Walls Around Nations

A political history of walls: Roman walls such as Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the wall between Mexico and the U.S. Moral: they solve the wrong problem.

Posted on July 15, 2013 at 7:03 AM • 50 Comments

Comments

RobocopJuly 15, 2013 7:35 AM

So what is the "right problem"? The economic or political problems in Mexico that cause their people to want to live a life here that isn't really all that great but still better than what they would have in Mexico? We could do that, but not while respecting the sovereignty of Mexico. And certainly not without making the rest of the world angry at us.

The wall is a concession. A concession that we can't fix Mexico. Just like the Romans had to concede that they couldn't fight the vandals. And the Chinese with the Mongolians.

You say we're trying to fix the wrong problem. Perhaps. But it's the only problem we CAN fix.

DmitryJuly 15, 2013 7:35 AM

The Hadrian's wall kept the British part of the Roman empire safe for about 300 years. Same for Trajan wall, an even more impressive fortification element. Vain effort? I think not. If that is vain effort, I'd like to see what the author has to suggest which is even more effective.

RobocopJuly 15, 2013 7:38 AM

So does my perimeter firewall "solve the wrong problem"? Is my company destined to ruin because we're suffering from "loss aversion" over the change that opening our systems to foreign attacks might bring?

BrandonBuilderJuly 15, 2013 8:22 AM

Well, the 3 comments currently posted seem to demonstrate a total lack of comprehension of the article and the summary.

Walls are great answers to problems. They solve the problem of holding up roofs, they can solve the problem of keeping people in, they can solve the problem of keeping people out. The point of the article is that a wall isn't the tool for solving THIS problem.

The Roman walls worked fine for keeping out invaders (to an extent) but they didn't solve the OTHER problem for which they were built; controlling the population.

A firewall solves the RIGHT problem.

Sigh.

TomJuly 15, 2013 8:23 AM

The essay seems pretty thin to me. I knew a man who built a wall once and he DIED - that seems to be about the level of argument presented.

A border wall might or might not be a good thing for the USA, but the argument from history seems strained to say the least.

Boss KJuly 15, 2013 9:48 AM

Walls don't work. The zombies just pile up and heave themselves over them.

FrankJuly 15, 2013 10:32 AM

They are basically just operating from the base fears and prejudices of the people. Not at all unlike during the times of Diocletian (or really, any other time period, though that hundred some odd years well reflects ours in terms of various persecutions and wars.)

Today, Diocletian is a relic, as is his period of rule, and the hundred or so years before him.

The various prejudices in hindsight are clearly seen as repugnant. Funny thing is, a lot of these anti-immigration people would agree. If they had they the care to even bother to look. (Though this would not make them change, nor have them see how they are acting in the same way.)

Interesting argument about how walls symbolized closing off empires and how this hurt empires.

America is doing this in many ways, with their military buildup, invasions, and rhetoric.

Funny the world was against all of this when Bush was the front man, but they are okay with it under Obama.


FrankJuly 15, 2013 10:37 AM

Robocop • July 15, 2013 7:35 AM
So what is the "right problem"? The economic or political problems in Mexico that cause their people to want to live a life here that isn't really all that great but still better than what they would have in Mexico? We could do that, but not while respecting the sovereignty of Mexico. And certainly not without making the rest of the world angry at us.
The wall is a concession. A concession that we can't fix Mexico. Just like the Romans had to concede that they couldn't fight the vandals. And the Chinese with the Mongolians.

Because the drug war and drug demand in the US does not have any bearing on Mexico's problems.

And you do realize Mexico is a much smaller trade partner with the US then China, right?

That could change, it would be profitable to do so. But, Mexico is a potentially worse rival to the US then China. It is closer and easy access to both oceans.

While there may seem to be no easy answer to the drug wars, I do wonder how at the least legalizing marijuana would effect it.

Because you know, none of today's leaders grew up the sixties, and none of them ever smoked pot.

RookieJuly 15, 2013 10:44 AM

I agree with Tom that the article is much more of a thin opinion piece than a scholarly article. It wears it's presuppositions on its sleeve.

Comparing a border fence between the US and Mexico with the USSR's Berlin wall stretches credulity and suggest a moral equivalency where none exists.

Having a sane immigration policy, secure borders, and good trade rules aren't isolationism, they're simply rational steps to take in this present day world we live in.

FrankJuly 15, 2013 10:44 AM

Robocop • July 15, 2013 7:38 AM
So does my perimeter firewall "solve the wrong problem"? Is my company destined to ruin because we're suffering from "loss aversion" over the change that opening our systems to foreign attacks might bring?

The "wall" the US is building is one where they are centering themselves as very different between the US and other nations. The US has had a choice, try and increase and create a global free world... or toss out the whole concept of "free" nation entirely and return everything to the old way of living. How nations used to do it.

