Government can do a lot, but it can’t do everything. Only civil society can secure all the basic goods humans need to flourish. Infinite labour mobility dissolves civil society.
This is the third instalment of a six-part series arguing against ‘open borders’ migration policies. An ‘open borders’ policy uses border control only to catch criminals moving between jurisdictions. It rejects any other state control over migration.
At this point, it’s worth my coming clean: as well as a regular contributor I’m also the managing editor of The Quad. Since The Quad was set up to allow students to communicate sidestream political ideas to each other, I thought it would be worth giving a series of potted summaries of different political theories or frameworks to get them out there: so in the first part I described what ‘democratic socialism’ actually means. (It’s more precise than ‘liberalism’ or ‘progressivism’.) And in the second part I defended a communitarian theory of the state against the mainstream social contract alternative. The hot-button issue of migration policy is a pretext.
In this vein, I am going to break a rule I attempt to impose on some ‘conservative’ writers who pitch articles to us: “don’t mention conservatism”. Just argue for your policy or principle from plausible premises your interlocutor will share. No-one cares about –isms, and conservat-ism has a bad rap because its name is attached to the inept wrecking crew currently administering the UK government; and because it reeks of lethargy as a substitute for hope.
But this piece is going to argue that open borders pose a threat to quite concrete goods society should be organised to secure; and making this argument is a good place to introduce a strand of thinking most Anglo-Americans call ‘conservatism’.
The least exciting way to be a conservative is to be procedurally conservative. You don’t conserve because you love some particular good, and ‘progress’ risks the destruction of that good, but rather because you are aware that in general there are goods whose destruction is put at risk by an unchecked appetite for ‘progress’.
What kinds of goods might these be?
Economic goods aren’t actual ‘goods’. ‘Wealth’ is the satisfaction of preferences, whatever they are; the filling of our mouths with some stuff or other. So wealth is only ‘good’ derivatively, in that if you prefer something good, and you’ve got it, then you’re wealthy; but of course you could prefer something bad, and get it, and you’d still be wealthy. Progress doesn’t put at risk the good of wealth because wealth isn’t a good.
Legal entitlements and liberties (called ‘rights’ after the 18th century) aren’t actual goods either. They are only preconditions for successfully pursuing goods: a framework of predictability in which we can make and follow through plans. So these can’t be the goods progress puts at risk.
State projects – welfare, public services – aren’t typically at risk from progress, so these won’t be the kinds of goods the conservative is worried about. Why aren’t they at risk? Simply because these have no independent nature apart from their being the tool through which the state pursues ‘progress’ as understood by whoever’s in power.
What is at risk are workshops, marketplaces, farms, factories, churches and concert halls. These create and provide the material conditions for living the way we currently enjoy living. Governments don’t create or provide – they just re-organise.
What is at risk are the customs, assumptions and inherited principles, often near-impossible to explicitly articulate, which fill judges’ heads with the moral sentiments they pour out when interpreting the empty vessel of primary legislation. Without those interpretations, the legislation of well-meaning politicians wouldn’t have the beneficial effects we enjoy.
What is at risk are all the organisations and institutions – staffed by people on a payroll, sitting in offices in buildings – which succeed in securing basic goods and enriching our lives in places where government departments can’t reach, even when electioneers promise otherwise.
All of these things require an enormous, common, voluntary ‘buy-in’ to sustain. People need to know each other well. They need to be able to rely on each other to take over social and institutional roles from their parents – and that means relying on each other to learn a set of skills, stories, and habits of mind. And not just to learn them, but to commit to them enough to hand them on to their children in turn.
Producing a cheese peculiar to one Yorkshire dale, sustaining a church choir, or running a scout troop all take mutual loyalty, understanding and – perish the thought – conformity. And years of living in similar places, with similar people, if not in the same place with the same people.
Let’s zoom in on the choir case. Readers of this article at expensive UK universities probably have one of two attitudes to the English choral tradition. Either they take it for granted, as something the establishment will always foot the bill for even if there is very little widespread interest in it. Or, they have no idea how much work is involved in training singers and running choirs. (There’s a third possible attitude I won’t countenance: that live and instrumental music isn’t any better than recorded or synthesized music, so we’d lose nothing if we stopped putting in that work.)
But outside of expensive universities, people either don’t benefit from English choral music, or they don’t have institutional support to keep it going. They can’t offer their children prestigious scholarships to persuade them to show up for rehearsals on a Saturday morning. The parish choir will only survive if they invest love into it. And that investment will only be effective and rational if there is a critical mass of other people around them also investing love in the same institution.
Open borders policies permit high labour mobility of the kind which makes all of these achievements suddenly very difficult.
Typically, the cultural and institutional losses caused by labour mobility and cultural diversity fall disproportionately on the poor. The wealthy can move to congregate in redoubts and hence sustain the critical local mass of like-minded people required to hand on culture and staff voluntary institutions. The wealthy have more free time and disposable income to invest in those institutions, and they can afford to delegate, to full-time professionals teaching in expensive schools, the work of handing down their own culture to their children.
The situation the poor are in is very different: as a community becomes more transient and culturally diverse, that critical local mass will be lost. The base of skills, assets and man-hours required to sustain civil institutions or cultural practices dwindles.
The result is that the goods, which these institutions and practices once secured for everyone, become boutique. Culture becomes a luxury. The poor must be satisfied with cheap imitations, or nothing at all – that is, ‘pop culture’.
The endgame of multiculturalism is not Camden Market: it’s Nando’s.
There are two ways advocates of open borders can defend their policy from the resistance generated among those who suffer these harms.
They can vilify the poor and attempt to shame them out of their love of goods which require stability and conformity. Or they can offer alternative goods: a shallow, disposable culture; hollow slogans and buzzwords instead of demanding moral and political principles; and inept, impersonal government programmes polished to a mesmerising sheen with the wax of political rhetoric.
Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.
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