxes and make an overall contribution. Then there are those who migrate to get free benefits, and a taxpayer-funded house without making any contribution (thus costing the taxpayer). It’s not black & white, and perpetuates misconceptions about “immigrants” in both directions to use the word like that. $\endgroup$ – Chris Melville Aug 14 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ Incorrect. And as evidence, the countries with the strictest immigration control have the lowest birthrate. The problem is not "we can't feed these people (the world could feed everybody in it if it wanted to) the problem is "we don't want and can't afford to give these people to have the same lifestyle as us". $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Aug 14 at 17:48
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Sure, if one group conquers the world and oppresses or kills everyone who disagrees with them.

Simply put, one of the reasons why there is friction between groups is because different groups of people have different desires and values as a part of their culture. The only way to stop this is to get rid of local cultures by creating a single, hegemonic global culture that everyone is a member of.

The simplest way for this to occur is through military conquest and genocide. More subtle methods involve the sorts of slow cultural assimilation and obliteration championed by modern-day "globalists" that seeks to impose a certain type of international Western culture on the entire world through propaganda and consumer products.

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Your entire life has been as a fish in an ocean, so you don't know a word for "wet" or "dry".

The modern nation state is, well, modern. It is a recent innovation. A blink of an eye ago, personal loyalty to a crown was the closest thing you had to it.

Immigration restrictions where even more recent than that in most of the world. People where relatively free to move into your area; if they where unable to support themselves and proved a nuisance, the locals could just kick them out or kill them (I'd say "the local police", but police are also a recent invention).

Much of what you presume is inevitable is just an accident of history, where some area comes up with a social pattern that other areas duplicate.

Right now, there are four large empires -- India, Europe, China and the USA -- which are each as large economically and population-wise as the world was not that long ago, and a number of smaller (economically or population wise) polities. Within them, to a greater or lesser extent, you have free movement of people.

With modern transportation technology, completely free movement of people would lead to significant migration. Typically, migration grows when wealth per person becomes a large multiple, and in our world there are areas that are 100x poorer than others.

In the last 20 years we have begun to eliminate absolute poverty. There are now fewer absolutely poor (using many measures; Y2K 1$ USD@PPP a day is an example of one) in the world right now than we have lifted out of poverty in the last 20 years.

Assuming the various crisis (fall of the Western British Empire, climate change, MAD, etc) going on don't derail the efforts, it is plausible that absolute poverty becomes a small problem within decades, and the global middle class swells to the point that huge chunks of the world can open up free migration without overwealming immigration flows occurring.

It becomes plausible that 60%+ of the world becomes a free-movement zone. The remaining parts will probably form imitation free-movement zones of smaller size, as politicians are nothing if not copy cats.

TL;DR much of the world is already there, just the bubbles are not connected. Having a free movement North America is quite plausible, then linking North America to Europe, and from there to the entire former USSR and East Asian democracies would be doable even without a significant economic upheaval (and would be an example of how the Western British Empire could delay its fall). The resulting political block would have the highest population, military might, and economic strength on the planet. (1.7+ billion people, 50+ trillion GDP 50+ million km^2 area)

(This is over 1/5 of the world's population, 1/3 of the world's land area, and 1/2 of the world's GDP).

Then other pieces of the world would seek to mimic it.

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Freedom of Immigration vs. Freedom of Emigration

To leave your country is an internationally recognized human right. To enter another country requires the permission of that country. This permission is granted when it benefits the receiving country, and it is also supposed to be granted at the first safe stop when a refugee flees from persecution. That leaves the right to emigrate a hollow promise when it comes to people from underdeveloped countries surrounded by other underdeveloped countries, or people from economically underdeveloped countries without gross persecution.

So you would have to create a situation where many/most countries actively want to recruit citizens.

  • Create a setting where even unskilled, elderly and infirm workers are a benefit to the economy. That sounds medieval, with lots of manual drudge work and no need to pay pensions or healthcare for the elderly. Would the right to emigrate survive under those conditions?
  • Create a setting where a high population, by whatever means, benefits the country. Say there is a global regime of emission credits keyed to population. This emissions trading is backed by a stronger UN which also protects human rights like the right to emigrate.
  • Create a strong legal tradition where computer programs cannot enter contracts, but people can enter contracts through computer communications. That creates a labour market for "signers" -- people who sign, in the name of the internet company, whenever the computer tells them to sign. This creates a "man in the loop" without any decisionmaking, just to cross all t's and dot all i's.

But all those situations mean break down if the country spends more on the citizen than it gains from the citizen. And that almost precludes your idea of high-standard-of-living countries which let anyone in.

Compare the EU Blue Card, which is keyed to a binding job offer at 1.5 times the average salary. Most people who can earn a salary in the $500,000-range already could immigrate into most countries in the world. It is the people without a job, or with a low-paying job, who get stopped by visa requirements.

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If there is a reasonably uniform standard of living, economic development, social welfare, education etc.

The EU already has a freedom of movement and freedom of residence policy. Which means EU citizens can just travel and live where they want to (within the EU).

There have been problems with people from countries with a weaker social welfare system taking advantage of social welfare in richer countries. And recently the whole system has been somewhat suspended because of Corona. But overall ir has worked quite well during the last two or so decades.

