Where we’re born is sheer luck – yet our national delusion of meritocracy lets people shrug when others die in the Channel
How much are you worth? I don’t mean what is the sum of your financial assets. I mean, as a human, if you had to come up with some formula to determine what your value is, how would you go about it? If that is too difficult, let me rephrase the question to make it more specific. Who values you? Who knows, loves and cares for you? Who seeks your company, who would miss it, whose lives would be poorer for your absence?
The answer is probably everyone whose relationship to you is not transactional, whose affection for you is unconditional, for whom you are unique and irreplaceable. All other roles we have, as employees, consumers, taxpayers, are impersonal. We don’t think of ourselves as units whose value is derived from making a measurable contribution to the economy. We do not wake up in the morning and congratulate ourselves for contributing to our country’s GDP.
Similarly, if we fall on hard times, we do not personally berate ourselves for being a net drag on the economy. Our sense of self is shaped not by calculations of what we put in and what we take out from some common pot of goods and services, but by other people, and the rich and enriching relationships we form with them.
Our entire immigration system and approach towards outsiders is based on reversing this definition of worth. People who are trying to enter the UK are not valued for this sort of humanity, like us, but instead regarded as dud units of economic drag. Their entry to this country becomes a matter of what they will take out and consume, what resources they will take away from the rest of us and even how their cultural influences will dilute and compromise our own. When they drown trying to make it to our shores, we don’t blame their deaths on the fact that we have not set up safe routes, forcing them to carry their children in toy inflatables across the Channel. We instead enforce the cruel logic of borders and entitlement.
There has to be a system, you see. Those who are coming here merely to exercise needs, no matter how urgent those needs are, rather than contribute something, should be kept out. A place in the UK and the high value of life apportioned within this country has to be earned, rather than given away like alms to whoever asks.
Here I ask you another question. Have you earned that place? Did you, at any point, have to go through a series of obstacles, near-death experiences, homelessness and loyalty tests to win your place at the top of the human food chain? Did you, when you conducted that exercise to figure out your worth in the market of lives, believe that you have worked hard to win the affection and dedication of those to whom you are important, or that you are simply owed it because that’s what people do – love and take care of each other?
The truth is nobody wins their place in the UK; for most people it is the result of luck and circumstance, and they have no more right to ownership of it than the people risking their lives to get here. If anything, those people are working hard for that place, rather than simply being born into it. Borders aren’t accidents – but being born within them is an accident. Your entire life is an accident, a random luck of the draw. You do not deserve to be here, any more than anyone else deserves not to be here.
These are obvious, almost banal observations. But many will resist them. Even if they acknowledge their truth, many will feel an urge to argue against them. That is because two large political constructions have dominated our way of thinking for so long, presented as facts and not choices – these accidental borders must be enforced as strictly as possible, and we, as individuals in free-market societies, are the sole architects of our own prosperity. These two lies allow wealth to accrue in private hands and ensure that as little of it is shared as possible, whether through higher taxes, more open borders or increased public spending.
If you become convinced that you have won your place on this earth through hard graft, then you are more likely to support policies and economic ideologies that facilitate the hoarding of resources. It is harder to part with what you have when you believe that those who are in need of it had the same shot as you but simply didn’t pull their weight. In the UK, we have perfected a framing whereby the helpless are portrayed as feckless. Britain has made a national sport of condemning immigrants, single mothers, people on benefits – an entire cast of characters who dared to be born in need. They support a national delusion of perfect meritocracy, of deserves and deserve-nots, which in turn sustains our closed borders, purses and hearts.
This is why people shrug and move on when others die in the cold waters of the Channel. This is why nothing changes. This is why we fail to understand how our entire history as a species has been shaped by the inevitability and necessity of the movement of people. The only thing that is not an accident is that if you go far back enough, everyone is born where they are because someone in their lineage, at some point, deliberately moved to find a safer place for their progeny. They gave their descendants better odds. The only decent thing to do is spread those winnings around.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist