The inherent atrocity of “border security”

Jun 24 JDN 2458294

By now you are probably aware of the fact that a new “zero tolerance” border security policy under the Trump administration has resulted in 2,000 children being forcibly separated from their parents by US government agents. If you weren’t, here are a variety of different sources all telling the same basic story of large-scale state violence and terror.

Make no mistake: This is an atrocity. The United Nations has explicitly condemned this human rights violation—to which Trump responded by making an unprecedented threat of withdrawing unilaterally from the UN Human Rights Council.

#ThisIsNotNormal, and Trump was everything we feared—everything we warned—he would be: Corrupt, incompetent, cruel, and authoritarian.

Yet Trump’s border policy differs mainly in degree, not kind, from existing US border policy. There is much more continuity here than most of us would like to admit.

The Trump administration has dramatically increased “interior removals”, the most obviously cruel acts, where ICE agents break into the houses of people living in the US and take them away. Don’t let the cold language fool you; this is literally people with guns breaking into your home and kidnapping members of your family. This is characteristic of totalitarian governments, not liberal democracies.

And yet, the Obama administration actually holds the record for most deportations (though only because they included “at-border deportations” which other administrations did not). A major policy change by George W. Bush started this whole process of detaining people at the border instead of releasing them and requiring them to return for later court dates.

I could keep going back; US border enforcement has gotten more and more aggressive as time goes on. US border security staffing has quintupled since just 1990. There was a time when the United States was a land of opportunity that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”; but that time is long past.

And this, in itself, is a human rights violation. Indeed, I am convinced that border security itself is inherently a human rights violation, always and everywhere; future generations will not praise us for being more restrained than Trump’s abject and intentional cruelty, but condemn us for acting under the same basic moral framework that justified it.

There is an imaginary line in the sand just a hundred miles south of where I sit now. On one side of the line, a typical family makes $66,000 per year. On the other side, a typical family makes only $20,000. On one side of the line, life expectancy is 81 years; on the other, 77. This means that over their lifetime, someone on this side of the line can expect to make over one million dollars more than they would if they had lived on the other side. Step across this line, get a million dollars; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s an empirical fact.

This would be bizarre enough by itself; but now consider that on that line there are fences, guard towers, and soldiers who will keep you from crossing it. If you have appropriate papers, you can cross; but if you don’t, they will arrest and detain you, potentially for months. This is not how we treat you if you are carrying contraband or have a criminal record. This is how we treat you if you don’t have a passport.

How can we possibly reconcile this with the principles of liberal democracy? Philosophers have tried, to be sure. Yet they invariably rely upon some notion that the people who want to cross our border are coming from another country where they were already granted basic human rights and democratic representation—which is almost never the case. People who come here from the UK or the Netherlands or generally have the proper visas. Even people who come here from China usually have visas—though China is by no means a liberal democracy. It’s people who come here from Haiti and Nicaragua who don’t—and these are some of the most corrupt and impoverished nations in the world.

As I said in an earlier post, I was not offended that Trump characterized countries like Haiti and Syria as “shitholes”. By any objective standard, that is accurate; these countries are terrible, terrible places to live. No, what offends me is that he thinks this gives us a right to turn these people away, as though the horrible conditions of their country somehow “rub off” on them and make them less worthy as human beings. On the contrary, we have a word for people who come from “shithole” countries seeking help, and that word is “refugee”.

Under international law, “refugee” has a very specific legal meaning, under which most immigrants do not qualify. But in a broader moral sense, almost every immigrant is a refugee. People don’t uproot themselves and travel thousands of miles on a whim. They are coming here because conditions in their home country are so bad that they simply cannot tolerate them anymore, and they come to us desperately seeking our help. They aren’t asking for handouts of free money—illegal immigrants are a net gain for our fiscal system, paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are looking for jobs, and willing to accept much lower wages than the workers already here—because those wages are still dramatically higher than what they had where they came from.

Of course, that does potentially mean they are competing with local low-wage workers, doesn’t it? Yes—but not as much as you might think. There is only a very weak relationship between higher immigration and lower wages (some studies find none at all!), even at the largest plausible estimates, the gain in welfare for the immigrants is dramatically higher than the loss in welfare for the low-wage workers who are already here. It’s not even a question of valuing them equally; as long as you value an immigrant at least one tenth as much as a native-born citizen, the equation comes out favoring more immigration.

This is for two reasons: One, most native-born workers already are unwilling to do the jobs that most immigrants do, such as picking fruit and laying masonry; and two, increased spending by immigrants boosts the local economy enough to compensate for any job losses.


