Free to roam

Spare a thought for the hapless international air traveller. Not only is s/he subject to confusing and illogical security requirements and passenger safety announcements, but s/he must also furnish him/herself with a passport at his/her own expense, and fill in various forms as the price of admission to another nation.

I am essentially hostile to the whole idea of passports. Partly because they are unnecessarily difficult to use,but more fundamentally because I can not see why free people should be required to let governments know where they are going, or why. Passports are obviously useful given that the world is separated into states and governed by governments, but they have become an overly powerful instrument of control, and I think our lives would be better if we radically scaled back their use. This will be tricky, but I have some ideas.


As noted, passports are very useful. I can see two main purposes. One, they let you go from country to country, and two, they enable you to identify yourself to others as definitely being you in a highly-trusted way.

If we weighed up the costs and benefits of passports, then I think we would overall conclude that they make the world a better place and therefore should be retained rather than completely abolished (at least while we still have this old-fashioned world split into states that like to define their own citizens and control their own borders).

But we could cut down the costs of getting and using passports for travelling across borders (purpose one) without losing their essential usefulness as a means of identification (purpose two). This would make the positive contribution of passports to the overall welfare much bigger, and generally make the world a better and more positive place to be.

The point of the identity checks at the border is basically to try to figure out whether an arrival will be of benefit to the country s/he is visiting. It is very difficult to answer precisely that question on an individual basis though. So the bureaucratic response is to divide arrivals up into categories and apply rules to them that, it is hoped, might help separate the wheat that a country wants to admit from the chaff that it wants to exclude.

I find this idea remarkable:

  • First, it seems highly improbable that one could identify anything useful about the benefits a new arrival will bring to a nation from a passport photo, a few answers on a form, and some questions put to you by a usually indifferent border-based bureaucrat.
  • Second, practically everyone is admitted anyway – they are almost all short-term visitors and they almost all go home again as planned, so the passport information and the form responses must be irrelevant in almost all cases to the question of whether to let someone in or not. In practice, the form is used to try to figure out if a visitor is likely to stay longer than permitted – and therefore should be forced to used the more circuitous immigration process. There is no read on the number of false negatives, i.e., people who are turned away or don’t bother to go through the process but who would have had a major positive impact on New Zealand.
  • Third, the evidence is that immigration is essentially a good thing in the long-term. On UK evidence the biggest downsides are to lower-skilled workers in an economic downturn (presumably on the basis that the immigrants themselves are lower-skilled), limited to the first few years and concentrated on migrants themselves, i.e., new migrants compete with earlier migrants rather than with long-established citizens (see also this). Immigration does not seem to drive up welfare payments on this evidence, and it seems hard to believe that we would run all of this complex system to try to detect the people who might come to New Zealand to get free health care.
  • Fourth, not only does getting a passport cost money and involve major hassles (although Armenia seems like a great place to be a citizen based on this survey since they don’t charge for it at all), but the costs of processing all those passengers is high as well. The New Zealand government will spend $183 million in this year on processing all those people, some or all of which is presumably paid by the travellers themselves as the price for their intrepidity in choosing to cross a border.

How did we get here

In practice in New Zealand we have to run an open immigration policy to compensate for the enormous outflow of people to Australia and other points abroad every year.

But I fear that passport control at borders, while well-motivated, has gradually become an instrument of oppression rather than freedom. Rather than starting from the point of view that governments should have to have a good reason to detain anyone at the border, we start from the point of view that people need permission to cross, implicitly saying that we need to stop everyone. Travellers need to prove themselves qualified to be allowed to cross the border, rather than governments taking responsibility for establishing who should not be able to and not molesting the rest of us.

The police are specifically prevented from detaining citizens unless they have some reasonable reason to think that they are doing something dodgy. The recent furore over Arizona is a demonstration of how strongly-held this principle is, even in the case of suspected illegal immigrants. If the police were set up like the border services, however, they would be empowered to stop everyone, and those detained would need to demonstrate at their own cost why they should be allowed to be free to go. This seems very bizarre.

Of course, we all submit, more or less resignedly, to these controls. As Proudhon had it in the middle of the nineteenth century (quoted by Mr Scott in his brilliant book Seeing Like a State):

To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about … To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevenued, reformed, redressed, corrected.

Partly we may have evolved this system because visitors don’t vote and immigration controls are a way to be seen to protect the nation from the image of ravening hordes washing up on one’s shores from an uncertain world. To me immigration control seems like a bureaucracy that has developed its system in its own interests, rather than in those of the public it is supposed to serve.

What must be done

Fortunately, I think there are many practical things that can be done to strike a blow for freedom, while still retaining passports for the moment:

  • Just let anyone in from particular countries – At the moment, New Zealand lets in anyone from Australia very easily (and vice versa), although travellers still have to fill in the forms. We could extend the same arrangement to everyone from the UK and USA to start with and see how that goes.
  • Target individuals of interest – This is how Customs go about their job of border protection, i.e., they look for people they think might be doing something dodgy, and then focus their enforcement energies on them. All the other people get to pass by unhassled. Airlines check a person’s name and photo at check-in anyway. The New Zealand authorities could review this information while the person is in flight, and then re-inspect only the people who were of interest.
  • Inspect people’s passports randomly – Since almost everyone who shows up at any border is just a visitor planning to go home to their own country, and almost everyone gets in anyway after answering some questions, there seems little value in inspecting everyone’s passport or running the complex immigration process. Instead there could be an approach based on randomly checking the identities of a few persons, and everyone else could just wander in and find their bags, and meander off to do whatever they came to New Zealand for in the first place.
  • Collect information once – There is clearly value in information on people coming and going between countries. In particular, it is the only regular, frequent data the New Zealand government collects on the skills of people joining and leaving the economy. This is why the form includes a question on occupation. Even then, one would have to wonder how reliable the responses are and there are many questions on the form (for example, name, date of birth, nationality, passport number) that are simply repetitive (given that you have to hand over your passport anyway), and other data (for example, flight number, port of embarkation) where the data could easily be got elsewhere without having to hassle passengers for it. In any case, it is not at all clear to me that all the information put on the form is actually used and useful (address information being a primary example, and don’t even talk to me about the fingerprints that the US authorities take on entry).
  • Only collect information from a sample of travellers – Following this train of thought a bit further, why not simply collect the information from passports automatically on checkin (this is name, date of birth, and nationality, and presumably destination and flight number), and then ask every tenth person to fill in the form. The sample size would still be big enough to deliver useful statistical information, but most passengers would be free of the hassle of bothering with the form.

All helpful steps on the way to greater practical freedom for citizens of the world.