What a change half a year can make! In this year of 2015, we were astonished to learn that Germany is expected to absorb 800,000 refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel earned the admiration of the world by declaring that Germany is ready to receive them all. There was no realistic question about other European countries taking their share in a joint European effort. The year is not yet over and the latest forecast for the annual total of refugees with Germany as their destination has risen to 1,500,000. Food and lodging facilities will be overwhelmed. Chancellor Merkel is maintaining her initial brave stand. However, her political entourage is no longer talking about the generosity of the German people, but rather about practical difficulties and about the rising voice of the extreme political right that blames the government and more particularly, the chancellor. She is blamed for having made brave promises that the country is expected to fulfil, but cannot do so without suffering unanticipated consequences for which it has not bargained. Bavaria, which was bearing a disproportionate share of the refugee problem, is openly accusing Berlin of irresponsibility. More and more voices talk of the influx of new refugees representing a sociological danger, as well as the urgent need for the country to defend its own frontier rather than to passively accept uninvited guests1 . There is also an increasing complaint that only two-thirds or less of the influx are Syrian refugees, while the other third are people from a variety of countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, and the South Sudan (Democratic Republic of Congo,) who prefer to live in Europe rather than in their unfortunate home countries with their comparatively poor standards of living.

“My purpose is to give an account of a conversation about what might happen if the refugee problem is extended over a much longer historical period than the one which causes us a current short term problem.”

However, I am not writing this column to repeat what the newspapers tell us every day. My purpose is to give an account of a conversation about what might happen if the refugee problem is extended over a much longer historical period than the one which causes us a current short term problem. The conversation was one I had with James Buchanan around 1990 or so. We had first agreed that the world was going to hell in a hand basket, a diagnosis we were able to reach without arguing about our differences in political doctrine, which could not be bridged. We talked about recent history and the role of American industry in winning “the last European war”, including its prodigious effort to build over 20,000 identical ships in four years, using any shipyard, employing mostly unskilled workers, and working with less than prime materials. These so-called Liberty ships transported much that was needed for the war effort, and at the end 2,000 of them had survived the war.

Buchanan was no better informed than I about what happened with these surviving ships after the peace “broke out”. For all we knew, they were eaten by rust, waiting to be broken up. At this point, Jim raised his voice and declared in a tone that could sound both humorous and melancholy, “at any rate, there will be enough reasonably seaworthy ships to bring the people of black Africa across the Mediterranean and let them occupy Europe.”

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episodes Engerman on Slavery, Easterly on Growth, Poverty, and Aid, and Jerven on African Economic Growth.

At the risk of interpreting what Jim Buchanan has not said, what would make this prophesy more comprehensible would be to say a few words about how the people of black Africa have fared in their own often unhappy history. For nearly a thousand years after the spread of Islam, Arab military superiority served, among other things, to take black Africans prisoner and march them, or those who had survived, eastward to the great slave markets. Then the great slave trade changed its direction from East to West. Its leadership also changed from Arab to European hands. From the 18th century, the slave traders were British, American and French seafarers with their owners based in Bristol, the French Atlantic forces, and America. The “business model” for the slavers usually included a partnership with black African chiefs, who sold their own people by the shipload to be taken to the New World. They produced sugar in the Caribbean Islands and down as far as Brazil, and cotton in the southern states of North America. While slave ownership in the colonies was maintained, the slave trade was abolished in England in 1833, and the British navy patrolled the west coast of Africa to catch slave traders, many of whom were immediately executed when caught. French interdiction of slave trading followed in1848. The century saw the full development of colonial rule in Africa while the British, the French, the Portuguese, and the Belgians, with Germany a late follower. Political correctness will not recognise it, but it is hard to deny that rule by colonial administrators has introduced in Africa a beginning of law and order which was less inhumane and arbitrary than the previous regimes of native chiefs2. Colonial rule was in most cases a less inhumane destiny than what went on before, and a semblance of law continued to evolve, particularly in the British colonies until the introduction of independent statehood in colony after colony after the Second World War. The newly independent black states had the satisfaction of being ruled by their own people, but in many respects they were exposed to more abuse than they used to be when in colonial subjection. Despite being decorated with government elections, supreme courts, and national armies, many of the new African states, under the rule of their own elites, could hardly be judged better off by objective observers.

Africans are presumably just as fond of their native land as anyone else, but they are probably also subjected to other pressures that weigh on them and on their children. A generation or more ago, they could have been accused of seeing nothing about life beyond their native village, but today they have seen life as it unfolds on the television screen in countries of much greater attraction than their own. Europe is clearly a dream in the eyes of many, and it is a dream that is not wholly untenable for those who try. However remote, there is now the bare possibility for today’s black Africans to improve their lives in ways that would never have been possible for their fathers.

The idea that large masses of black Africans, perhaps as many as several million every year, could settle down in Europe may or may not seem likely. If it is, two other ideas would accompany it. One is that of the pioneer. If, say, Burundi has never settled Burundians in Europe, it will be difficult for one of them to do so. On the other hand, if several thousand Tanzanians have already settled there, more and more Tanzanians will follow them. As the years pass, more and more Burundians will also settle in Europe and will do so as if it were their own land. As each country passes through the pioneer stage eventually every African country would send its children to Europe as if it was the village next door. The other idea is that the countries of Europe will in the end do nothing effective to regulate emigration; they would organise international conferences and agreements about the subject. Fences will not do the trick.

It seems clear enough that if European countries want to try and persuade the “uninvited guests” to stay in their own home land, they would have to make it more attractive. Aid in money or kind is the recognised remedy. However, most of these countries have governing classes that would steal the money and at least some of the aid in kind. Even more discouraging is that the governors of these countries will likely not only steal the aid but will then govern in such a way that causes even greater damage to the economy. These countries are potentially not poor and some of them would be almost prosperous if they were not so governed. As it is, they do a great deal that keeps them poor without really meaning to.

If there is a remedy, it lies in establishing and maintaining law and order, a good police force, and a good judiciary. But what about the age-old truth of the guardians and the need for other guardians to guard them? If this argument were taken in all its hopelessness, the guardians would never stop stealing until there was nothing else to steal and no guardians left to steal it. This clearly is not the case and has never been so. European governments survive by stealing, but not so as to leave nothing more to steal. Black African governments will, little by little, probably follow their example. Continents will probably not have to change hands.


See my Econlib column from last month for more commentary on “uninvited guests.” “Freedom and Duties, the Uninvited Guests” by Anthony de Jasay. Library of Economics and Liberty, October 5, 2015.

Yuval Harari makes a similar argument with regard to empire in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which was the subject of his recent EconTalk podcast interview with Russ Roberts.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State (Oxford, 1985), Social Contract, Free Ride (Oxford 1989), Against Politics (London, 1997), and Justice and Its Surroundings (Indianapolis, 2002). His most recent publications include Political Philosophy, Clearly (Indianapolis, 2010) and Political Economy, Concisely (Indianapolis, 2010). His next volume, Economic Sense and Nonsense: Reflections from Europe, 2007-?2012 (a volume in The Collected Papers of Anthony de Jasay), edited and with an introduction by Hartmut Kliemt, is forthcoming from Liberty Fund.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.