15 September 2015

Charity must be the first response to the immigration drama


The current immigration tsunami is one of those extreme experiences that automatically sort out moral values and allies. All of a sudden, it becomes crystal clear what is right and what is wrong. True, Europe cannot take in everybody. Yes, while there is no limit to asylum by principle, practical capacity is finite and it is not a very good idea to send out explicit or implicit messages that signal the contrary. And right, the administrative and financial burden will be considerable, at least in the beginning. Clearly, integration will be a challenge, and Europe cannot afford to mess it up. Of course, massive immigration means that unpredictable social change is ahead. Sure, the mindless Dublin convention doesn’t work and needs some substitute. Correct, national sovereignty implies borders. And obviously, binding quotas for spreading the refugees among the EU member states will never conform to all the criteria of political liberty and justice one can think of. All these points are well-taken. But so what? All these issues need to be tackled, but first things first.

Right now, one single moral insight should trump all worries: These people, who are driven away from home by a barbarian war, religious persecution or economic misery, and who, ingenuously perhaps, have risked their lives to join the promised land of western civilization – they need help. Whether they are black or white, rich or poor, doctors, workers or illiterates, Christians or Muslims, they are fellow human beings, individuals. They may be friendly or tense, grateful or preposterous; they deserve to be treated with respect. And more than that: they deserve charity, compassion and care. As they crossed the land or the sea, they have moved, in the terms of Adam Smith, from an outer circle right into the inner circle of Europeans’ sympathy. And that’s where they belong.

Fortunately, the bulk of European civil society does react in a kind, wonderfully humane way. It is moving to watch at all those volunteers bringing water, food, clothing and children’s toys to the endless line-ups in front of registration offices and camps; to look at the boom of online networks and initiatives aiming to coordinate help; and to listen to the indignation voiced in the Social Media about neo fascist incitements and physical attacks on refugee camps. The engine of civil society works at full speed while governments still navigate with difficulty. Their compass seems lost.

What a disgrace that Hungary, deservedly famous for having opened her westward border in 1989 for thousands of East Germans heading toward freedom, has built a razor wire fence against the massive inflow of people from countries as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria and Kosovo. They call this “defending the borders” – as if those borders were comparable to human beings who need protection. Beginning this Tuesday, illegal immigrants will end in prison for up to three years. Ironically, some might in fact prefer this forced shelter to being sent back to the hell they come from. At any rate, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government minds as little pulling up the bridges around the “European fortress” as it seems happy funnelling through the unwanted subjects towards the North.

The reasons why people feel the necessity to leave their home, euphemistically called the “push factors”, will unfortunately not evaporate from one day to the next. The effect of those monstrous wires and walls, in Hungary and elsewhere, made to fend off non-violent human beings by injuring them physically, must therefore be disastrous. The more difficult it will become to reach European soil, the more people desperately seeking to begin a new life will have to risk – and to pay their smugglers. Without a legal route to Europe, there will be ever more crime, trauma and death.

While governments seem overwhelmed, much of the intellectual debate, strangely out of tune with civil society, is either nasty or painfully vain. Some authors indulge in musings about the Germans going insane, their emotions – and sad post-war memories – driving out all reason. Some find it appropriate to complain about the power of the “mainstream” media, referring to the emblematic photograph of the dead toddler face down on a Turkish beach that has finally shocked many people out of their indifference. Others lapse into an overtly xenophobic or racist rhetoric, pretending just to be worried, not realising how neatly their language and their collectivism defines them: Xenophobes and racists never look at individuals; their prejudice and hatred is directed against groups.

On the whole, however, the common denominator of most intellectual contributions is a vast set of worried questions: How much immigration can European societies cope with? What will it do to us (whoever “us” may be)? Where will all this take Europe eventually – and the West? Do “we” want to embark upon such an adventurous, if not daunting route at all, given that we cannot be certain that our evolved ways of life, our laws, social norms and institutions won’t be dramatically transformed? How to cope with such massive change? Will we have the strength to defend our legal system against the sharia? What about social capital and cohesion? What about the clash of civilizations that Samuel Huntington predicted – aren’t “we” actively inviting it in and giving ourselves up? What if immigrants bring with them a Trojan horse of jihadists? Important questions – and hysterical answers abound.

