The Human Condition

A World Without Borders – September 18, 2016

Border checkpoint

It sounds lovely. A world without borders—those imaginary lines which we also think of as barriers. A world where people can travel without the intrusions of government interfering with a person’s right to go where he or she wants and do whatever suits his or her needs—and for “intrusions” read pieces of paper, arranged and signed ahead of time, inspected by men with guns, and the inevitable waiting period, usually in a room with a door that locks. If we could only eliminate borders and barriers, then we could eliminate the paperwork, the men with guns, and the locks. Then people would be free to pursue their dreams.

But you would then also necessarily have a world in which no one would be able to hold onto a fixed address. It would be—or rapidly become—a world with no stable form of government, no organized rules of commerce, no property rights, no right of ownership to anything that can’t be carried in your pockets. It would be a world with no assurance that people and their families who have stayed in one place for generations would not become homeless by next week.

Why do I say all this? Because a world where anyone can go anywhere without restrictions, where a person who just walked across an imaginary line is just as good—that is, has just as many rights and just as much say in outcomes—as the people who have lived there for generations and invested their time, effort, and wealth into building up the infrastructures, trading patterns, and cultural values of the place, is a world without the natural and obvious distinctions between builders and drifters. In such a world, people will tend to form ad hoc, temporary associations to gain power and possessions for their group’s members at the expense of anyone else who gets in their way. Ultimately, the boldest and the bravest—usually those most willing to give up what they have always known in their search for something better—will prevail.

In short, you would return to the world of the homeless wanderers that existed before about 3,500 BC, before people began settling in the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile river valleys, staking out fields for plowing and sowing, arranging ditches and gates for irrigation, learning to read and write, starting up a civilization, and learning to be comfortable under its rules and restrictions. You would return to the world where the biggest gang, the collection of the toughest and most aggressive individuals, gets to sit down wherever it wants, sleep in armed camps wherever their leader chooses, and eat whatever comes to hand.

A world without borders is a world without a functional civilization. It is a world without citizenship, of people who owe allegiance to no nationality or culture—except some vague and unresponsive “brotherhood of man,” or perhaps to a distant and squabbling, self-proclaimed organization like the United Nations or the European Union, which is full of good ideas for how everyone else should live but with very little practical experience on the ground.

I know that’s not the ideal. The vision of a world without borders was created in the 20th century after two horrendous wars that seemed to be virtually without borders themselves. First came the League of Nations in 1920, arising out of the Paris Peace Conference that ended the 1914-18 European war. And when that organization proved ineffective, the United Nations arose to prevent another conflict like the 1939-45 war, which engulfed pretty much the whole world. The idea was that if all the nations of the Earth could come together peacefully to discuss and resolve their differences, humankind could eliminate the need for war.

But the question was always one of sovereignty. For such an organization to be effective, to enable it to establish and enforce its mandates, the member states must give up some—if not all—of their separate rights and responsibilities, just as single human beings give up some of their personal rights and responsibilities in order to claim the protection of a state or nation. The proposition for creating such a worldwide government is that nations are analogous to—and not essentially different from—individual people, just on a larger scale. But is this true?

A person—at least one whom society considers to be in possession of his or her faculties—has a single identity and the ability to form fixed intentions and follow through on them. By the time they are adults, people as individuals can have fully formed ideas that they are unlikely to change as they age further. A person can decide to be—and remain, for the rest of his or her natural life—a good citizen, a reliable father or mother, a hard-working employee, a steady church goer, or a loyal party member. Circumstances may change, calling for the individual to try out new ideas and test new values. But the person usually remains true to one set of ideas, values, and commitments for most of his or her working life. Exceptions exist, of course, but they do not disprove the general nature of human psychology.

Nations are not necessarily like this. Neither is any large group of people who have come together over time. Putting aside issues of “national character,” which are usually impressions and stereotypes about a culture gained by outsiders—Italians are excitable, Germans are sober and dour, Frenchmen are passionate—the nature of any group is fluid. People as individuals may have relatively fixed ideas and values, but as groups they tend to discuss, disagree, and influence one another, and they can form only a slippery and temporary consensus. That consensus may represent a government in power, making laws and creating institutions that have the appearance of an individual’s fixed commitments. But governments fall from power and their commitments change over time—relatively slowly and peaceably in the representative democracies, suddenly and harshly in oligarchies and dictatorships.

A single person might commit to join a nation and live under its laws. But a nation—the collective and changeable will of a large group of individuals—cannot make such promises.

