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The National Interest, Realism, Refugees and Pathological Altruism

November 14, 2015

Previously, I discussed some curious issues arising in the Middle East. One of the foremost issues arising at the moment is the refugee crisis arising from the Syrian civil war, and how Europe decides to deal with Syrian refugees.

This is an extremely interesting issue, both in and of itself, but also as a brilliant chance to discuss a concept fundamentally misunderstood– the national interest.

I’ll set out, in 2 sections, to prove / make a case for two claims:

  1. Governments must make their actions based on how they benefit the national interest
  2. The number of refugees some European nations are taking in is against their national interest, and an example of pathological altruism

Without further ado, lets begin.

For the national interest

Recently there was a fascinating article by Uthman Badar in the Sydney Morning Herald It wasn’t that Badar was a great critical analyst but his article has interesting rhetoric on Islam, terrorism and the national interest.

First Badar attacks the ‘romanticised history’ of Australia’s hospitality towards refugees. He says: [emphasis mine]

The romanticised view of Australia’s gracious hospitality ignores the fact that the motivation of increasing immigration was primarily economic, not humanitarian. More significantly, it turns a blind eye to the fact that the conditions in the Muslim world from which people escape – economic hardship, war and conflict, political persecution – are a direct result of the foreign policy of western states, to which Australia is party.

Badar then goes on to discuss how Western states propagate values of free speech and such, while attempting to instill its own values through its own institutions. Attempting to force children to sing the national anthem is nationalist. Our attorney general says coming to Australia means adopting Australian values. Deradicalisation is ‘nothing more than forced assimilation justified by fears of an exaggerated security threat’.

And so Badar thunders “In other words, it is not enough that you obey the law. You must also adopt our values”, conjuring up the force of an authoritarian government from protectionist times. And isn’t he right? How frightening, how wrong to force values down the throat of the law abiding citizen. How ignoble. Tolerance, diversity, freedom – isn’t that what we must stand for?

Only if it benefits the national interest.

Listen to what Badar says, and query if it matters. Did we take lots of refugees for non-humanitarian reasons? Absolutely. And… why is that bad? Was it a bad idea to support our economy and ‘populate or perish’ in the post-WWII era? Why this is implied to be a ‘bad’ thing needs to be proven. Maybe it was bad because it drove social discord. Maybe it increased unemployment. Maybe it sowed cultural disharmony. Maybe the population outgrew existing infrastructure, resulting in unplanned urban sprawl, inefficiently laid, which is costing us now. Those are bad things. I’d be amenable to such arguments if they were evidenced – proof that our actions harmed our own interests.

But the idea that what we did was wrong because it was in our interest? No.

I expect the leaders of Australian to pursue Australian national interests. Any other course of action is incompetent.

I detest incompetence in a government. Government is designed to benefit the citizens of a nation, or else we would advocate anarchy as the ideal social model.  Government is a tool to advance societal interests. When we talk of the ‘natural interest’, we must be broad. I have never liked political labels or ideologies, for they restrict our views.

If its in the national interest for Australia to institute every recommendation on a tax white paper and limit the deadweight loss from tax then it should be done. If the economic strength of the nation requires better city planning then radical steps should be undertaken. If a carbon tax is required, then it should be implemented. Where the public benefits from positive externalitie created by green spaces, the government should repossess improperly zoned land. It was in the national interest to have a tax on super profits in the mining industry. It was absolutely not in Australia’s national interest for the Howard government to lead 7 tax cuts in a row, creating a structural budget deficit.

Of course, assessing what is ‘in the national interest’ is not easy. Some people say balancing the budget or ‘debt and deficit’ are scary things. Some say we need to care for the more. What the only real test should be is “are we borrowing to invest in infrastructure, or to build income producing assets?”

Or, what about the claim that the national interest forgets individuals? Well, I would disagree. Firm evidence from the IMF shows the dangers of income inequality as weakening economic growth, which harms the nation.

All in all, the national interest is an amorphous beast. Just like I ascribe to no set political ideology, being part Romantic, part Machievellian realist, Keynesian economics endorser with caveats, socially traditional yet an arch progressive in other ways, conserver of the past, yet supporter of research and development spending, so to the national interest is never a simple thing to pin down.

