Saturday, 10 October 2015

Do we want borders?


It’s perfectly possible to imagine an EU without borders. It’s even just about possible to imagine a world without borders. But do we want it? Many people like to give the impression that this is indeed what they want. Strangely some of the people are precisely the same as those who are campaigning to erect an international border between Berwick and Gretna. But it is very easy to signal how virtuous you are by offering your cloak if you don’t actually have a cloak. It’s very easy to say I would offer my home, if you know that no-one would actually come and anyway you didn’t really intend to offer it. It’s also very easy to shout down those who follow through the logic of a position and try to come up with practical solutions to difficult problems in the world. But that is the difference between gesture politics and real power and influence in the world.

The EU is apparently moving towards ever closer union and to bringing down borders. But the two main means of bringing about these goals (the Euro and Schengen) are failing. They are being tested to destruction at the moment because they are coming up against an immovable object. Ideals are wonderful things. Which of us has not idly thought sometimes ‘wouldn’t it be great if …’. But the thing that always prevents Utopia is the same, whether it is socialism, a world without borders, or indeed building the Tower of Babel. The immovable object is human nature. Your human nature, my human nature everyone’s human nature, which in the end finds a limit to showing how virtuous we are. Some of us try to hide this fact by calling others names. Some of us try to close down debate in order to stop people thinking for themselves. But it doesn’t matter. Utopian experiments don’t lead to Utopia, they lead to Dystopia. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you take a break from showing how virtuous you are in order to read one or two history books.

The Euro is failing for the fundamental reason that Germans are unwilling to transfer vast sums of money to Greeks. The Euro needs a transfer union, but in order to have one everyone would have to think of the Eurozone as being a place without borders, just like, for example, the Poundzone. But this is not how human nature in Germany sees the situation. It would be hugely unpopular if a German government announced that it would transfer money to Greece et al. without limit. Why is this? The reason is that Germans think there is a border between Greece and Germany, indeed many borders.

At the time of the last Eurozone crisis the Germans may have appeared mean to the rest of the world, but the policy of not sharing with the Greeks was hugely popular in Germany. We in Scotland may have felt virtuous in comparison, but of course Scottish nationalism was founded on the idea that we would not share our wealth with the English, on the fact that there ought to be an international border between these two places that at present lack one.

Human nature is strange however. Mrs Merkel was unwilling to share wealth with Greeks in July, because there was a border, but because she felt mean about this she, later in the summer, declared that Germany in fact didn’t have a border at all. She was desperate to show how virtuous she was after her spat of meanness. She was desperate to take off the Pickelhaube of the Iron Chancellor and exchange it for something less prickly and more soft. But strangely and rather contradictorily she still thinks there are multiple borders between Germany and Greece even if there are none between Germany and Syria. This may be the sort of thing that might make you a contender for winning the Nobel peace prize, but it won’t win the Nobel prize for logic.

Anyone who has a reason to claim asylum and who can reach Germany will get to stay. Faced with a crisis, faced with human suffering why shouldn’t we simply open our doors and let all come who wish to do so? But there was suffering in Greece too. Perhaps not on the same scale, but there is extreme poverty, there are suicides. Why if we are willing to allow suffering people to come without limit are we unwilling to transfer money?

But let’s reflect on the consequences of our being virtuous and follow through the logic of our goodness. Only in this way can we discover what we actually want. What we really, really want. Is there a limit to how much we wish to show how nice and good we are, because the difficulty we will then face is that there isn’t a limit to the number of people who would like to benefit from our displays of virtue. The number of people in the world who can justly claim to have a well-founded fear of persecution is practically speaking boundless. In a world without borders, which helped according to need, every rich part of the world would have a duty of care to tens of millions. How many would come to escape persecution if we decided that the EU and other wealthy regions had no external borders and anyone with a just claim could come? Well so, what? What do numbers matter when we are faced with suffering and something must be done. There is a certain justice in bringing down borders. Why don’t we do it everywhere? We are, after all, the same. We are all just people. Why not treat everyone in the world equally. Why indeed limit our duty of care to those who suffer persecution? A person living in extreme poverty is equally liable to suffer. Such a person may have a life limited by disease or hunger. Why limit our generosity. Let us open our borders to all come what may. Do you feel virtuous yet? It’s a good feeling isn’t it?

