Thursday, March 19, 2020

The False Security Of Closed Borders

Today, Thursday 19th March, the media reports queues of lorries and cars stretching back some 60 km from the German-Polish border. Lorries face a 30-hour wait to cross the border. Families with children suffer a 20-hour wait during which they have no access to food or toilet facilities. The goods transported by the lorries are greatly needed at their destinations, where the lack of them causes disruption and deprivation.

Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand are today closing their borders and thus follow in the footsteps of the US, Canada, Poland, Germany, Denmark, and many other European countries. In most cases, the corona virus is present on both sides of the closed borders in roughly equal measure. Germany and France is an example of this. In some cases such as Denmark, the virus is more prevalent in the country that has closed its borders (Denmark) than in the countries from which entry is denied (Sweden, Germany). The Danish health authorities (‘Sundhedsstyrelsen’) sensibly advised the Danish government that there is no evidence that closing the borders would have any positive effect. The government chose to ignore this advice and went ahead with the border closure regardless.

In an age of rampant nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism, closing national borders is blatant virtue signalling as there is little or no real reason to do so on health grounds. However, the damage to the economy and the unnecessary hardship caused by the border closures are real enough.

Although few people realise it, damaging the global economy kills. This is an indirect effect that is hard to measure and it is therefore largely ignored as it cannot be explained to the public in the 5-second sound bites favoured by politicians. The French economist Frederic Bastiat wrote of “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen”. In the current crisis, what you see is authoritarian governments taking action that they claim is in the best interests of the citizens. What is not seen are the negative effects of such actions, which are often indirect and all but impossible to measure. But less economic growth – or, worse, economic recession – means less money for medical treatment, health insurance, medicine, and medical research. This translates into deaths. Thus, I feel fairly convinced that the number of deaths caused by the damage to the global economy resulting from the virus and – especially – from ham-fisted and often ineffective government intervention, will far exceed the number of deaths that are caused by the virus itself.

It should be obvious to any but the most casual observer that the only thing that really works against the virus is self-isolation. That means isolating yourself in your private home. But a nation is not a private home, even though populist, nationalist, and socialist politicians would love for people to think of the motherly state in exactly such terms.

Unfortunately, it seems that the politicians are succeeding in making people think in collectivist terms. It is thus exceedingly difficult to find people who are not clamouring for the state to save them from the virus by way of various draconian interventions. Even people who have previously been sceptical about the state’s role in society jump on the bandwagon.

In many ways, this resembles a collective Stockholm-syndrome. The state, which almost always has a history of economic mismanagement, blatant discrimination, devastating wars, and often genocide, is the go-to solution for more than 99% of the world’s population whenever they want to be ‘saved’. They want a ‘strong leader’ and are then surprised whenever they subsequently face the destruction caused by the same strong leader.

Perhaps people act in this way not so much out of ignorance as out of fear. Fear of the unknown is a very powerful force. ‘Better the devil you know’ seems to be the attitude among people who cannot conceive of solutions that are not provided by the state. In the current crisis, safety and security are the concerns that governments are using to expand the scope of the state unopposed by way of ‘temporary’ curbs on individual and economic liberties. Unfortunately, such ‘temporary measures’ have a nasty habit of becoming permanent.

Let us hope and trust that individuals taking individual decisions to self-isolate is what will eventually destroy the virus. Clearly, people who do not self-isolate as much as possible may live to regret it since many of them will get sick and some of them will die. But trusting the government to save you by way of closing national borders not only imparts a false sense of security, it also endangers the essential liberties and economic progress that we – in spite of government actions to the contrary – have enjoyed in recent decades.