And that’s okay. We can disagree about what is exactly in the national interest, so long as we are clear that that is the only metric which counts.

So when Badar says that problems in the Middle East are a direct cause of Western meddling – which is a decent point to raise – the response should not be “the horror!” Rather, we must ask, does that mean we, as citizens, should pressure our political leaders to effect a change in our national policy? Maybe. What if we were to say that our national interests are served by keeping the Middle East divided and fractured, so no other  major power can rise as a competitor in the region? What if we were to say that wars in the Middle East foster demand for arms sales, and this strengthens the US economy? I’m not saying our national interest is served by a divided Middle East – its not – but that’s the sort of questions that matter, not our guilt in the matter.

Now, what Badar does raise, rightly, is issues of non-intervention and such potentially being better courses of action. And… if they serve the national interest, which I think they do, then of course we should adopt them.

Now, I want to be very, very clear about something before we move on. ‘Pursuing the national interest’ does not mean you intend to go around trashing everything in your path. Pursuing the national interest through economic reform does not mean obliterating a class of people as a ‘national sacrifice’ – that is completely counterproductive. Of course in international relations people have overlapping interests, and to pursue those interest simultaneously will just as surely lead to misery, as it leads to the Tragedy of the Commons in economics. Of course multilateral solutions must be consider in economics with regard to potential free rider problems, and intergenerational equity. Pursuing the national interest can’t be boneheaded and ignore every externality that one’s actions take. The national interest must account for those externalities.

For the national interest, calculating and hard nosed a concept as it is, is also a concept that, properly studied, can bring about the greatest kindness and benevolence to a society. The national interest may be the tool used to destroy underperforming economic industries, or conduct high risk diplomatic talks. But fundamentally, at the heart of the national interest, lies a society for our benefit. Achieved properly, the national interest creates stunning verdant fields for Romantic sensibility, peace and stability for the merriment of everyday life, prosperity for citizens one and all, character and community relations among neighbours, cultural wonders to bequeath a legacy that will last a thousand years… and an endless list of benefits.

Refugees and Pathological Altruism

“Let me say at once that I am no advocate of a foolish cosmopolitanism. I believe that a man must be a good patriot before he can be, and as the only possible way of being, a good citizen of the world. Experience teaches us that the average man who protests that his international feeling swamps his national feeling, that he does not care for his country because he cares so much for mankind, in actual practice proves himself the foe of mankind” – Theodore Roosevelt

“A pathological altruist then might be a person who sincerely engages in what he or she intends to be altruistic acts but who (in a fashion that can be reasonably anticipated) harms the very person or group he or she is trying to help; or a person who, in the course of helping one person or group, inflicts reasonably foreseeable harm to others beyond the person or group being helped; or a person who in reasonably anticipatory way becomes a victim of his or her own altruistic actions (2). The attempted altruism, in other words, results in objectively foreseeable and unreasonable harm to the self, to the target of the altruism, or to others beyond the target.” – Barbara Oakley, [emphasis mine]

As I stated near the start of this article, I consider government, in its ideal form, to be a vehicle to advance societal interests, whatever that may be. And for any given government, those interests are those of its people first and foremost. Not to the world around them, except where it suits their people’s interest.

Such a statement seems callous and harsh – ignorant of a ‘duty’ to help those in need. But let us compare this to a client and lawyer. The lawyer has a duty to their client as the government has a duty to its people (ideally). Let us say there are higher duties – the truth in the courtroom, and the world interest for the world.

Now, if you were the client, you would not be happy if your lawyer started arguing for truth, or the other side, right?

In considering the Syrian refugee crisis from the perspective of a European nation, we must consider a government’s actions through the prism of the national interest, not some perceived duty to be altruistic.

