Thursday, June 30, 2016

The problem with open borders

Some attentive readers may remember that I recently labeled what to do globally about refugees, displaced people, asylum seekers, or just paupers from one dilapidated place moving to another in search for a better life (many times not even for themselves, that know well enough will be facing discrimination and outright scorn, but for their children) one of the “great moral questions of our times” (GMQooT). Unfortunately, in a following post about the shortcomings of democracy in complex societies where desiderative reason has run its course (democracy's shortcomings) I reached the conclusion that the most extended mode of aggregating the political preferences of the people (representative democracy) was unlikely to help reach a commonly agreed answer to such question. Although I didn’t explore thoroughly the possible alternatives to current democratic practices, I found this interesting article in The Grauniad that proposes a particularly intriguing one (supplementing the current institutions by groups of citizens drawn by lot, an apparently absurd idea I recently recommended my patient wife as a potential alternative) Why elections are bad for democracy.

Some of the shortcomings of democracy identified in my first post have already become a commonplace: the Brexit referendum and the rise of Donald Trump in the USA are used by political commentators of all stripes to showcase the dangers of unfettered popular rule, and to illustrate how left to their own devices the uneducated masses are wont to take catastrophically bad decisions that can leave all the participants (which in their parlance means not only said uneducated masses, but especially the cultured, well-informed, able decision makers that constitute the natural milieu of the commentators themselves) worse off. Maybe just for sharpening my contrarian skills today I want to take the opposite position to that I implied back then, and argue that may be there is some legitimacy to the popular revolt against elite opinion (what their self-appointed leaders tell them they should think), and that by not paying attention to it such elites are accelerating the descent of our already exhausted social arrangement (link) into chaos and disintegration.

Let’s start, then, by reviewing the commentariat’s opinion of the latest manifestations of popular folly, in order to better understand its potential shortcomings. According to most politicians, pundits, journalists, boffins, professors and political analysts what we see in the “populist moment” is the reaction of those left behind by globalization against the fine humans of different racial and cultural extraction that have come to live amongst them. Such reaction is uniformly described with a clear tinge of disapproval and derision, as only a racist, a bigot and a moron wouldn’t appreciate the multiple benefits of diversity and how enriching it is to be able to live in close proximity of those very different from yourself. That’s the credo of “multiculturalism” in a nutshell: human diversity is good in itself, and not just opposing it, but simply being less than enthusiastic about it is an unpardonable sin, and must be the manifestation of a most retrograde and almost psychopathic mind. Before we pass judgment on the truth of such appreciation it may be good to separate how that diversity is experienced by the well-to-do and by the average man in the street.

For the first, diversity translates in more readily available tasty foods, cheaper home service (from cleaning ladies to nannies) and the eventual social exchange with similarly well-to-do businessmen (or, though much less frequently, businesswomen). In ethnic restaurants the service is always good (I dare to say better than the local one), cheap home service is a blessing and the businessmen from foreign cultures are invariably well educated, have interesting life stories to share and fascinating taste and habits. Within the upper strata of our world diversity is not only an unmitigated good, but it is enjoyed in their own terms. If the quarter they live in is too full of people too different from themselves, they can always move to another place, more exclusive and more culturally homogeneous. The world is full of “enclaves” for rich people to feel exactly as exposed to the wide world as they feel comfortable and enjoyable to do.

Things couldn’t be more different for the second category (your average-income earning worker). For him diversity translates in a certain amount of immigrants from faraway places who compete with him for low-skilled work, thus depressing his salary. They also take their children to the public school where he takes his, making the classes less manageable (language barriers). They also use the public health service he uses, making doctors less available for him. Finally, depending on how successfully they integrate with the mainstream culture he belongs to, they make the streets less safe, or public transportation a less appealing option. And of course, none of those uncomfortable situations is remotely voluntary, as the average worker in most developed countries would have great difficulties to move to a more affluent place (another post should be devoted to why the world over local governments seem bent on maintaining an artificial scarcity of land to build on, keeping the real estate prices unjustifiable going mostly up in a period of global price deflation) if he chose to. So, unsurprisingly, he tends to be highly suspicious when the self-proclaimed “elites” harangue him about his unacceptable bigotry and racism, and tell him he should be more understanding of diversity and accept the living embodiments of diversity that have come to dwell close in his midst. Not surprising, either, that he seems willing to vote for the demagogue that pretends to stand up for him against those evil immigrants (in the USA they include also the black population, that significant number of whites still see as alien), against the judgment of the duplicitous, hypocritical “elite” that preaches universal love and acceptance but afterwards retreat to their expensive gated communities and leave the bulk of the population with more and more squalid options.

