Open and shut
On the other side of borders
In 2016, The Economist declared a new axis in world politics: open versus closed. There is an interesting difference between open-closed and the left-right divide. In developed countries, both set the rich against the poor. But on left-right issues, while the rich are pushed rightwards by self-interest, they are tugged left by morality. Justice and generosity seem to be on the side of redistribution. (Of course, there are diehard libertarians.)
Open versus closed is much simpler. The rich, and especially the educated, favour free trade and migration, perhaps because they benefit from it. And their morality pulls them in the same direction. Openness is good. Barriers and borders are bad: the worst invention ever made by politicians, said Claude Juncker. Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut on the International Space Station, told reporters her most memorable impression after orbiting Earth: “there are no borders.”
Strange. Barriers are basic to life. The cell membrane protects the cell from the outside environment. Our skin does the same for us higher organisms. Almost every man-made object has some kind of enclosure: book covers, picture frames, house walls. Our social structures have them too, starting with private property, which is an exclusion device. Like the cell membrane, these barriers do two things: preserve contents, and keep the inside different from the outside. Whenever things can help or harm each other, they will need to be kept together or apart. House walls keep intruders out and warm air in. The Berlin wall stopped the flight of the talented and entrepreneurial, a dangerous negative externality for the socialist countries.
The universal logic of borders comes from geometry. To control an area, two alternatives are internal controls or external border controls. Border controls have a scale advantage, because the length of a border scales with the square root of the enclosed area. (If you remember from school, a circle of radius r has a circumference of 2πr, and area of πr².) So with a ten times longer border, you can enclose 100 times as much space. This makes external controls cheap. It is a good deal to swap control at the border for relaxation inside.
Phil Daniels anticipates lockdown in 1994: I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea, and I think about leaving the house.
Life also can’t exist without crossing barriers. That gives us osmosis, doors, love, and trade. For economists, openness means international trade and migration. In their basic models, good things need to find a way to each other – people to jobs, goods to consumers. But sociologists, more attuned to the web of connections between things, might reply that closedness gives us social closure. In social network analysis, social closure means that two people who share a friend may also be friends with each other. These are the kind of communities that people call “tight-knit”.
It’s not surprising that people vary in their preference for the benefits of openness and closedness. For psychologists, openness is one of the big five stable dimensions of personality. (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism: OCEAN.) More open people do better in life: they get more educated and even live longer. But we may vary over time too, exploring the world in spring, then hunkering down for winter. Since neither of these two sides of life can exist without the other, perhaps the open should cultivate more sympathy with the closed.
But John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea –
Giotto's tower and the dome of St Peter's?
No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.
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