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Why “Open Borders” is a Dangerous Idea

Open borders philosophy is wrong, because, like the failed ideologies of the past century, it doesn’t account for unpleasant facts about human nature and society.

· 6 min read
Why “Open Borders” is a Dangerous Idea

A decade before he fell to esophageal cancer Christopher Hitchens gave a series of riveting speeches on George Orwell. In them Hitchens argued that Orwell was an intellectual of such tremendous consequence because he got the three great dramas” of the 20th century right. These were: the moral unsustainability of imperialism, the rising danger of Fascism, and the soulless cruelty of Communism. Most today agree that Orwell was a singularly perceptive observer of that barbaric century.

So in the opening decades of the new century, what are the great dramas bearing down on us? The danger of climate change is surely high on most lists. The promise and peril of artificial superintelligence? Or genetic engineering? Perhaps the danger lurks most in the threats we have slowly adjusted to and may be complacent about such as nuclear and biological weapons proliferation.

An Argument Against Open Borders and Liberal Hubris
Sydney. London. Toronto.

From my point-of-view, mass migration is the singular challenge of the 21st century. This is because it is a meta-issue that will affect our response to every other challenge. This is due to the fact that as mass migrations change demography, they may also affect changes in host nations’ cultures and political economies. The specifics of these changes are exceedingly difficult to forecast, because they hinge on dozens of variables specific to the migrants, the host nation, and the scale and rate of the movements. While we do not yet know the vector, the titanic, high velocity migration the West is currently experiencing will cause profound changes.

It is my fear that the primary near-term effect will be surging tribalism. Unlimited mass migration could cripple liberal Western powers with perpetual ethnic tension, and halt their ability to effectively act on the world stage. This could cede the century to more unified authoritarian powers such as Russia and China who have drastically different value systems and views of human dignity.

The open borders philosophy is wrong, because, like the failed ideologies of the past century, it doesn’t account for unpleasant facts about human nature and society. The truth Communism missed is that human beings prefer self-interest to compelled altruism. The truth open borders advocates miss is that human societies are tribal.

The fundamental human social skill is the formation of groups that act with shared intentionality. The skill to coordinate intentions is what enabled our ancestors to form sophisticated social coalitions that outcompeted lower primates. Shared intentionality is a double-edged sword, though. The ability to form groups around intentions also means the ability to form breakaway sub-groups around different intentions. Thus, one of our primary evolutionary breakthroughs carried within it the potential for endless factionalism.

The reason why we are still tribal today is because tribalism appears to have been evolutionarily adaptive—at least for our ancestors. Researchers at McGill University have described it thusly: “ethnocentrism eventually overcomes its closest competitor, humanitarianism, by exploiting humanitarian cooperation across group boundaries”.

Despite prevailing moral fashions, we are the products of this evolutionary competition. This observation has no moral polarity, it is a mere reality. And while it is undoubtedly noble to argue that we should try to overcome tribalism, it is a very different matter to argue that it is achievable, or that in doing so we won’t be outcompeted by less noble, more unified groups.

The challenge of heterogeneity is that it pre-loads divisions into society. Sometimes those differences can be overcome through inter-communal dialogue and good government. But, all too often when intentions differ, and tribes inevitably rise, differences in religion, language, and custom are the contours around which factions organize.

This is not to say that ethno-racial or cultural difference is the sole cause of factionalism. Human beings don’t, in fact, need much encouragement to split into camps, hoist flags, and start wiping each other out. Our history is replete with examples of relatively homogenous societies that unraveled and split. After all, there were no obvious differences in language or ethnicity between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, or the Kuomintang and the CPC, or the Federalists and Unitarians. Diversity should not be met with fatalism, but should be seen as one of many significant risk factors that need to be diligently managed.

Since human beings are so quick to form factions, it should be the goal of government policy to ameliorate division and ward off for as long as possible the demon of sectarianism. Our current public policies and cultural products seem aimed at doing the exact opposite. I think this is because the designers of these policies hold at least two mistaken assumptions about diversity and migration.

Luxury Diversity

Many elite Westerners have a passionate belief in diversity because they have lived it. Not always in their neighborhoods, but quite often at university. What they fail to realize is that a top-flight university offers a very narrow type of diversity. For example, in my university class we had over 50 nationalities. It was a wonderful experience, and I formed abiding friendships with people from all over the world. What I later realized, is that the social cohesion of my class was greatly assisted by the fact that the admissions office was a border. They had heavily screened the incoming class for intelligence, socialization, and personality characteristics. The relevant distinction wasn’t between the Tamil Brahmins and Tatar Russians, but between students and non-students. We were all members of a university created community, enjoying carefully curated luxury diversity.

None of this is surprising, elites have always gotten along. What the connoisseurs of luxury diversity miss, is that not everyone is a well-socialized member of the culturally converging global bourgeoisie. People from across the world differ significantly in behavior and custom. Some of these behaviors and customs are awesome, others, such as honour killings, are not, (just as the West has traditions that are awesome, and others such as mass shootings, which are horrific). When migration occurs, we have to be aware that these behaviors and customs come along and can cause considerable strain in the receiving nation.

Time and Integration

There is also a faulty assumption that diverse societies become more tolerant and inclusive over time. The Indian sub-continent is one of the most diverse places on the planet. This heterogeneity is long-standing and a result of waves of mass migration onto the sub-continent over tens of thousands of years. Yet after all this civilizational experience with diversity, India still has xenophobia, with more than 40% of respondents to the World Values Survey stating that they would “not like to live next door to a person of another race”.

Diversity on the sub-continent has not been a strength, but an immense civilizational challenge. Why our public policies seem intent on replicating these historical patterns in Europe and North America is always left unexplained.

These historical examples are unexplored because some in the West adhere to a frenzied millenarianism about migration and diversity. They hold that mass migration is not a public policy challenge to be soberly regulated, but a path to moral redemption and economic utopia. When reality intrudes on these delusions the advocates mumble while citizens navigate the consequences.

History has demonstrated innumerable times that at-scale diversity doesn’t create utopia but tension. This tension can sometimes be negotiated, but often leads to societal fragmentation, secession, or the establishment of sprawling despotisms like the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Mughal empires. This is because civilizations are staggeringly complex economic, social and political coordination systems that slowly develop over hundreds of years. When these coordination systems are stressed by rapid change, they sometimes shudder and break.

Of the top ten most diverse countries in the world, every single one has suffered major, lethal political violence since 2001. Diversity is not some holy sacrament, it is a deadly serious socio-political challenge that needs to be prudently managed. It is a mistake to believe that unregulated mass migration will bring about redemption for guilty Westerners. For whatever economic benefits it may bring, it will also bring tribalism, disunity, and violence. And for those of you who think this isn’t a major issue or that the worst has passed, please note we are just in the opening act of this drama.

George Gallatin

George is a technology executive and writer living in New York City. He is currently finishing his first novel, which follows an American infantryman through a career of deployments to Iraq and Afgha

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