What the US has built today is the world largest and most thorough surveillance system. And they have the world's largest and most powerful military.

These are hallmarks of totalitarian nations. And that is a choice America has.

The choice America - to be precise, controlling elements in America - are making is to wall their nation out from other nations and to discard the concept of "setting the world free" to be replaced with the more trustworthy and time tested model of "One nation to rule them all, by force, by a god of fortresses".

Fortress mentality is that prevailing mentality.

FrankJuly 15, 2013 10:52 AM

Rookie • July 15, 2013 10:44 AM
Comparing a border fence between the US and Mexico with the USSR's Berlin wall stretches credulity and suggest a moral equivalency where none exists.

That this is not a direct, absolute comparison is made clear by including the various walls empires have created over the ages.

Obviously, the Berlin wall, Hadrian's wall, the Chinese wall are all very different things. There are commonalities which can be found among them, however.

The empire of Rome became very inclusive, the chinese empire did as well, as did the cold war states. That is the comparison made in the article.

Which is a strong and true comparison.


The wall on Mexico really does not make sense. It is a fear based reaction, if anything.

Fear has always been a major religion which just goes by many different names.

It really is not sane in the greater scope of things, and not knowledgeable nor intelligent in the greater scope of things.

It is reflective of a mindset which is not going to last.

Such mindsets never do, they are short term thinking and insular.

AlanSJuly 15, 2013 11:33 AM

@Rookie and @Tom
Thin might be an understatement.

"In 1707, the English Parliament added Scotland's representatives to its chamber." Yes, but this isn't comparable to the colonial situation. Before 1707, Scotland had it's own parliament. In 1707 the parliaments were unified and Scotland retained many independent institutions as they had existed before unification.

The British Empire was hardly the result of free market economics so citing it as an example in support the author's "before the fall, the wall" thesis doesn't work. Adam Smith criticized mercantile policies but he was writing well before the peak of the British Empire. Companies such as the British East India Company created fabulous wealth from force of arms, piracy, and monopoly.

If anything the take-away from Smith is that people are always trying to press their private advantages. Private interests can work for or against the broader good. For this very reason, and contrary to popular opinion, Smith never advocated laissez faire economics (or the "invisible hand of the market", a term now credited to him but which he never used). There are numerous examples in Wealth of private interests conflicting with the broader public good e.g. "The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed."

BrettJuly 15, 2013 11:35 AM

After reading the artical, I have to agree, it is thin. I can tell the author is a non-isolationist but his arguments about walls really don't seem to tie well.

The walls he talks about are "protection" but the point he is trying to make (I think) is really about opening up trade.

We can have a wall (good thing or bad thing as you will) and still open up international trade and expande our economy. Having one does not preclude the other. If we could just get Washington to figure that out.......

FigureitoutJuly 15, 2013 12:06 PM

Walls?--Powered parachutes.

How about the longer term view of "Constitution Free" zones budding off from these walls where police have authority to stop you and check for "illegal fruit" or whether you're an American or whatever else brain-dead excuse they use to control your life and money INSIDE the borders.

FrankJuly 15, 2013 12:19 PM

The most "walled" nation which has ever existed, I think would be today's North Korea.

Every tyrannical nation, totalitarian nation, was deeply walled. These are not necessarily *literal* walls. And it includes the fact that they built effective walls within their society, routing out all competing philosophies and religions.

There are varieties among the literal wall examples. China' walled society was very insular to the point that they eventually regarded their empire as the celestial kingdom and all other nations as meaningless, trite. Yet, their system was very poorly working and had no chance against the (by then) more open societies they would face against.

Today they are far more open then they were then (Communism was just part of that same old society, different names, same or similar systems), but, like for instance, with their mass hacking (if it is, indeed, them behind it) you see they don't really know how to trade or deal with other cultures.

Today, people, I think, should be humble and consider that our most glorious "free" nations are, despite their glory and openness, really a North Korea in comparison to what the future society can hold. Just as ancient Rome is archaic to us today.

Archaic in a bad way.

To hold the firewall metaphor to this, you really have to consider: A good firewall is seamless, it listens, it alerts, it is not ridden with false positives. It does not shut down far more user traffic then attack traffic. No one who is not an attacker should even notice it.

A North Korea firewall, would be one which basically shuts down all legitimate user access.

The surveillance system the US has built is an example of a wall. This kind of system is endemic in totalitarian systems. To see it in a "free" nation, much less the nation where the concept of freedom within nations was founded is highly disturbing.