Imagine someone in a poor country earning a dollar a day with no benefits and no healthcare. If the rich world shared, we could all be equal. Isn’t this the goal of the EU? After all the anthem ends “Alle Menschen werden BrĂ¼der” [every man becomes a brother]. Is this poor, suffering person not my brother? To fail to treat him as if he is rather suggests that I don’t think he is a person at all. But everyone who lives in the world is a person.

But how practically speaking could we bring about this brotherhood of man? Well we could do so in the following way. We could tax average UK earnings so that half of everything we earned went to the poor person earning a dollar a day. If someone earning say £25,000 pounds gave away half, they would still have quite a lot and the man in the poor country earning a dollar a day would have the same. This sounds fair. It would also have the consequence of bringing about  true equality. Imagine how good we would feel if we made this gesture.  Why don’t we all contact the Government to insist that we each want to give away half of our money to the poor whether they are in the UK or elsewhere. Well, why don’t we? In fact nothing is stopping you from doing so today. Why wait for a government when you can act individually? But now it’s no longer a gesture is it? This would have real world consequences for each and every one of us. Think for a second. Do you really want this?

The same consequences would, of course, also occur if we allowed unlimited migration either because people were poor or because they feared persecution. The number of such people who can justly claim our help is without limit. It amounts to the population of every country run by a tyrant. All of these people justly fear persecution. Why should we not help them all? Moreover why limit our help to those who reach our shores. Why not pay their plane fairs, or indeed send transport planes to bring them here? If instead of using our defence budget to fight and prepare for war, we used it to transport the poor and persecuted to Britain, think how much suffering we could alleviate. We could increase migration ten or twenty fold. But do we really want this?

I wrote recently about the imaginary situation of five million English people moving to Scotland. It was a sort of joke, a sort of trap. I wanted to see how Scottish nationalists might react. The result was illuminating. I was accused of all sorts of things including advocating cultural genocide. OK, then let’s keep out the English, but allow five million people with a well-founded fear of persecution. Scotland could easily find room for an extra five million people. We have lots of room. What’s more we are wealthy enough to share, and nearly all of us vote for political parties that say we have a duty to share. Well let’s do it then.  

What would be the consequences if Scotland displayed our virtue to the rest of the world and made this unilateral declaration of brotherhood? There would be linguistic, cultural, political and economic consequences. It’s not clear who these people might vote for. Moreover, if, for instance, the majority of the population of the Highlands ceased to speak English as their first language, they might decide that they wanted to secede from those who did. They would, of course have the right to do so, wouldn’t they? But in the meantime, the most immediate consequence of removing Scotland’s border with the outside world would be that we would all have to share our wealth with those who have newly arrived. We would have to take the same pay cut that I imagined earlier in order to bring about the equal Scotland that we are all dreaming of. Someone arriving here with nothing can only become equal with me if we meet in the middle. That is if I give him half. There would be less public spending for all Scots as we would have to share it with the new Scots who have just arrived. But we'd all be equal and would all feel equally virtuous.

I propose setting up a political party to challenge at the next election. It will be called the “I will give away half my income party” or the Equality party for short. I will propose unlimited aid for the poorest around the world and in the UK and I will propose unlimited migration. How many votes do you think I will win?