Peter Hartcher, in an excellent article ( , makes the potential case for refugee intake. A 2011 report by Professor Graeme Hugo commissioned by the Department of Immigration found that in the past 2 generations:

  1. Refugees were the youngest group of immigrants to Australia. Thus, they help lower Australia’s aging population more, work longer, contribute more to the Australia community (taxes etc.), and are more likely to bear children.
  2. Refugees are more likely to stay in Australia than other immigrants.
  3. While first generation immigrants have trouble fitting into the workforce, second generation immigrants have a higher participation rate in the labour force than the regular population.
  4. Refugees put a higher emphasis on education than other immigrants
  5. Refugees are more likely than anyone else to start a business. As one might read in a business textbook, SMEs are important drivers of innovation, employment and new technology.

The point of all these findings is that taking in refugees, not just skilled workers, can be a very rational move from the point of view of the national interest. Hartcher makes the point that Merkel’s decision to bring in so many refugees is in part an attempt to moderate Germany’s aging population.

In addition to the points raised above, we can attempt to consider other arguments. Firstly, other countries in the Middle East who are taking in refugees – like Lebanon – are less able to take in these refugees, and their failure to handle refugees could exacerbate violence and instability in the region, harming Western nations in the long term. Secondly, its good PR for Western nations to look to be responding to the crisis. This includes PR to their own citizens. Thirdly, not acting to bring in refugees will simply make them targets for extremism, harming national security in the long run.

For these reasons, former immigration minister Scott Morrison, not the most refugee loving fellow, still holds that integrating refugees is in Australia’s national interest.

However, the above argument has one gaping hole in it. It deals with refugee data mostly from small scale refugee intakes as a percentage of a given population. Such small intakes allow a society to effectively assimilate immigrants. This process of assimilation is of course two way – the host society takes something from the immigrants, and the immigrants adopt the host’s culture. For instance, Sydney has had a change of culinary taste over the paste 50 years, but there is still, arguably, an ‘Australian’ nature to the city.

Such an argument is key. In the findings listed above, it was found that 2nd generation immigrants were harder working than the population, but, 1st generation workers had difficulty integrating into the workforce. This represents a short term economic cost. With more refugees, this cost becomes larger. Eventually costs become large and begin to carry significant opportunities costs. These are costs that prevent the nation from pursuing its national interest.

As to the argument that refugees lower the age of the population, while true, I don’t find it persuasive. The idea that the only way to keep a nation’s population age down is to bring in younger migrants is, I think, deeply flawed. This suggestion requires ever increasing numbers of immigrants to deal with ever increasing numbers of former immigrants becoming part of the aging population. Such a cycle creates pressure on resources, and, for reasons best discussed in a separate article, promotes an urbanisation and potential overpopulation that I find is not the path for an ideal society to travel.

Thirdly, in the case of the Syrian refugee crisis, there is the issue that lots of refugees may not be refugees. This nullifies the benefits specifically ascribable to refugees found by Hugo above. Furthermore, in taking in refugees indiscriminately and swiftly, you lose the potential to properly identify security risks in refugees. It is possible for enemy hostiles to invade your territory. Think about it. You would never allow one million people to cross your border in wartime against a foreign power, for fear the foreign power would send their own spies and operatives across. This refugee crisis provides a perfect cover for operatives of ISIS to cross borders and initiate attacks.

This further relates to worrying trends that refugees to Europe, often Muslim, have higher rates of crime than other citizens. This, no doubt, arises from socioeconomic conditions, racial persecution, anti Muslim views and such, but it is still crime, and still not in the national interest. Normally, through a process of integration and assimilation, such crime is reduced. But, too many people from populations where crime is likely to arise from – poor socioeconomic backgrounds, violent civil wars, no education etc. – will lead to crime. Consider if you were to take in a million refugees, as Germany might end up doing. If even 2% of these people are likely to commit crimes, you suddenly have 20000 extra criminals in your midst. Considering that these refugees are likely to be settled in groups – they will tend to congregate together, if only by virtue of wanting to stay with ethnic groups or relatives – and you have the development of ethnic enclaves, but more than that, potentially high crime rate enclaves. Look at stories in England of ‘no-go’ zones, and you can begin to consider this… Its simply not advisable to have so immigrants when you know their crime rates are higher come in at once. I’ve often held – as Hugo’s research bears out – that often it takes till the second generation for immigrants to assimilate into a society. Immigration needs to be controlled and orderly.