FigureitoutJuly 15, 2013 12:20 PM

Not to mention that illegal immigrants are doing all the jobs the people here already refuse to do; like picking strawberries all day for a fraction of what they should be making. Having worked in landscaping for a summer w/ basically all Mexicans, I was so tired after everyday I would just eat and sleep and repeat everyday and I remember one pudgy whiteboy came out for a day and quit b/c it was too hard. It was one of the shittiest jobs I ever had and my partner was doing the sign of the cross, thanking god for the job.

The economy will collapse w/o this labor and no one will step up.

DanielJuly 15, 2013 1:53 PM

I'd argue that the real problem that walls (in the sense used in the article) are designed to fix is domestic political problems. In the USA the "border wall" has primarily been advocated by the Republican party. It is a way to for them to appeal to the anti-immigrant biases of the social conservatives in their base while at the same time not angering the business interests who want cheap immigrant labor. It doesn't hurt them with their military wing, either. No one honestly expects the wall to work in the sense of keeping out people. The point of the wall is its impact on internal politics.

@figureitout.

"The economy will collapse w/o this labor and no one will step up"

Bullshit. No one will do those jobs at the wages they can pay immigrants, that is true. But people will do those jobs for much higher wages. And that's a wealth distribution issue. The heart of the matter is that agribusiness won't give up its obscene profit margins.

BushbamaJuly 15, 2013 3:24 PM

The problem really is what @Frank and others have mentioned, providing the illusion of "solving" social problems with a wall, which is simply a form of institutional state violence.

Before the 20th century you didn't need a passport (permission slip) to travel internationally. This debate, at it's core, really is about free people restoring their natural rights as human beings.
Blocking some people entrance to a piece of land because of where they were born, or preventing them from travel (Snowden) is repugnant. In fact, in modern times we have the direct inverse of open borders: Corporations are able to de-nationalize and citizens are trapped serfs. History certainly does rhyme.

There are 3 common arguments against open borders:
Drugs, "Dey took our yobs!" and government benefits.

Drugs:
Bastiat said, when goods are unable to cross borders, armies will. This is applicable to the drug trade, and in this case, both goods (drugs) and armies (cartels) are crossing the border. The drug "war" is a failure of epic proportion in human suffering. Anyone who argues otherwise is blind to the overwhelming empirical data, or stands to benefit from it's continuation.

"took our yobs!"
It has been borne out in many economic studies that immigrants provide a net neutral or net positive impact on the overall GDP of the United States DESPITE the benefits that are currently given. Though some areas are affected differently than others on a regional level. Immigrants aren't taking more of the pie, they're making the pie bigger. To top it off, cultural diversity makes life more interesting; the best food is in areas of high immigrant population: NYC, L.A., etc.

Government benefits
This is a controversial topic, but from a theoretical perspective; without incentives of free goodies, there would be little to no parasitic action. Doing away with entitlement programs likely isn't going to go over well however. The intention of these programs is honorable, but the execution is perverse. De-scaling the systems, on the other hand, may be a better alternative - remove the power of entitlements from the federal government and empower the communities and counties to administrate these programs and money themselves (the feds never get their hands on the money). Descaling would also double it's effectiveness by providing resilience to a highly vulnerable top-down system of centrally planned benefits that could, or will rather imminently break catastrophically. tick tick tick.

The more we can view each other as valuable human beings, the sooner we can remove the proxy agencies of institutional violence, that is the state, from our lives and relationships with each other. We will all be better for it.

BushobamaJuly 15, 2013 3:41 PM

Forgot to add:

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action." - George Washington

Lowered CalvertJuly 15, 2013 4:59 PM

Maybe we could get the economy working again by hiring a few million blue-vested border greeters. Let 'em in, then treat 'em like Walmart employees. Oh, wait. We already do that.

HowardJuly 15, 2013 5:43 PM

I agree with the earlier point how a wall is a concession. It's an admission that some problems just can't be solved: there are some people I can't stop from wanting to steal my stuff / hurt my family.

In the case of the US-Mexico border, the wall is a concession to a lot of things:


  • the rule of law is no longer the gold standard in the US
  • rising minimum-wage laws prevent Americans from doing jobs *at the wage an illegal alien can do them*

Both are related. Due to US citizens being under enforced rule of law (usually), they cannot even take jobs at the wages available. Since tresspassers are not citizens, they're not subject to the same enforced laws, and will gladly take jobs below minimum wage. At the same time, unemployment benefits, when available, are higher than minimum wage.

