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Rolleiflex T, Ilford HP5+
Yesterday, in response to a series of tragedies involving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the EU issued a ten-point plan with a lot of emphasis on taking action against people smugglers and a range of further measures, such as fingerprinting migrants, that seem irrelevant to events. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government last year refused to back search and rescue plans on the grounds that they encouraged people to take risks, is now blaming “the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade.” The one group European politicians are not blaming, by and large, is themselves. Yet they, and the electorates they appease, bear most of the responsibility.
The reason for this is simple, and it is obvious. All European states are signatories to the Refugee Convention and that places obligations on them to offer sanctuary to people who arrive on their shores and who have a “well-founded fear” of persecution (on various grounds). Although politicians like to claim that their countries have a proud history of taking in the persecuted — as Cameron claimed in a speech last year — they now do everything in their power to make it as hard as possible for those seeking asylum to arrive on their territory. Devices such as heavy financial penalties on airlines and other carriers and ever tighter visa restrictions mean that people fleeing countries such as Syria and Eritrea simply cannot arrive in Europe by safe routes, and if they do so by using false documents they are often prosecuted and imprisoned. People from these countries make up a significant proportion of those trying to cross from Libya to Italy. Because people cannot travel via safe routes, they travel via dangerous ones, just as they do in other parts of the world. They put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and they take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. But the people smugglers, though no doubt unscrupulous criminals on the whole, are simply responding to a demand that European politicians and their electorates have created.
There is more. Whilst politicians from all of Europe are culpable, many those in northern Europe are particularly so. They have put in place a system in the EU that means that those people who do arrive and claim asylum must do so in the country they first enter. It is very hard to enter the UK, and most of those arriving turn up in countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, southern European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis. Countries such as the UK can disclaim responsibility and have no incentive to agree to a fair system of burden sharing.
Fingers pointed at people-smugglers and “traffickers” are pointed in the wrong direction. Europeans need only look in the mirror to see those responsible.
Yesterday morning there was a protest near my house in Bristol against a letting agent who has been pushing for rent increases, the story made the national press. Here’s my photo:
I’ve been looking again at a two-year-old discussion on immigration policy between Jonathan Portes and Martin Wolf, and particularly on Wolf’s take on the reasons that ought to inform policy. As far as I can tell, Wolf’s position is a kind of national-weighted consequentialism. Immigration policy is to be viewed as an aspect of economic policy, and the relevant considerations are simply whether a policy is beneficial to existing members of society, with no weight to be given to the interests of immigrants. Portes raises the interesting objection that, once we factor time into our national felicific calculus, then the well-being of future members who have yet to be naturalized ought to count, but this is a mere wrinkle in the argument. Wolf’s view is that
countries are like clubs. They can decide who members are. Once you are a member, you matter to the club. If you are not a member, you don’t.
I hope that Wolf doesn’t mean what he says. The disanology between clubs and countries is pretty stark, since countries are compulsory associations which most people don’t have a choice about, whereas clubs are not. Moreover, most people think that countries do not have an unlimited discretion to decide on who their members are, that Nazi laws to remove citizenship from Jews were unjust, that policies that are blatantly discriminatory on racial or gender lines have no moral standing, whatever the insider electors think. We also, I hope, think that laws that condemn generations of minority permanent residents to non-membership — until recently a feature of German citizenship law — are unjust. So at best Wolf must mean that countries have a discretion to admit as members outsiders with no other moral claim to admission or membership.
The interesting question, then, when we have got the discretionary membership issue out of the way is what could justify national-weighted consequentialism? Whilst there might be all kinds of deontological reasons for states to favour insiders over outsiders (the global justice literature is about little else), in my experience, economists don’t think in those terms. Rather, they think of themselves as being consequentialists all the way down, and of rights, powers, permissions etc as being ultimately justified by outcomes. If I’m right that this is the picture, then the claim would have to be that a global system of nationally-weighted consequentialisms, perhaps by assigning the promotion of individual interests to particular states, gives rise to the best consequences overall. That’s an empirical claim, but one that is very very unlikely to be true since it locks so many people away from opportunities they would otherwise have to be productive and makes the world a poorer place as a result. So I’m still puzzled. What do economists think justifies national-weighted consequentialism?
In the old Blind School on Hardman Street, Liverpool, subsequently trade union offices and the home of the Picket (a music venue), there’s a cupola with a mural celebrating the workers’ movement. Sadly, the damp is getting to it. The mural was painted by artist Mick Jones, son of Jack Jones the trade union leader. Arthur Scargill leads Karl Marx and there is much other detail of interest. The owner of the nearby Hope Street Hotel owns the building now and has plans for to turn it into a gastropub, so let’s hope it gets restored rather than destroyed. (There are move shots of the mural in the adjacent sections of my Flickr stream.)
Well, almost. The British government has just produced the guidance for its “Prevent” scheme for education, which aims to stop young people from being drawn into “extremism”. The elite at Oxford and Cambridge have been granted a specific exemption, allowing them to hear dangerous ideas that might corrupt the ordinary youth, and universities haven’t been given specific guidance on what they may teach. Colleges of further education, on the other hand, have been told that “All relevant curriculum areas will need to be engaged, with a single contact point for delivery of Prevent-related activity.” This so that students are not exposed to arguments that involve
“active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”
I suppose it will be news to some that these are “British” values, particularly if they are Irish or live in the former colonies. But leaving that aside, it looks like Plato is off the menu and to make sure:
“Compliance with the duty will be monitored centrally via the Home Office and through appropriate inspection regimes in each sector.”
Well, that’s freedom for you.
One of the most familiar and irritating moves in political philosophy is when a person says “oh, but my point was in ideal theory” as a response to some objection that references the grim and complicated real world. Not that I object in principle to ideal theory. But I do want to write this blog post to share a hypothesis about the ideal/non-ideal distinction and about why it has become more of a problem over time. The hypothesis is this: that in 1971 the gap between the ideal and the actual was a lot smaller than it is now. The world resembled Rawls’s ideal of the well-ordered society a lot more than it does now. Or at least, the North American bit of the world did.
Given that closer resemblance, people could do ideal theory without it looking like they were engaging in arcane hypotheses about a distant possible world. Political philosophy of the ideal variety looked a lot more relevant to what ought to happen.
[click to continue…]
18th-century wax model for medical training. An essential place to visit in Florence.