The Berlin Wall: In or Out?
By Bryan Caplan
Last month, I returned to the Berlin Wall. It was nearly gone the first time I saw it, but now almost every vestige of its horror has been erased. With a key exception: the Asisi Panorama – a museum that feels like time travel back to the dark days of the Cold War. In the atrium, you can read uplifting quotes from the likes of East German dictator Erich Honecker:
Securing the border is the sovereign right of each and every country – this includes our German Democratic Republic. The Wall will still remain in place in 50 and even 100 years, if the reasons for its existence have not been eliminated. (January 19, 1989)
Almost everyone sees the Berlin Wall as an unmistakable sign of evil. So do I. What puzzles me, though, is why so few people wonder, “Why aren’t other countries’ walls morally comparable?” The standard answer, of course, is that decent countries build walls to keep people “out,” while East Germany built the Berlin Wall to keep people “in.” But this is a lot of moral work to hang on two prepositions.
Suppose, for example, that the East German government closed its airspace to Western aviation and used the Berlin Wall to prevent anyone from leaving the surrounded city of West Berlin. Honecker could have even told his citizens, “You’re free to move to West Berlin, but since we’ve got it surrounded, don’t expect to enjoy too many Western luxuries.” Despite his oppressive intent, Honecker would, grammatically speaking, be keeping West Berliners out of East Germany, not holding East Germans in East Germany.
To make the hypothetical even starker: Imagine the East Germany government legally granted independence to a one-mile strip of land along its entire border. Call it Mauerland. All of the citizens of Mauerland are former officers of the East German border guard; their country is just one big, deadly wall. East Germany then abolishes all laws against emigration; everyone is free to leave. Unfortunately, the sovereign state of Mauerland refuses to grant visas or overflight permission to anyone without the East Germans’ approval. When challenged, they say, “Mauerland, like the United States, has every right to keep foreigners out. You keep out Mexicans. We keep out East Germans.”
The obvious reply is that the U.S. is a democracy and Mauerland is a dictatorship. But not so fast. If the citizens of Mauerland are a few hand-picked veterans of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party, they could calmly adopt a scrupulously democratic constitution – then freely elect a government that keeps East Germans out. Sure, this preserves the power of their fraternal ally, but don’t all democracies make sleazy deals with dictatorships?
Faced with this hypothetical, you could challenge East Germany’s right to create Mauerland in the first place. Governments do not legitimately own all the land inside their borders; that rightfully belongs to individual property-owners. To make Mauerland happen, the East German government would have to trample their rights, exiling politically unreliable people from the border zone. (Indeed, that’s what the East German government actually did).
If you take this intellectual route, however, conventional immigration restrictions also come under suspicion. The top reason countries restrict immigration is to stop native employers, merchants, and landlords from consensually trading with foreigners without government permission. Unless governments legitimately own all the land inside their borders, what right does any government have to interfere with these transactions?
Alternately, you could accept governments’ ultimate ownership of all the land within their borders, but then add that “Property is not absolute.” If someone has to run across your land without permission to save his life, he’s entitled to do it. The same goes if you sadistically use your property rights to trap someone in desperate poverty. Just because you own it, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to use it to inflict great harm for trivial gain.
This route, too, however, places immigration restrictions under suspicion. Why? Because they also inflict great harm on would-be immigrants for trivial gain. How would you like to be trapped in Haiti?
When I think about the Berlin Wall, am far more appalled than when I think about the U.S. wall with Mexico. I freely admit it. In part, I feel worse because I think it’s far worse to be trapped in East Germany than to be trapped in Mexico. In part, it’s because I detest Communism to my core. In part, it’s because Communists victimized my immediate family. But the main reason is hedonic adaptation; the more familiar an evil becomes, the less bad it feels. Still, I’m not someone to let me emotions cloud my thinking. Whenever I see a border wall, I always see the Berlin Wall. And when people casually remark, “Our walls our fine because they keep people out, not in,” I shake my head at their thoughtless refusal to see – or even ponder – the fundamental similarities.