Americans aren't "too lazy" and don't "refuse" to take these jobs. For both sides (citizens / illegals) it's simple economics at work ... and the politicians refuse to admit that's what it is, since it's the inconvenient result of their own policies.

elmoJuly 15, 2013 8:27 PM

the proof that the farmers don't pay high enough wages is that most of the illegal aliens move on to easier and better paying jobs further north in the U.S. anyway once they find out nobody is going to deport them (even if they're caught DUI multiple times).

and who said manual labor doesn't need to be paid a decent wage? would you rather work in the hot sun for $15 an hour or in an air-conditioned fast food restaurant for $10 an hour? i think i might take the fast food job even if it paid a third less.

also, illegal aliens defraud the U.S. treasury at least $5 billion per year at latest estimates, claiming non-existent children as dependents for earned income tax credits. when you take into acct that illegal aliens are overrepresented in jails and prisons (about 33% last i eard in Calif - are there 33% illegal aliens in that state?) and numerous examples of illegal aliens getting free health care (kidney transplants, dialysis, etc) and free benefits, the total cost to american citizens is likely in the TENS OF BILLIONS per year and a 2,000 mile fence would only cost $20 billion ONE TIME at the cost of $10 million per mile or $2000 per foot. What kind of extravagant fence could be built for $2000/foot?

and once the fence was built the coyotes would have to raise their prices so high that it just wasnt worth paying them any longer and the flood would stop.

i might also point out that probably half the world's population (at least) would like to come to the U.S. if they could, so whats that 3 billion people? and we're all suposed to just pretend like its not happening or you're a racist if you dare say anything. They all have land and resources too, the only reason they come here is for your money. just like obama's aunt ("You owe me").

GodelJuly 15, 2013 8:47 PM

@Figureitout re strawberry picking.

Or maybe the lack of willing labor would provoke the invention of technological solutions to these kinds of problems?

For example in Australia, a strawberry farmer invented a reclining vehicle which could motor down the rows of berry bushes, allowing the picker to lie down all day and use his feet to steer. It would have been little extra effort to add a sun shade as well.

It's been suggested that the easy availability of slaves explains why the old Romans and Greeks didn't go on to have fully fledged industrial revolutions thousands of years earlier.

signal_snatcherJuly 15, 2013 10:21 PM

Never let the facts….

This article is why I gave up reading opinion pieces many years ago. Written as a polemic for a local issue of little interest outside the USA it relies on selective use of examples from history, mostly completely misrepresented.

Walls are highly cost-effective barriers which is why they have been built for centuries. A large well-constructed wall advertises its builder’s strength and prosperity.

Hadrian’s Walls (in Britain and Romania) were effective at controlling the movement of population and for collecting taxes (they were, in fact, tariff barriers) and were built at the Roman Empire’s height. The Great Wall is just part of a complex of walls that the Chinese call The Long Walls and were built by many dynasties. Most of them were in the western deserts and made of mud brick. They controlled population movement very effectively, but were not meant to be military barriers. The Berlin Wall was built at the height of the Soviet Union’s strength and was very effective at population control (probably to West Germany’s unspoken relief).

How do you keep out uninvited immigrants when the worst we have to offer – low wages, dirty jobs, niggardly welfare – looks like heaven (at our worst we are not committing genocide)? Call me naïve but we could stop fighting or supporting wars in their homelands at least until we know how to win these wars. We could stop our financial institutions from loading them with crippling debt. We could support honest, efficient governments there (even if they are hostile to the West) instead of corrupt puppets. And we could curb our appetite for drugs. What are the chances of that though?

Kevin an AuditorJuly 15, 2013 10:58 PM

"Thin" and "Selective examples of history" are far too kind to this piece of crap.

"...Later emperors erected internal walls, even around the great city itself..." Rome had city walls before the "Gallic Catastrophe" of 387 B.C.E., and built much better ones immediately thereafter. The Romans built walls everywhere, all through the period of the Republic. The walls (and their progeny, fort lines) worked until they were unable to adequately man them.

That the "authors" (hacks) start with a deception ought be a clue as to their general veracity.

WinterJuly 16, 2013 2:43 AM

A clear lack of historical insight. The Chinese wall and the Hadrian wall were only partially to slow down and regulate the crossing of the borders.

Their main function seems to have been as secured roads that allowed armies to travel safely between fortifications along the border. If you look at the more massive parts of the Chinese wall this is quite obvious.

The real border protection were the fortifications filled with soldiers.

However, this is completely different from modern walls along the borders.

Clive RobinsonJuly 16, 2013 3:34 AM

I find the idea of a wall across America to be some what amusing.

The first thing you should remember about a wall is it is not a box, that is it is not a container or cage. It has simple physical properties such as height, length and depth. Since biblical times people have gone over, around and under walls (Jerrico).

The French found out the hard way about the cost of walls and how ineffective they realy are when the Germans went around the Maginot Line through the Beligum Ardens Forrest. In fact the Maginot Line is the prime example of "Winning Generals fighting the last war".

If you think about it historicaly walls have been more about looking impressive rather than effective defence. To an attacker they find a way to reduce the impressive structure down, by comming up with a plan that in comparison reduces the wall in hight, width and depth to no more than a "bump in the road".

