Lines in the Sand

Lines in the Sand

            When humans first developed consciousness, the world was a wild expanse with the only barriers being those of natural design. Rivers, mountains, deserts and jungles directed the flow of humanity out of the Great Rift Valley and into the unknown. As humanity evolved, cultures, religions, nations and governments developed. Those in positions of power were always eager to increase their influence over people, land, and resources; and as the powerful confronted each other there was either a conquest or a ceasefire, with a zone of influence eventually decided upon. What started as the personal demesne of kings and burghers eventually became states, and clear borders became a necessity to not only dictate control over resources, but also to dictate where outsiders were not welcome.

            What is today a humanitarian issue was not seen so in the past - from the Volkerwanderung to the Norsemen to the Mongolians, migrants had regularly tried to better the members of their tribe at the expense of people that had been there previously and in a time of human history where concepts like human and property rights did not exist, this is to be expected. So as we live in the more civilized Modern age and the internet desensitizes us to cultural differences, the purpose of borders is being questioned. How bold of a line should borders have?

            Borders are ultimately the demarcation for a legal code, with certain laws applying on either side. This legal code is determined by the government of that country, and the concept of national sovereignty means that each country can determine what its laws can be. Generally, most countries jealously guard their borders - the largest unfortified border is between the United States and Canada, made possible by a long, harmonious relationship. This type of relationship is quite uncommon, and not shared on the southern side of the United States. That Canada has only one land border and it shares it with a friendly county makes it easier to have relatively lax border control - such a situation is not feasible with countries that have an acrimonious relationship. The lively ceremony surrounding the daily closing of the border between India and Pakistan is purposefully as loud and extravagant as possible to show vigor and preparedness to fight.

            But even though governments may have good or bad relationships with each other, what about the individuals? Surely individuals are not to blame for international disputes? That is indubitably true - humans fleeing conflict as as inevitable as beasts fleeing a wildfire, and civilians trying to avoid the missteps of their government is a daily tragedy played out with bloody orchestra. The conflict that people are fleeing can be the obvious tumults of civil war, foreign invasion, and ethnic cleansing or the subtler sufferings of famine, disease and economic stagnation. Whatever the cause, it is improper to blame people trying to find a better life for their family.

            But this categorical imperative is not exclusive to migrants. The societies of "the West" do place a large emphasis on human rights and dignity, but the ability for a society to become more civilized and empathetic is increased by how prosperous and stable it is. Think of it this way - the amount of money you can donate to a cause is directly influenced by the amount of money in your wallet. The richer you are, the more generous you can be while still maintaining your quality of life. And our quality of life is relatively high - it is a reasonable assumption that an American will be able to have access to clean water, plentiful food, safe shelter and protection under the law. These things did not happen instantaneously - they are the culmination of centuries and generations coming together to bring us above subsistence living.

            That such a meager existence is reality for billions of people across the world is a cause for worry. There are certainly enough poor people in America to be concerned about, and actions must be taken to alleviate their suffering. But the massive amount of people overseas living a dramatically destitute life is setting up a chaotic scenario in the future - the recent migrant wave going into Europe is generally sourced from Syria and Afghanistan, both areas in current open conflict. But there are also migrants coming from areas not in open conflict - migrants who saw an opportunity to join the herd and gain access to benefits they would not get in their home nation. The ratio of war refugees to economic opportunists cannot be pinned down, and the practice of refugees destroying their passports as soon as they are in the host nation of choice further complicates the matter. But what can be confidently ascertained is that every migrant coming into Europe is receiving a better quality of life in then they would currently receive in their home nation.

            In the wake of the waves of migrants, most European countries drastically reduced the benefits migrants received. There was certainly a xenophobic aspect to wanting to turn the tap off to migrants, but to dismiss all criticism of migrant benefits is ignorant of the budgetary constraints that the social programs in Europe have. Europe, in general, is much more socialist than the United States, and this is reflected in the benefits that migrants were entitled to at the beginning of the crisis. As the state budgets took a hit, the members of the European Union tried to make their country a less desirable destination - hence the decrease in benefits. Germany's attempts to have each member take a share of the migrants was met with strong resistance by the newer members of the Union - which also happen to be the most economically weak and dependent on the Union for subsidy.

            The United States of America's migrants are generally cut from a different cloth - the Americas currently don't have a high-profile conflict zone, but there is a particular chaos in Mexico and northern Central America revolving around the drug trade. Even discounting the direct effects of violence, the investment those governments must put into suppressing the drug trade takes away their ability to invest in constructive projects, which then keeps the quality of life lower than it would be if there was no drug war. America is not as socialist as Europe, and the lack of safety net means that there are fewer benefits immediately available to migrants. But that does not stop the United States from being able to give a better quality of life than El Salvador or Ciudad Juarez.

            This leads to the cruel calculus that a country must take - if one were to take into account the allure that draws migrants to "the West" with the raw amount of population that lives outside of it, what is the maximum amount of people a Western country can take in without upsetting the social and legal order that gives it the qualities of being "Western"? If the United States of America decided to have completely open borders and offered all social services regardless of citizenship status, how many of South America's 420 million people would attempt to move in? And at what point would the legal and social structure be unable to adapt to the influx of population? The answer to the first question would almost certainly be more than the answer to the second question, and that is not even taking into account the linguistic barriers and cultural conflict that will take place.

