Trump's Wall, and the "Great" Walls of History
President Donald Trump is pushing for a wall to be built built to prevent immigration through the southern border of the United States. It was a signature issue of his successful campaign to become president and has stated that he is willing to shutdown the federal government in order to get what he wants. Indeed, a large majority of Americans are opposed to paying taxes in order to provide welfare and free education for foreigners, but is a wall the right solution?
As I have already pointed out, much of the desire of central Americans to come to the US is because of our own War on Drugs. That policy increases the price of illicit drugs and encourages the development of drug cartels to safeguard the transport of drugs from the production countries such as Bolivia, Columbia, and Mexico into the United States. Safeguarding the drugs for the drug cartels results in them using extreme bullying and violence on the local populations along the route, including the police and governments. The only way to prevent this asylum-seeking traffic is to end the war on drugs.
Looking beyond the motivation of immigration, let us take a look at walls. Typically, they are a signature piece of civilization. Walls are the key part of “permanent” societies. Archeologists and anthropologists study the remainder of walls in order to interpret what societies were, what they did, how they lived, and what they valued. In the modern context, walls and room size are a measure of our standard of living as bigger rooms and taller walls are a sign of success and improvement whereas sleeping in the rafters in a small cabin on the American plains is a sign of relative impoverishment. Having a big corner office with big windows is a sign of accomplishment, whereas the cubicle and the open office concept is the equivalent of eating your Christmas dinner at the child’s table.
In contrast to these walls, we have historically important governmental walls that archeologists and historians also study and write about. These walls have the exact opposite connotation. They are symbolic of isolation and decline — they are supposedly a last-ditch effort to “save” a civilization from the marauding horde of savage people. In reality they have never worked and only contribute to the decline of various empires because of cost and the resulting isolation. This is the type of wall that President Donald Trump wants to build.
The first historic wall was the Great Wall of China. Spanning more than five thousand miles from east to west in northern China, the Great Wall is one of the most marvelous structures of early human civilization. It is often taught that the wall was built to prevent the invasion of Mongol hordes, but the actual purpose was to prevent immigration and trade and to help consolidate the Chinese Empire. Eventually there were invasions and wars, but they were more about pent up demand for immigration and trade then they were about territorial expansion.
The second historical wall is Hadrian’s Wall. This wall was built across northern England by the late Roman Emperor Hadrian shortly after he came to power in 117 AD. We typically learn that the wall was built by Hadrian to prevent invasion by various barbarous tribes to the north. We do know that Hadrian built the wall because of his policy of defense and consolidation, rather than continual expansion so his wall marks a historical turning point towards the demise of Rome. There were already various rebellions in the Empire, including England and this new policy was designed for dealing with this new reality of decline.
There are various theories why the wall was built, including the prevention of invasion, but some scholars are dubious that preventing invasion was a cost-effective priority. More likely, the reason for the wall was to regulate immigration, to prevent smuggling and cattle theft, and to collect custom fees on trade. Therefore, the wall provided the Roman legion in northern England with something to do and also a means of generating government revenue to feed and fund the troops.
The third historical wall in the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. At the end of World War II Germany and Berlin remained divided into zones of control by the Soviet Union, Briton, France, and the United States. The three allied zones were consolidated into West Germany and West Berlin while the Soviet zones became East Germany and East Berlin. The problem with this arrangement was that while all of Germany was devastated by WWII, West Germany would soon become one of the fastest growing economies of the world, thanks in no small part to the policies of the liberal economist Ludwig Erhard, a friend of Ludwig von Mises. He eliminated price controls, deregulated the economy and enacted effective monetary reform. Meanwhile in East Germany the economies of the Soviet zones quickly fell behind.
As a consequence of the diverging economic performance, Germans from the eastern zones began migrating to the western zone for jobs, opportunity and freedom. This migration was intolerable to the communists as the most visible sign of the failures of socialism and the successes of free market capitalism. In response East Germany began to build the Berlin Wall and the Soviet controlled states began constructing the Iron Curtain to prevent migration of eastern Europeans into western Europe. These barriers were fairly successful in preventing migration and many people were shot and killed trying to escape Communism for life in capitalist Europe. Then in 1989 the German people— East and West —tore down the wall and signaling the failure of communism.
I know that most people do not really care about the practicalities of a wall, some may be wondering why the Congress doesn't just give him the funds and so they can get on with the holidays without all the drama of a government shutdown. The proper view of government walls argues against such apathy and, more importantly it should wake us up to the larger picture that the United States is a modern empire. We need to all think about what can be done to prevent us from making the same mistakes as China, Rome, and the Soviet Union.