This has been the summer of immigration. And it’s not a good thing. The violence in Syria alone has caused millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. And Europe, in old fashioned style, is trying its very hardest to turn them away. I don’t buy that I am responsible for what my fellow nationals do or say. Nevertheless, I am embarrassed.
When I tell people I am in favor of open borders, they often bring up cases like this. But what, they snicker, about things like the European refugee crisis? Isn’t the implication of the open borders position clearly that we must let all those people in? And doesn’t that clearly reduce the position to the absurd?
The standard response here is to make a distinction. There is a difference, it is said, between normal immigrants, often labeled “economic” migrants, and refugees. The people fleeing the Syrian conflict are refugees, and that means their claims to enter better countries are categorically different. Theirs is a much stronger claim, than those of “mere” immigrants.
Let’s set aside the obvious. The claims of refugees are extremely weighty. Their lives are at stake and they are trying to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Only the extremely callous would begrudge them that.
But the distinction is suspicious. It makes sense only if we first accept that countries have a right to deny people entry at all. Only if we concede that does the weighing up of differential claims begin to matter. Yet, if we concede that, it also becomes much easier to resist even the claims of refugees. Perhaps countries in the region should shelter these people. Perhaps it’s someone else’s problem. Perhaps we have done enough. Perhaps … who knows what.
The point should not be conceded. Most readers here will be familiar with Michael Huemer’s arguments. If you are not, check them out here. I have taken on more interesting and challenging defenses of closed borders myself here. I will be blogging more about this soon. (I promise.) The upshot: an honest reading of the arguments pro and con, I believe, is that there is no good justification for countries’ purported right to exclude migrants, full stop. And if no good justification exists, there is no difference between the “mere” immigrant and the refugee. Both come looking for a safer, better life. Both would like to make such a life for themselves, if only we let them. And both have as good a claim of being here as we might.
This is the truth that the snickerers see. Whatever we see about refugees will have implications about what we say about immigration in general. But that is about as far as it goes. For what’s false in their view is at least as important.
Suppose that the influx of refugees is really too much for Europe to handle. Suppose that letting these people in would really endanger social and political stability in the ways that the doomsayers claim. These are empirical conjectures, but let’s grant them for the moment. Imagine that things are really dire. What of it? Is this really the reductio ad absurdum of the open borders position?
Let’s make something absolutely clear. Even if the open borders view were committed to allowing all Syrian refugees unfettered access, it is by no means obvious that this constitutes a reductio. People are dying. Keeping them out – with razor wire, no less – is not something I’d like to stand for.
But the real mistake here is this to think that the test of a theory is how it performs in exceptional circumstances. The mistake is that we can find out what is true in general by looking at the exception. The Syrian crisis is an emergency situation, and the millions of refugees it has caused are trying to escape it. This is not run-of-the-mill stuff.
Philosophers often like to exploit these kind of cases. We search for counter-examples. But social and political life often does not allow for this way of reasoning. The fact that a drowning person can grab the nearest lifesaver – even though it’s not his – does not disprove the existence of property rights. And similarly, the fact – if it is a fact – that sudden and overwhelming influxes of migration ought to be regulated or controlled does not disprove that generally borders ought to be open. The exception is not the rule.