The Ethics of Borders

A philosophical look at immigration

Elizabeth Finne
Feb 9, 2018 · 8 min read

The debate about immigration lumbers on across the Western world, but rarely with any clarity or rationality. Instead it is deeply emotional and ideological. The subject matter, therefore, is crying out for some philosophical consideration — for discussion which, without pre-judgment, seeks to define the terms and explore the topic in a rational way.

When Chelsea Manning recently declared her intention to run for Senate, her policy position on immigration was unusual in that she explicitly stated that U.S. Borders should be open:

We shouldn’t be denying the absolute right to come into the United States. You have a right, everybody does.

It is not unusual to see criticism of methods of enforcing borders, whether building a wall or carrying out deportations. And perhaps implicit within such criticisms is a challenge to the very idea of borders. However, Chelsea Manning is unusual in putting the point in such explicit terms and ought, I believe, to be commended for that clarity.

Who amongst us could trace their family tree back many (if any) generations before finding someone who left one land in search of a better life in another? Not one of us, for surely we human beings have been seeking out new pastures since before we were even human beings. That truth provides the strongest support for Manning’s position.

But it is not the only consideration relevant to the debate. For that one ancient truth butts up, almost immediately, upon another which is that we human beings have been grouping together in tribes since before we were even human beings. And that, essentially, is what the modern day nation state is, an extended tribe. It necessarily entails an in-group and an out-group.

I recently argued, in an article entitled “Who is my Neighbor?,” that the United States should adopt universal healthcare akin to Britain’s National Health Service because my fellow citizen is my neighbor — or to put it another way, because a tribe takes care of its own. The comments that article attracted included a couple which expressed disquiet about the kind of nationalism implicit within it and suggested that the answer to my question is everyone on earth is my neighbor.

Theologically I think that is correct, but politically I’m not sure things are that simple. If America continually struggles with the idea of universal healthcare within her borders, and Britain continually struggles to keep her beloved National Health Service viable, the idea of worldwide, universal healthcare seems far-fetched, at least in 2018.

Which takes us right back to the borders of a nation state demarcating between in-group and out-group. If healthcare, or any other good, is significantly better on one side than on the other, there is going to be immigration pressure, which in turn brings into sharp relief the sheer randomness of where a baby is born determining its life chances. Immigration is, literally, the poor man knocking on the rich man’s door, and the enforcement of borders is slamming the door shut.

It is a brutal fact which I think the left, in particular, has struggled to articulately and honestly deal with. As Peter Beinart pointed out in The Atlantic:

America’s immigration system … pits two of the groups liberals care about most — the native-born poor and the immigrant poor — against each other.

Aggravating that tension, the left wishes to be most generous in the provision of public services. Chelsea Manning is no different in this respect. Her policy position on healthcare is that all hospitals should be free at the point of use without questions asked. Open borders and universal healthcare is quite the political circle to square. I acknowledge her idealism but seriously question her grasp of politics as the art of the possible.

The U.K. Example

For a lesson in the art of the possible, take a glance at the ongoing saga of Brexit. The 2016 referendum in which a small majority of voters opted for Britain to leave the EU was widely attributed to racism. I find this explanation to be incomplete, disingenuous and oversimplistic. A better explanation would focus on concern (whether justified or not) about sharing limited resources such as healthcare, housing and school places.

The Free Movement of Persons, i.e. open borders, is one of the foundational principles of the European Union. Up until 2004, when the EU expanded to include eastern European countries, internal immigration was more or less a non-issue. There was not enough disparity in the flow of people between countries to cause political problems, and Europeans appreciated the ability to live and work wherever they liked within the EU, even if many declined to migrate.

The eastward expansion incorporated significantly poorer former-Soviet countries, prompting a net flow of immigration from east to west. In 2015, there were 916,000 Polish people living in the U.K., more than the total number of Britons living elsewhere in the EU.

Suppose for a minute that one of the driving forces for the Brexit vote was not negativity against Polish people per se, but against Polish people using the National Health Service. Are not those two different things? One is hatred of the stranger because he is different — i.e. bigotry. The other is concern that the stranger (and perhaps many of his friends and family) will significantly increase strain on public services and other resources.

