No, not every wall is the Berlin Wall


You have to give this to libertarians: they are at least consistent. For example, unlike most if not all other ideological persuasions, they believe in a free and unrestricted movement of goods, services, capital and people between countries. Whether, of course, you believe that consistency in and of itself is a paramount virtue is another thing; there might actually be good reasons why different categories of things require different policy treatments. Libertarians would certainly argue that there are good reasons in each particular case why everything and everyone should be free to roam. We will have to agree to disagree.

Immigration policies and immigration restrictions are one case in point. Take, for example, Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy:

When critics of President Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border analogize it to the Berlin Wall, immigration restrictionists indignantly respond that there is a crucial difference between keeping migrants out and locking people in. The former is the supposed sovereign right of any nation, while the latter is a human rights violation only oppressive totalitarian regimes would resort to. Anyone who defends Trump’s new plan to use tariffs to force Mexico to restrict the emigration of its citizens to the United States can no longer rely on that distinction.

The whole point of the plan is precisely to force Mexico to lock in its own people. Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro, for example, emphasizes that the goal is to force Mexico to “help us” stop the “export, one of their high exports, of illegal aliens.” At least in the short run, the only way Mexico can give us the needed “help” is by restricting the movement of its people.

Defenders of Trump’s action could argue that there is a distinction between locking people in completely and “merely” preventing them from leaving for a specific destination (such as the US). But surely we would still condemn the Berlin Wall if the East German government had said its purpose was to block its citizens from moving to the West, but they were still free to leave for other communist nations. As a practical matter, moreover, the US border is Mexico’s longest and most significant land boundary, by far, and blocking exit rights through that border is a major restriction on Mexicans’ ability to go anywhere by land.

The fundamental problem seems to be that Somin doesn’t recognise a difference between legal and illegal migration or cross-border movement  – a few paragraphs down he writes, “Blocking the right to emigrate is a violation of international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (to which both Mexico and the US are signatories),  mandates that ‘[e]veryone has the right to leave any country.’ Much more importantly, locking people in is a violation of fundamental human rights, even aside from any treaty.” Well, maybe, but there is no corresponding right for everyone to turn up to any country and live and work there (or even visit). If there was, it would be tantamount to abolishing borders altogether.

Mexicans – and any other nationals – can enter the United States, including through the US-Mexican border, if it’s done according to law. Forgetting the air traffic between the two countries, there are 330 points of entry along the border itself and some 350 million (legal) crossings take place every year – so around a million a day. In fact, the US-Mexican border is the most heavily crossed national border in the world. Any proper border wall – if there ever is one, which seems to be an ever diminishing prospect, to the intense annoyance of many of Trump’s current and former supporters – will not affect that one iota. This hardly looks like the United States “locking people”.

Hence, all of Somin’s (and others’, on the libertarian right as well as on the left) attempts to deny any meaningful differences between Trump’s proposed wall and the Berlin Wall are pretty spurious. The Berlin Wall (which was only the most visible and prominent section of the fortified East-West border) was built by the East German regime to prevent their own people moving by the millions to the free and capitalist West Germany, as they have been since the end of the Second World War and the division of Germany. In effect an escape to the West was the only option that East Germans had because it was virtually impossible to travel there legally, again because of the restrictions put in place by the communist government on the movement of its people. For the record, East Germans could travel reasonably freely – or at least infinitely freer – within the eastern bloc, and could do it precisely because all the other borders – such as between Czechoslovakia and Germany – were likewise closed and tightly guarded, not just to prevent East Germans but all other fellow Warsaw Pact citizens from leaving (at least until late 1989, when Czechoslovakia effectively opened its western border, precipitating the crisis within East Germany).

The Western European countries were happy to accept illegal Eastern European migrants, as was their right, certainly in the relatively tiny numbers they managed to make their way to the West. It would have been equally their right, however, not to admit people who were illegally (i.e. without a valid visa or otherwise not in accordance with domestic migration laws) entering their countries. As I implied above, the good will towards those escaping communism arguably might have exhausted pretty quickly if millions of impoverished Poles, Romanians and Hungarians started pouring into the West every year in the 1970s or the 80s. The East built the borders, but the West did not necessarily mind them; they certainly – and rightly – were more desirous that freedom comes to the people of the Eastern Europe rather than the people of the Eastern Europe come to freedom. Mass immigration is not a solution to international problems, but more a sign of defeat; it’s far more important to work towards the future where domestic conditions improve so that large numbers of people don’t have to move in search of freedom and livelihood. This was as true of what they used to call the Second World as it was and is of what they used to call the Third World.