The Economics and Philosophy of the Wall
By Bryan Caplan
I usually dislike movies based on true stories. But The Tunnel, a tale of five heroes who tunnel under the Berlin Wall to rescue their family and friends, is excellent. We don’t just vicariously enjoy the excitement of digging to freedom. We see the tyranny of Communism in its most visceral form – “No one gets out of here alive.”
For libertarians, morality doesn’t get much clearer than this. But almost all non-libertarians will be equally certain that the tunnelers are good and the East German border guards and secret police are evil. My question is: Why, on this one issue, do non-libertarians so readily accept the stereotypical libertarian position?
Consider: Most East Germans who wanted to flee to the West were probably “economic refugees.” Take a look at the emigration numbers. If people were going West for freedom, they might as well have left ASAP in 1949 or 1950. Many did, of course. But the outflow continued year after year. The most obvious explanation: The West’s living standards kept pulling further and further ahead of the East’s, attracting emigrants who cared a lot more about prosperity than freedom.
So what? Well, conservatives are notoriously hostile to “mere” economic refugees. And if you point out that these economic refugees were selfishly trying to escape redistributionist policies, it’s hard to see why liberals would cheer them on. Again, I’m not denying that conservatives and liberals are confident that people trying to escape from East Germany were in the right. I just don’t understand the reason for their confidence.
A few possibilities:
1. It’s OK to flee from a dictatorship, even if your motive is economic gain and your action undermines redistribution. Question: What if the Berlin Wall enjoyed democratic support? Would it have been OK then?
2. It’s OK to keep people out, but not to keep them in. Question: Suppose the Berlin Wall had been erected by West Germany to keep out illegal immigrants. Would it have been OK then?
3. When a nation has been “artificially” divided, it’s OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement within the nation’s “true borders.” Question: Where in the world do “true borders” come from? Philosophers may say “the social contract,” but it’s obvious that almost all real-world borders have been set by force. See for example what happened to Germany after WWI and WWII.
4. It’s OK to ignore restrictions on freedom of movement if they split up families and close friends. Question: Doesn’t this mean that current family reunification quotas are actually monstrously strict? If this seems like hysterical libertarian rhetoric, watch the scene in The Tunnel when people explain who they want to smuggle out. People weren’t just willing to risk their lives for their children, spouses, parents, and siblings. They also risked their lives for boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, family of friends, and more.
Frankly, this is yet another issue where I have trouble even imagining what an intelligent, thoughtful non-libertarian would say. Can anyone help me out?