But even aside from the economic impacts, what is the moral case for border security?

I have heard many people argue that “It’s our home, we should be able to decide who lives here.” First of all, there are some major differences between letting someone live in your home and letting someone come into your country. I’m not saying we should allow immigrants to force themselves into people’s homes, only that we shouldn’t arrest them when they try cross the border.

But even if I were to accept the analogy, if someone were fleeing oppression by an authoritarian government and asked to live in my home, I would let them. I would help hide them from the government if they were trying to escape persecution. I would even be willing to house people simply trying to escape poverty, as long as it were part of a well-organized program designed to ensure that everyone actually gets helped and the burden on homeowners and renters was not too great. I wouldn’t simply let homeless people come live here, because that creates all sorts of coordination problems (I can only fit so many, and how do I prioritize which ones?); but I’d absolutely participate in a program that coordinates placement of homeless families in apartments provided by volunteers. (In fact, maybe I should try to petition for such a program, as Southern California has a huge homelessness rate due to our ridiculous housing prices.)

Many people seem to fear that immigrants will bring crime, but actually they reduce crime rates. It’s really kind of astonishing how much less crime immigrants commit than locals. My hypothesis is that immigrants are a self-selected sample; the kind of person willing to move thousands of miles isn’t the kind of person who commits a lot of crimes.
I understand wanting to keep out terrorists and drug smugglers, but there are already plenty of terrorists and drug smugglers here in the US; if we are unwilling to set up border security between California and Nevada, I don’t see why we should be setting it up between California and Baja California. But okay, fine, we can keep the customs agents who inspect your belongings when you cross the border. If someone doesn’t have proper documentation, we can even detain and interrogate them—for a few hours, not a few months. The goal should be to detect dangerous criminals and nothing else. Once we are confident that you have not committed any felonies, we should let you through—frankly, we should give you a green card. We should only be willing to detain someone at the border for the same reasons we would be willing to detain a citizen who already lives here—that is, probable cause for an actual crime. (And no, you don’t get to count “illegal border crossing” as a crime, because that’s begging the question. By the same logic I could justify detaining people for jaywalking.)

A lot of people argue that restricting immigration is necessary to “preserve local culture”; but I’m not even sure that this is a goal sufficiently important to justify arresting and detaining people, and in any case, that’s really not how culture works. Culture is not advanced by purism and stagnation, but by openness and cross-pollination. From anime to pizza, many of our most valued cultural traditions would not exist without interaction across cultural boundaries. Introducing more Spanish speakers into the US may make us start saying no problemo and vamonos, but it’s not going to destroy liberal democracy. If you value culture, you should value interactions across different societies.

Most importantly, think about what you are trying to justify. Even if we stop doing Trump’s most extreme acts of cruelty, we are still talking about using military force to stop people from crossing an imaginary line. ICE basically treats people the same way the SS did. “Papers, please” isn’t something we associate with free societies—it’s characteristic of totalitarianism. We are so accustomed to border security (or so ignorant of its details) that we don’t see it for the atrocity it so obviously is.

National borders function something very much like feudal privilege. We have our “birthright”, which grants us all sorts of benefits and special privileges—literally tripling our incomes and extending our lives. We did nothing to earn this privilege. If anything, we show ourselves to be less deserving (e.g. by committing more crimes). And we use the government to defend our privilege by force.

Are people born on the other side of the line less human? Are they less morally worthy? On what grounds do we point guns at them and lock them away for the “crime” of wanting to live here?

What Trump is doing right now is horrific. But it is not that much more horrific than what we were already doing. My hope is that this will finally open our eyes to the horrors that we had been participating in all along.

This is a battle for the soul of America

July 9, JDN 2457944

At the time of writing, I just got back from a protest march against President Trump in Santa Ana (the featured photo is one I took at the march). I had intended to go to the much larger sister protest in Los Angeles, but the logistics were too daunting. On the upside, presumably the marginal impact of my attendance was higher at the smaller event.

Protest marches are not a common pastime of mine; I am much more of an ivory-tower policy wonk than a boots-on-the-ground political activist. The way that other people seem to be allergic to statistics, I am allergic to a lack of statistics when broad claims are made with minimal evidence. Even when I basically agree with everything being said, I still feel vaguely uncomfortable marching and chanting in unison (and constantly reminded of that scene from Life of Brian). But I made an exception for this one, because Trump represents a threat to the soul of American democracy.