While there is indeed enough reason to be concerned, all generalisations, clichés, determinisms and double standards should be avoided. They invalidate everything. Typical collectivist determinisms of this sort are allegations according to which, as a rule, Muslims can never be successfully “integrated”, their religion won’t be able to modernize, and they will inevitably erode western civilization. On the murky basis of prejudice and ethnic resentment, “optimal absorption quotas” are being calculated and then advertised under the label of realism and responsible long-term planning. This is spurious.

The right-wing “Weltwoche”, a magazine from Switzerland, topped it off recently holding Germany directly responsible for the drama: “No other state opens hearts and purses as generously for illegal immigrants – and thus creates a pull that thrusts Europe into chaos”. While it may be true that some, perhaps even many people come with exaggerated expectations, falling prey to propaganda, an online information campaign could easily mend this. But who could seriously believe that any of the treats of public welfare and private charity will ever cover the loss of one’s home? As if anybody weighed the foreseeable trauma of a chaotic and highly perilous journey against the pocket money that would eventually be doled out by German government! And while they’re at it: the young men from Iraq and Syria, the magazine admonishes, shouldn’t cowardly run away. They ought to stay and fight the “Islamic State”. Of course! To real contrarians, no argument is too cynical not to be tried.

Limited capacity is a clearly acceptable reason for distinguishing, as current legislation does, between (political) refugees and (economic) immigrants. Refugees do enjoy priority; they can claim asylum as a personal right. Immigrants who aren’t “true” political refugees but “just” aim to improve their lot come second. And still, one must bear in mind that this distinction is problematic. Morally, there is no reason to vociferate against “merely economic immigrants”. Political and economic reasons are always intertwined. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are all very respectable aims and motivations. They were, by the way, at the source of all migration flows throughout the history of mankind, including the more recent ones in the 19th century from Europe to Northern America, where Jefferson’s famous phrase had found its way into the US Declaration of Independence.

Even in its more respectable parts, this debate misses the point. In the middle of the humanitarian drama that unfolds every day, the high-ground discussion about culture and national identity, mentalities and institutions must wait. Europeans should not again waste time and energy racking their brains about their common “finality”. Instead of thinking about end states, something needs to get done on the spot. This is rather a time for procedural moral principles, not for grand projects and finessed designs. It is a time for the categorical imperative. It is a time for charity and compassion.

This is not to say that European politics should be merely pragmatic. Quite to the contrary, politics should be paradigmatic. Of course it is necessary to have an idea about practical possibilities and essential values in order to decide what to do and where to go. But man is fallible. One of the core lessons from the tradition of western liberalism is that human knowledge cannot ever be about end-states. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out, all knowledge is “local”, dispersed among the multitude of individuals who make up a changing society. All one can hope for is that by the voluntary interaction of these individuals, social progress will be made possible, whatever it looks like and whether people may like it or not. We cannot foresee this. It will be the “result of human action, not human design”, as Adam Ferguson phrased it. In the meantime, public policy ought to strictly avoid undermining or obstructing this creative process of spontaneous order. The more politics and legislation aim to connect with “universalisable rules of just conduct”, as Hayek put it, the more harmonious the results are likely to be. Instead of end-states, it is these procedural principles that should guide policy.

Perhaps the noblest of these rules, highly relevant right now, is the one reminding us that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all here on earth for a short existence, burdened with uncertainty, scarcity, fallibility and suffering. It is our evident moral duty to try and help each other – not on a blind impulse, but in a responsible, reasonable way, opening our hearts and warding off all prejudice. That is the key principle to follow, wherever it takes us. We are all, quite literally, in the same boat.

Karen Horn is a German author, journalist and lecturer in the History of Economic Thought