Some Observations on Biases

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 ❤

11 Responses to “Some Observations on Biases”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    Perhaps people hate “freedom” when it is used as a synonym for a bunch of armed Reds going around bullying everyone into being more equal. Just a thought.

    More pertinently, people hate freedom, in the real sense of the word, because the entire educational system is set up specifically to make them do so.

    Finally,

    “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?).”

    Yeah and, uh, race riots. Question: what was the aboriginal opinion on the merits unrestricted immigration? How about that of Levantine arabs?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “Yeah and, uh, race riots.”
    Right, hostility to immigrants is based on the prospect of race riots, race riots are based on hostility to immigrants. Nice system.

    “what was the aboriginal opinion on the merits unrestricted immigration? How about that of Levantine arabs?”
    Right, because thee scenarios are really analogous. The Australian settlers had to struggle against the racist policies and forcible control of the rich, powerful, aborigines. If there are too many Jews/Muslims/Indians/Caribeans in the country, they will inevitably obliterate us.

    Both points boil down to ‘when people of different races live together, they will fight’.

  3. Emperor Penguin Says:

    But it is true people of a different culture and ethnic background tend, in general terms and acknowledging numerous exceptions, to have different ideas about how they want to do things which impact on everybody else. Hence too many migrants would cramp our style. A good recent demonstration of this is the disgusting behaviour of sections of the luton muslims who in my opinion should have been cleared from the streets with police cavalry charges.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “people of a different culture and ethnic background tend, in general terms and acknowledging numerous exceptions, to have different ideas about how they want to do things which impact on everybody else”

    Yes, and so do different people, full stop.

    “A good recent demonstration of this is the disgusting behaviour of sections of the luton muslims who in my opinion should have been cleared from the streets with police cavalry charges.”
    This is the anti-army protests? The fact that a young man has killed an Iraqi in the name of the UK gives him the special badge of honour that should put him above criticism? Like killing a lion to become “a man”?

    Setting aside your desire to see violence against those condemning violence, it hardly serves your point, since condemnation of the armed forces is not a specifically muslim activity, and opposition to the war in Iraq is in fact, I believe, narrowly a majority view (though no doubt most of its holders would refrain from actually condemning the soldiery).

  5. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Just because these views are held by people outside the groups and cultures in question does not mean they are not held proportionality far more often and more strongly within the said group and that this would not constitute a problem. For instance Scottish people, as a rule, tend to be more socialist than those living in England, while those living in the north of England tend to be more socialist than those in the south. So if Scotland becomes independent all the lefties in England could find themselves in a bit of a fix. Hence, the ethnic, national, cultural complexion of a state does have a very large impact on the lives of those who live there.
    Opposition to the Iraq war is not the point. People willing to express it in such a manner are utterly disloyal.
    I imagine they support the insurgency to a man too.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “if Scotland becomes independent all the lefties in England could find themselves in a bit of a fix”
    If you mean that there are differences in what groups think and this will be reflected in shifting patterns of alliances and representation as populations move, die, grow, and change, then sure, fine.

    If you mean that the co-existence of diverse viewpoints is such a threat to ‘cohesion’ that we should empower the government to construct a ministry of population control that will direct individuals where they can and can’t live in order to make sure that divergent worldviews are kept safely separate, then I think that’s stupid.

    I’ll be honest, I have no idea what you mean about British lefties being ‘in a fix’ without the support of the Scots. The labour party’s votes will go down? Or I and my associates will become the objects of widespread hatred and ostracism?

    “utterly disloyal”
    Probably. I’m glad someone is.

