Hurricane Katrina is remembered as the low point of George W. Bush’s presidency. Natural disasters can happen under any administration, but what turned that one into a political catastrophe was not so much its intensity as the failure of the state and federal government to even pretend to be in control of events.
Exactly ten years later, Europe experienced its own Katrina moment, not triggered by a natural disaster but rather by regional instability. During the summer of 2015, Europeans watched hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and migrants from North Africa and Middle East march across their continent. The fact that for weeks and months no one was visibly in control is the main reason why the memory of the refugee crisis animates European political debates until the present day, when numbers of new asylum seekers are the lowest in years. It’s also why Angela Merkel’s political existence has been hanging by a thread for a good part of this year.
Of course, the terror attacks perpetrated by Jihadists on European soil in 2015 and 2016 added to the trauma, as did vivid pictures of ISIS’s atrocities and its propaganda. But Europe already had experience with terrorism and lived through decades of immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Although European public opinion had been long opposed to mass migration, especially from Muslim-majority countries, there were few reasons to doubt the ability of Western governments to effectively regulate immigration, should they decide to do so.
That belief was shaken to its core during the summer of 2015 and that memory continues to cast a shadow on European politics. Notwithstanding the attention that it received, Ms. Merkel’s “invitation” in early September, after some 700 hundred thousand had already arrived in Europe, is only a footnote to the story. The real issue was the powerlessness and exasperation of mainstream European governments, laid bare for everyone to see.
The premium placed on control is rooted deeply in human psychology. In an experiment in the 1970s, depressed and non-depressed students were told that pressing a button might, or might not, turn on the green light. For each appearance of a green light, a small financial reward was offered. Although in reality pressing the button had no effect on turning on the light, which had been prearranged, non-depressed students systematically overestimated the degree to which their actions brought about the desired outcome whereas depressed ones correctly understood that their actions had no bearing on outcomes.
A more recent experiment instructed 40 students to react to small 6-second long electric shocks. After 10 iterations, half of the subjects were told that if they reacted more rapidly, the shock duration would be reduced. In the second half of the experiment, all participants received shorter, 3-second shocks. However, those who were told that they were in control of the shocks’ length reported significantly smaller, less painful responses.
Just like those two experiments, control often tends to be an illusion in political life, too. An individual vote has a negligible impact on the outcome of any election. Elections, furthermore, do not provide a choice between specific policy ideas but only between individual politicians. And when those arrive in power, they often finds themselves quite powerless because of necessary compromises, checks and balances, and the stasis of government bureaucracy. Most fundamentally, however, because of the world’s complexity, policymakers themselves tend to have only a faint idea of the effects that their policies produce. As the 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher Adam Ferguson famously observed,
“[e]very step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.”
The notion that the social world is too complicated to allow for effective control over social or economic outcomes is the central insight of the classical liberal tradition, illustrated notably by the work of Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel Prize-winning economist. Hayek argued that a successful functioning of a modern society relies on the use of local knowledge that is not available to anybody in its entirety but is dispersed amongst many actors and impossible to convey to any single center of decision-making. Attempts to replace the functioning of decentralized coordination mechanisms, such as market prices, by political fiat or planning, are bound to produce unintended consequences. Taken to an extreme, “control” is incompatible with the existence of a modern, prosperous society relying on international division of labor and Schumpeterian creative destruction.
In fact, effectiveness of anything the government does depends on factors beyond national borders. Any government’s ability to conduct an autonomous fiscal policy hinges on its ability to borrow on international financial markets. The same is true of migration. In coming years, the rise of economies of Sub-Saharan Africa will enable more of their citizens to travel and pay traffickers for their services. That phenomenon, unrelated to anything Europeans do or don’t do, will severely constrain the West’s ability to limit migration. Even then, perhaps the EU and it member states should be doing much more to promote political stability and economic opportunity in the migrants’ countries of origin to incentivize them to stay. But if European and U.S. governments are unable to boost growth rates of their own economies, can one expect them to do so successfully overseas?
Illusory as “control” may be, it still remains an imperative of political life. A social contract depends on the government’s ability to get things done, or “government capacity”. Different people may harbor different views of what that capacity entails and how it should be used. But lose that capacity in eyes of the public—as European and U.S. policymakers did in the summers of 2015 and 2005, respectively—and you break the bond between the people and their government.
Figures such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as well as President Donald Trump, grasp the salience of control better than others. Though criticized internationally, the border fence and Hungary’s austere treatment of incoming asylum-seekers, oftentimes in violation of the non-refoulement principle, only helped Mr. Orbán in the court of domestic public opinion. The same logic was behind Austria’s border drills last month, even though the country faces no discernible inflows of refugees at the moment. Finally, it also explains why Mr. Trump’s gratuitously cruel policy of child separation does not seem to have hurt him in the eyes of his base. In fact, its purpose was to signal to that base that, unlike other politicians, he will stop at nothing to restore control over U.S. borders.
The Hayekian logic of unintended consequences suggests that heavy-handed attempts by demagogues to create the illusion of control may lead to ever more chaos. That may not be bad for such politicians as it gives them even more opportunities to signal their “toughness”. Mr. Trump, for instance, would hardly benefit if America’s problem of illegal immigration were miraculously solved. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who choose to ignore or ridicule the voters’ desire for control, unwittingly bolster support for demagogues. Responsible political leadership is about avoiding both extremes, recognizing the popular demand for control and satisfying it in ways that are neither counterproductive nor cruel.
A visible concession to immigration hawks, the emerging European consensus is an opportunity to charter that path for the EU’s asylum policy, albeit with a significant delay. Besides stopping illegal entry and returning ships to “disembarkation platforms” in North Africa, however, a lasting solution will also have to enlarge the possibilities for legal entry, including by creating new forms of international protection that will not grant the full, open-ended status provided by asylum.
There will have to be some form of burden sharing—something that a number of EU countries continue to reject. Yet policy innovations such as tradable quotas or matching markets that would allocate refugees to countries and regions where they are most likely to thrive can go a long way towards blunting the sharp edges of today’s conversations, especially if accompanied by the sense that the EU is in control of its borders.
The problem of control is a perennial one and nobody knows when or where the next Katrina moment is going to hit. From off-shoring, through international financial flows, to environmental challenges, the world offers any number of areas where no government is fully, if at all, in control. Before they next ask their elected representatives to demonstrate control, whatever the cost, voters across the Western world ought to remember that the world’s complexity and uncontrolled nature are not only sources of risk to be mitigated but also an inextricable feature of humankind’s progress and prosperity.