The notion that, over time, a world government will emerge and the individual states which currently meet and debate in the United Nations or European Union will wither away from useless redundancy is fanciful. The idea is just as fanciful as the notion in economic Marxism that, once communism has been firmly established and people are peaceably trading their personal labor for goods and services, the revolutionary state which established this condition will simply wither away from having nothing else to do. But that is not human nature. History doesn’t come to an end, and people don’t give up their personal interests and political advantages, just because they can’t think of what to do next.

Perhaps, with our current world’s continuing developments in technology, with global and instant communications, with a fairer distribution of natural resources and the fruits of education and science, and with institutions and infrastructures which will equitably provide goods and services to all the peoples of the Earth … perhaps then we will see national distinctions fall away and people on every continent become citizens of the world. It’s a nice idea, but I doubt it will happen. In just one area—global communications, represented both by networked broadcast services, which send common ideas and values out to the mass of people, and by networked social media, which allow people to exchange and discuss their reactions to those ideas among themselves—the proposed unity has not developed. Instead, social media have allowed new groups of like-minded people to form. These groups may no longer be bound by geography and personal acquaintance, but they still coalesce around shared real-world experiences. It’s a nice idea that people will think globally, but they will continue to act locally and in relation to what they know, think, and believe.1

I can imagine only two conditions that would support a global association of humanity under a single world government. The first would be when our descendants form colonies and associations on other planets in the Sol system and out among the stars. This is well described in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series. When Luna, Mars, and the Belt all have their own governments, shared cultures, developing languages, and genetic drift, Earth will, in response, come together as a single political entity. The second condition would be our discovery that human beings are not alone in the universe. This is a standard theme in science fiction: when the aliens come down from the stars, either as peaceful traders and teachers or as ravaging conquerors and usurpers, the distinctions among human-type people will fall away and we will, in response, become one culture, one civilization.

In the meantime, who benefits from promoting a “world without borders”? I mean, apart from the naïve idealists who live with their heads in the 23rd century?2

The first kind would be the people who have their own borders well secured, thank you very much, but would like a stake in the land behind yours. Back during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China both imagined that their chosen system of government had the destiny of conquering the world, various sympathizers and fellow travelers promoted the ideal of a world without borders. They looked forward to world peace at the price of submission to an ideology that came from beyond the borders of Western civilization.

The second kind would be people who despise the civilization they see around them—perhaps because they have not been successful in it, perhaps because they want to shortcut the political process—and want to see it gobbled up by a wave of foreign invaders. They imagine these invaders will provide the instability and the political liquidity to dislodge the power structure which they despise but their fellow citizens are too dull and stupid to throw off themselves. They want a revolution but lack the guns, the organization, and the numbers to bring one about. So they believe that encouraging immigration en masse will create better conditions for their purposes.

Neither of these motives is one that I admire or subscribe to. At heart, I am something of a libertarian, believing people should be allowed to go where they want and do what they need. But I also know that human beings, like all the great apes, are social beings. We need and want to find our own place, among people with whom we can find agreement and common cause. We want to build something that we can preserve, protect, and pass along to our children. And we value those children as the product of our own genes and extension of our own lives, rather than as vaguely deserving “citizens of the world.”

Maybe one day—with enough enlightenment, technology, and freely available goods and services provided through unlimited energy resources and automation—we can walk across those invisible lines and settle anywhere we find that’s pleasant and accommodating. But that day has not arrived. And it may not until the 23rd century.

1. In this, I am reminded of two more examples. The first is the drift of languages, as described in John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. Over time, human languages tend to develop differences among speaker groups. A powerful political influence, like the Roman and British empires, can temporarily bring people together to speak a common language. But when that influence falters or wanes, as did both Rome and Great Britain, people will go back to creating their own local dialects, word usages, and shared colloquial meanings. McWhorter points out that Italian, French, and Spanish are nothing but Latin that has been left alone in different and relatively isolated places for speakers to develop their own idiom. And each of those languages that we think of as unified wholes—again, Italian, French, and Spanish—are actually a collection of local dialects, like langue d’oc and langue d’oil in medieval France, which over time will develop into separate languages of their own.
       In similar fashion, large human associations with developed trade routes and easy movement among disparate cultures, like the Mongol Empire, can mix up the gene pool and over time create a heterogeneous population. See, for example, the wide spread of Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome. But let that empire fall and the associations wither, and people will go back to socializing with their near neighbors and second cousins. And then individual variations, like red-haired Scots and blond Scandinavians, will emerge from the mix.

2. A place I’ve been known to go and visit from time to time.