We already know that drugs runners have made the equivalent of siege engines to fire drugs across existing US fences etc, likewise they have tunneled under and various tricks using "fishing boats" to drop and pick up packages out at sea as well as aircraft and parachutes.

Currently people being "smuggled" into the US is done by the "low hanging fruit" principle where they can they walk across, otherwise they climb fences etc, however raising the bar a little bit won't stop them coming. You only have to search "boat people" to see what people will do, often not realy for themselves but their children, and many will die trying irrespective of the odds.

So you have to ask a couple of questions,

Firstly why is a wall going to work any better?

Secondly just how do you stop people who will allready take suicidal risks to achieve the chance of a better life for their children?

As others above have noted even fences provide little or no economic return on the cost of putting them up let alone maintaining them. Any wall would be just another way to siphon tax dollars into certain pockets without providing any return to the tax payers who are being forced to pay...

DouglasJuly 16, 2013 5:59 AM

The author's bias showed through quite clearly. He denigrated any efforts to better secure the southern border, comparing those efforts to walls built to keep populations inside. The logic is unsound and the premises faulty -- the kind assumption would be to assume an inability to reason properly, a more cynical assumption would that the author knows his conclusion is not supported by reality and wishes to define a new reality.

JasonJuly 16, 2013 7:00 AM

Most commenters have attacked the article by saying that physical walls are actually quite effective and necessary.

But the article isn't about physical walls. It's about sociopolitical isolationism: physical walls built by isolationist societies are only a symptom.

JasonJuly 16, 2013 7:12 AM

Also, if you're going to claim that the Roman and Chinese walls were absolutely necessary to keep the bloodthirsty rampaging barbarians from destroying the empire, you need to keep in mind that all the histories were written by the wall-builders.

Dirk PraetJuly 16, 2013 7:50 AM

I may have posted this link before in some similar context, but here's the great Alec Muffett assaulting Dorchester's Maiden Castle and explaining why the ditch-and-wall concept really is a totally outdated security concept : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kl1NxmB93mQ .

For as far as I'm concerned, today's US and Israel walls/fences are nothing but PR initiatives from politicos and their corporate backers seeking to benefit from their construction.

TomJuly 16, 2013 7:50 AM

@Jason - if the histories were written by the wall-builders, doesn't that indicate that the walls were largely effective? After all, we all know who writes the histories...

The writer seems to think that all "other populations" that we might build a wall to defend against are really quite nice people who would settle down and lead productive lives and contribute to our diverse society if we'd just stop building walls and let them in. He might like to meet this smashing chap called Genghis Khan. Quite literally smashing.

@AlanS, I'm not sure that's a particularly realistic view of the British empire. The empire did in fact spread to most parts through trade, the military adventures and political entanglements coming later. The East India Company in particular was only particularly profitable while it focused on trading - once it started to try ruling India, it quickly went broke and had to be nationalised.

wallzJuly 16, 2013 8:19 AM

Great wall of China was to keep out Mongol raids on horseback and it worked. Israeli apartheid wall was built to seize disputed land and it worked. American immigration wall is an insane delusion of security and the wrong solution.

In other border news officials in Texas cant afford to prosecute smuggling cases anymore and are doing catch and release for drug seizures under 150lbs.

JasonJuly 16, 2013 8:42 AM

"@Jason - if the histories were written by the wall-builders, doesn't that indicate that the walls were largely effective? After all, we all know who writes the histories..."

Not really. History is only written by the victors when both sides know how to write.

The Mongols are a great example: the physical defenses of China and Europe did little to hold them back, but within a generation of conquering all of Eurasia, their empire fizzled as they integrated into Chinese and European society. The Ming Chinese then rebuilt the Great Wall to keep the next invasion out, but it didn't stop the Manchurians (cool story there, look it up); they then integrated into Chinese society to form the Manchu dynasty, which ruled until the 20th century.

The point being that societies defend themselves through cultural assimilation, not by building walls.

TomJuly 16, 2013 8:59 AM

@Jason - Um, well, I'm not sure ~40,000,000 people dead counts as either defending yourself or cultural assimilation (wiki has estimates ranging from 30 to 70 million, so 40 is near the low end). Perhaps a wall would have helped. The empire didn't fizzle through cultural assimilation but through infighting - a much more realistic common thread to draw between empires that collapse.

