Another Lost Freedom: The Freedom To Move

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It’s been the norm for several generations now, so we hardly even notice it. But it’s insidious. It’s the curtailment of our freedom to move.

I live in India, but I’m currently in Japan visiting my in-laws. On the way back to India, I’d like to swing through China, just for three days, to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. But in order to do this, I need a passport with a Chinese visa in it. I do not have the freedom either to leave the jurisdiction of the Japanese Government without an inspection of these documents or to enter the jurisdiction of the Chinese Government without these documents. So I look up the location of the Consular Section of the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo and make my way to it.

After walking through a metal detector and having my bags and pockets searched, I am free to board the elevator to the third floor of the building. I walk out and am greeted by multiple counters, each sporting long lines, plus a waiting room filled with people holding numbers or frantically filling out visa applications. I had printed and filled out mine at home, so I stepped into the first line. When I reached the window, the woman behind it informed me that since I was a non-bussinessperson American, I was not allowed to get my Chinese visa processed there. Americans (engaged in non-business travel) must obtain their visas through an external travel agency.

I left the building more than a little perturbed. These are the hoops of government, I thought. They say jump.

Down the street I found a travel agency. I was informed that they could certainly process my visa. It would cost me 15000 yen, plus a 4000 yen service charge for the agency. My total? 19000 yen; that’s US$240. I pointed to my application – to the part where I explained that I would only be in China for three days. The woman pointed to my passport and said, almost apologetically, “You’re American.” Ah. That again.

It turns out that for any other citizen of every other country, the Chinese Government charges 4000 yen (US$50) or less. But thanks to the political squabbles between the gang of thieves “running” the United States and the gang of thieves “running” China, we lowly citizens are hit with retaliatory fees and penalties apparently exacted based on where you happen to be born. I happen to have been born in California. I did not choose my place of birth, but there you have it. A U.S.-issued passport equals a US$240 entrance fee, compared to a US$50 fee or less for everybody else in the world. What, you’re only staying for three days on your way to India? Doesn’t matter.

Of course, few if any governments exceed the United States’ in humiliating or frustrating visa applications. I’ve helped several of my Indian and Nepalese friends go through the long and often degrading process, with mixed success. Most of them will never be able to visit my country. This is a tragedy. But since I’m not the U.S. Government, I feel no need to apologize for that particular corrupt body. Besides, just to leave my own country, I had to shell out US$750 for passports (for me, my wife, and my three children), not to mention the time and frustration involved in going to the post office on multiple occasions to fill out forms, hand over my money, re-fill out forms, have photos taken, and wait in long lines. That kind of money might be chump change for some people, but not me. For me, this was a considerable financial bite. This was the cost of crossing my own border.

Think about that. You are not allowed to leave your country unless you pay up. And I’m not talking about paying a foreign government. I’m talking about paying your own government. In my case, I had to shell out another thousand dollars to the Indian Government just for permission to enter its sacred space.

Taking into account the additional fees and taxes that went into my airline tickets (including tax-funded subsidies and extra costs forced upon airlines by government that get passed on to you and me), all-in-all I paid about $3,300 just to Government to make the trip to India from the United States. Without all of that, my round-trip tickets – all five of them – would have cost a mere two grand. With it, I paid almost five-and-a-half.

So much for freedom of movement. If you don’t pay up, you’re stuck. This is not an exaggeration. Try crossing the border without a passport. Watch what happens. You will not be allowed out. Let me repeat: You will not be allowed out! Resist, and you’ll be thrown in a cage. Resist well, and you might be shot. The only way you are getting out is by paying up. And only when you’re done paying can you purchase your government-inflated airline ticket.

When did we lose the freedom to move, to travel, to go places? As usual, we can trace it back to a war.

World War One, perhaps the most ridiculous war in human history, boosted fascism, enabled communism, cost millions of lives directly and millions more indirectly, and set the stage for a second (even greater) global conflict. All of this is true, but here we’re concentrating on something smaller – just another stick in your eye, compliments of the governments involved in WWI. I’m talking about passports and visas – those ever-more-costly controls on the freedom of the individual to move.

Before the Great War, very few countries required any sort of documentation at a “border crossing.” If you were from, say, Yorkshire, and you wanted to visit a family member in, say, Philadelphia, you simply paid a sea-going vessel to take you there. You could obtain a passport-like document if you wanted, but it wasn’t necessary for travel. This was considered the civilized way. Only “barbaric” states (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) had the gall the demand papers (much less mounds of cash). Passports, or something like them, did exist much earlier, but they were not generally required by the ordinary traveler or immigrant. If you wanted to visit your sick mother who happened to live on the other side of the imaginary line we call a border – well, you just went and saw her, without any sort of visit to a consulate, without an exchange of a flurry of papers, without long lines and numbers, and without the mandatory financial fleecing.

