The Ebola crisis in West Africa has well and truly frightened the citizens of the world, in vast disproportion to the risk it actually poses to most people outside a relatively small region of Africa. People seem to think Ebola makes a slam dunk case against open borders. But Ebola is actually virtually irrelevant to the question of whether we should have open borders.
The Ebola-/disease-argument for closing — whether selectively or in broad indiscriminate strokes — the borders generally runs as follows:
- There is a dangerous disease
- This disease is transmitted from person to person
- Some foreign people have this disease
- Preventing these disease-bearing people from entering our country would eliminate the risk of them transmitting this disease to us
- Therefore it would be justified to ban at least some foreign people from entering our country
Now, I think this argument is as a general rule logically sound. It does omit some proper elements of feasibility assessment, risk sizing, and cost-benefit analysis by assuming the worst case scenario in some cases (e.g., that allowing even one foreign person with the disease to enter would be an immense danger) and assuming the best case scenario in others (e.g., that a travel ban would be perfectly implementable and would completely halt the spread of the disease).
It turns out that when you assess the empirical evidence, there’s zero proof that a travel ban would actually halt the spread of Ebola. And in any case, the risk of Ebola becoming widespread in the developed world is exceedingly small — Ebola is a disease that is relatively easy to stop in its tracks when you have a functioning healthcare system (Nigeria has been spectacularly successful at combatting Ebola, and it wasn’t just lucky).
But let’s say that for whatever reason, a travel ban of some kind would contribute to stopping Ebola, or otherwise pass some reasonable cost-benefit analysis. I’d be willing to consider a travel ban in such a scenario. Does this make me a hypocrite for advocating open borders? Does this mean that I actually oppose open borders? I obviously don’t think so.
The “Ebola gotcha” is not any kind of “gotcha” at all. It only appears to be such a trump card if you don’t understand what open borders is in the first place. Of course Ebola is a gotcha argument for those who advocate allowing anyone to go anywhere, irrespective of the actual circumstance. That’s a gotcha argument against open borders in the same way that child porn is a gotcha argument against freedom of the press. After all, you support the prosecution of child pornographers, don’t you? Well, you obviously oppose freedom of speech then.
In human society, every right and freedom is balanced against other liberties. Open borders refers to freedom of human movement — a freedom that must be balanced just like any other. You can dream of a million cases where someone should have their freedom of movement circumscribed — I’ll likely agree with you on most if not every single one of them.
The point though is that freedom of movement is a right which belongs to every human being — it is not a right which can be arbitrarily circumscribed. Restrict the movement of people carrying dangerous diseases? I’m all for that. Put up walls against armed invaders? Seems like a decent idea. The point is that none of these have anything more than the vaguest connection to nationality. You don’t have to be a foreigner to decide to be a drug runner, a terrorist, or a contagious disease-carrier. You just have to be human.
So if you want to ban people with contagious diseases from travelling, that can certainly be justified — but the point is that to achieve its goals, this ban would have to be blind to nationality. If your concern is Ebola, it makes no sense to ban foreigners from entering your country, while still allowing your citizens carte blanche to come and go. That would be the equivalent of banning Facebook because you’ve noticed an uptick in child porn on the internet.
This is why even most of the hysterical proposals for an Ebola-based travel ban actually are arguably consistent with an open borders philosophy: to the extent that they target travellers from particularly Ebola-stricken areas, irrespective of citizenship, they are in theory justifiable. It is not in principle different from applying a different set of procedures to travellers from regions where, say, yellow fever is endemic. The point is that these restrictions are tied to a concrete and articulable reason — you don’t get magically exempted from them just because of your citizenship.
The way our countries’ immigration laws single out non-citizens for arbitrary discrimination and persecution which we would never subject citizens to is what makes them so objectionable. It’s one thing to temporarily restrict travel from disease-stricken regions — e.g., subject travellers from those areas to additional screening. It’s a completely different thing to accept “Ebola” as a reason to ban some foreigners from entering purely because of their nationality, even as we would allow an identical citizen in their shoes free entry.
The “argument from disease” or “argument from armed invasion” against open borders is a complete red herring because it makes up a strawman definition of open borders. Ebola is not a reason to oppose open borders; it’s about as relevant to freedom of movement as child pornography is to freedom of speech. There will always be contagious disease and there will always be sick people perpetrating violence against innocents. To the extent possible, our governments should contain the spread of disease and punish violent criminals. This is not an excuse for our governments to visit injustice upon innocents.
An open borders regime has nothing to do with letting Ebola run rampant. A responsible open borders regime would adopt travel policies that limit the spread of Ebola to the extent possible, while minimising the impact on the mobility of innocent people who have had nothing to do with the virus — irrespective of those people’s nationality.
Sadly, the connection between “foreignness” and disease is a strong one in our minds. Take this recent story for example:
…the flight attendants surrounded the [African] woman and asked her to leave the plane (and threatened to call the airport police if she wouldn’t get off the plane)…
Let’s just be clear about some things about this woman: she was 34, felt she quite possibly could be pregnant, and lived in Boston. She’d been to Nigeria back at the beginning of the year, but came back in fine health. She felt a little nauseated; that’s it. Her eyes weren’t bleeding, she wasn’t spraying revolting fluids out of anything, she was simply a young woman trying to get home.
I was sitting next to a woman who worked at the UNC School of Public Health, who was traveling on the plane with a bunch of other colleagues who knew something about diseases and epidemics. And, interestingly, one of them, an older white man, mentioned he’d been to Liberia recently, and was technically much more of a potential ebola risk than the woman. Nobody asked him to leave the plane.
The well-intended but still harsh and ignorant prejudice these flight attendants exhibited is the exact sort of bigoted “logic” behind the Ebola-motivated arguments for closing borders. If Ebola is your true concern, then you would target those who actually pose the risk of Ebola, irrespective of their nationality.
Ebola is not a gotcha argument against freedom of movement for the same reasons that terrorism is not a gotcha argument against freedom of speech. If you are carrying a dangerous disease, or if you are engaged in armed violence against others, it doesn’t matter which country you’re a citizen of — your freedom of movement can and will be curbed. Open borders is simply about guaranteeing the inverse. If you don’t present a clear threat to anyone else, then no matter where you hail from, it is an abominable injustice for our governments to prevent you from travelling in peace.