Thursday, December 20, 2012

Immigration to Sweden 1860-1914 [Updated]

Cato institute’s Johan Norberg argues that unrestricted immigration to Sweden is not “urealistic”, because Sweden had unrestricted immigration between 1860-1914.

”This proposal [open borders] is not based on an untested utopia, but on the realization that World War One is over. In 1860, Sweden and other European countries introduced open borders. Anyone was allowed to migrate and work freely.”

In this period there simply was no immigration pressure on Sweden. This is because the costs of moving from the third world to Sweden were prohibitively high compared to the gain, so virtually no one was able to migrate.

Of the Swedish population of five million, fewer than two thousand were non-western immigrants in 1900. That year according to SCB only 0.7 percent of the Swedish population was constituted by immigrants, and only 0.04 percent by immigrants from outside of Europe and North America. The number of immigrants from outside the West to Sweden was a rounding error a century ago. Nor was there any large scale migration from the other Nordic countries.

In the entire five decade period 1871 to 1920, only around 3700 individuals moved to Sweden from outside of Europe and North America. By comparison during the last decade alone the number of such migrants was over 400.000.

In the period Johan Norberg uses as evidence for open borders functioning well, immigration to Sweden from poor countries was virtually impossible, so the government didn’t bother to regulate it. This teaches us nothing about the effects of open borders today. 

You cannot draw far-ranging policy conclusions when the underlying technology changes dramatically between two periods. This is like saying that in 1860, we had no laws regulating seatbelts and no car accidents, which proves that we should abolish seatbelt laws are today. Or writing that the Moon has unrestricted migration, anyone can move to the Moon and work without causing any problems, which prove that open borders work.

Obviously we now also have the welfare state which makes things different from 1860. The classic libertarian argument “I support open borders and abolishing the welfare state” does not hold under closer scrutiny.

The welfare state is part of objective reality; not something you can simply assume doesn’t exist to make your answer to the dilemma easier. This is like saying “I support raising taxes on the rich, but I don’t support the rich investing less” and be proud of yourself for having solved the marginal-tax problem in a bi-partisan way. The policy question is that given that the welfare state exists and will exist, do you support open borders or not?

Many libertarians are not acting like adults in the immigration debate, relying too heavility on lightweight arguments. Concluding that that open borders today are realistic because Sweden had open borders in a historic period when there was virtually no immigration is not serious policy analysis


On facebook, Johan Norberg replies to me, writing: “Men det är ju en halmdocka - jag drog ju inte några slutsatser om hur det skulle funka i dag utifrån denna episod, jag använde det för att visa att det inte är någon historisk anomali, utan en fortsättning på en idé som under liberalismens storhetstid var rätt allmänt accepterad.”

Norberg argues that I am using a strawman and that he did not draw any conclusions about how open borders would work today based on the historic episode. It is hardly a strawman. Norberg directly linked the historic experience to the proposal by the Center-Party of enacting open borders today. He wrote:

“Idén om öppna gränser i Centerpartiets förslag till idéprogram framställs som obegripligt radikalt och orealistiskt. Men ett sådant förslag bygger faktiskt inte på någon oprövad utopi, utan på insikten att det första världskriget är slut. 1860 införde Sverige liksom andra europeiska länder fri ut- och invandring.”

(“The idea of open borders suggested in the Center-Party program is portrayed as extremely radical and unrealistic. However this proposal is not based on an untested utopia, but on the realization that World War One is over. In 1860, Sweden and other European countries introduced open borders. Anyone was allowed to migrate and work freely.”)

In my reading Norberg is unambiguously drawing on the realism of open borders today based on what happened in the period following 1860. I leave it up to readers to decide if this reading is a strawman. 

Norberg writes a longer reply (in Swedish):

“Det här har jag själv varit med om många gånger:
1) Man får bilden av en artikel av rubriken, och glömmer att den inte är satt av artikelförfattaren.
2) Man hittar någon mening i artikeln som vagt påminner om rubriken och får därför intryck att det är temat.
3) Man hittar ingen argumentation för det temat.
Då kan man antingen:
3a) Skriva ett triumferande och indignerat inlägg om att det inte finns några argument för det man tror att artikeln ska argumentera för.
3b) Ta en kaffe.”

If I would have taken a cup of coffee instead of replying, some Metro readers would have been left with the impression that open borders in 1860-1914 was an argument in favor of introducing open borders today. Now we have confirmed that it is not. We also learned the extent of immigration to Sweden in that period, which Norberg did not provide data on in his article.