            This cultural conflict, while distressing and degrading, is a human response that must be properly calculated. Hatred and violence must be discouraged, and the solidarity that citizens of host countries show migrants against nationalists and bigots should be celebrated. But even though incendiary statements can exacerbate discord, the suppression of unfortunate facts can spread distrust in institutions that are vital to maintaining social harmony. For instance, the ongoing sex abuse scandal in Rotherham is directly linked to British police not wanting to be accused of racism because they are arresting South Asians for rape and pedophilia. In America, the amount of female genital mutilations are on the rise; these correlate with an increased migrant population from areas where FGM is practiced.

            Denying that these are a problem IS a problem, and it serves to radicalize moderates in the host country. We must remember some conventional wisdom - in the same way that putting an asshole in a police uniform doesn't stop him from being an asshole, putting a rapist (who comes from an area where raping ISN'T technically rape) in another place doesn't stop him from being a rapist. Regardless that not everybody from Afghanistan participated in Bacha Bazi and not everybody from Somalia mutilated their daughter's vagina, these cultural legacies will not disappear by crossing a line in the sand. Destructive cultural practices should be vigorously punished if and when they occur in host countries not only to protect the defenseless, but to encourage assimilation.

            Assimilation is a necessary component for migration - you're essentially joining a new tribe, and each tribe has its own rules. The United States has historically been phenomenal at assimilating migrants; Europe has less experience with organized migration. Generally, assimilation seems to work best where the migrants learn the host country's language and are able to keep aspects of their culture that are not in direct conflict with their host country - these distinctive aspects get diluted as generations proceed, and may very well become an inherent part of the host culture. The most obvious examples are German frankfurters becoming American hot dogs and Chinese cuisine begetting the American General Tso's chicken.

            Another American tradition? Tax evasion. We have talked so far about how borders and poor people interact. What about the rich? For the poor, borders are a barrier meant to herd them in. For the rich, borders are made to hide behind - the wealthy got the way they are because they play by the system put in place by the laws of the country they live in. One would hope that the rules are fair - one should know that the rules are changed by lawmakers who are often financially dependent on the wealthy. The consequences of such a dynamic are obvious - what is interesting is how the generated wealth is treated.

            The maxim of supply-side economics is that the wealthy will reinvest their wealth into the market, creating more wealth which will lift the poor and rich alike. Over the last few decades we have been living in an example of how that does not work. The maxim makes several assumptions, the most important being that the wealthy will reinvest their wealth into the market. Unfortunately, the existence of tax havens means that this wealth is all too often sitting in a tiny, unimportant state that would have no business existing if national sovereignty was not a concept. The idea that a tiny nation in the Caribbean could be holding billions of dollars in tax revenue, market investment or debt relief with no military to defend it would make the Vikings drool with anticipation, yet that is exactly the type of place where the world's wealth is stored.

            An argument could be made that the cash is there to make investors confident enough in investing the rest of their cash in the market; the proper proportion of this hidden stash is a matter of point of view, and as the pressure on state budgets increase, the amount of wealth in tax havens increase. The Panama Papers were the most expansive expose on tax havens in history; there will be more, and populist disgust could very well make national sovereignty an insufficient shield for the Cayman Islands.

            What will ease the pressure of the poor on borders? It is evident that great instability causes great migration - not having to worry about your family being raped to death in front of you seems to be related to being comfortable where you are living. It is also evident that people tend to want to live in a country where they have a higher quality of life. Would a foreign investment program ensuring clean water, adequate education and access to information in South America, Africa and Central Asia stop all migration? Of course not. But it would sure as hell help. A dollar goes farther in Ecuador then it does in Brooklyn, assuming it goes where it is supposed to (tax evasion isn't just for Americans - the Prime Minister of Pakistan was recently ousted for corruption uncovered via the Panama Papers); foreign investment can be seen in the same lens as treating a disease early on is a lot cheaper than treating it when symptoms start to become overbearing.

            Then again, it is dangerous to compare migration to a disease - there are members of this country (and surely every country, for that matter) who would see the treatment to this disease as gunning down everybody who is crossing the border without identification. Generally speaking, civilized people don't immediately resort to violence, and having such people be the vanguard of a civilization bodes ill for the quality of that civilization. The same applies for those that want to address wealth inequality with violence - storming the beaches of the Cayman Islands will ultimately do more harm then good, not least of which is fracturing the trust and stability of a financial system built on a fiat currency.

            Ultimately, it is not the borders that make the nation. The people make the nation, and the people determine who can be one of them and who cannot. That borders make the world unequal and unfair is obvious - life is unequal and unfair. But that does not overlap with the proper way to address inequality. After all, if a rising tide does raise all boats, wouldn't investing in a more stable Mexico improve America's stability? Couldn't that stability cascade southward? Easy money that if the United States did not pursue its war on drugs, Central and South America would be a more peaceful and stable part of the world. Likewise easy money that if the United States didn't fumble the Iraq invasion like it did, the Syrian civil war would not be as destructive as it became. Keep home safe, and people will stay there.

            Otherwise, don't be surprised if the wildfire throws its smoke in your face.

Sins of our Fathers

Sins of our Fathers