There were exceptions, of course. But these were usually tied to wars and other crises, too. The War to Prevent Southern Independence saw the brief introduction of travel controls. The French Revolution, too. As to the latter, Paul Boytinck describes it thus:

The heated debate continued in the French Assembly. One Thuriot, a man without a given forename and hence an object of curiosity and even suspicion as is only right for a man without a given name, was a partisan of passport controls. His measure soon came up for debate if debate it can be called: “By now, the Assembly was churning with controversy, and a proposal to adopt Thuriot’s amendment by acclamation drove the house wild. Pandemonium had erupted in the chamber in response to his proposal to require those wishing to leave the Kingdom to carry a passport in which that intention was inscribed. One legislator insisted on a roll-call vote, calling the provision ‘blood-thirsty’; another denounced it as ‘destructive of commerce and industry, and contrary to the interests of the people.’ That steadfast opponent of passport controls, Girardin, returned to the attack, demanding that the Assembly ‘not be permitted to destroy commerce and freedom without discussion. . .’” (41) Yet when it was all said and done, the French were under the passport yoke once again, and the foreigners within France, diplomatic missions excepted, were placed under special surveillance and they were suffered to remain on French soil only if they remained on their good behavior. The punishment for bad behavior, however defined, was expulsion. And so it came that the “optimistic cosmopolitanism of the early days of the revolution [was] obliterated; and the high-flown ambiguities of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen had been resolved in favor of the nation-state.” War breeds bureaucracies and regulations beyond measure and it is the graveyard of hard-won liberties.

Fast forward to 1914 and “the war to end all wars,” the biggest up to that time in world history. If “war is the health of the state,” as R. Bourne suggested, then certainly a fight of this magnitude would result in a major increase in the size and scope of government, with no hope of returning to pre-war levels (this is called the Ratchet Effect, elaborated upon by Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan and Against Leviathan and warned against by James Madison, who described it as “the old trick of turning every contingency into a resource for accumulating force in government.”) With each new crisis – and particularly with each war – the scope of government widens, rarely if ever to be restored to its prior size once the perceived crisis is over. The 20th century has been particularly painful in this regard (Boytinck characterized it as “a passport chamber of horrors”), thanks in large part to World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two, and the Cold War.

During World War One, the gangs of thieves “running” the various states involved in the conflict, fearing espionage, began requiring documentation at their borders. For example, in Britain (where the government had already, in the first decade of the century, tried using travel controls to stem a perceived Jewish tide into the country) the British Nationality and Status Aliens Act (1914) was passed so that Brits could be distinguished from more suspect “foreign nationals.” Most European countries followed suit, not just to frustrate spies but also to prevent soldiers from deserting. Before the war, large numbers of people had traveled more or less freely across the Europe without passports, apparently without the world coming to an end. Not so any more. In 1920, the League of Nations agreed on a standardization of passports, and several other conferences continued the standardization/centralization trend (1926, 1927).

Ponder that: your passport was born out of fear of Jews (or other specified nationalities, depending on the country), deserting soldiers, and spies during war-time.

In America, an executive order requiring passports was issued around the same time, followed four years later by the Travel Control Act (1918). The latter declared that the president could, during times of war, make passports required for travel.

When the war ended, did such measures, previously considered barbaric, come to an end? Nope. The floodgates had been opened, after all; Government had been handed the keys during a “crisis,” and Government never gives keys back.

In America, the USG’s Travel Control Act requirements lasted until 1921 (when Harding was inaugurated). Even without the requirement, however, travel abroad was made difficult for Americans by other countries’ new requirements, which mostly continued after the war ended. The point became moot anyway, when the USG revived the requirement again in 1941 thanks to…well, you likely guessed it: World War Two (another score for Higgs’ theory!). Finally, in 1978, an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act (1952) made entry into the U.S. without a passport illegal, in war or in peace. A major part of what made America America died with this amendment, though it had obviously been in its death throes for several decades already.

The 20th-century passport phenomenon is perhaps best described by the erstwhile Interior Minister of Germany, who said that “All the experts essentially recognize that the really dangerous people almost always find a way to get in and out. Passport requirements, and especially visa requirements, thus result in a heavy burden on the movement of the broad mass of innocent travelers. An enormous – and largely useless – administrative effort is expended trying to get a few wrongdoers by issuing millions of passports and visas to innocent people.” [Source: Boytinck, again.]

In 1980, a conference of the International Civil Aviation Organization (a “specialized agency of the United Nations”) standardized passports across the world. The passport had been bureaucratized, institutionalized, standardized. Now there would be no escape. There could be no cross-border movement without this document, plus the necessary visas. And most passports now – around the world – include biometric data.

These days, if you want to travel, you must pay exorbitant fees for the necessary documents. You must give away lots of personal information. And governments use visas – their granting/denying and their costs – to teach other governments a lesson. Government A doesn’t like how Government B is treating it? We’ll show ‘em: let’s slap on a strict visa requirement plus a hefty fee. Forget the fact that the ordinary citizen has virtually nothing to do with the stupid squabbles of the political elite (and forget the fact that this political elite don’t even pay for their own passports and visas – the ordinary citizens do!). That will teach ‘em to disrespect.

Nowadays, carrying a U.S. passport is a liability.

Of course, if you carry an Israeli passport, you won’t even be considered for entry in half a dozen “Muslim” states, plus North Korea and Cuba. And if you’re from a “Muslim” state, you’re likely to run into trouble at some point traveling in the west. If you’re from a “poor” country, you’re find it hard traveling to “rich” countries. I was recently in Pakistan doing research for my Ph.D. and wasn’t allowed to even set foot in half of the places I wanted to go – not because they were dangerous, but because my passport bore the seal of the United States of America. I remember thinking, Come on! I paid good money for this thing! Can I return this to the USG and get my money back? All of this frustration because of a document that was originally instituted to prevent espionage, Jewish immigration, and military desertion.

How long will we put up with this?

I long for the day when people everywhere will organize and carry out passport-burnings in protest of Government’s curtailment of the basic freedom to move.

This originally appeared at The Loadstar.

William Jackson [send him mail] is a Maxwell Fellow in the Department of History at Syracuse University.

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