TCS Daily

The Socialist International Paradox

By Kim Eskildsen - March 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Europe's welfare states are under pressure, presumably because of their increasingly burdensome elderly populations. So the myth goes, but the myth is wrong. The population of Europe is aging, it is true, but that would not be a problem if Europe had a rational economic system combined with a healthy immigration policy. Unfortunately, we don't.

During the last three or four decades Europe has opened its borders to immigrants, who often come from the Middle East. Besides the cultural challenges of that specific kind of immigration, the logic of the welfare system is being challenged to a degree that is leading to its collapse.

In the US a parallel trend is taking place, although with Hispanics. Those who are fortunate enough to get past border control are usually absorbed by a hungry low-wage labor market. The opposite is the case in Europe. If immigrants from the Middle East manage to enter Europe they usually end up on welfare programs. Since European wages are high and welfare subsidies rather generous, too many low skilled people end up in European suburban ghettoes receiving welfare benefits, dreaming about the nicer climate at home, growing steadily more hostile towards a society which hesitantly let them in the country but keeps them out of the labor market. Most of this immigration is driven by an urge of the immigrant to be better off than in the underdeveloped Middle East and the entrance permit is given out of mercy.

Europe is built on the old corporatist idea of guilds admitting members, and excluding those perceived as unwilling to compete on a "fair basis" (i.e., keep a high minimum wage and price on a job). But at the same time mainstream European political parties claim to sympathize with the Third World. It might be that mainstream Europe sympathizes with developing countries, but that certainly doesn't mean Europeans sympathize with immigrants threatening their welfare system. In reality a totally arbitrary immigration system has been constructed in Europe. There is no green card model, except for a few IT-wizards reluctantly being admitted into the European Union. People who manage to prove that they have escaped oppressive political regimes might get in, if they make it through the border control by uttering the secret password: Asylum.

The fortunate ones soon find themselves enmeshed in a Kafkaesque system of dehumanization with the ultimate aim of making the immigrant a welfare client.

The European left wing, by which I mean 60-80 percent of all of its politicians, considers itself very anti-racist and tolerant. It has managed to show mercy without threatening the eternal balance of the labor market. Maybe taxes will have to be raised due to this strange manner of marginalizing potential cheap labor, but that does not seem to bother the tax-happy European electorate. One good explanation for that is that a majority of the electorate has itself been entangled in the welfare subsidy web, and is unwilling to liberate itself from this dangerous addiction.

Last year the EU enlarged to include 100 million new people, among them lots of potentially lower-cost workers in Eastern Europe. But most of the "developed" welfare states of the EU demanded transitional periods before those wage-pressuring people were allowed to work freely throughout the bloc. The countries most eager to protect their national labor markets are at the same time those most eager to promote international solidarity. But when it comes to cheap labor the borders are closed and the term illegal immigrant takes on a spine-chilling significance.

Anybody who argues that the welfare system will be harmed by Middle Eastern immigration will soon find himself being blacklisted from public life, even though the most eager blacklister might use his spare time tracking down "illegal" Eastern European workers. You recognize these people by their Palestinian headscarves, Cuban cigars, and anti-American sloganism blaming the US and Israel every misery on earth.

When you confront them with this paradox they won't understand you. Often I ask these people: "If you are anti-racist, showing solidarity with the people of the Third World, and you are into free immigration of victims, then why do you not support your countries' welfare benefits being distributed equally among all the poor of the world? If only you want the welfare subsidies of your arbitrarily defined national state distributed among those people who by chance ended up within these borders, then you in reality are a national socialist."

Usually the discussion ends soon thereafter, but to this date I have had no rational explanation for this paradox from people claiming that they believe in global equality.

The author is a fellow at MarkedsCentret think tank in Denmark.



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