We have had bad leaders many times before—even awful leaders, even leaders whose bad decisions resulted in the needless deaths of thousands. But not since the end of the Civil War have we had leaders who so directly threatened the core institutions of America itself.

We must keep reminding ourselves: This is not normal. This is not normal! Donald Trump’s casual corruption, overwhelming narcissism, authoritarianism, greed, and utter incompetence (not to mention his taste in decor) make him more like Idi Amin or Hugo Chavez than like George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. (Even the comparison with Vladimir Putin would be too flattering to Trump; Putin at least is competent.) He has personally publicly insulted over 300 people, places, and things—and counting.

Trump lies almost constantly, surrounds himself with family members and sycophants, refuses to listen to intelligence briefings, and personally demeans and even threatens journalists who criticize him. Every day it seems like there is a new scandal, more outrageous than the last; and after so long, this almost seems like a strategy. Every day he finds some new way to offend and undermine the basic norms of our society, and eventually he hopes to wear us down until we give up fighting.

It is certainly an exaggeration, and perhaps a dangerous one, to say that Donald Trump is the next Adolf Hitler. But there are important historical parallels between the rise of Trump and the rise of many other populist authoritarian demagogues. He casually violates democratic norms of civility, honesty, and transparency, and incentivizes the rest of us to do the same—a temptation we must resist. Political scientists and economists are now issuing public warnings that our democratic institutions are not as strong as we may think (though, to be fair, others argue that they are indeed strong enough).

It was an agonizingly close Presidential election. Even the tiniest differences could have flipped enough states to change the outcome. If we’d had a better voting system, it would not have happened; a simple plurality vote would have elected Hillary Clinton, and as I argued in a previous post, range voting would probably have chosen Bernie Sanders. Therefore, we must not take this result as a complete indictment of American society or a complete failure of American democracy. But let it shake us out of our complacency; democracy is only as strong as the will of its citizens to defend it.

Is America uniquely… mean?

JDN 2457454

I read this article yesterday which I found both very resonant and very disturbing: At least among First World countries, the United States really does seem uniquely, for lack of a better word, mean.

The formal psychological terminology is social dominance orientation; the political science term is authoritarianism. In economics, we notice the difference due to its effect on income inequality. But all of these concepts are capturing part of a deeper underlying reality that in the age of Trump I am finding increasingly hard to deny. The best predictor of support for Trump is authoritarianism.

Of course I’ve already talked about our enormous military budget; but then Tennessee had to make their official state rifle a 50-caliber weapon capable of destroying light tanks. There is something especially dominant, aggressive, and violent about American culture.

We are certainly not unique in the world as a whole—actually I think the amount of social dominance orientation, authoritarianism, and inequality in the US is fairly similar to the world average. We are unique in our gun ownership, but our military spending proportional to GDP is not particularly high by world standards—we’re just an extremely rich country. But in all these respects we are a unique outlier among First World countries; in many ways we resemble a rich authoritarian petrostate like Qatar rather than a European social democracy like France or the UK. (At least we’re not Saudi Arabia?)

More than other First World cultures, Americans believe in hierarchy; they believe that someone should be on top and other people should be on the bottom. More than that, they believe that people “like us” should be on top and people “not like us” should be on the bottom, however that is defined—often in terms of race or religion, but not necessarily.

Indeed, one of the things I find most baffling about this is that it is often more important to people that others be held down than that they themselves be lifted up. This is the only way I can make sense of the fact that people who have watched their wages be drained into the pockets of billionaires for a generation can think that the most important things to do right now are block out illegal immigrants and deport Muslims.

It seems to be that people become convinced that their own status, whatever it may be, is deserved: If they are rich, it is obviously because they are so brilliant and hard-working (something Trump clearly believes about himself, being a textbook example of Narcissistic Personality Disorder); if they are poor, it is obviously because they are so incompetent and lazy. Thus, being lifted up doesn’t make sense; why would you give me things I don’t deserve?

But then when they see people who are different from them, they know automatically that those people must be by definition inferior, as all who are Not of Our Tribe are by definition inferior. And therefore, any of them who are rich gained their position through corruption or injustice, and all of them who are poor deserve their fate for being so inferior. Thus, it is most vital to ensure that these Not of Our Tribe are held down from reaching high positions they so obviously do not deserve.

I’m fairly sure that most of this happens at a very deep unconscious level; it calls upon ancient evolutionary instincts to love our own tribe, to serve the alpha male, to fear and hate those of other tribes. These instincts may well have served us 200,000 years ago (then again, they may just have been the best our brains could manage at the time); but they are becoming a dangerous liability today.