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  • $\begingroup$ It worked well when all member countries had very similar economies, and the give & take was roughly equal. However when the EU expanded to include countries with much poorer economies, the movement of people was only one-way - and the give & take was no longer balanced. $\endgroup$ – Chris Melville Aug 14 at 16:41
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I see four other ways this could happen:

  • A powerful company taking the majority of the worlds employment. Employees can move anywhere the company tells them to, and governments have to shut up and take it.
  • Similar to the above; a powerful union forms from all employee unions on the planet. Enforcing border controls against union members could result in a total strike in your country. Once the union gets large enough border controls are no longer practical to enforce, even for non union members.
  • The planet is originally populated by colonisers who are already united. Eg 50 NASA ships land on Mars and establish colonies simultaneously.
  • Identity changes due to external growth. Eg establishing an intergalactic empire will blur the distinctions of states and countries together. How can I consider myself (Australian) different to a nearby New Zealander if we both identify as earthlings, and our news feeds concern us about immigration from other solar systems, and wars with neighbouring galaxies?
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No one seems to mention USSR, which controlled half the world. People could move more or less freely in that country. Like my grandparents, who would go to Georgia from Ukraine for vacation (or flee to Kazakhstan as Nazis were conquering Ukraine).

Not only that people could move "freely", the vast country had all possible geological resources and could rely on itself without any imports. There are also dark sides of it. People were forcefully moved around the country to "help cultivate the area" aka "go, build big road. if you die, you die, if not, go build another one" or just because they could (Tatars were forcefully removed from Crimea, despite them being there for several hundred years, came to crimea when Ottoman empire was on its height) Also this dark side is the dream of every vulture capitalist, who just want to pay less wages and have "slaves" (This is why there is a big push for all kind of unions, such as European Union, African Union, North American Union and so on)

George Orwell's 1984 also had something similar. I've read somewhere, that in the world of 1984 all of governments are actually allied, but throw occasionally bombs on each other to keep people in a state of fear and create a neediness for a government. Wars against Oceania etc. are all propaganda.

Also there is a study or something similar, which I came across in my time in University, where it says that if there were no borders, 80-90% or more would all move to the wealthy countries, making the wealthy countries to "shitholes" and their own 3d world countries would become a paradise, because there is almost no one left there and people can live like kings. Unfortunately I can't seem to find the right words to search for in google. Maybe someone knows about it. It was in connection with "brain drain".

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That's clearly the world we're heading towards, given the level of interest in this question. Remember, history is driven by human desires, and the more universal a desire is the more power it has to shape society. The desire to move and settle wherever one wishes is clearly a very powerful and very universal human desire. What stands in the way of this desire? I would argue that there are two main obstacles standing in the way.

The most obvious obstacle is of an economic and logistical nature. People do not tend to move and settle to random places on the globe. Rather, they prefer to move and settle to places with a high standard of living and with access to secure and good paying jobs. These places are typically cities, and more specifically, cities in developed countries. However, there is a limit to how many people can actually live in those cities without causing massive overcrowding and without causing the cost of living in those cities to skyrocket. This issue can be mitigated to some extent by building lots of high-rise apartments and/or expanding the city outwards (Melbourne is a good example of this), however, even then most people simply "cannot fit" in any given city. For example even if you somehow increased the "carrying capacity" of Los Angeles to 100 million (an insane amount), you would still exclude 98.7% of the world population from ever living in Los Angeles. What applies to particular cities also applies to entire countries as well, as this example can always be scaled up to larger populations.

The second obstacle consists of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences between countries. Mass immigration of foreigners into any given country will cause that country's unique ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identity to be weakened if not irrevocably destroyed. Assimilation of the foreigners mitigates this to some extent, however, assimilation is never fully succesfull because the foreigners often can and do look different from the host country's population (visible minorities) and they and their descendants know that their history is not the history of their host country. Therefore, to the extent that the host population wishes to preserve their unique ethnic, cultural, and linguistic identity they will support immigration restrictions.

However, if one looks at the younger generations around the world today it quickly becomes obvious that the linguistic and cultural differences between them are smaller than ever before in history. This is because most of these people spend a lot of their time on the internet, and the internet is the greatest cultural and linguistic homogenizer ever created. Since these younger generations all grew up in this same internet-based culture they will increasingly perceive the extant cultural and linguistic differences between their parents as anachronisms. The historical precedent for this consists in the development of modern newspapers and of the telegraph and railway networks in the early 19th century in Europe. These were also great cultural and linguistic homogenizers for their time and did much to erase local variation in culture and language, giving rise to national identities and leading directly to the unification of Germany and Italy (as well as to the breakup of Russia and Austria-Hungary). Insofar as the internet consists of the same phenomenon applied to a global scale a worldwide unification is inevitable, as the younger generations will no longer be invested in their local identities and those identities will perish. With no local identity and with everybody sharing the same internet-based culture any foreigners coming into a country will no longer be foreigners at all. This will remove the second obstacle to immigration completely.

The most likely result of all of this is that more and more countries will establish EU-style Schengen zones of free movement, at least between countries of similar GDPs per capita (to prevent a mad rush for the cities from millions of people from poor countries). To give a concrete prediction: I think free movement between the USA and Canada is very likely in the near future, as is free movement between the Commonwealth countries (CANZUK). Political unification will be more tricky, but seems inevitable in the long term going by the examples of Italy and Germany.

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