In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith deplores how restraining competition hinders workmen in their efforts to employ “the strength and dexterity” of their hands, that is: the very resources they could use to improve their lot.

Steve Davies has a splendid article on the AIER website in which he reminds us that restrictions to people’s freedom of movement were ubiquitous in history, they were by and large part of the welfare system of the day, and they aimed at regulating and controlling the life of the poorer.

Indeed, such regulations never

made much difference to the wealthy and the elite, but they were massive restrictions on the liberty of the great majority, particularly the poor. They were subject to strict control of their freedom of movement and in particular were prevented from moving to seek work or to improve their economic situation. In practice, of course, they still did this, but it was made very difficult and criminalized, with the unfortunate ones caught subject to harsh punishment and forcible return. They also had to provide the authorities with details of where they were residing and working and update this; failure to do so again brought penalties.

Smith, Davies points out, “devoted a significant section of The Wealth of Nations to attacking the laws of settlement and internal passports in pungent and forceful terms”. He did so because they worsen the allocation of factors of production (“the scarcity of hands in one parish, therefore, cannot always be relieved by their superabundance in another”) but also in the name of liberty:

To remove a man who has committed no misdemeanour from the parish where he chooses to reside is an evident violation of natural liberty and justice. The common people of England, however, so jealous of their liberty, but like the common people of most other countries never rightly understanding wherein it consists, have now for more than a century together suffered themselves to be exposed to this oppression without a remedy.

Davies’s main point, however, as in his previous column on the matter, is that strict controls of people’s movement requires “a system of identification, supervision, and regulation in place”. In emphasizing this, he points to an ambiguity in the current debate, as many advocates of immigration control tends to assume this requires no system of vigilance besides border control. For one, “If the British public wants to have tighter border controls, in a world of increasing migration, they will also have to have things like identity cards for all”, which they do not.

The political demand for tighter immigration control is likely to “to lead to a system where documents have to be produced on demand (like the settlement certificate) by those travelling or moving within a state.” In that case, Davies argues, “liberal freedom of movement is ended”.