A universally-minded utilitarian calculus would hold that regardless of the impact on the receiving country — and in particular on the working class within that country — open borders between richer and poorer countries result in a greater amount of overall benefit. The trouble is that governmental power is not allocated according to a utilitarian calculus, it is allocated according to democratic votes.

If mainstream politicians do not expressly purport to represent the interests of the voters, the far right and other extreme and eccentric forces will. That’s essentially the story of politics in the western world since 2016.

Moreover, a utilitarian calculus, even one holding our common humanity as more significant than our national identity, loses sight of the individual. Clifford Longley makes this point forcefully with respect to the EU:

The commodification of labour — which the EU’s free movement of labour implies — risks ignoring all aspects of the humanity of the worker except the value of his or her labour in the marketplace. The technical name for this is alienation.

What Immigration Is Really About

At the heart of the immigration debate isn’t so much immigration itself, but disparities of wealth, peace, and political freedom across the world. This point was lurking somewhere in Donald Trump’s infamous shithole countries comment, although it was entirely lost amidst his vulgarity and respondents’ focus on that vulgarity. If what he was really asking is why there is more immigration from poorer countries than from countries with high standards of living, strong welfare systems, no war zones and exemplary human rights records, well, the answer is in the question.

But so too is the kernel of a vision in which wealth, peace, and freedom are so ubiquitous across the globe that immigration is a non-issue and, therefore, everyone is free to work and live wherever they please. As with the EU prior to its expansion east, immigration would be primarily driven by wanderlust rather than by suffering and desperation, and so the aggravating factor of large net flows in certain directions would fall away.

We do not live in that world. I hope we someday do. In the meantime the issue of immigration presents some fundamental philosophical questions and some serious political challenges. There is no doubt that migrants braving the perils of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels in the hope of a life in Europe, or those walking across the Arizona desert with inadequate water in the hope of a life in America engage us morally. What the political and legal response ought to be is not immediately obvious though, at least not to me.

What does strike me is that the position of Chelsea Manning is naive, even indulgent. It signals virtue by expressing radical tolerance, but without doing the hard work of thinking through the practicalities and acknowledging the unavoidable choices about the extent of one’s circle of concern — choices which, like the reality of migration and the existence of tribes, are surely as old as humankind itself.

George Gallatin recently put forward an argument in Quillette that a policy of open borders is dangerous because it fails to account for tribalism — both it’s existence as a fact of evolutionary biology, and it’s capacity to lead to disunity and lethal violence.

Gallatin also suggests that many elite westerners who advocate radical ideas about diversity have experienced a kind of luxury diversity whereby they enjoy the company of other elites from around the world, oftentimes in the context of a university. As he notes, “elites have always gotten along.”

This chimes with the fault line along which the Brexit vote fell. The working class tended to vote to leave the EU. The middle class tended to vote to remain. Those who felt most comfortable being part of the European Union were those who had traveled extensively throughout Europe or even lived, studied or worked in a different European country and spoke the language.

The Anthem of the European Union is based on the Ode to Joy — a Friedrich Schiller poem set to the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The lyrics include the line Alle Menschen werden Brueder — All people become brothers. It is an intoxicating and stirring sentiment.

As someone who studied at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany (as part of the EU’s Erasmus program) I have great sympathy with the sense of mourning which many felt after the Brexit referendum — with the notion that a beautiful ideal, a commitment to peace through a transcendence of tribe, had been rejected. However, it is important to recognize that the EU experience is different for a highly educated Londoner than it is for, say, a working class person in a deprived area of northern England.

A friend of mine, outraged by the Brexit vote, told me that in London, “We’re not even English, we’re international.” Precisely — but that is a sentiment with which many poorer people (including in London) were unable to identify. Consequently, a majority of people voted to leave the EU.

Being post-tribal is the privilege of the rich. A politics which fails to recognize this will not prevail unless and until the experience of the rich man is the dominant one on earth — or even in western democracies. In the meantime, the less savory forces in politics will mop up the votes spilled when pious but impractical policies are promoted. Institutions such as the EU, which point the way towards a more peaceful and equal world will, consequently, start to fail.

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