So we may just agree that the resistance to unfettered multiculturalism may have some logic (and may be even some merit), and is not just the moral cesspool the majority of the opinion makers pretend it to be. What is to be done, then, about the problem of the refugees and the displaced for economic reasons? Is it then defensible to erect as big and foreboding barriers as possible to keep them out, and to prosecute and expel them if they somehow manage to sneak into our well-guarded islands of stability and order? Nope, that is not the answer either. Let’s inject a healthy dose of Kantianism back in the issue. What is it we would like others to do if WE were the ones seeking asylum, or just a bit of opportunity as our homeland were dirt poor and shoddily run? Not certainly to be thrown back.

Although we would understand our chosen destination being picky about where we settle, and even imposing certain controls on how many of our like were admitted (or the duration of our stay). That is then what we could demand our leaders to do: accept as many immigrants as possible given the economic conditions of the country, clearly understanding who have come fleeing violence and strife, and have the intention to return, and who have fled lack of opportunity and poverty and are thus willing to work for a better life. Provide shelter and nourishment to the former, and a remunerated job (or the chance to legally find one with the full protection of current laws and statutes) to the latter. I can hear nativists (especially European ones, with unemployment figures in some countries approaching 50% of some segments of the population) yelling “we can not ensure a job for every local, how can we be expected to provide them for newcomers!” and even for regarding those asking only for temporary reprieve, “the whole country is full, we neither can nor want to house them for free in our midst, putting an additional strain in our public services!” Well, raise MY taxes then, as I would more gladly pay to provide a modicum of dignity to a fleeing Syrian (or Zambian, or Sudanese, or Myanmarian) than to pay for an additional first-class flight for an already too pampered local politician, but as the politician is unlikely to renounce his perks I understand more wealth would need to be extracted from me and the likes of me.

But of course, the first order of business should be to get the economy growing again, to actively pursue full employment so there is work not only for the locals, but also for whoever else may want to come and do it, as long as they conform to the law of the land. What I see is that the answer to the Great Moral Question can not be given in isolation, as the malaise that pushes so many working people to give the wrong answer (the morally wrong answer, the answer that disregards the moral worth of the huddled masses searching for a better life in our lands and has then to justify why they are somehow less deserving of our concern and less entitled to basic rights than we are) is caused mainly by the competition for scarce resources we have made them enter with the foreigners, a competition that does not affect those self-righteously trying to impose it on others. Give the whole of the population enough resources (good job opportunities, enough choice about where to live and who to surround themselves with, good schooling for their children, and affordable healthcare) and you will see how little racist and small-minded they turn out to be.

Easier said than done, I know, as the two motors that have kept the European (and American, and Australian, and Japanese, and Korean) economy growing, demographic growth and technological innovation, are gone for good, and of the two alternative strategies that have been postulated to substitute for them one has been tried and found wanting (monetary loosening) and the other (expansion of public investment), although not as much tried as Keynesians would like, is not likely to produce any result at all (for reasons I explored here: man, are we screwed!). What are we supposed to then? Abdicate our responsibilities, as so many between us are doing? Pronounce it an unsolvable conundrum, a terrible mess, and just throw our arms up in the air? No, never, as that only hastens the societal collapse I already identified as the unavoidable consequence of our civilizational model having reached its terminal phase. But the alternatives are hefty enough as to merit a post of their own in the near future.

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