Fourth, its important to remind ourselves of the national interest. Undoubtedly many studies often find that immigrants benefit from the education they receive, or that immigrants standard of living increases, but often these same studies show no net improvement for the pre-immigration citizens of a country. While a country can strengthen itself by taking in immigrants or refugees, that strengthening should be based on benefitting its citizens, national security reasons being the only exception.

Getting to here, I just want to reiterate that, so far in all these counterarguments, we’re not actually saying that refugees are bad. They are not. Morally, we may be doing well to help them, and it may well be in the national interest. But, what I have been saying is that the rate of refugee influx into some areas (like Germany) can be more problematic, insofar as I think controlled refugee intakes avoid some potential issues. And fundamentally, the cure is to not get into these international crises in the first place; the time to fight fires is when they are embers, not infernos. The firefighter can save children trapped in a fire. But there comes a point where even a courageous firefighter, daring to help innocents trapped in an inferno, will fail, and possibly burn themselves. Whether Europe is near that point is far beyond my powers to tell. But, for reasons I’m about to explain, I prefer not to take chances.

Last of all, let me say that a nation must stay united. In saying that refugees leave countries because of persecution, we are acknowledging that they were almost forced to leave. Forced. Inherently, we would expect at least some immigrants to be closely bonded with their homelands. Its madness to suggest that people have no sense of belonging to their homeland, their family, and their disrupted lives. Even though many will look to the future with hope, we would be naïve to say that none lamented their loss.

So when refugees enter a new country, it is often a welcoming presence to see kin or ethnic brothers and sisters in their village. Looking across Sydney, you can see where ethnic groups congregate in enclaves. Australian ethnic composition is not uniform across Australia, but rather, it varies suburb to suburb, reflecting how ethnic groups congregate. Over time, properly integrated into society, these boundaries will break down.

But, what is absolutely not in the national interest is for these enclaves to become self-reinforcing. It is in the national interest that society be cohesive and unified. There must not be so many refugees at once that conclaves form and they create competing value systems. When Badar lanced his criticism at the notion “it is not enough that you obey the law. You must also adopt our values”, this is what he did not grasp. A nation state that is not unified is akin to a state in civil war. States in civil war are torn by strife and destruction. By contrast, stability leads to peace, order, and is in the national interest. Furthermore, stability is created by hegemony within a given system. Internationally, Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, then Pax Americana brought peace because of hegemony. Within a country, unity brings strength.

Whenever a country voluntarily brings in outsiders, it is entailing the possibility that those outsiders could rebel against the state. The state only allows this possibility as not being a threat to its survival because it knows that its resources are so overwhelmingly superior that the rebellion cannot destroy it or harm it substantially. But, if too many are brought in, a traditional culture can be fractured, and factions arise, with waves riven of distrust developing, across a nation, sure as the morning sun shall rise. In the case of Germany, I think they have moved far too fast. And for Europe, their intentions are noble, but pathological altruism is still, at heart, like pathology, like disease.

And that’s the thing with immigration. You only get one roll of the dice. You can’t just ship millions of immigrants away. Your society is forever changed once you change its composition by bringing in immigrants or refugees, for good or worse. Any traditional culture that exists that is subsumed amidst change is gone. Forever.

One roll of the dice. You better be using a loaded die to get the right result.

That’s why, like any matter of governance, we must act prudently, and carefully. But more than that, we must assess any given action by whether it is in the national interest.


From → Foundations

One Comment
  1. I thought I’d leave my Facebook comment here too.

    Firstly, I agree that the notion of pathological altruism exists as a product (and a somewhat unintentional cause) of the European nations propagating hasty responses to the refugee crisis. Such actions are too large in scale (e.g. Germany) to allow moderated, filtered and ultimately fulfilling immigration outcomes. The media contributes to this pressure however when it frames the refugee debate on emotional and moral terms and disregards the limits of the European countries. I agree that there are limits to a country’s refugee intake! In a simplified and national interest sense, it echoes that saying of “whether individuals should burn themselves to keep others warm” It doesn’t need to be said that the debate isn’t so binary so as to be either accepting or rejecting of refugees so the contention would thus be over how many refugees a country (Australia) should accept.

