Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously

Post by Paul Crider (regular blogger for the site, joined June 2013 as an occasional blogger, promoted to regular blogger July 2013). See:

The clamoring for intervention in the Syrian bloodbath has given Matt Yglesias an excuse to discuss the impressive cost-effectiveness of distributing mosquito-proof bed nets as a form of humanitarian foreign aid. He argues that if the unfortunate plight of foreigners really tugs on our heartstrings, the bed nets are a better deal than bombs by a couple orders of magnitude.

Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO at the time, and James Stavridis, NATO’s top military officer at the time, bragged in Foreign Affairs about the extraordinary success of [the Libya] operation:

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost—$1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall—that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

That is extremely impressive. What about the Against Malaria Foundation? What they do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

A similar argument can be made in favor of facilitating voluntary migration of refugees from the Syrian conflict to destinations of their choice in areas of the world where the risk of death or dismemberment by military violence is less, such as developed countries. (The more general argument has been made on this blog before.) This would be approximately free if the refugees were allowed to work and pay taxes in their newly chosen countries. While it probably wouldn’t be as cost-effective as insecticidal bed nets in terms of lives saved, those lives would be potentially radically improved in terms of expanded human capabilities. Of course bed nets and open borders don’t have to compete. It’s possible that open borders could even magnify the beneficial effects of bed nets in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.

This may seem like a facetious argument, or an impolitic way of roping a serious humanitarian crisis into the service of yet another argument for open borders. But just as my esteemed co-blogger recently argued with the case of sweatshops, if we want to take our humanitarian concerns seriously, liberalizing the immigration policies of the rich world needs to be part of the discussion. Collapsing factories and wars, like natural disasters, act as rare reminders that foreigners are human beings just like us, so these tragic events are the perfect time to press for policies that can do significant good in the world. A couple years ago on my personal blog, I suggested that another thing these events have in common is that their victims have done nothing to deserve their fates aside from running afoul of luck.

I claim that natural disasters and catastrophic misgovernance are morally indistinguishable. If a disaster strikes your country or you happen to be born in North Korea, both events are best described by luck. Unless you’re a Calvinist, you probably agree that bad luck has nothing to do with culpability or just deserts. Then if you accept the premise (perhaps a big if*) that we in rich countries owe some kind of aid to people in nations struck by disaster and that emigration is an optimal kind of aid, then I think it follows that we also owe similar aid to people fleeing grossly incompetent or malevolent governments.

* It’s a big if that a reader will accept the premise, but it’s interesting to note that natural disasters do tend to tug our heartstrings, empirically. You see this in the sudden, worldwide spike in donations to aid organizations and relief efforts when big tsunamis or earthquakes occur.

My asterisked comment is important. We humans seem to be a jumble of contradictions when it comes to recognizing the humanity of others living far away. We are often completely numb to the fates of foreigners when they even partially seem to obstruct our goals. Consider the bored way we skim over collateral damage reports, or the stubborn way we cling to our agricultural subsidies which directly harm the world’s poor. Yet we do appreciate the tragedies of natural disasters and atrocities of war. And it should be noted that even in as militarily adventurous a nation as the USA, wars and bombing campaigns are always presented to the public at least partially as acts of liberation or prevention of even greater violence.

I have argued that the world’s poorest individuals are constantly in the equivalent of a state of disaster and that open borders could help to ease that ongoing disaster. But it seems to be inconsistent with human nature to keep this fixed in the foregrounds of our minds. This is unfortunate but there isn’t much to be done about human nature. Perhaps another approach worth considering is advocating the voluntary immigration of refugees as an effective policy option for those times when we are already psychologically primed for humanitarian action. Every time some bloody dictator catches the world’s attention afresh, there are people who oppose military intervention out of the (quite reasonable) fear that the unpredictable consequences of interference may prove to be worse than non-interference. It’s time for skeptics to start offering the concerned public an alternative policy response: open borders for victims of foreign wars.

9 thoughts on “Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously”

  1. Yes, let’s bring every single person from Darfur or the Congo or any place else where our most impoverished, dangerous locations seem like Heaven in comparison – that’ll just do wonders for our poor. It’s a sin to put your nation’s most vulnerable ahead of the world’s after all.

    1. Thanks for the informed opinion Rusty. I’m not sure Mr Crider was implying that it is a sin to help out the nation’s most vulnerable. Indeed, the basic thesis of this blog is that opening borders is not a zero-sum game, but in fact everyone’s quality of life is raised when immigration is made easier. You may disagree with this basic tenet and if so, let’s raise the quality of debate by outlining why you disagree! I’m sure this will spark some lively discussion!

    2. Hi Rusty: No one has suggested “bringing” anyone anywhere, so where are you reading that? What has been suggested is allowing people to travel and live where they want. Believe it or not, not everyone in the world wants to live in the US and not “every single person” from Darfur or the Congo wants to live here either (assuming you are referring to the US). People are attached to their homelands. Perhaps someone in the locations you’ve mentioned would be more comfortable in a more peaceful and secure neighboring country. Or perhaps they want a new start in a different country or culture. Your knee-jerk response about “bringing everyone” shows a serious lack of comprehension.

      1. That’s our usual line. But to be clear (and fair to Rusty), in this post I am suggesting that humanitarian relief for regions in conflict could come in the form of “facilitating voluntary migration of refugees”, which could include “bringing” refugees to the US, or Canada, or Europe, etc. The idea is that whatever public money you’re willing to spend on bombing for peace would be better spent airlifting interested refugees to safety.

        1. Understood. But as I hinted, I do think it’s especially important to make the distinction between “bringing” and “facilitating voluntary migration,” especially for Rusty. I’m also not fond of the assumption that the US, Canada, and Europe are the only places people in conflict zones would like to live.

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