Another libertarian in the same thread criticizes me by writing that while Sweden may not had large scale immigration, Europe as a whole did. This is also incorrect. Based on historic statistics reported in this U.N report, only 2.3% of the Western European population was foreign born in 1910 (not all western European countries are included but that would not change the picture).

In an article about historical regulation of immigration, sociologist Brendan Mullan writes:
“Until the second half of the twentieth century Europe experienced no sustained major migration inflows and consequently with no pressing need for regulation“

Because very few poor people could migrate to Europe in this period due to costs, policy makers and liberal intellectuals simply did not deal with issues related to open borders we face. The experience of 1860-1914 is virtually worthless for deciding how open borders would work today (note too that we already have what they had in practice, namely open borders within Europe). Writing “World War I is Over so let’s open the borders again” is hence an invalid argument.


  1. Wasn't Sweden dirt poor at the time? Swedes moved out in droves to the US. Industrialisation had AFAIK a late start in Sweden. Living standards used to be determined much more by factors like climate and fertile soil. And Scandinavia is an unforgiving place. The only reason the place is inhabited is because the better parts of Europe were already allocated.

  2. A total misconception, for more than 1000 years ago and earlier, climate was much warmer in Scandinavia. Have you heard of Normandy and the Vikings. A people who could conquer govern and develop. The dynamics of their culture had made ​​them during a time that could occupy diverse territories across Europe. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066 took the Normans control England. Even southern Italy and Sicily was ruled by the Normans.
    Their architecture of churches (gotic), still exists in northern France. What I can understand is history a white spot?

  3. P.S

    Sweden took about 3000 immigrants from Europe in this period per year, which is also very little, since the population was already around 5 million people. The only large "immigrant" group were Swedes returning from America.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Norberg's "analysis" is a joke. One always have to look at both push, pull and transportation factors, and look at them in their proper historical context, in order to make a serious contribution to this debate. Timbro, Migro and other migration fetishists fail to do this time and time again, hence embarassing themselves repeatedly.

  6. Tack för att du tar dig tiden att leverera kvalificerade inlägg i dessa frågor, Tino! Svensk debatt ligger verkligen på en direkt genant nivå i dessa sammanhang (och inte bara där). Inte minst tycker jag det är stimulerande att du tar dig an både empiriska och etiska aspekter på problemet, och kraftfullt bemöter det nonsens som framförs på båda dessa fronter.

  7. Good comments tino!

    Its not a serious discussion when (some) libertarians argue as if the welfare state doesnt exist, and unfortunately norberg has chosen that path, making him obsolete in the immigration policy debate of today.

  8. I think you are missing some vital points though. We know that most refugees go to developing countries and that only 800 000 seek asylum. We know that Sweden has a very small population density and that immigration benefits us. Furtermore we know that all deportations are painful and horrible for those who are subjected to it. To let Swedes stay whatever they do no matter how productive they are while kicking out others to dangerous environments in Afghanistan and Somalia is pure discrimination. People should not be valued in monetary terms but everyone who wants to stay should stay. And immigrants benefit the economy, no one is unemployed for life. We should fight discrimination not kick people out to war and suffering.

    1. You should at least be honest enough to add that it is worth the unemployment and social cost, and in the long run a dismantling of the current welfare state, in order to let relatively unproductive people immigrate at will.

  9. "We know that Sweden has a very small population density and that immigration benefits us."

    No, it's not, and this blog post, among dozens of unimpeachable books and reports vindicate this assertion. Stop lying, please, and if you honestly believe that it's beneficial but don't have the real facts on the table, please be quiet.

    Immigration per se is never beneficial, but could be potentially to advantage if the size and character (quality) is favourable in the given historical context.

    "To let Swedes stay whatever they do no matter how productive they are while kicking out others to dangerous environments in Afghanistan and Somalia is pure discrimination."

    Not every Afghan and Somali can live in Sweden, and thus we have to purely "discriminate" them. Unproductive and even criminal Swedes (both ethnic Swedes and immigrants with Swedish citizenship) are of course not desirable, but they are Swedes and/or Swedish citizens nonetheless.

    "And immigrants benefit the economy, no one is unemployed for life. We should fight discrimination not kick people out to war and suffering."

    People who suffer in warfare is not "our" main concern.

  10. Leif E Ström,

    Sweden's climate may have been more forgiving in the past. However, historically Sweden was quite poor. dietervie is correct. Low population density was a plus. However, poor soil and a short growing season more than offset a high land to people ratio.

    See "Historical Statistics of the World Economy: 1-2008 AD" by Angus Maddison (now deceased). In 1820, Sweden was poorer than every country in Europe except for Finland, Norway, and Greece (for which we have data).

