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Money isn’t restricted by borders, so why are people?

Giles Fraser

Theresa May won’t be around in the early 22nd century when, according to Star Trek at least, Dr Emory Erickson will have invented the transporter – a device that will be able to dematerialise a person into an energy pattern, beam them to another place or planet, and then rematerialise them back again. In such a world people will be able to move as quickly and freely as an email.

The philosopher Derek Parfit has rightly questioned whether such a thing is even philosophically possible: will the rematerialised person be the same person as the dematerialised one, or just a perfect copy. (What would happen if two copies of me were rematerialised? Would they both be me?) Parfit thus raises a fascinating philosophical question about what we mean by personal identity – or what makes me me.

But, just for the sake of argument, imagine what such a device would do to Mrs May’s keep-them-all-out immigration policy. With the transporter, there could be no border controls and no restrictions on the free movement of individuals.

Economic migrants would love it. People will be able to live and work where they like, beaming instantly from Syria to Sussex or indeed to Saturn. And because of this, the whole concept of the nation state will eventually wither away. People will have become more powerful than the state.

Fanciful? Of course. Forget about the technical problems. The fundamental problem is that human beings are not fungible. A copy is not the same as its original. A person cannot be dematerialised into a series of digital zeros and ones, get beamed over space and be rematerialised as the same person.

But – and here is the really big thing – money can be. For the whole point about money is that it is fungible. It can be converted into zeros and ones and it can be digitally shot across space. And since the late 1970s, when capital controls were relaxed all around the world, and then even more so since the digital revolution, money has been able to go where it pleases, unimpeded, without any need for a passport or reference to border control. Every day, trillions of dollars are economic migrants, crossing boundaries as if they didn’t exist, pouring in and out of countries looking for the most economically advantageous place to be. And, just as with the fanciful people-transporter example, this free movement of capital is how the nation state is dissolving.

This week the OECD published a report on international companies and tax avoidance. Big companies like AstraZeneca are able to pay next to no tax in the UK because they just transport their profits to a low-tax regime in another country. Indeed, some countries, pathetically prostrating themselves before the gods of finance, exist for little other than this purpose. And so the situation we find ourselves in is that money is free to travel as it pleases but people are not. We have got used to this as the new normal, and it largely goes unremarked. Yes, there are a few on the libertarian fringe who recognise this as a contradiction and argue that people should be as free as capital. But the majority on the right do everything they can to protect the free movement of capital and restrict the free movement of people.

Which is why the neoliberal right in Britain has utterly contradictory instincts over Europe – they want the free trade bit but they don’t want the free people bit. And they scare us with how the free movement of people threatens our national identity but refuse to face the fact that the free movement of capital can be seen as doing exactly the same. They talk a good game about the importance of freedom: but it’s one rule for capital and another for people.

Of course the transporter won’t happen. But with the internet, the imagination can travel where it will. And that means poor people will always see and want what rich people have. And not even Mrs May will be able to stop them crossing dangerous seas and borders to find it.