The impact of the coronavirus crisis threatens to extend far beyond its public health impact. While our attention is naturally focused on the immediate-term consequences of the pandemic, it has the potential to trigger a domino effect, which could bring the globalised system upon which we all rely tumbling down.
Around the world, governments are scrambling to get their hands on vital resources. Personal protective equipment for those on the frontline in hospitals, along with ventilators for critical care beds and chemicals to make drugs and vaccines have all been in short supply. Many countries have even faced shortages of food and household supplies, with troubling images of empty supermarket shelves plastered across social media.
As a result, we have seen much talk of nationalism, mercantilism and protectionism. It is an understandable instinct to want to move crisis management facilities within one’s own borders. Many nations look set to do exactly that, nationalising entire industries and investing heavily in local business development. Even President Emmanuel Macron of France, the crown prince of globalism, has promised to bring supply chains within French borders in the foreseeable future.
This is a dangerous road to tread. A global swing towards protectionism would be indicative of an imminent rolling back of the immense progress brought by free trade. We cannot afford to let coronavirus wave in a new age of isolationism.
Free trade is the single greatest societal force for alleviating poverty, facilitating innovation and bringing untold wealth to all corners of the globe. Retreating into our trenches now would destroy our chances of rebuilding any momentum in economic growth.
The mainstream right insists on decrying globalisation and villainising immigrants for domestic issues, often drawing our attention to their crippling economic illiteracy in the process. When Romanian workers were flown in to the UK to rectify the urgent shortage in fruit pickers and ensure our shop shelves remain stocked, a journalist from the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper went viral with a tweet drawing a long-rebuffed link between immigration and unemployment.
“Why do we need to fly in 150 Romanians to pick fruit and vegetables when we’ve been warned unemployment could rise by 2 million?” wrote Andrew Pierce. “Shouldn‘t young unemployed people be required to take the jobs?”
In reality, as is so often the case, the situation is rather more complex than a single incendiary headline can convey. As it happens, those jobs were first offered to native British workers, who declined them for a range of logistical reasons. Hiring workers from abroad appeared to be the only viable solution, and there was no reason not to take it up, especially in a time of crisis.
The free market of labour, just like all other markets, works best when it is truly free. That means that employers must have access to a wide pool of workers from around the world, unconstrained by arbitrary obstacles like national borders.
Under this system, British shops remained fully stocked with fresh fruit and those Romanian workers were compensated for their labour. The freer the market, the freer the people.
Pierce says we should “require” local young people to take the jobs, as though outsourcing them for foreign workers would limit the employment opportunities available to British young people, rather than boosting the economy, fuelling growth and creating more jobs and wealth for all.
This warped thinking is comparable to the socialist narrative that all the world’s problems can be solved by confiscating wealth from the rich and redistributing it to everybody else. The economy is not a zero-sum game. There is no fixed and constant quantity of wealth in the world which can simply be dished out. The only way to empower people economically is through continuous wealth generation.
In the same way that wealth itself is not fixed, there is no static number of total jobs. The more wealth we create, the more jobs there will be, and the more they will pay. The way to tackle an unemployment crisis is not to shut down the borders and shut out foreign workers who would contribute to the economy and facilitate a faster and stronger recovery.
In the post-corona world, it will be more important than ever that our economies are free so that they have access to the resources they need in order to reconstruct themselves. We have worked hard for many decades to create a globalised world order that allows everyone to prosper, wherever they are born. Let’s not forget to rebuild it.