FigureitoutJuly 16, 2013 10:00 AM

Or maybe the lack of willing labor would provoke the invention of technological solutions to these kinds of problems?
Godel
--Yeah it is (maybe), there appears to be a lot of research in this area; in fact a lot of technology is already in food (no serious farmer hand tills the land). Will leave the current workers to either find a new job (squeezing other sectors of economy further) or go on welfare or crime. Plus, crops will have to be grown differently so optical sensors can see (recognition is an extremely hard problem but the subset is much smaller so probably doable); there will be unforeseen issues like any other engineered product. It will remain to be seen if quality of food actually improves as it sounds like more fertilizer and pesticides will be used.

tommyJuly 16, 2013 4:23 PM

As the previous commenter noted, Hadrian's Wall was effective while it was maintained.

The Great Wall was also effective while maintained. It kept the Xiong Nu out. It's speculated that one group of Xiong Nu were the Huns who, blocked off from raiding China, moved across the steppes and ultimately found a much less fortified Roman Empire to prey upon much to the detriment of the Romans. (The Wall wasn't built to keep out the Mongols and didn't keep them out as Kublai Khan would testify. By the time of the Mongols, about a thousand years later, the Wall was in disrepair.)

As for the claim that an anti-immigrant stance is irrational, one need only look at the educational and socioeconomic performance of Hispanics over multiple generations to wonder if it's in America's long-term interest to take in a population that, on the mean, finds itself near the bottom.

I recommend reading "Generations of Exclusion" by Ortiz and Tellez for a look at the dismal outcomes of Mexican-Americans who have been in the United States for as long as three and four generations.

Here a few articles pertaining to that book:

http://www.vdare.com/articles/...

http://www.vdare.com/posts/...

Finally, a few figures on Mexican-American educational achievement from Rubenstein:

http://www.vdare.com/articles/...

The idea that a rapidly growing but poorly educated ethnic group that shows little signs of academic improvement over multiple generations, provides little in terms of technical innovation, bears a disproportionately small amount of the tax burden while having a similarly disproportionate reliance upon welfare spending is going to keep the United States a powerful and prosperous nation over the next few generations seems more than a little far-fetched.

But in an environment where you can wag fingers and sputter "racist" and "bigot" to shut down any conversation, and where ignoring unpleasant realities is just so much easier than confronting them, who needs data?

tommyJuly 16, 2013 5:19 PM

But the article isn't about physical walls. It's about sociopolitical isolationism: physical walls built by isolationist societies are only a symptom.

History can easily be read the opposite way: the failure of the Roman Empire to keep out the Germans, many of whom remained only half assimilated to Roman society and who placed tribal identity ahead of imperial welfare, played a major role in the downfall of the Empire.

The downfall of the Empire could easily be argued to be a result not of Roman isolationism but of Roman inclusiveness and globalization: disastrous foreign interventions, unchecked borders, debased currency, etc.

By contrast, a good deal of Britain's success can be attributed to it being surrounded by a natural fortification: the Atlantic.

As for the downfall of the Ming Dynasty? You can thank free trade:

By the 16th century, however, the expansion of European trade – albeit restricted to islands near Guangzhou like Macao – spread the Columbian Exchange of crops, plants, and animals into China, introducing chili peppers to Sichuan cuisine and highly-productive corn and potatoes, which diminished famines and spurred population growth. The growth of Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch trade created new demand for Chinese products and produced a massive influx of Japanese and American silver. This abundance of specie allowed the Ming to finally avoid using paper money, which had sparked hyperinflation during the 1450s. While traditional Confucians opposed such a prominent role for commerce and the newly rich it created, the heterodoxy introduced by Wang Yangming permitted a more accommodating attitude. Zhang Juzheng's initially successful reforms proved devastating when a slowdown in agriculture produced by the Little Ice Age was met with Japanese and Spanish policies that quickly cut off the supply of silver now necessary for farmers to be able to pay their taxes. Combined with crop failure, floods, and epidemic, the dynasty was considered to have lost the Mandate of Heaven and collapsed before the rebel leader Li Zicheng and a Manchurian invasion.


As for Diocletian, Wikipedia again sums it up well:

In spite of his failures, Diocletian's reforms fundamentally changed the structure of Roman imperial government and helped stabilize the Empire economically and militarily, enabling the Empire to remain essentially intact for another hundred years despite being near the brink of collapse in Diocletian's youth.

In other words, trust The Atlantic for all of your trite, confirmation-seeking historical needs!

FigureitoutJuly 16, 2013 8:41 PM

Adlai
--It's stupid and will simply be circumvented. I mean, no, it will solve a problem that's been going on for thousands of years, my bad. You're safe now, no worries.

Wesley ParishJuly 16, 2013 10:39 PM

I think I'll reiterate a statement I left in that article's comments section - walls tend to go around human settlements up once the human population of a given location exceeds a particular size - I don't think it is a given size so much as a ratio of human beings to available food resources. Once you've exceeded that size and communities start competing with each other, you find walls going up. (My examples were Papua New Guinea pre-Contact, where due to small population size, communities tended not to have walls although war was a fact of life, versus New Zealand pre-Contact where due to large population sizes, communities tended to have walls.)