  7. Emperor Penguin Says:

    I meant the Labour party’s votes will go down.
    I think it is clear that religious and ethnic differences have caused horrendous problems in the world. I also think too much immigration can undermine a long established culture. Uganda is a good example of the issues with free movement of labour. Not that I am applauding Idi Amin, just saying it happens. So, admitting we need some control over who can live in our nation is only basic sanity.
    Also. To an extent we all have a stake in our country. Most people have a vote after all, which is a form of property (sort of). Democracies function by a majority (of some description) empowering an elite to use coercive force (most of the time way too much force but that is not the issue). So when new arrivals are admitted you are altering the way that coercive power will be used. Which concerns everybody and which they surely have to have some say about. In utopia will workers just be able to walz into any factory, farm, gulag they so choose and be accorded full and equal partnership in the making of collective decisions with the workers already there with no questions asked. This seems to be a recipe for strife and extreme disorder.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “religious and ethnic differences have caused horrendous problems in the world”
    Not quite. Religious and ethnic differences, combined with the belief that religiously and ethnically diverse groups cannot co-exist, and with attempts to encourage them to fail to co-exist on the part of political figures on either side who want to exploit that kind of cheap fellow-feeling produced by having an enemy. I.e., combined with the suspicion and hostility that you are prescribing, and which borders controls write into law and endorse.

    “In utopia will workers just be able to walz into any factory, farm, gulag they so choose”
    In the status quo, are British people able to just waltz into any EU country they so choose? Are French people able to just waltz into any city, town, village, of France that they so choose? Are Canadian people able to just waltz into any province they so choose?

    Yes.

    Are Chinese people able to just waltz into any part of China they so choose? No. This is one of the much-bemoaned ‘human rights abuses’ of the Chinese government.

  9. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Do I look like a fan of the EU? I don’t think the issue of internal movement within a nation is a good analogy, although naturally I imagine you will disagree. I do think free movement of people is a good thing and that we should accept immigrants and be able to emigrate ourselves but like most things it has consequences that I think are sensible to guard against and which I hope I outlined.

  10. Gabriel Says:

    ‘race riots are based on hostility to immigrants’

    A lot of racially motivated violence in Britain is between different groups of immigrants or minority communities descended from immigrants. I am, for example, now about 3 times more likely to be the victim of a ethnically motivated violent incident than 10 years ago, almost entirely because of immigration from one particular faith.

    But let’s say you are correct and that sans racism on the part of the *indigenous* population there would be no problems. So what? This sounds much like Libertarians who argue that without a welfare-state there would be no problem with unrestricted immigration either. If everthing was different, then everything would be different. Duh. But it’s not.

    What strikes me most about immigration policy over the past 40 years is its sheer thoughtlessness. We needed cheap labour to prop up our degenerate pseudo-capitalist welfare-state, just like we all needed to get into loads of debt. So we just dumped a whole bunch of people of widely divergent cultural traditions in the same place and hoped it would work out OK. No quotas, no planning, no discrimination: just a big hit ‘n’ hope.

    In the meantime we tried to cover all the problems with a flood of paper money. Even then it didn’t really work, (I did a bit of work in an Oxford comprehensive recently … what a damn mess), but pretty soon the flood will run out. You’re, no doubt, a pretty deracinated guy more or less demoored from anything resembling a cultural tradition – kol hakavod, but there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t. You think they are going to become so just because they emigrate? You think they’ll simply peacefully integrate as a matter of course? What do you think will most attract them about mainstream British culture? Clamydia perhaps?

    To be honest, I suspect you are perfectly aware of the potential mass immigration has for precipitating mob violence in this country and that’s precisely why you support it. It sort of depends whether you’re inner party or outer party though.

  11. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “If everthing was different, then everything would be different. Duh. But it’s not.”
    The attitudes that most support border controls and the attitudes that most promote ethnic violence are by and large the same attitudes. Arguing against the two go hand-in-hand.

    From what psychological data we have available, btw, it appears that the best chances for people of different groups to become less prejudiced against each other are, among other things, personal interactions, collective action towards shared goals, and equality of status. The best way to avoid ethnic tension is not to continue vainly struggling to control immigration, with far more ‘illegals’ than can realistically be deported, but to engage people of different groups in shared struggles on an egalitarian basis. Which is exactly what a lot of anti-border controls/ pro-migrant campaigning does.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m very much inner party.


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