It will turn out I suspect that there will be a limit to our virtue. There may not be a limit to how some people like to feel good about themselves by making empty gestures, but the reality is that nearly all of us want borders.  But what is a border? A border is something that limits. It has real world consequences. A border is the limit of a nation state. Without borders there would be no nations at all. Even if a border is unmanned it has real world consequences. A nation state relates to all other nation states with self-interest, while it relates to the citizens within the nation state with duty.  It is for this reason that Germany transfers money within Germany without limit, while it has no such duty to Greeks. A country is not so much a place as a collection of people to whom I have a special duty and responsibility.  This is the consequence of erecting an international border, even if it is unmanned. You cease to be part of the family and instead become a citizen of a foreign land just like any other foreign land. You may not notice a border, but it is there.

What this means practically is that while most sensible people are happy that people from elsewhere come to live here, we set a limit. Not to set a limit is not to have a border at all. But where do we set the limit? Unfortunately you can’t set it by need. There are literally hundreds of millions who need our help. They each have as good a claim as each other. Unfortunately we must limit even those who can justly claim asylum. Why? Well if we didn’t we could easily double the population of Scotland tomorrow. Again, shall I try to set up the “I want to double the population of Scotland party?” How many votes would I get?

What this means is that we have to maintain a border. If we don’t someone else will. The second means by which the EU wants to progress towards European unity (Schengen) is failing because of the failure of Germany to maintain a border. Border free travel within the EU has begun to collapse, because one border was perceived to be without limit. If Germans bring down their border, Hungarians will re-erect theirs.

We feel sad about people who are in trouble, we try to help them, but I’m afraid it is contrary to human nature to open our borders completely. Why should there be countries at all, rather than one world without distinction. Why don’t we all speak the same language, have the same culture, the same God? Perhaps it goes back to when we were living in caves. We defended our patch of land against our neighbours. We grouped together with those who seemed similar. It would be better if we did not act in this way. It would be better if we simply had our common humanity. But if that were so, we would not have countries at all.

A country is a place where people are broadly similar. They probably speak the same language, share a history and have similar attitudes. People, of course, can move between countries. The UK is a nation that benefits from immigration. I am personally grateful for this as my husband is an immigrant. I have been an immigrant too. But the crucial point is this. Even someone whose parents came from elsewhere must realise that we must set a limit. I don’t have an answer to what that limit should be. If it were one million a year, we would increase the population of the UK by ten million in ten years. If the limit were one hundred thousand a year, we would still increase the population by one million in ten years. There needs to be a sensible debate without mudslinging and without name calling and most certainly without people trying to show how virtuous they are. They are not virtuous. For the most part they are hypocrites who fail to follow through the logic of their "virtue".

We can and should help. We must allow people to share our country. But there is a limit and that means maintaining a border and also it means rejecting some of those who desperately need our help. This is awful, but it is also true. If you don’t agree with me then by all means campaign for a world without borders, but accept the consequences of doing so. But above all if you don’t want borders, don’t campaign for one between England and Scotland.  That is to make your gesture politics look simply ridiculous.
  


2 comments:

  1. Borders are an interesting subject, I enjoyed reading this article thanks.

    Through much of history it seems a war / revolution has been required to re-shape the majority of borders.

    Given this it is easy to see why the EU is referred to as 'the experiment' as force of arms are absent to drive through alterations to how its many borders function (a good thing I would say!).

    I believe Europe is headed to a better place compared to the fortress nation states of the last century. Perhaps driven now more by the realities of a shrinking globe than by a love of thy neighbour (for now!). Ultimately the two major conflicts of the twentieth century set the direction of travel Europe now finds itself on I expect.

    The implementation may not be perfect but I think the intentions are and it's right to persevere and keep trying, certainly a work in progress and a dead end shouldn't mean the project is wrong, just need to find a different route through the maze.

    So I guess that puts me in the Utopia seeker camp - looking for the prize in the centre of the puzzle!!

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    1. I sympathise with the bringing down borders idea. Who doesn't? It could be like Star Trek's Federation. The world in many ways would be a better place if there were no countries. It's like John Lennon's song Imagine. But I very much doubt we are ready for the consequences of this ideal. It would mean huge sacrifices on the part of the people like you and me.

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