Walls start becoming quaint relicts of a previous bygone era once technology has advanced to a stage where knocking a wall down is a matter of loading the artillery and firing.

Walls, physical or metaphorical, around an empire or some such example of applied dadaist grand guignol of a polity, only work when there is a clear purpose clear defined and applied to the manning of such a construction. And like it or not, very little of that can be seen in the current US debate over immigration. Or the debate, such as it is, on "terror", "terrorism", etc, ad nauseam.

Software firewalls on the other hand, because they generally have been designed by people who take clear thinking seriously, tend to operate.

Wesley ParishJuly 16, 2013 10:44 PM

@Tommy, Might I ask you how the natural barrier of the sea played a role in keeping the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes out? At a time when the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, and the Alans were trampling over the Romans to get out of the way of the Huns?

It wasn't the sea itself that contributed to Great Britain's feeling of security, it was the ships of the Royal Navy.

tommyJuly 17, 2013 3:56 AM

@Tommy, Might I ask you how the natural barrier of the sea played a role in keeping the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes out?

True, and by such logic the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan clearly explain nothing about the history of that land or its people. After all, the peaks didn't stop Greek, Persian, and Turkic conquerors. Perhaps it was the Afghan Navy.

At a time when the Goths, the Franks, the Vandals, and the Alans were trampling over the Romans to get out of the way of the Huns?

Gee, you'd mention the Franks and still fail to notice that the British Isles were one significant area of western Europe that was never under the thumb of Charlemagne, his predecessors, or his heirs. Obviously, this fact can only be explained by the terrific naval power of Britain at that time.

As for the East Germanic speakers on the edges of the Roman frontier, the Goths and the Vandals, along with their semi-assimilated brethren who were given the ancient equivalent of an immigration amnesty, I think we can all appreciate "the traditions of constant innovation, diversity, and openness to the world" they brought the Roman people. In the unlikely event you need a reminder of what that entailed, I recommend Bryan Ward-Perkin's excellent book, "The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization."

bobJuly 17, 2013 9:16 AM

@tommy What? France and Britain swapped control over various parts of their geographies for centuries. The sea was never a wall. Watch towers, economic pressure and navies made far better walls.

bobJuly 17, 2013 9:20 AM

@Robocop "but still better than what they would have in Mexico" Keep telling yourself that - it's a great excuse. It's not as if the USA's attitude toward drugs and its habit of destabilising governments it doesn't agree with has anything to do with the poverty in Mexico. Mexico is doomed until it cuts its ties with the USA. Actually, give it another 50 years and your ageing population will be begging their young population to accept jobs. You'd better hope their grasp of history will be as bad as your is now.

tommyJuly 17, 2013 1:29 PM

@tommy What? France and Britain swapped control over various parts of their geographies for centuries. The sea was never a wall. Watch towers, economic pressure and navies made far better walls.

The sea was never an impenetrable barrier as there are no impenetrable barriers in history, but it was an obstacle nonetheless and it undoubtedly altered many of the circumstances of the history of the land. How much more likely would it have been that the English would be speaking French today if not for the Channel. And, for all those Anglo-French land swaps, the border was ultimately again fixed at the Channel.

The very existence of a powerful navy or the corresponding weakness of neighboring navies attests to this: the Romans conquered Britain only with difficulty and Hitler couldn't simply drive his tanks into London, after all. You can pretend that Britain's naval power has been unrelated to being surrounded by the ocean, but then what good is naval power to a nation like Botswana or Bolivia?

@Bob:

Keep telling yourself that - it's a great excuse. It's not as if the USA's attitude toward drugs and its habit of destabilising governments it doesn't agree with has anything to do with the poverty in Mexico. Mexico is doomed until it cuts its ties with the USA. Actually, give it another 50 years and your ageing population will be begging their young population to accept jobs.

1. Hispanics on the mean have higher unemployment rates than whites, are poorly educated compared to whites (and show no signs of closing the gap in a few more generations) and, therefore, earn substantially less money than whites and thus must pay less taxes than whites. The idea that you're going to support all of these retirees on low-skill labor is a fantasy. I think people are so enamored with the idea that immigrants work hard at their low-skill jobs that they seem to have forgotten that nations that work smarter rather than harder tend to be wealthier. You can find hard working people all over the developing world but, for reasons mysterious to immigration proponents, they somehow remain developing countries.

Around half of all illegal immigrants live in California. I don't think anyone associates California with fiscal responsibility these days. How many people of Mexican descent are big earners in Silicon Valley who pay substantial tax bills? Not many, especially considering California's sizable Mexican population.

