The UN Global Migration Compact approved last week by 164 nations included a commitment to “eliminate all forms of discrimination” against migrants. While this commitment is not legally binding, the fact that ‘discrimination’ has come to be understood by high level diplomats as inherently unjust, something to be ‘eliminated’ in all its forms, is a cause for concern, because it appears to reflect a new infatuation among our political elites with an uncritical and unrealistic conception of inclusion and equality.
To understand the limits of an absolutist philosophy of non-discrimination or an unqualified ethos of equality, I invite you to indulge with me in the following thought experiment: imagine a world in which the privileges of citizenship must be extended to all takers, a world in which citizenship is no longer a privilege granted by the governments of nations, but a universal right.
Something like this is advocated by American philosopher Joseph Carens, who argued in a 1983 essay that “citizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent of feudal privilege,” giving Western citizens morally arbitrary advantages over citizens of poorer nations.
This uncompromisingly egalitarian vision is captured poetically in the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine:
“Imagine all the people living for today, imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do; nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too, imagine all the people living life in peace… I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will be as one.”
The great myth behind the idea of a borderless world is that all human beings, being equal, must, just on account of their humanity, be equally well-equipped to live in a free society, and to uphold and serve its institutions, irrespective of their upbringing, cultural background, or personal history.
This is the kind of naïve, universalist cultural anthropology that propped up the disastrous attempts to transplant Western democratic institutions to Iraq, a country in which the democratic habits of give-and-take essential to any democratic experiment, had not evolved under the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein.
If we accept that we humans are indeed significantly conditioned by our upbringing and culture; if we accept that we are a mix of good and evil; if we accept that we are collaborative and loving, but also capable of selfish, destructive, manipulative, and exploitative behaviour, then the idea of a totally porous global society starts to look a lot less appealing than Lennon’s happy lyrics.
Those inclined to celebrate a borderless world would do well to remember that the virtues of civility and responsible citizenship are cultural achievements, which many societies have failed to realize. Democratic habits are not genetically transmitted, but consolidated over generations in specific social, cultural, and historical contexts.
This is not to say that constitutional democracy is necessarily the only valid way to organise a society – who knows, it may be superseded by a better system in the future, and it probably has much to learn from societies in which family and tribal loyalty figure more prominently. But it is the system we have inherited, and its underlying values of equality before the law, a free and diverse press, impartiality of public officials and judges, and individual responsibility, do not grow on trees – they must be nourished and maintained by a certain type of culture.
Like it or not, group and cultural dynamics vary dramatically across the globe, are extremely powerful, and do not uniformly support a liberal democratic way of life. Although individuals are not simply cultural ‘products,’ people do nonetheless tend to carry the conventional wisdom of their culture and social groups with them.
Consequently, if you indiscriminately tear down the borders between cultures and societies, what you get is not universal peace and harmony, but a socially destructive clash of attitudes, languages, expectations, and habits.
Those immersed in cultures which lack a strong work ethic will not learn a Germanic work ethic by the mere fact of crossing the German border. Those brought up in cultures in which blasphemy is considered a crime deserving of hanging, will not become religiously tolerant just because they have crossed into a liberal jurisdiction. Those brought up to believe that women are inherently inferior to men will not suddenly recognise the political equality of women because they have crossed into a more egalitarian jurisdiction.
Inevitably, in pointing out the fact that individuals are deeply influenced by their cultural background, and that not all cultures are equally friendly to values such as personal liberty, equality of the sexes, religious tolerance, and economic responsibility, I will be accused of being xenophobic or having a ‘neo-colonial’ mentality.
But it is hard to see how acknowledging the cultural foundations of democratic life and the fact that some cultures are less hospitable to its values than others is tantamount to hatred or contempt for anyone, including people brought up in anti-democratic or intolerant societies.
We must face the cold, hard truth that Western political correctness will not permit us to utter in polite company: the peculiar blend of constitutional democracy, welfare provision, and free market institutions that is the inheritance of Western nations probably only works for those who have the requisite education, habits, and mindset to sign up as responsible, respectful, constructive, and law-abiding citizens.
This means that those whose mindset and habits are formed in profoundly illiberal, misogynistic, or intolerant cultural milieus, whether inside or outside the boundaries of established constitutional democracies, cannot become good citizens of liberal democracies without overcoming habits and attitudes hostile to the basic tenets of a free and equal society.
A small number of people with habits and mentalities forged in an undemocratic, intolerant, fundamentalist, or deeply misogynistic culture may join a democratic society and leave its ethos more or less undisturbed; but the influx into a democratic society of a large number of people who have imbibed intolerant and authoritarian attitudes from an early age may put the cultural infrastructure of their host society in jeopardy.
Thus, the idea of a borderless world, far from fulfilling Lennon’s dream of “people living life in peace,” is, at bottom, a dystopia of chaos and political collapse, in which millions of migrants would arrive in Western countries unprepared to take on the customs and norms of a democratic culture, and would inevitably clash with those who have imbibed that culture with their mother’s milk.
Of course, a modern nation can benefit enormously from international trade and mobility, and intercultural exchange can be an immense source of mutual enrichment. However, once we accept that democratic citizenship is not encoded into the human genome, but a singular cultural achievement, we have every reason to reject the view that a borderless world with ‘no countries,’ would be anything other than a political and economic nightmare.
David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder.