In the last couple of days I’ve been discussing the issue of open borders with a few people, and I feel like I notice a number of interesting habits of thought, biases if you will, which often come up. I’ll discuss three:
1) I support not letting people do X, but not using force against those who do X.
2) I think danger A is unacceptable, but danger B is fine, despite being greater.
3) I think there’s more danger in freedom than in control.
None of these is specific to border controls – they clearly apply in many other areas, especially on issues of personal freedom. But I’ll use border controls as a running example.
The first habit is to understand prohibition without understanding enforcement. That is: when we consider making a rule that people cannot do this, that, or the other, we often don’t recognise that this is synonymous with mandating some people to physically lay hands on, subjugate and cage other people.
Border controls are a good example. I spoke yesterday with someone from a reformist migrants’ rights campaign, which was in favour of making the system ‘fairer’ but maintaining its basic contours. She was extremely resistant to admitting the idea that her campaign directly sanctioned violence against migrants – she had all kinds of evasions. “No, look, it says ‘with the least amount of force possible”; “it’s not violence if they refuse to come voluntarily”.
Now for some things this doesn’t hold. If we say “you cannot sell your shares at less than this price”, we’re talking about an action (selling) that requires the active facilitation of society – the money and shares exchanged only exist if people recognise the symbols of them (the paper, the coins, the numbers on a digital display) and having a certain meaning.
But for anything that can be done without society, like smoking cannabis or crossing borders, any policy of ‘you can’t do this’ is equivalently a policy of ‘we will forcibly assault people who do this’.
The second observation is about weighting dangers. Lots of migrants have died because of border controls – the world has not ended. Yet something very dangerous might happen if borders were open to the free movement of people. Not quite sure what it is. The most sensible interpretation of this fear I can work out is that the population would grow and there would be more competition for housing and healthcare, or substantially higher taxes (because, no doubt, all of these migrants will simultaneously be taking our jobs and sponging off benefits, amiright?).
Now, more difficulty getting housing or healthcare, or higher tax levels, is surely an acceptable risk. Those terrible things have happened plenty of times. The world has not ended. In fact, they’re happening right now, relative to what would be the case if housing or healthcare had more or more efficient funding.
But people show no embarassment about saying “there have to be” some limits. Have to. Because if there aren’t, something terrible will happen. Or there’s a risk that it will. But the risk, indeed the actuality, that someone will commit suicide after being locked up in a detention centre for a year without knowing anything about their future, is acceptable? The fact that as long as people are being deported to countries they don’t want to go to, some of them will ‘disappear’ when they arrive there?
This is partly an issue of ‘actually-occurring-harms: fine, possible-harms-in-hypothetical-case: unacceptable’. Which, obviously, is a very conservative idea – basically rigging the game so that any proposed change will get ruled out. And partly it’s an issue of ‘severe-harms-to-foreign-poor-people: fine, minor-harms-to-the-better-off: unacceptable’. Which is racist.
But I think there’s also a more general point, which is my third bias. It is often felt that giving people freedom produces the greatest risk of something very bad happening. I think this is, in most cases, the very opposite of the truth. The greatest risk comes from putting limits on people’s freedom. Putting up roadblocks produces the risk of people dying in childbirth because they can’t get to hospitals. Enforcing private ownership of foodstocks produces the risk of people being malnourished in the midst of plenty. Deporting people against their will produces the risk of them being tortured and left in an unmarked grave. Locking people up produces the risk of them developing depression and hacking up their arms. Putting people under the authority of the police produces the risk of them being raped in a cell and not being able to report it.
No doubt in some areas limiting people’s freedom of action makes everyone safer. But I’m inclined to think that it’s the exception rather than the rule. By and large, people are safest when they are most able to look out for themselves, most able to act on their own initiative. Bad things will happen mainly when they are unable to stop them happening, which will typically be when someone else has decided that they know better and are in charge.
This particular bias may have a connection with psychoanalytic theory, in particular the idea of the Oedipus conflict – in which the growing child forces themselves, as a defense mechanism, to identify with the holder of authority. Because if people identify with the holder of authority, and not with the person subject to that authority, then of course they will incline to feel threatened by the freedom of the oppressed, and reassured by the idea that ‘they’ aren’t in charge, ‘they’ have to do what the big reassuring authority figure says.
In conclusion, these habits of thought are a bit lame. Let’s try to avoid them together ❤