As E.O. Wilson put it: “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”

Yet this cannot be a complete explanation, for there is variation in these attitudes. A purely instinctual theory should say that all human cultures have this to an essentially equal degree; but I started this post by pointing out that the United States appears to have a particularly large amount relative to Europe.

So, there must be something in the cultures or institutions of different nations that makes them either enhance or suppress this instinctual tribalism. There must be something that Europe is doing right, the US is doing wrong, and Saudi Arabia is doing very, very wrong.
Well, the obvious one that sticks out at me is religion. It seems fairly obvious to me that Sweden is less religious than the US, which is less religious than Saudi Arabia.

Data does back me up on this. Religiosity isn’t easy to measure, but we have methods of doing so. If we ask people in various countries if religion is very important in their lives, the percentage of people who say yes gives us an indication of how religious that country is.

In Saudi Arabia, 93% say yes. In the United States, 65% say yes. In Sweden, only 17% say yes.

Religiosity tends to be highest in the poorest countries, but the US is an outlier, far too rich for our religion (or too religious for our wealth).

Religiosity also tends to be highest in countries with high inequality—this time, the US fits right in.

The link between religion and inequality is quite clear. It’s harder to say which way the causation runs. Perhaps high inequality makes people cling more to religion as a comfort, and getting rid of religion would only mean taking that comfort away. Or, perhaps religion actually makes people believe more in social dominance, and thus is part of what keeps that high inequality in place. It could also be a feedback loop, in which higher inequality leads to higher religiosity which leads to higher inequality.

That said, I think we actually have some evidence that causality runs from religion to inequality, rather than the other way around. The secularization of France took place around the same time as the French Revolution that overthrew the existing economic system and replaced it with one that had substantially less inequality. Iran’s government became substantially more based on religion in the latter half of the 20th century, and their inequality soared thereafter.

Above all, Donald Trump dominates the evangelical vote, which makes absolutely no sense if religion is a comfort against inequality—but perfect sense if religion solidifies the tendency of people to think in terms of hierarchy and authoritarianism.

This also makes sense in terms of the content of religion, especially Abrahamaic religion; read the Bible and the Qur’an, and you will see that their primary goal seems to be to convince you that some people, namely people who believe in this book, are just better than other people, and we should be in charge because God says so. (And you wouldn’t try to argue with God, would you?) They really make no particular effort to convince you that God actually exists; they spend all their argumentative effort on what God wants you to do and who God wants you to put in charge—and for some strange reason it always seems to be the same guys who are writing down “God’s words” in the book! What a coincidence!

If religion is indeed the problem, or a large part of the problem, what can we do about it? That’s the most difficult part. We’ve been making absolutely conclusive rational arguments against religion since literally 300 years before Jesus was even born (there has never been a time in human history in which it was rational for an educated person to believe in Christianity or Islam, for the religions did not come into existence until well after the arguments to refute them were well-known!), and the empirical evidence against theism has only gotten stronger ever since; so that clearly isn’t enough.

I think what we really need to do at this point is confront the moral monopoly that religion has asserted for itself. The “Moral Majority” was neither, but its name still sort of makes sense to us because we so strongly associate being moral with being religious. We use terms like “Christian” and “generous” almost interchangeably. And whenever you get into a debate about religion, shortly after you have thoroughly demolished any shred of empirical credibility religion still had left, you can basically guarantee that the response will be: “But without God, how can you know right from wrong?”

What is perhaps most baffling about this concept of morality so commonplace in our culture is that not only is the command of a higher authority that rewards and punishes you not the highest level of moral development—it is literally the lowest. Of the six stages of moral thinking Kohlberg documented in children, the reward and punishment orientation exemplified by the Bible and the Qur’an is the very first. I think many of these people really truly haven’t gotten past level 1, which is why when you start trying to explain how you base your moral judgments on universal principles of justice and consequences (level 6) they don’t seem to have any idea what you’re talking about.

Perhaps this is a task for our education system (philosophy classes in middle school?), perhaps we need something more drastic than that, or perhaps it is enough that we keep speaking about it in public. But somehow we need to break up the monopoly that religion has on moral concepts, so that people no longer feel ashamed to say that something is morally wrong without being able to cite a particular passage from a particular book from the Iron Age. Perhaps once we can finally make people realize that morality does not depend on religion, we can finally free them from the grip of religion—and therefore from the grip of authoritarianism and social dominance.

If this is right, then the reason America is so mean is that we are so Christian—and people need to realize that this is not a paradoxical statement.