    Sweden only because prosperous when the industrial revolution came. Catchup took longer than you might think. Sweden's per-capita GDP didn't pass the UK until 1958.

    That's not to say that Sweden wasn't developed and sophisticated before it was rich. It was. Sweden's institutions were well-regarded hundreds of year before it was prosperous. Peter the Great had such a high opinion of the Swedish government that he used Swedes to run Russia's government even as he was waging the Great Northern War.

  11. @Leif:

    I intended to mention the Vikings and the German tribes to support my case, but chose not to for reasons of brevity.

    Temperatures were higher during the medieval warm all over Europe, not just Scandinavia. This was a time of prosperity. The Viking Era however started before that in 700BC, when temperatures fell to record lows. The Viking expansion subsided, as the climate got warmer.

    Tacitus wrote the following about the Germans:

    "The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For, in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive; and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile ocean beyond us, is seldom entered by a sail from our world. And, beside the perils of rough and unknown seas, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy for Germany, with its wild country, its inclement skies, its sullen manners and aspect, unless indeed it were his home?"

    So he believed that Germans were indigenous to Germany, for nobody in his right mind would choose to move there.

    Both Germans and Skandinavians pushed into more fertile lands during the migration period. Germans by land, Vikings at the coasts and on rivers.

    Btw. Gothic architecture has nothing to do with Vikings.

    1. I made some typos:

      It should be "medieval warm period" instead of "medieval warm" and 700AD instead of 700BC.

  12. List of regions by past GDP (PPP) per capita

    Sweden's per capita GDP was only three times that of Africa in 1870. Today, it is 66 times that of Somalia.

  13. dietervie,

    "Sweden's per capita GDP was only three times that of Africa in 1870. Today, it is 66 times that of Somalia."

    And transportation costs are vastly lower now. Of course, in 1870 Sweden wasn't synonymous with "cradle-to-grave welfare state" either.

  14. In 1860, Sweden had no laws restricting private ownership of fissile nuclear materials and no one had a problem with that. Obviously, Sweden's current system of nuclear regulation is unneeded, unnecessary, and a restriction of personal freedom.

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  16. Tino - I make no comment on the modern immigration issue, but I am very interested why it is that there was so little immigration to Europe - and especially Britain which had a huge colonial population with full residency rights in the British Isles - prior to WWII. Given that tens of millions immigrated to the US in the 19th century, it was not beyond the industrial capabilities of the time to move such large numbers. And for the cost, yes the colonial populations were poor, but since their incomes would be expected to increase enormously on arrival, they could simply emigrate on credit or as indentured labourers, as many early US settlers did.

    So why didn't this happen? Language barriers? Expected discrimination (which was not, in the UK at least, legally enforced)? In other words is the current openness of Europe to immigration more of a cultural and institutional change than an economic one?

  17. Significantly, there were very few third world migrants even to the United States in this period. The millions of migrants you are talking about overwhelmingly came from comparatively developed European countries.

    The cost of moving is a first order problem. Around 1880 the estimated cost of moving to the U.S for a Swede was 0.3 time annual income, which is manageable. The cost for a Chinese or Indian to move to the U.S or the West Indies was estimated at 5-12 times their annual income! Could the typical American workers even today borrow $500.000 to move? Or $2 million for a family? It takes a very long time to pay this back, because you also need money to live, often it becomes prohibitive to borrow or save up to.

    Migrating using credit was virtually impossible. The reason is that the sum was too large in relation to the earnings of the poor. If you lent money to someone to migrated to another country, how would you collect it? This is why the institution of indentured servitude becomes so important; it was a way of ensuring collecting of the debt. However indentured servitude became de facto illegal in the United States and many other countries early in the 19th century.
    The migration that did occur was through indentured servitude or similar credit contracts, when possible in limited numbers, which indicates that credit was crucial. In this way a few Chinese and Indians moved to California and Hawaii (in small numbers) and to the West Indies (in larger numbers).,_The_Rise_and_Fall_of_Indentured_Servitude_in_the_Americas.pdf

    These shallow libertarians also don’t seem to understand that immigration was not de facto free, even if they didn’t bother regulating it since no one came. When people arrived in large numbers that these countries leaders did not desired, they just sent them back. For example the U.S sent back Japanese migrants in large numbers and Prussia sent back polish migrants in large numbers during the supposed period of “free” immigration.

    AS you point in in addition to this the labor market and society in Europe was probably de facto closed to third world migrants and even too “foreign” Europeans in this period.