    What I enjoyed about the article in particular was the point about assimilation being a matter of time, of generational change. It stands inevitable that socio-economic, language, employment/skills and other barriers remain even once refugees enter Australia – accepting the refugees simply discards the primary issue facing them, that of risk and destabilization in their home territory and substitutes it with cultural incompatibility in Australia. So, yes, ALL immigration needs to be controlled and orderly, to benefit both parties.

    In relation to conclaves, you didn’t seem to mention that conclaves are preexistent and joining familiar kin and ethnic communities is (I would submit) inevitable for incoming refugees – it’s human nature to seek those of your own background when everything else is unfamiliar and alien.
    You repeatedly posit that a ‘nation must be unified’ because this is in our ‘national interest’ but what is the nature of this ‘unification’? If you mean unified in underlying values, it would seem Australia is already fragmented, taking the polemic issue of same sex marriage for example. Until 2008, there had been no formal apology for the stolen generation, this would seem to me as some sort of jarring value conflict between Australians – one, I would say, is not resolved today. One only has to see the disproportionate imprisonment of indigenous Australians (BOCSAR 2009 – Australian/Torres Strait Islanders make up 2% of Australia’s population but form 22% of our prisons) to see the scale of this. Is this not the case of the middle aged conservative White Australian male using the judiciary as a platform (Either intentionally or otherwise) to seemingly impose unjust outcomes on Aboriginal Australians and dividing Australian groups? Australia is not unified in this sense at least and I would argue the natural consequence of multicultralism is that values (sans underlying values) remains far from cohesive.

    I’m sure in this microexample, one could argue that mobilising the indigenous population and increasing employment participation from these quarters to reduce pressures on welfare and benefits would free up increased economic productivity. So, in this case, the lack of cohesive values has jarred with national interest. The point here is then, is it possible to have a vision for a unified Australia in the value sense? And if not (As I hope the points above indicate) what is the next best objective? Both morally and in national interest – surely the long term benefit of refugees outweighs the short term? They put more into social systems than they extract.

    I’d like to raise a point about values now. You say the government ‘in it’s ideal form, should advance societal interests’ To do this, is it not the duty of our representatives to adopt our values? What happens when these values conflict with the national interest then? Is the national interest distinct to the peoples’ interest – mostly moral as slanted by the media? Your lawyer-client analogy does well to capture the conflict between national interest and an objective and purely moral truth but it neglects the fact that lawyers, like countries in the INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY still have duties to the court, first and foremost. In regards to countries, there are limits to what countries can do and still preserve national interest but there is room to operate in order to propagate responses that reflect our values and commitments. The fundamental matter is Australia is built on a value of ‘helping the little man’ so to speak. While this may sound rather socialist, it’s normal in Australia to see this with community justice centres helping the poor and disenfranchised, legal aid to help the socio-economic disadvantaged and foster care arrangements benefiting the ‘child’s best interest’ (Convention on the Rights of Child). What is helping refugees but extending this principle, albeit with moderation, to the international community?

    Harlan, you say that “refugees to Europe, often Muslim, have higher rates of crime than other citizens. This, no doubt, arises from socioeconomic conditions, racial persecution, anti Muslim views and such, but it is still crime” Such a climate for criminal activity emerges from the conditions in Syria, and would be less present and certainly, less common in liberalised democracies such as Germany. To take this further, statistics from the Wall Street Journal (…/the-mythical-connection-between…) actually show a lower rate of crime in newcomer immigrants than the native population. Here’s more evidence to that point:…/2015/07/immigration-and-crime

    I’d like to also raise a point about binding EU regulations (of which, infringement risks membership suspensions and thus, contravenes national interest). The refugees processed by the neighboring countries to Syria such as Greece are party to the Dublin Regulation. Per the regulation, these countries have no choice but to process and accept these refugees who attempt to seek asylum in them. (So, it wasn’t a matter of choice in some cases)

    The fears of ISIL and permeating Islamic radicalisation are legitimate and justify measured responses and an avoidance of misplaced empathy but I’m sure you’d agree that this does not mean there should be no response at all. Humanity and coordinated empathy naturally coexist with the national interest.

    Quite an interesting article on the matter:…/pulling-our…/

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