Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall

Twenty years ago today, the first East Berliners poured across the wall that had imprisoned them for 28 years. Matt Yglesias points to a great Fred Kaplan story on the origins of the wall. Because West Berlin was located deep inside East Germany, it became a magnet for people wanting to escape communist tyranny during the 1950s. The constant flood of people became an embarrassing political problem—a daily reminder of how spectacularly the East German economic and political systems were failing to serve their people. So after trying and failing to persuade Eisenhower to give him control over West Berlin, Khrushchev settled on a second-best solution: building a wall that would cut West Berlin off from the surrounding East German territory. For the next 28 years, the wall stood as a symbol of the failures of the Soviet economic system.

Conrad Schumann leaping over barbed wire into West Berlin on 15 August 1961

East German defecting to West Berlin in 1961

But the Berlin wall wasn’t just a symbol of communism’s failure; it was also a very tangible restriction on the freedom of individual East Berliners. Before the wall fell, East Germans had to content themselves with the opportunities available inside the Soviet bloc. After November 9, 1989, East German citizens suddenly enjoyed a much broader universe of opportunities. They could visit relatives in West Germany, travel easily to the rest of Western Europe, and even take jobs outside the Soviet bloc. The Berliners who tore down the wall so enthusiastically were not just celebrating the collapse of a repressive regime, they were also celebrating their newfound freedom to come and go as they please.

It’s striking how much conservative attitudes toward freedom of movement have shifted over the last 20 years. Conservatives used to cheer those who risked their lives and defied the authorities in search of freedom and opportunity. East Berliners who snuck across the wall could count on a hero’s welcome from American conservatives. And indeed, conservatives still have this attitude toward Cubans fleeing the Castro regime.

Steel_Fence_SonoraMX_MTamez_Delegation_012708-1--1So it’s jarring that less than 20 years after one Republican president gave a stirring speech about the barbarity of erecting a wall to trap millions of people in a country they wanted to leave, another Republican president signed legislation to do just that. Conservatives, of course, bristle at analogies between East Germany’s wall and our own, but they seem unable to explain how they actually differ. Certainly Rich Lowry’s effort comes up short. He suggests that the Berlin Wall was “an instrument of repression” while the US-Mexico wall is “a way for a nation of laws to see that those laws are obeyed.” But this is no distinction at all. After all, the East German government was trying to compel obedience to its laws just as we’re trying to compel obedience to ours. The key difference, is whether the laws are repressive. I’ll grant that East German laws are more repressive than our own, but it seems like a difference of degree rather than kind. American law makes it essentially impossible for a low-skilled worker to emigrate or take a job here legally. The Mexican government obviously isn’t as repressive as the East German one was, but if the US-Mexico wall is completed, it’s hard to see how it will look different to the average Mexican than the Berlin wall did to the average East German.

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6 Responses to Mr. Obama, Tear Down This Wall

  1. metapundit says:

    >but they seem unable to explain how they actually differ.

    Oh come on! I think a border wall isn’t a particularly good idea but how can a libertarian say this? What is the difference between a locked jail cell door that keeps someone in and my locked front door that keeps people out of my house without my consent?

    Now if you want to say explicitly – nation-states are an artificial entity that shouldn’t exist; well then I suppose keeping people from going where they want (whether too or from) is an abrogation of their rights. If conservatives have the traditional take on nation-states (nations have property rights) than it makes complete sense to differentiate between a my-people-are-so-miserable-we-must-lock-them-up wall and a everybody-in-the-world-wants-to-come-here wall…

    >But this is no distinction at all. After all, the East German government was trying to compel obedience to its laws just as we’re trying to compel obedience to ours. The key difference, is whether the laws are repressive. I’ll grant that East German laws are more repressive than our own, but it seems like a difference of degree rather than kind.

    Also true of comparing speeding laws to turn-in-your-jews laws in Nazi Germany. The key difference is whether the law is repressive. And from the conservative standpoint immigration laws are repressive in the same way property laws are repressive – you can’t take my stuff without my permission! Libertarians may or may not disagree but it doesn’t seem to hard to adequately differentiate conservative ideology from East German communism…

  2. Brian Moore says:

    I think it’s fair to say that the 2 walls are different entities, one more morally reprehensible than the other, but still recognize that they are both designed to stop people from freely associating with each other, and therefore not so good.

    If it is important that East Germans be allowed to leave their current country to take up residence in West Germany, then it is similarly important that Mexicans be allowed to leave their country to take up residence (or just employment) in America.

    I’ll grant though that comparing the 2 directly does have one stumbling block: “keep people in” walls are almost by definition wrong, while “keep people out” walls can be okay, if say invading Mongols are on your northern border. When illegal immigrants start carrying off our livestock and erecting pyramids of skulls, then I’ll accept the need for the wall.

  3. Adrian E. Tschoegl says:

    There is a great similarity in that both impede liberty of movement. However, there is one crucial difference. I have long felt that the most fundamental test of any government is, Which way do the border guards face? The guards on the Wall faced inwards, blocking their fellow countrymen from leaving. The US Border Patrol faces outward, preventing non-citizens from entering.

    As a refugee (though more realistically as the child of refugees from Hungary as I was to young at the time to have any memory of the departure), this difference resonates with me. My mother and I left legally; the border guards caught the man who smuggled my father out and beat him to death. My grandmother crossed the fence while the border guards were busy shooting at people crossing further down.

    I am very grateful that we were permitted to immigrate twice – first to Australia and then to the US, and would want that opportunity for others too. But still, there is a fundamental difference – Which way do the border guards face?

  4. Jeff Gentry says:

    Berin Wall – built by government to keep it’s own citizens IN.
    US/Mexico Wall – built by government to keep other nations’ citizens OUT.

    See, not complicated. I think you got it all along. Your article strikes me as disingenuous.

  5. Huntoon says:

    Maybe the real difference is that in Berlin there was a REAL wall. On the Mexican and Canadian Border, there is no wall except for a few places. And it definitely isn’t guarded in the same way.

    Also, there is a legal way to get into the USA, as so many do. I am not aware of a process by which East Berliners were let out of their country by filling out forms and waiting a bit. And Mexico allows Mexicans out of Mexico! It is the opposite situation.

  6. Jason says:

    I know this is an old article but come on, the berlin wall?
    Wow, the wall was built to seperate east Germany from west after WW2.
    It split a nation in two.
    Now maybe I am wrong, but I think I am right, last time I checked Mexico and the USA were two seperate countries anyways.
    Its not like there is a wall splitting the USA in two.
    Mexico and it’s citizens need to respect the law, simple as that.
    Drastic offenses to that law, and drastic measures must be taken to prevent it.
    I am not saying Mexicans should not come here.
    Hell, they can all come here for all I care, but why can’t they go about it in a legal way?
    In most other countries, they don’t tolerate the things we do and I think we have been tolerating for long enough.
    It’s good that some of the illegal immigrants come here seeking jobs and a better future for themselves, I cannot say anything bad about that.
    However, what about the ones who come here to sell drugs, weapons and commit crimes?
    And that goes both ways, there are people from the USA who sneak into Mexico who are criminals all the time.
    A wall may seem like a bit much but it’s just that, it’s only a wall.
    It’s not like we have army bases and thousands of soldiers on constant watch.
    This is not the dmz between North and South Korea.
    For me personally, this has nothing to do with racial tensions, its all political.
    If we keep allowing them to come here in a non legal way, it’s just going to show that our laws are ineffective and empty, which they are not.
    If we lose faith in the law and the justice system, then what next?

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