    Around 1870, this is the estimated share of the population that was foreign born, including European immigrants:

    Germany: 0.5%
    France: 2%
    U.K: 0.5%
    Denmark: 3%
    Norway: 1.6%
    Sweden: 0.3%

    The Economics of Immigration: Theory and Policy, Örn

    Johan Norberg and Fredrik Segerfeldt portray a period of near autarky as the Golden Age of free migration, never providing any data for their claim. This is to nonsense you end up with when you severe libertarian ideology from the bounds of facts.

  18. Was there ever a large outflow of people from Sweden to Switzerland (thus justifying a little of the confusion that Americans are prone to regarding the Sw- countries)? My late father told me not that long ago that his father, born in Switzerland in 1876, had said there was a big influx of Swedes fleeing a famine into Switzerland before his birth. But, this doesn't seem like terribly reliable testimony stretching across multiple centuries.

  19. There doesn’t appear to have been any large-scale migration from Sweden to Switzerland. Switzerland is not included separately, but the total number of migrants to “other Europe” from Sweden was around 2000 people between 1850-1880.

    It happened that a couple of hundred farmers from some poorer region would migrate together following bad crops; I would guess this is what happened. Perhaps in this period even a few hundred foreign newcomers would have been a big event long remembered.

    Detailed data for a large number of countries in English here.

  20. Norberg and Segerfeldt dosen't care if immigration works. Whats important to them, is to defend there principles like it was gods words and the only truth.

  21. All of this -- on cursory inspection only (Alas! I cannot read Swedish!) -- seems to prove the adage "Circumstances alter cases."

    It's a curious topic to me as an American, because -- like it or not -- we have a de facto open borders policy here right now. No one in power is doing a blessed thing to halt the flow of illegal immigration -- particularly from South of the Border -- or to evict those illegal immigrants long planted among the "legitimate" American population.

    The biggest open secret -- and to me the BEAUTY of the situation -- is that in truth most of these people work "under the table," and thus aid employers (and themselves) from getting entangled in the snares and pitfalls of the American version of The Welfare State -- a grossly expensive, ham-handed phenomenon of dubious value, if ever there was one.

    May God forever bless the Underground Economy without which most of us could not live half as well as we do.

    The resistance to the Slave State mentality may be greater than you imagine, sir. Statistics could never give a complete picture of what's truly going on "on the ground," as it were.

    Take care, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

    ~ FreeThinke

  22. Free Thinke:

    methinks you are putting rouge, lipstick, and perfume on the situation in describing its "beauty."

    Illegal immigrants in the US (and yes; we do have a de facto open borders policy, where the president himself has more or less said out loud that the laws will not be enforced unless said immigrant becomes so opaquely, obnoxiously law-flouting that the cops really have no other choice) allows employers to avoid "entangl(ing)" themselves in the welfare state.

    The problem is, the immigrants - and more directly, their families - are not avoiding such entanglements, and thus the actual costs are pushed off the companies' books and onto the surrounding community. Their children are put into schools where they need severe remediation. They use Accident and Emergencies as primary care doctors. They are involved in traffic collisions where the costs are pushed onto those of us who actually have insurance (i.e., "uninsured motorist coverage.")

    There simply is no free lunch, and the nature of illegal immigration masks these costs to the point of creating the illusion that one can be had. Hence, we see empty burbling about how immigration "benefits us all."

    The underground economy, I suspect, does not "benefit us all," and certainly not to the same degree. Upper middle class people in Southern California get to have their lawns tended, their houses cleaned, and perhaps their children looked after as if they were renaissance gentry. That is a benefit to the double income family living in Encino. I don't see how that benefits a guy who lives with the costs of such benefits out in Riverside County.

  23. Switzerland used to be poorer than Sweden. The growing season in the Alps is short like in Scandinavia. Mountains cast lots of shadows and it is cold.

    Hence the focus on dairy, milk and cheese.

    Industrialization was kicked of late thanks to hydro-electric power at the end of the 19th century.

  24. I have no idea about the immigration issues in Sweden before not until I read this post. And I guess, that economic status is always a case..

  25. Sweden had virtually no immigration affecting the country's economy and labor market before 1914. A few thousand were added during and just after the war. 1927 Aliens Act - Sweden's first - established a restrictive policy that emerged during the First World War, and that reflected the moods of exclusionary nationalism that then prevailed. It was modified in 1937 to prevent a big jew immigration from Germany to Sweden. The following year was hampered refugees' arrival by a new decree. From 1914 to 1954 immigration was banned in Sweden and most of the refugees who arrived during and just after World War II, returned to their home countries. The myth of Sweden as a previous large immigrant country, is young, false and politically. 1963 was only 1.8% non-Nordic born workers.
    Facts from: Norstedts reissue "Sweden's History 1920-1965"

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