I'll make a prediction Bob: In 30 years, the Japanese will continue to keep their xenophobic immigration policy in spite of an increasing number of retirees and the American's will rely on low-skill labor to support their own, but I predict the Japanese retirees and Japan as a whole will still be far better off than American retirees and America as a whole

You'll also notice that for all your impassioned bluster about the dangers immigration and US contact poses to Mexico, the elites in Mexico aren't exactly in the anti-immigration camp. Immigration has allowed the corrupt and nepotistic elites of Mexico to siphon off excess labor and even earn Mexico some cash in return. If anything, immigration helps sustain Mexico's corruption and nepotism. After all, if the self-interest of the elites hurts the economy, the biggest losers can always cross the border and many of these will even send remittances home to relatives in Mexico.

If you're concerned about drugs, then put up a barrier that will make it harder for drug mules to run their wares across the border and harder for Mexican drug cartels to move their personnel into American cities. Raise the cost of doing business. After all, the only reason Mexico is the preferred transshipment point for cocaine these days is because enforcement in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico has stepped up substantially since the 1980s. Make Mexico a less desirable transshipment point and the Colombians will find new routes and new friends elsewhere.

As for claims a wall would be too expensive, PLEASE! The San Diego border fence has proven pretty darn effective and it cost about $1 million/mile to build (and perhaps an additional $1-2 million/mile more to handle litigation from pro-immigration groups). Even adjusting for inflation, additional litigation (assuming Congress couldn't act to limit such litigation), and assuming we'll need a much tougher sent of barriers, lets say the cost would be a whopping $40 million/mile. The border is about 2000 miles long. Total cost: about $80 billion. That's a pittance compared to what we've spent time and time again on foreign adventurism, stimulus plans, and bailouts in the last decade.

Bauke Jan DoumaJuly 18, 2013 7:05 PM

A wall (dutch) can also mean (the wall of a) moat, a water-filled defense perimiter,
for instance as around a castle.

Or, by extension, a sea around a country: the Atlantic and North Sea around England.
Can we say that one had some measure of success? (But what's the standard?).

Where walls work, where' they do, isn't their success so obvious, that we simply
oversee them, give them almost zero thought, hence fail to consider them in surveys
like these?

Disclaimer: I hate walls that permeate some, but not others.

GreenSquirrelJuly 19, 2013 4:37 AM

@Tommy

" How much more likely would it have been that the English would be speaking French today if not for the Channel."

Erm, no. Not really anything to do with the channel, more to do with energetic young Kings wanting to be real kings and put a stop to the oath of fealty they had to pay to the French kings.

The 100 years war wasnt massively impacted by the existence of the channel, or Hadrian's wall.

As for the other comments - the walls mentioned in the article were largely ineffective at their goal. Some did work for a while, but the resource cost of maintaining them became unsustainable and may have even added to the eventual decline.

However, I read the point of the article as being that when a society gets the insular idea that it needs walls to prevent migration, after a few centuries of grown on the back of migration, it is a sign of a decline that is hard to avert.

But, hey, enjoy yourselves. Build a big wal. Shout about how its keeping the evil migrants out and ignore the rot. At least you will be happy.

tommyJuly 22, 2013 2:03 AM

"Erm, no. Not really anything to do with the channel, more to do with energetic young Kings wanting to be real kings and put a stop to the oath of fealty they had to pay to the French kings."

Yes, that explains perfectly why Brittany is a part of the UK today and Cornwall a part of France since the Channel didn't matter.

"The 100 years war wasnt massively impacted by the existence of the channel, or Hadrian's wall."

I wouldn't imagine Hadrian's Wall, built in northern England, would have much to do with the 100 Years War but, hey, what do I know?

"As for the other comments - the walls mentioned in the article were largely ineffective at their goal. Some did work for a while, but the resource cost of maintaining them became unsustainable and may have even added to the eventual decline."

Militaries are, by your standard, largely ineffective as well, I suppose. They cost money and don't last forever. You've given no evidence whatsoever about the ineffectiveness of the walls in question. The Great Wall in China, originally constructed to keep the Xiong Nu out, was outstandingly effective.

"But, hey, enjoy yourselves. Build a big wal. Shout about how its keeping the evil migrants out and ignore the rot. At least you will be happy."

The "evil migrants," as you call them, haven't been kept out, of course, as there is almost no desire from our political elites to do so, a fact that arouses little suspicion at all among a Crypto-gram crowd that normally is a little bit more dubious toward consensus thinking among the nation's leaders.

The consequent rot is California, now and into the future. But, hey, continue to stick your head in the sand and ignore all facts pertaining to that demographic. At least you will be happy. You got pat yourself on the back for your tolerance. Your grandchildren--saddled with a poorly educated, socially troubled and very sizable underclass --not so much, I suspect.

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