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.

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